Iain Murray: Popularity surveys and reality are polls apart

Opinion polls are notoriously fallible and offer only a snapshot of the swirling river that is public opinion. So why are people so hung up on them? asks Iain Murray

The most remarkable feature of Stephen Byers’ long overd

ue resignation was his reason for going. He left not because he was a liar – he denied that to the end – nor because (Heaven forbid) he was incompetent: he went because of a popularity poll.

According to an authoritative report, an ICM poll found that Byers was more unpopular than Margaret Thatcher at the height of the Poll Tax furore. That did it: he cleared his desk, handed in his red box, and released the grip of what Boris Johnson called his “prehensile bottom” on the seat of the ministerial Rover.

“That sort of thing is devastating,” said a friend of Byers, referring to the poll. “From that point on, Steve knew that this wasn’t just some transient bout of bad headlines, but that he was never going to recover.”

That is an extraordinary comment, both on the gullibility of politicians and the power of opinion polls. As every marketer knows, surveys are fallible; their significance fleeting. If that were not the case, every single assiduously researched – and most of them are assiduously researched – campaign would be a success.

Pollsters are the witch doctors of our time, purporting to deliver the unattainable. Everyone would like to know what goes on inside the minds of others: what they really think, what it is they want, and what they will do next – especially with their money and their votes. The pollsters, with their statistical equivalents of bones and animal intestines, promise to make concrete the invisible, to give substance to the intangible.

It is part of the process that they believe in it themselves, or at any rate take themselves seriously. There is one pollster who has for years cloaked himself in a mantle of almost academic gravitas and omniscience, built on nothing more than the shifting sands of opinion gathered on windy street corners.

But such is the desire to know with scientific certainty what people think that only when evidence – collated, tabulated and quantified – is put before them do the politicians take note. Stephen Byers grasped the extent of his unpopularity only when it was presented to him in the shape of a poll. What folly. To cling on to power through thick and thin, to endure the daily bombardment of a hostile press, to see oneself caricatured as a Pinnochio, to be labelled a “liar” by those to whom truth is a foreign country, and then to go because of a dipstick survey suggests a kind of mental imbalance.

Surveys are notoriously fallible and even if their findings approximate to the truth, so what? Public opinion is a moving, swirling, eddying river. People are fickle, their moods change, their priorities shift. Pollsters put into their heads ideas and subjects that would otherwise go unheeded or unthought.

Were the respondents questioned by ICM going about their daily rounds – working, eating, drinking, fretting, copulating – with a dislike of Stephen Byers colouring their lives like a growing and indelible stain? Common sense suggests that most of them got by from day to day without giving a thought to the embattled transport secretary and only summoned him to mind when prompted to do so.

It is because people lie to pollsters, or, just as unreliably, tell them what they think they want to hear, that efforts are being made to improve the gathering of information. The most recent innovation is the work of a company called YouGov. All its polling is done on the Internet. It has a pool of 58,000 respondents representing a cross-section from which it selects larger samples than are commonly used by its rivals. It also pays its respondents. And the result of this revolutionary approach? Cobblers, pure cobblers.

In a sublime example of the otiose, YouGov produced a “Popularity Poll of top Britons” for the Mail on Sunday. Top of the “Roll Call of Respect” was the Queen with a 50 per cent rating. She is only five points ahead of “her closest rival” Dame Judi Dench. Third is, guess who? – Esther Rantzen, Michael Buerk, Black Rod. No, none of those; it is Stephen Hawking.

Top of the “Hate Parade” is Naomi Campbell. Eat your heart out Myra Hindley. The supermodel heads a list that includes Tony Blair, Cherie Blair, Prince Philip and Camilla Parker Bowles.

The Popularity Poll of the “most respected and liked in Britain” includes Tony Blair, Cherie Blair, Prince Philip, Camilla Parker Bowles, and, yes, Naomi Campbell.

Is there not enough sadness in life without asking people to tap into their computers the names of the people they most hate? Can you imagine YouGov’s respondents scratching their heads, pacing the room, chewing their nails, sipping a shaking coffee, and generally agonising over whether Sophie Wessex was more deserving of loathing than Robbie Williams?

As a contribution to knowledge and understanding, as well an an exercise in useful endeavour, YouGov’s popularity poll is almost, but not quite, as worthwhile as a monkey’s anal emission.

And another thing: I would not mind betting that if you were to conduct a poll today, asking a random sample who Prof Stephen Hawking was, you would draw more blanks than the National Lottery.


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