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Archive for January, 2016

Unreliable evidence

In any debate about hunting you will invariably hear the claim that the British public is overwhelmingly opposed to the activity. How do we know this? Well, it’s simple; public opinion polls tell us.

For some months before the general election, all polls seemed to predict a hung Parliament. But the image of the opinion poll companies took a bit of a knock when subsequently all were proved to be very wrong. A recent inquiry by the University of Southampton looked into the reasons for this dramatic miscalculation. Methodologies differed, samples of respondents differed yet the results all appeared to be roughly the same. The report pointed to a failure to ensure those they were asking represented a fair cross-section of the public. Many young people were interviewed, while we know it’s the older generation that is more likely to go out and vote. Amazingly, too many people sympathetic to the Labour Party had also been included and had all this been made clear at the time, even a five-year old might have been able to predict the result was likely to be more than a little off the mark.

Then we have social media, which in many cases turns out to be very unsocial media, enabling swarms of comments, demands, insults and threats to be made by “activists” who needn’t even get out of bed to make their voices heard. Groups like 38 Degrees rely on giving the impression to MPs and others that there is a vast swathe of people all demanding action on a particular point. Sometimes that may be true, but it is not a healthy way to operate in what should be a true democracy, which is not just about acting on what the majority wants; minorities have rights too.

“MPs should do what their constituents demand!” is a rallying cry for these people. Nice idea, but how does that work? Constituent have all sorts of different views and wishes, many of which clash with each other; no MP can act as everyone demands. Such campaigning fails to understand that MPs are not simple bean counters, totting up e-mails and tweets for and against a particular issue and voting accordingly; their role is to consider all options and make a considered decision. Get it wrong too often and no doubt an election will ultimately decide the MP’s future, but let’s not pretend that they can always do everything their constituents want.

An interesting article by Daily Telegraph columnist Janet Daley put her finger on it recently when she said that many older people are turned off by such campaigning methods and simply and quietly vote or act in the way they always intended. This is probably a major factor in upsetting the polls, but such pressure on Parliamentarians, who should know better, is a another matter and they certainly can be influenced by such tactics.

It would be nice to imagine that MPs think for themselves, as indeed many do, and that opinion polls are there only to provide a rough guide to public views, as opposed to being a straightjacket that dictates a particular action. If that were really the case, we wouldn’t need MPs at all.

Maybe it’s too much to ask that public opinion polls have to be fair and balanced in their questions – even their controlling body, the Market Research Society, finds it difficult to ensure that. Far better to understand that given the doubtful nature of certain opinion polls, any argument that relies so heavily on them rather than say science, must be regarded with some suspicion.

The best we can hope for is that polling companies at least ask straight questions on subjects most people understand, such as what issues affect voting intentions at a general election? When the Countryside Alliance commissioned a poll using precisely that question only 4 out of over 1500 respondents mentioned hunting with dogs. So much for hunting being a voting issue as is so often claimed.

Not all polling companies and polling methods are the same, but rarely can a poll be as blatantly disingenuous as this example. A few years ago the League Against Cruel Sports commissioned a poll implying repeal of the Hunting Act would legalise dog-fighting and badger-baiting and, unsurprisingly, they got the figures in opposition to repeal they wanted.

It was totally untrue, of course, but the results were widely reported and the Market Research Society saw no problem.

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