Last week the site Carbon Brief released information on their extensive energy and climate change polling, which you can read about on their site.
But as with any apparently new information, it’s useful to put the results in the context of what we’ve seen before. How does the poll fit with what others have shown?
I’m going to pick on three places where it’s interesting to compare the new poll with previous ones.
1. Doubts about climate change aren’t rising
I’ve been banging on about this for a while. Poll after poll is showing that belief that climate change is real and man-made is at the same level it was at before Copenhagen, ‘climategate’, the UK’s cold winters, and the subsequent dip in belief.
The Carbon Brief poll adds yet more weight to this. Compared with a question asked by ICM in ’09 and last year, the results show no movement:
It really is time we stopped saying that belief in climate change is falling.
2. ‘Belief’ in climate doesn’t mean that much anyway
One of my favourite charts is from a post-Copenhagen poll that showed that, even among those who said they don’t think global warming has been proven, a majority wanted a reduction in worldwide emissions.
I’ve taken this to indicate there’s a bunch of people who respond to questions about whether they ‘believe’ in climate change as if they’re being asked “are you a tree-hugging leftie who hates business?” – so they say no to that question, but still want the government to do something about climate change.
But is that true? A question in the Carbon Brief poll supports that view, albeit not quite to the extent seen in the Copenhagen poll.
Of those who think climate change or global warming is mostly caused by natural processes (about a third of the total), 45% think that tackling climate change should still be part of the government’s economic programme:
3. There isn’t a big problem with trust in climate scientists
A poll conducted in March ’11 and reported 18 months later by LWEC found that only 38% agreed they trusted climate scientists to tell the truth about climate change. This prompted soul-searching among those worried about public perceptions of climate change.
The phrasing of the LWEC question – “we can trust climate scientists to tell us the truth” – is a very high bar. At a time when trust is low, expecting people to say they trust anyone to tell them the truth, without more reassurance, is asking a lot. I’m also not a fan of the way the trust question came after questions about exaggeration of climate change and agreement among scientists.
Add to this Mori’s trust index, which finds scientists are among the most trusted groups, and that trust in them has gone up over the last decade.
So I don’t think we should be particularly surprised that the new poll showed scientists are the most trusted to deliver information about climate change by a massive margin. The mistake was ever to doubt that they were.
Data from the polls will be published this week.
Yesterday’s YouGov poll shows a startling change in attitudes to the EU. The results suggest more people would now vote to stay in the EU than to leave it: 40% staying in against 34% wanting to leave.
That’s a big swing from two months ago, when 49% said they would vote to leave: 17pts ahead of those wanting to stay:
Shifts like these don’t just happen by themselves. But is it real, or is something going on with the polling?
Option 1: a change in opinion
There are grounds for thinking a real shift has happened. The last time ‘vote to stay in’ was this high was December 2011: just after Cameron’s walkout of the EU summit.
At that time, the suggestion that the UK would leave the EU moved from remote to seeming more possible. Perhaps people started responding to the polling question differently: saying “I’d vote to leave the EU” became less of an empty threat.
Maybe that’s what happened this time as well. Over the last couple of weeks, discussions about the UK’s future in the EU have dominated the news again. People have started thinking about their own view, and they’ve responded to YouGov with a more considered opinion, which has taken some people away from the ‘out’ camp.
Option 2: bad polling
Some polling is designed to find out what people would do if they’re exposed to certain information or arguments. If Tesco promised to make its beefburgers with only British ingredients, would you be more likely to shop there? If you’re told that 60% of people affected by the benefit cap are in work, would you be more likely to oppose it?
But other polling is supposed to be a pure measure of what people currently think. Questions like voting intent and the EU referendum should be in this category.
So for the EU referendum question to show accurately what people think, respondents shouldn’t be shown anything that might influence their response. In an ideal world, they’d only be asked about the EU, and then the poll would finish. But that would be expensive, so we have to accept that the EU question will go in a poll with other questions.
In that case, the other questions respondents see need to be consistent between polls. So if respondents are being influenced by the other questions, at least it’s happening in a comparable way.
But that’s not how YouGov have done it.
The most recent poll, which shows ‘stay in the EU’ ahead by 6pts, asked six questions about Europe before it got to the referendum question. The previous recent high for Europhiles, in December ’11, asked 13 Europe questions before the in/out question. But the poll that showed ‘leave the EU’ the furthest ahead, in May ’12, didn’t ask any EU questions before it got to in/out.
Perhaps these other questions are affecting the result. The latest poll, for example, has several questions about renegotiating Britain’s terms of European membership – so respondents might be thinking of the in/out question in the context of revised terms. That could have prompted a few people to drift into the ‘stay’ camp.
Conclusion: has opinion changed?
There’s a plausible explanation for why opinion about an EU referendum might have changed over the last couple of weeks. As we apparently saw in December ’11, when the UK’s membership is in the news, people think about it more and become a bit less sure about wanting out.
But while this might make intuitive sense, there’s really no good polling evidence for it. The way YouGov have been asking the question has the potential to shift people’s responses in ways that are different from poll to poll. We can’t tell for sure whether it does skew things, but the inconsistent question structure means we equally can’t be certain that opinion really is changing.
I’d like to see YouGov move the in/out question to the start of their questions on the EU. Then we will be able to see what’s really going on with our views on the EU.
I’ll begin with two questions:
What proportion of Americans say there is solid evidence that the earth is warming? Is it: a) one quarter; b) one third; c) a half; or d) two thirds?
What has happened to that figure over the last four years? Has it: a) fallen every year; b) stayed about the same; c) risen every year?
Judging by most conversations I have and the coverage of public views about climate change, most people would guess the answer is low and falling.
But here’s the answer, taken from the Pew Research Center’s annual polls: two thirds and rising.
Agreement in the US that the earth is warming is now higher than it’s been at any time since 2008. The research was conducted before Hurricane Sandy, so is probably higher now. Only about half say it’s because of human activities – though that has also increased by a quarter over the last three years.
The debate about public views of climate change has changed in the US over the last few months. A number of polls in the autumn showed that the public is becoming more worried – and this was covered in the media.
But the UK lags behind. This week’s Observer included a powerful editorial, restating the evidence about current and future impacts of climate change. But it spoiled it with the line: “climate change denial is becoming entrenched in the UK, or … our media have become complacent about the issue, or both.”
Everyone I speak to about climate change seems to think this. But, as I showed last year, concern about climate change in the UK is certainly not falling, and is probably increasing.
I don’t know of a single poll that shows that the UK public are currently becoming more sceptical about climate change. The general pattern is instead that there was a one-off increase in doubts around late ’09 , which has been followed by a recovery over the years since then.
This set of YouGov polls is fairly typical:
There’s a debate to be had about whether the media is becoming more doubtful of climate science, though again I suspect the opposite has been true over the last couple of years.
The narrative of rising climate scepticism has become entrenched well past its useful life. It’s time for some climate denial denial.
A longer version of this blogpost is here.
Through 2012, I kept track of five questions on the issues shaping UK politics. For a final time, I’m revisiting them to see how they’ve changed and where we are now:
1) More attention to growth
Until the omnishambles Budget, the country was pretty evenly split on whether the government should slow deficit reduction to concentrate on growth.
After the Budget, ‘concentrate on growth’ opened a lead that stayed above 6pts, and reached 17pts after dire economic figures in the summer. But in the poll conducted immediately after the Autumn Statement, views were back to being evenly split.
Not only is this important for debates about the future of the economy, but it also says something interesting about the public’s relationship with political news. I’m often quite an exponent of the view “the politerati are talking to themselves, the rest of the country couldn’t give a stuff”. But the shifts in attitudes after the Budget and the Autumn Statement are a reminder that some political news does get widespread attention and change attitudes.
2) Speed of cuts
After holding steady for most of the year, the proportion saying the cuts are being made too quickly has now fallen a bit further, to 44%.
Clearly this isn’t good for the credibility of Labour’s line “too far, too fast”. This will be an interesting one to keep watching when more cuts start to bite. For example will personal experience of cuts to child benefits and the 1% cap start affecting views of cuts in general?
3) Blame for the cuts
This is another one that hasn’t moved far in Labour’s direction. Over 2012, the proportion blaming Labour for the cuts fell from 39% to 36%: hardly a radical shift.
At the same time though, the coalition have started picking up a bit more of the blame: up from 22% in January to 27% at the end of the year.
But this still means that two and half years into the government, more people blame Labour for the cuts than the current government.
4) Old and tired
But underneath the economic questions, there’s a host of measures about how the parties are viewed. One of the important ones is about whether they’re seen as old and tired.
Over 2012, Labour overtook the Tories as being seen as less old and tired – going from 15pts behind to 7pts ahead.
Going into an election campaign while being seen as out of fresh ideas is not a good basis for winning votes. Think the Tories in 1997 and Labour in 2010.
That said, elections aren’t always principally about change and fresh ideas. Sometimes they’re more about competence and reassurance, when being seen as old and tired matters less. Nevertheless, this isn’t good news for the Tories so early into their term.
5) Leaving the EU
Throughout the year, the question of the UK’s membership of the EU has kept coming up. With the Euro elections not too far off, it’s pretty much inevitable that it’ll be discussed throughout 2013, even if Cameron finally does get round to making his fabled speech on the EU.
Opinion has been pretty consistent in a majority wanting to have a referendum (but then people always say they want referendums) and a plurality saying they’d then vote to leave. But as I’ve argued before, there are good reasons to think a referendum could lead to a vote to stay in the EU.
Nevertheless, so long as polls keep showing more people wanting to leave, the story’s going to keep being pushed by Eurosceptics.
Each week, YouGov conduct six political polls for News International. ComRes poll for the Independent about once a fortnight; ICM, MORI and Populus do monthly political polls; Opinium seem to be polling on a weekly basis; and Survation and TNS have irregular but frequent polls.
Compare this with 10 years ago. According to Mark Pack’s list of past political polls, this week in October 2002 had just two polls. Ten years before that, there was one poll in the same week. So political polling now appears in unprecedented health.
But perversely, political polling contains the seeds of its own destruction. Here’s why.
Polls are commissioned for one of two reasons. Either the commissioner wants to know something, or they want someone else to know something.
Most polls are never made public. They’re commissioned by companies that want to know how they’re viewed, or to test ideas, or to see what people think about a question that’s important to them. These are often of little interest to anyone who’s not directly involved, though sometimes they contain some fascinating insights.
However lots of polls are made public. Some of these are by organisations trying to create a story that helps their cause. A recent example was this Populus poll, commissioned by the Tories and credulously reported by the Guardian despite a question sequence carefully designed to give Ed Miliband a bad score.
But most public political polling isn’t done by campaign groups: it’s done by newspapers, and they do it because they want a good story that sells papers. This is where the problem is.
Suppose five different polling firms each interviewed five different random samples of 2000 people from the UK population on the same day, using exactly the same top-quality methodology. Due to natural effects of sampling we would expect the results to be different. They probably wouldn’t be wildly different but there’s a good chance that at least one of them would have a quite different result in the overall figures, and when you start digging into subgroups it’s almost certain there’ll be big differences.
This variation is excellent for newspapers. A result that shows change from a previous poll is a news story. Take ComRes’ poll for the Independent, published on the day of Miliband’s speech to Labour conference, and showing Labour’s lead as just 3pts. It made a fantastic headline: far better than they would have got if they had found the same result as almost any of the preceding seven polls by other firms, which was a Labour lead of between 9-13pts.
In short, newspapers are crossing their fingers that their exclusive poll will be the outlier, the statistical freak that screams “something’s changed”.
But the irony is, the more successful political polling has become as an industry, the less value there is for newspapers to commission polls. Yet newspapers are the group that keep political polling going*.
Back when polls came out just once a week, no-one could tell whether a poll that showed a dramatic change was a true reflection of opinion or just a rogue. Now, we can be pretty confident, within a couple of days at most, whether there’s been a change. It takes seconds, when hearing about a new poll, to go onto UK Polling Report and check how it compares with others. The emperor’s clothes are threadbare at best.
In case you’ve got to this point and think I’m seriously predicting the imminent death of political polling: I’m not.
Of course newspapers will carry on commissioning polls and hoping they’re lucky enough to get an outlier. Most of their readership only read one national paper and don’t go checking up on polling websites (more’s the pity).
But as readership trends change and people’s news comes from more individually-tailored sources, those things could change. People who have even a passing interest in the results of political polls will have increasing access to a range of polls, not just their own newspaper’s poll – if they even continue to have a newspaper they see as their own. The flaw in the model may yet be exposed.
* Polling firms make most of their money from non-political work and typically do the political stuff for the PR value. But if it wasn’t for the newspapers promoting their polls, it’s hard to see that they’d do political polling at all.
In the TV show The West Wing, the deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman once said, “I make it a point never to disagree with Labour blogger Hopi Sen when he’s right, Mr President.” (I may have paraphrased).
While I probably should never ignore such sage advice, this time I do disagree with Hopi. In particular I disagree with his assertion that the Lib Dems absolutely have to get rid of Nick Clegg because, as he puts it:
“PEOPLE HATE NICK CLEGG.
REALLY HATE HIM.
REALLY. REALLY. HATE. HIM.
They are not kidding about this and are not going to change their minds.”
But I think Hopi – and everyone else who makes the same point – are misdiagnosing the problem for Nick Clegg. Because the polls suggest, as politicians go, he really isn’t particularly unpopular.
According to Lord Ashcroft’s May poll (which I use as it has a huge base size), Clegg’s average score, in terms of “how positively or negatively” people feel, on a scale of -100 to +100, is -11.7. This is slightly worse than Cameron’s -1.7 and Miliband’s -2.4, but is roughly on a par with -15.8 for Osborne and -10.6 for Balls.
So on average, Clegg is relatively low though not bottom. But this doesn’t tell us about the spread of opinions.
If Hopi’s right that a meaningful number of people really (really) hate Clegg, we should see a high number giving him extremely negative scores – but we don’t. The proportion that give him scores in the bottom 10% (-80 or below) is pretty much the same as for Cameron and Miliband:
What’s more, the people who give him such negative scores are far more likely to be 2010 Labour voters than 2010 Lib Dem voters: compared with the 31% of 2010 Labour voters who rate Clegg so badly, only 13% of 2010 Lib Dem voters give him such low scores.
Comparing the 13% of 2010 Lib Dem voters who give him such a low score with the 2% of current Lib Dem voters who do the same, we can work out that, among those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 but now wouldn’t do so, about 22% give Nick Clegg a score of -80 of below. So even among current Labour voters and defecting Lib Dem voters (which are overlapping groups), less than a third appear to really dislike Clegg.
It’s far from a good performance, but not in itself a sign that Clegg couldn’t do all right in an election again.
So if he isn’t hated, what’s the issue for Clegg? There clearly is a problem that needs explaining given 76% of people think he’s doing badly.
His difficulty isn’t that he’s seen as loathsome, but that he’s seen as pathetic. These Populus numbers are now 16 months old, but I suspect still hold true:
So Clegg’s seen as out of his depth, weak and indecisive, yet also likeable and not arrogant.
If these are the drivers of his unpopularity, we may wonder about the consequences of a music video that shows Clegg’s humanity and humility – but also the fact that he misjudged what he’d be able to achieve in government, for which he felt he had to apologise.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change has started a new tracking poll on public attitudes to a few of their issues. The first wave was out earlier this year (details and results here), and wave 2 should be out soon.
It won’t be much of a surprise that I’m generally in favour of polling. DECC’s poll is on an important topic, conducted not to create headlines but so the government can better understand what the public think.
But I’m increasingly of the view that it’s been badly put together and is costing too much public money.
Thanks to FOI I know that four waves of the poll – one year’s worth – will cost the taxpayer £130,945 + VAT. The reason it’s so expensive is twofold: it’s being done by face-to-face interview and it’s repeated every three months.
There’s not much point asking more often than, say, once a year, how much people know about carbon capture and storage or whether they like renewable energy. They just aren’t going to change very quickly.
But my main issue is on the quality of the questions. More here on why it has confusing questions.
At a time when every penny of civil service spending is supposed to be scrutinised, and some important and valuable services are being cut or are on their way out, I’m surprised that this poll has been given so much money.
I’m also surprised that it’s ended up including questions that serve no useful purpose – in the process frustratingly missing an opportunity to answer two of the most frequently recurring questions in opinion on climate change.
A longer version of this post is here.
ConservativeHome has stuck its neck out with an analysis of voting preferences for the November elections for Police and Crime Commissioners. Based on work by the Police Foundation, the article suggests that “even on the current discouraging opinion poll trends the Conservatives would end up winning the election of 21 commissioners against 20 for Labour”.
The claim has been picked up by the Guardian.
But such a high figure seems like an odd sort of reverse expectation management on the part of ConservativeHome – as if they have some anti-Cameron agenda.
It’s said in consultancy, “a junior analyst needs three data points to call it a trend, a director needs two points for a trend, and a VP just needs one point”.
Whoever’s interpreting the data on the question of prioritising growth vs deficit reduction, it certainly now looks like a trend.
Since the last election, a third of Tory voters have switched how they say they’d vote. While the current Tory voting intent is kept up a little by support gained from elsewhere, the permanent loss of so many of their 2010 voters would rule out any chance of the Tories being in the next government, let alone winning a majority.
But this is how things stand at the moment, and the election could still be almost three years away.
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