Most opinion polls are junk: blame the ignorant general public for that.

25 June 2013

One of the very good things about Lord Ashcroft is that he is happy to commission large-scale opinion polls. Sometimes these are mischievous. Take today’s example, for instance. It is always useful to be reminded that most members of the public can only recognise a handful of politicians.

One would expect David Cameron and Boris Johnson to be at the top of the public recognition table. They are the only politicians in Britain recognised – and correctly identified – by more than 90% of those surveyed. 89% of respondents claim to recognise Ed Miliband but only 77% can actually identify him (some think he’s actually his brother which, given David has been out of the public eye for the best part of three years does not say much for Ed).

The public, bless them, kinda think they have seen Nick Clegg (80%) and William Hague (82%) before but are not altogether sure who they are. Clegg is most often confused with George Osborne (who is in turn only correctly identified by 62% and, gallingly, is most frequently confused with Ed Miliband).

I am mildly surprised that as many as 55% of voters correctly identify Teresa May and not all that shocked that only 10% know who Philip Hammond is or that a mere 29% recognise and can name Michael Gove.

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This kind of polling may seem frivolous but it serves a useful purpose. Namely, that it casts doubt on the usefulness of other polling. Conveniently, Sunny Hundal wrote a post yesterday citing public attitudes to Michael Gove’s education reforms as proof that the impression Gove is a popular and persuasive figure is a fantasy of a “deluded” right-wing press.

Figures from a YouGov poll this month appear to back this up. 47% of respondents think Gove is doing fairly or very badly and just 22% think he’s doing well. 32% support the idea of Free Schools, 39% oppose it and, significantly, 29% have no idea and no opinion about or on the government’s flagship education policy (in England).

Indeed 40% of voters think English schools have got worse since 2010. Even 32% of Tory supporters believe Gove’s policies have had no beneficial impact (tellingly, 54% of UKIP supporters think education is going to the dogs).

But what does this mean? The square root of bugger all, frankly. In the first place, a good deal of Labour voters’ hostility to Gove’s reforms can be attributed to a kneejerk, partisan response (it must be, not least since Gove’s agenda is in large part based upon the previous Labour government’s policies). Secondly, some Tory disgruntlement may be because Gove is not reintroducing grammar schools while a larger measure of Tory unhappiness may be put down to the natural gloominess that is an important part of the Conservative persuasion.

Finally, many people either do not know anything about the government’s education agenda because they do not have school age children themselves or because they live in a part of the country unhappily bereft of Free Schools (or Academies). In general only 10% of the public ever thinks education is a “top priority” and it is natural for people to take a narrowly personal view of education policy. That is, if their kids are at a decent school then people don’t really care whether other schools are any good or not.

Moreover, if only one in three voters can tell you who Michael Gove is, it seems reasonable to suppose that no more than one in three voters – and probably many fewer than that – has any idea about the substance of government education policy, far less the knowledge to make any kind of informed judgement upon its wisdom or impact.

But those people who do know something are likely, I suspect, to judge Mr Gove more favourably. If Free Schools are such a failure one would expect them to struggle to attract pupils. There is, I believe, no evidence they do so. And, this being so, it is reasonable to conclude that in the areas that matter and for the people most intimately concerned with the Free School revolution, Gove’s reforms are actually exceedingly popular. To which one could add this data point: if Free Schools are so awful one might expect the Labour party to abolish them. But they won’t. Just you wait and see.

All of which, then, is a reminder that journalists and politicians are liable to vastly over-state the general public’s knowledge of policy. Which means that many opinion polls on anything other than the broad sweep of policy are all but useless and should be treated with great suspicion. They may be fun but they’re also junk.

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Show comments
  • It

    My favourite line in this piece: ‘The square root of bugger all, frankly’. Irreverent unto beauty, I’d say.

  • Simon Morgan

    Opinion polls are taken very seriously here in the sunny land of oz. So seriously that the Labor caucus has been forced to ditch the b*tch Gillard and replace her with the guy they booted out because they detested him so much – Krudd.

    So it’s back to the future here. But of course, until we get the Liberals back in, it’s still the worst government in history – any history, anywhere, anytime – hands down, flat out the WORST that ever was.

    Social media went beserk over Gillard when she called the Opposition Leader a misogynist -for no apparent reason. They likened her to a new Magie Thatcher, no less. Maggie must still be giggling about that one.

    • Simon Morgan

      Ohh – BTW – Gillard came from Wales. Just thought I’d mention it.

  • allymax bruce

    Most, if not all, polls are biased skewed junk; media mentoring, by the political puke. The _______ owned MSM, manipulate ALL public media sources, specifically to mentor & brainwash, us, the public, and hold as hijacked, our politicians & political system. The masters of this _______ owned MSM ,the evil nation of _____ use malicious, selacious, and degenerating methods to control our, and other countries politicians, governments, and political systems. There’s only one creed of people, from the most hated nation in the world, that functions to engender this Marxist philosophy; ______. They have ‘homing listening devices’ in all their electronic technology, that spy on everyone that uses their products. They infiltrate other host nations; smiling assassins, like secret insurgents, getting into all the establishment nooks & crannies. Like parasites, they eventually kill the host, after sucking it dry! Every nation in the world knows who this evil nation is, but don’t speak out loud to say it. How do you decry the very media monopoly that has hijacked-to-hostage your politicians, government, and political system; that effectively owns your future prosperity & prospects. I mean, you’d need to have nothing, be nothing, and want nothing, to be able to take the ____ on! MSM-owned polls will tell us, what they want us to think; not what we really think. Disconnect Twatter, Facepuke, BBC, ITV, STV, C4, Scotchman, Granauid, Stime, the MSM, and take back your individual, civil, human rights & freedoms.

  • Robert Gore

    So opinion polls were used above to prove opinion polls are junk…can a journalist really use an unreliable method to falsify itself, surely the only conclusion is, the article is junk!

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    I think the reasons why most people don’t like Mr Gove’s policies are the same reasons they decided not to vote Tory in the last general election.
    This is because they don’t want a Tory government, Tory policies or Tory ministers.
    It’s all quite simple.
    You know the big “survey” with one question completed by all people who can vote.
    Q1. Do you want a Tory government?
    A1. NO!!
    What’s so difficult to understand?

  • Jupiter

    Stupid people shouldn’t be allowed to vote. Then we would finally get a sensible government.

    • Darnell Jackson

      Great idea. How do we disqualify all the left wing voters?

      • Fergus Pickering

        They are disqualified already surely.

  • Mike Smithson

    Generally speaking the degree to which someone thinks a poll is junk is in direct proportion to how much they dislke the findings

    • Mr Arthur Cook

      Mr Gove like survey’s done by Premier Inn and the Sea Scouts!!!!

  • ohforheavensake

    I think maybe the reason behind the Gove poll result probably had something to do with the fact that a lot of the people polled are parents… And this is where I think your argument falls down. People don’t focus on the fine detail of policy; but schools, healthcare (and related topics)- these touch us directly. We might not be able to pick the minister responsible out of a line-up; but we know the practical effect of their policies, because we see them day to day.

    • Fergus Pickering

      How do we see them day to day, old son?

  • zanzamander

    What about the biggest poll of them all, the General Elections? I’d say that most people who vote are similarly clueless. This is the curse of democracy.

    • Spammo Twatbury

      People say “democracy is the worst political system, except all the other ones”. But how many of the others have we actually tried? Can’t we at least have a shot at a liberal fascist anarcho-dictatorship?

      • zanzamander

        No, no, don’t dismiss it as a joke. I like the idea. But I think in the meantime, we can try out a partial democracy, whereby only people with, say a university degree, can vote and anybody with more than two kids automatically disqualified.

        • Spammo Twatbury

          That’s pretty unreasonable. THE SENTENCE IS DEATH.

        • Fergus Pickering

          No. I prefer to disenfranchise anybody who reads the Grauniad, goes jogging, eats yoghurt or rides a bicycle. That ought to do it..

      • Fergus Pickering

        And who, pray, is to judge what is reasonable? Is opposition to the EU reasonble? Is fear and loathing of muslims reasonable? Is wishing to put Mr Balls to death reasonable?

  • Thomas Widmann

    It’s a shame they didn’t include Alex Salmond in the poll.

    • Angus McLellan

      Or Pete and Marty. Fairly sure voters in NI have opinions about them. But “far away country … people of whom we know nothing” remains the rule. Only Westminster matters.

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