Is it a question of Polling?

I have been having a wee think about polling recently, political saddos like some of us follow them, James Kelly at Scot Goes Pop analyses them really well, Wings Over Scotland commissions excellent and informative polls, and the unionist media interpret them as negatively as they possibly can to paint as negative a picture of the SNP and YES as they can.

Now polls do help to provide information to voters and political parties/organisations, there is no mistaking that at all. They help determine the direction of a campaign and how to get the right message to the right people. During the referendum Ipsos/Mori and Survation were virtually spot on in calling the result around a month before the referendum while ICM put YES Scotland ahead in a poll that shook the No campaign and that many believe resulted in the now famous VOW. Many others believe that the poll putting YES in the lead that led to the Vow swung the result on the day to No. Wether it did or didn’t I’m not sure but the more I reflect on the result, and the impact of polling in 2014, the more I am starting to think that maybe all polling, including private polling, needs to end at least one week before a vote.

It has been noted that many voters don’t make up their mind until the last-minute, that polls result in sensational and misleading headlines, and that the error of margin makes some polls meaningless. 38 countries around the world have various conditions regarding polling before elections, some don’t allow any polls the day before, Spain 5 days, Greece 15 days, and Honduras 45. Should we follow suit?

Highly respected former speaker in the Commons Betty Boothroyd felt that “the polls on the referendum are very confusing and contradictory. I am worried that they potentially could influence the outcome of the vote. I think the time has really come to do as the French do. We should ban them up to a week before polling day. Then people can make up their minds without all these confusing polls”.

Andy Rain writing in the conversation in 2016 wrote “used properly, opinion polls help inform and enhance our democratic choice. It’s important to remember that they are representative snapshots of opinion, not election predictors – but they can be an important tool for measuring, and indeed telling politicians, what voters think about particular issues, parties and candidates.

Yes, of course they can influence our behaviour, especially in first-past-the-post elections, where their findings can enable us to vote tactically, rather than waste our vote on a candidate we know won’t win. But the obvious answer to that is to change the electoral system, not deprive us of the information to get at least something out of it”.

I accept that polls can be fun, they do provide information that is useful and informative in the main but the more I think about it, even thought the evidence is mixed and there would be a problem with fake news, the more I would like to see polls stopped at least a week before a vote, if not longer, to allow people to just make up their minds on what they know and understand things to be. I get frustrated at the so called vow, and how that came about after YES Scotland were reported to be in lead and the impact it may have had on the result. Our politics is broken, first past the post elects Governments on sometimes less than 40% of the vote, our politicians, and news media, lie all the time, they also use polling to influence how they want people to vote and in the image they prefer.

Surely the time has come to make changes, to find a way to return as much honesty and integrity to our political system as possible before it is too late and the nightmare that we are living in now becomes power for the course.



  1. Helena Brown

    Opinion polls in my eyes are there not to reflect opinion but to form opinion. For people like us, as you put it the saddoes who follow politics, we do not bother. We have our opinions we vote accordingly. There are those, who I call the herd. They have no opinion of their own, they will go where the majority go and that’s where opinion polls come in. Like you I would prefer they stop at least a week before the poll. I would prefer at least a month.

    • grumpyscottishman

      That’s a really good point I never really considered that, I have been kinda thinking that if that YES poll lead had never come out then there would have been no Vow and no loss in momentum for the YES movement so that poll definitely effected the result to my mind. It would good to see at least one election with polling stopping weeks before the vote and seeing if this has impact on the result compared to previous ones.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Alan

        But how can those effects be measured? I don’t see a way to do it which provides indisputable evidence. All the old scientific techniques(eg control groups) simply can’t be applied to something as open and public as an election campaign.

        There’s also an argument that banning polls for up to a month before any election can produce surprises. Example, 2017 snap election. If polls had been stopped a month beforehand, there would have been almost no warning that May was going to lose her majority instead of massively entrenching it. That itself could have an effect on voting patterns, but which way – complacent Tories letting Corbyn win accidentally or disheartened anti-Tory voters not bothering to register a protest vote securing a Tory supermajority?

        Anyway, these sorts of last-minute changes are quite normal. It happens because people who haven’t really been paying attention start doing so and sometimes come to a realisation. Unbelievable as it seems, a vast majority of people really do ignore politics on a daily basis – it’s either the consequence of or the reason for using representative democracy.

        If anything, the real problem with polling is how financial speculators are able to access private data during a public polling embargo to short-sell the markets. Banning media publication of polls for X days won’t do a damn thing to stop these sort of practices. Bottom line, that information is going to exist and I don’t think it should be exclusively available to the wealthy and powerful.

        • Anonymous

          I’m no expert but from what I can see it is a view that seems to split people, certainly Spain have stuck with it, and some other countries. Wouldn’t be easy and no doubt certain people would find a way around it but it is something that I would be willing to try just to see if there is a way to measure the impact of it. Might it force people to go and find information, learn more about what other parties are offering. I think it would be worth trying but you have raised very good points thank you.

          Thanks for commenting.

  2. Mike Lothian

    I can’t remember where I read it, but there were accusations that private polling was carried out for BrExit that was used to short stirling on the day of the referendum. It was apparently why Farage announced losing so early on in the night.

    So a few very rich folk made billions

  3. Anonymous

    I think that must be what Alan is alluding too also. I am still for giving it a go either way , maybe the case of looking at how the countries that have the system make it work or if in fact it doesn’t work. Just throwing it out there as an idea.

    Thanks for commenting.

  4. David Cameron's Secret Love Child

    Last 6 weeks before the election date they should be banned with the exception on an exit poll at 10pm. There is only one poll that matters and that is the ballot box poll.

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