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Last Updated: Monday, 15 November, 2004, 13:34 GMT
What do you think of opinion polls?
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Magazine

Clipboard graphic
Excuse me, would you mind...
Half the people surveyed in our own unofficial poll (of 10 people) said they did not trust surveys. Is that why the polling industry is trying to get its house in order?

One hour out of the office, 10 passers-by collared and hey presto, we've got a poll about polls. It's that easy.

"They've proved to be inaccurate too many times, enough times for me to take them with a pinch of salt," said a 71-year-old career counsellor. "I remember the general election of 1992 when John Major got in [ahead of Neil Kinnock] - that was a classic misread of opinion polls."

Others like 27-year-old mum Karen Smiles and pensioner Ruby Watts have more faith.

Mrs Watts says: "I often agree with what they are saying and if different polls say different things, I trust the one that I hope is true."

Ruby Watts keeps faith
No: 5
Yes: 4 (including Ruby Watts, above)
Sometimes: 1

Despite Ruby's support, the public faith in polls appears to be crumbling.

It has already taken a battering in the US, where exit polls in the presidential election gave John Kerry early hopes of victory.

Now the major polling firms in the UK are taking action by forming the British Polling Council, which is aimed at restoring public confidence.

Part of the problem is that the media often runs stories without publishing details of the methodology.

A glance through the newspapers throws up plenty of stories about surveys with no mention of who conducted the research and how many people were interviewed.

Pinch of salt

For example, an unnamed poll found that four out of five people keep their home stocked with wine and one in 11 has a stash worth 200.

Added to this, the emergence of so-called "cowboy polls" has also damaged the credibility of the industry, says Professor Patrick Dunleavy from the London School of Economics.

Some pollsters actually build in a Shy Tory factor into their research and add on a few points to the Tories as a matter of course
Harry Mount
Daily Telegraph
He defines them as unethical pollsters who set themselves up to court opinion on various issues without the right knowledge.

Harry Mount of the Daily Telegraph suggests another theory which throws the reliability of political opinion polls into further doubt.

"For years, British pollsters have had to deal with the Shy Tory factor, where conservatives are too cowardly to admit their ruthless conservatism to pollsters and so they pretend they are voting for nice New Labour or the Lib Dems.

"Some pollsters actually build in a Shy Tory factor into their research and add on a few points to the Tories as a matter of course."

Part of British life

Polling group ICM thinks the public is right to question surveys and polls.

Its managing director Nick Sparrow says: "That the public should trust the polls is probably the wrong thing to say.

"The public should treat all sources of information with a pinch of salt and make up their own minds on the validity of what they see."

Internet polling services are increasingly common but their reliability has been questioned because it is thought only about 50% of UK homes have internet access.

Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock with wife Glenys
Don't believe the hype, Neil
Despite all the doubts, the value of polls to the British establishment is considered to be immense.

"They're indispensable, to the extent that they're almost a part of the British constitution," says Professor Dunleavy.

"They're an essential part of the political process now and taken very seriously by politicians, because you can't do political planning in any sensible way without them."

He thinks they also have some worth in the way the public votes tactically in an election.

"They see from the polls how things are shaping up and especially in local polls. Without that information they would make less intelligent voting choices."

The poor public image of pollsters has shaken them sufficiently to try and improve standards.

Transparent methods

The British Polling Council (BPC) is launched on Monday and brings together some of the major opinion poll players, including Mori, ICM, NOP and internet pollsters YouGov.

It aims to raise professional standards and help the public judge the reliability and validity of survey results.

Membership will be restricted to companies that set out to measure the opinions of representative samples scientifically and are transparent about their methods.

BPC president John Barter says: "The organisations that have joined the BPC recognise the need for uniform standards of disclosure about how polls are conducted so that consumers of poll findings have an adequate basis for judging the reliability of the findings."

In the run-up to a general election this could be crucial for both the politicians and the voting public at large.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I am spectical about how reliable the surveys and polls are simply because I think they are not representative as neither I nor any friend of mine has ever been approached by any survey or poll at any time.
Habib, London

To be honest, these kind of surveys achieve very little. By clever use of wording and statistics they can be made to show whatever they want to show. It's much better to write in to your local MP(for example) than fill in a survey and rest in the (unlikley) hope it shows what you want it to.
Neil, UK

Opinion polls can be very helpful in giving a suggestion of what is the public opinion on an issue. While they'll never be truly accurate - unless by luck - they can give a good idea on where public opinion lies, but more transparency would help the public decide which polls they see as more reliable
Edgar Grey, Surrey

Homer Simpson summed it up nicely when he said "47% of statictics are made up, 51% of people know that."
NP, London

The problem with all opinion polls is that they are commissioned by someone who has a point to make, and are therefore skewed to produce a result which supports the position held by the commissioner. This may be accidental or deliberate, and we may not see the results of all polls. But I have yet to see a poll which does not support the views of those presenting the results.
Al, Farnborough UK

I think nowdays it's more and more important to have polls. People need to know what's going on, and they need it straight from the horse's mouth, mainly to cut through all the spin and twaddle we are constantly bombarded with. Some companies out there don't know their armpits from their elbows.
Ben Davolls, London

88.2% of statistics are made up on the spot (Reeves and Mortimer).
Carl, Madrid

I believe that polls are often responsible for low voter turn-out. If the polls show a clear lead for one particular party, then people don't bother to vote, believing that the result is a foregone conclusion. I have heard that polls are banned in some countries in the run -up to an election.
Mark Edmonds, Rugby, England

If we believe statistics, and statistics prove that we do, .......
Stephen Brooks, York, England

Polls are a crude indicator at best. The problem is, you only get the opinions of people who WISH to give them. The opinions of surly blighters, like me, who glare at anyone holding a clip board, go permanently unrecorded. Phone polls on radio or TV are worse since you only get the opinions of people who feel strongly enough to pick up the phone. Worst of all are newspaper polls where the paper's own propaganda is simply regurgitated by its readers.
Kelly Mouser, Upminster, Essex

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