Opinion polls are flawed - but they shouldn’t be banned

Every election campaign is unique. There are different leaders making the case for their party to receive votes. The topics under discussion vary depending on what matters to people, for example, Brexit. And the direction of the campaign is never fully certain. Who knew that the Conservatives’ 20-point opinion poll lead in 2017 would vanish partially due to the dire campaign skills of Theresa May?

There are, however, factors in an election campaign that remain just as relevant today as they did decades ago. The impact of the media - though evolving thanks to social media - is crucial in framing arguments. Leafleting and canvassing, good old fashioned doorstep methods, are effective for reaching the public and trying to determine voter intention. Inevitably, throughout the drama or dullness of a campaign, opinion polls revealing voter intention are crucial to debates over who will triumph.

They have been a part and parcel of election campaigns around the world. But are they a force for good? Repeatedly, opinion polls have been proven to differ completely from the election result. In 2015, all the opinion polls predicted a hung Parliament. The Conservatives ended up with an overall majority. In 2016, the opinion polls thought ‘remain’ would win the EU referendum (whether by a narrow or clear margin). We voted to leave the EU. In 2017, the polls suggested a majority of some form was certain for the Conservatives. The rest is history.

Polling companies keep getting things wrong. Across multiple elections, the judgements they have made haven’t been born out in reality. The same could surely happen this December, with a Conservative lead balanced by Labour slowly creeping up in support. There is no reason why the opinion polls should be any more correct this time around than the last three occasions when they were so wildly wrong.

Is it time then, for polls to be banned during campaigns? After all, they are likely to significant impact how someone decides to vote. If a wavering Conservative supporter sees their party are 10% ahead, they will feel more relaxed about abstaining on a cold winter’s night. Multiple that across the country and you have a hung Parliament. People make tactical voting decisions based on opinion polls which could suddenly turn out to be completely incorrect. Ironically, the very method of informing people about voting intentions can go against the democratic process.

Banning opinion polls during campaigns is no radical move. According to the BBC, 38 countries, including Brazil, Canada, Norway and Poland, ban pre-election polls in a certain form. France ban polls on polling day and the day before polling day. Should that move be followed by the UK? If people are basing their decision in inaccurate polling data which distorts the result of elections, our democracy can only be weakened.

Were this to be the case, polling wouldn’t go away altogether. While it may not dominate the front pages, parties would continue to commission their own private polling to explore how they are performing and where resources need to be targeted. They would still be basing their campaign, perhaps ideologically on a vision for the nation, but practically on polling results.

This means a party could shift its direction and campaigning message if it wasn’t performing well in private polls. While the public would see their new message, the reason behind new pledges (in order to win around new voters) would be hidden. For example, the current open polling has showed Labour aren’t performing well among Leave voters. This means they have openly stated a shift in their campaigning in the last fortnight of the campaign to woo potential Brexiteer Labour voters.

If opinion polling was fully banned during elections, Labour’s justification for this change wouldn’t be so clear. Journalists could speculate that private polling was the reason but there would be no public transparency. There would be no awareness that, however much of a margin of error, Labour were simply performing poorly among Leave voters.

Tactical voting is an intrinsic part of any election. People deserve to be able to see who has a realistic chance of winning in their constituency and make an appropriate judgement. We cannot just rely on previous election results when campaigns have proven to be so volatile. If polling was banned, people would be unable to see on a constituency level how to use their vote to ensure it was most effective. While party members and those invested in the political system may have access to private polling, the general public wouldn’t.

Opinion polling, on balance, should remain transparent for all to see. Polling companies should always be aspiring to improve their methodology and ensure their questioning delivers valid, accurate results. In a way, voter volatility - the ability of voters to change their political stance - during a campaign should be celebrated, for it shows that voters have an open mind and are listening to the conversation. People are influenced by all kinds of factors in deciding how to cast that such important ballot: opinion polls is just one of them. Provided people are aware the polls can be misleading and incorrect, they should remain a functioning part of the electoral process.

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