Public Opinion Polls (Prohibition at Election Times)

– in the House of Commons at 4:54 pm on 24th February 1987.

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Photo of Mr Raymond Powell Mr Raymond Powell , Ogmore 4:54 pm, 24th February 1987

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the holding of, and publication of the results of, opinion polls about voting intentions at times prior to general elections and by-elections to the House of Commons.

The first parliamentary consideration of the problem took place under the auspices of the Speakers Conference on Electoral Law which reported in 1968. That conference recommended that there should be no broadcast or publication in a newspaper or other periodical of a result of a public opinion poll or of betting odds on the likely result of a parliamentary election for a period of 72 hours before the close of the poll. Regrettably, however, that recommendation was not implemented.

To avoid taking too much time, I shall not deal in too much detail with the wide discrepancies of the opinion polls that have been published in recent times, save to mention the recent bizarre one for "Newsnight" on the Greenwich by-election, presented by Vincent Hanna who, I am given to understand, is developing the concept that by-elections are created entirely for his personal amusement. That poll result alone should be sufficient to persuade the House of the necessity of a free passage for my Bill.

Numerous attempts have been made by hon. Members to persuade the House to agree to measures for some control, and on 22 October 1985 I presented a somewhat similar Bill which was defeated by four votes. This time I feel confident that the results of recently published polls will persuade hon. Members on both sides that it is becoming even more essential to acquire some sort of control. If the rumours that I have heard today are correct, there might be opposition to my Bill. If that is so, I sincerely hope that this time, unlike the previous occasion, the argument will be soundly based and the occasion not used to expound and develop differences which might have occurred in the Greenwich by-election.

In recent weeks we have been subjected to all sorts of political fortune-telling which is about as accurate as the palmist on the pier. Is it too much to ask that for just three or four weeks we should be spared the peddling of those pointless predictions? Opposition to the Bill and the protestations that I have received have come mainly from interested parties, press barons and pollsters who obtain rich pickings from attempting to predict the results. It is all too easy to manipulate random sampling to ensure that the result is one that will boost circulation or stimulate further interest and assignments for the pollster. Nevertheless, we all appreciate that on many occasions it is the press which deliberately distorts some of the fair and reasonably conducted polls.

No fewer than 50 opinion polls were carried out during the four and a half week campaign of the 1983 general election. When we include the private and unpublished polls undertaken on behalf of political parties and interest groups, that represents a formidable amount of polling activity. Nevertheless, the reliability and validity of the opinion polls and perhaps more significantly the influence of the polls on the election itself is a cause for grave concern.

Students of electoral behaviour have known for some time that opinion polls have low reliability. Differences in question wording, methods of filling sample quotas and interviewer effect, together with the inherent randomness of response from individuals with a low level of knowledge and interest in politics, produce those results. Furthermore, average sample sizes, which between 1970 and 1983 were 1,900 respondents per survey, have fallen to 1,100. Field workers tend to be mostly middle-class, middle-aged women who are disproportionately of one political persuasion, making unconscious bias and interviewer effect an acute problem, particularly at a time of intense partisan activity. Other sources of error result from the changing nature of British politics, with wide regional variations emerging in voting behaviour.

The problems of reliability and validity of polls would not have any wider political significance if there were not compelling evidence to suggest that polls directly influenced the election results in 1983. The system of tactical voting needs special consideration. It is highly likely that opinion poll results could persuade voters not to cast a vote for the favourite party but to use it to produce the most desired or least objectionable outcome. If we are to preserve the true democratic process of electing a Government by the majority accepting the presentation of political parties' policies, we must ensure that pollsters are not the deciding factor and that they are not allowed to sway electors to vote for a party, the policies of which are not liked, just to keep out another party that is liked even less. Tactical voting is encouraged by the present applied system. Until the electorate votes according to conscience, principle and the policies presented, uninfluenced by bizarre pollster predictions, we are allowing the franchise won for us after a considerable struggle by former generations to be lost to the fancies and favourites of the few large influential pollster organisations.

Aneurin Bevan once accused the polls of taking the poetry from politics, and he was right. I want to put the poetry hack into politics by banning these polls during the period prior to an election because they are increasingly not just predicting the result but determining it. If market researchers expect to achieve respect for their poll predictions, I suggest that they make further attempts through their advisory group to ensure that their code of practice is immediately and fully implemented. Until this is achieved, my Bill is the only way to protect the electors from voting on the predictions of the polls rather than on the policies of the politicians.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to oppose the Bill?

Photo of Mr Colin Moynihan Mr Colin Moynihan , Lewisham East

Yes, Sir.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) for providing the House with this opportunity to debate the merits or otherwise of prohibiting the holding of and publication of the results of opinion polls at election times.

Opinion polls are of justifiable concern to many people both inside and outside the House. Arriving from three weeks on the election trail in Greenwich and hardly the beneficiary of gargantuan swings to the Tories in by-election polls there, I wish nevertheless to record my strong support for the continued holding of opinion polls and to make some suggestions to improve their contribution to elections.

The most recent and authoritative report on this subject was produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Sir J. Page) for the Council of Europe in 1985 after two years taking expert evidence. The Council of Europe Assembly unanimously accepted the conclusion of the report that no controls of polls at election times were desirable, appropriate or workable, that polling organisations in Europe should comply with their own industry's code of practice, and that no one knew the effects that polls might or might not have on bandwagons, backlashes or the momentum of an election. Polls are not intrinsically harmful to the democratic process although, if abused, they can be. Our concern, and that of the pollsters' professional body, the Market Research Society, should be to deny opportunities for abuse. That requires better scrutiny, further policing and regulation of polls, with the publication of results in full. The Market Research Society and ESOMR — the European Society of Opinion and Market Research — seek to ensure good technical standards, which need to be improved.

Let us consider the implications of a ban. Private polls would proliferate and be leaked. The media would commission polls and use the results by innuendo. Greater weight would be given to the canvass returns. Overseas newspapers would commission polls and give results. Would the hon. Member recommend that overseas newspapers or the international media such as the BBC World Service should be censored? I assume that he would not. For example, The Times published a poll when, for a short period of time, opinion polls were forbidden in Germany. The banning of polls would be deeply detrimental to the freedom of the press and especially the international press. Moreover, such a ban would treat the electorate like sheep. Ultimately, it must be for the electorate to decide how to use the information available to them. To ban opinion polls during elections would be a fundamental move away from freedom of information in our society.

I conclude with some reflections on Greenwich and how polls can provide a valuable information service. Is the hon. Member for Ogmore suggesting that, when an alliance campaigner brands Deidre Wood a liar at a public meeting, public opinion should not be tested and the results published to show the disdain felt by the Greenwich electorate for the sickening personality attack made on Mrs. Wood? Is it not justified that pollsters should be able to concentrate on asking and publishing the answers to questions on grossly misleading alliance election photographic material and campaign tactics? In a free society, it is right that opinion polls on all aspects of elections should be permitted, but the need to provide a reinforced code of conduct and further information and judgment on their use in the media should focus the attention of the House. We should concentrate on that and reject this undemocratic and unworkable motion.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 ( Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):

The House divided: Ayes 116, Noes 103.

Division No. 99][5.07 pm
Adams, Allen (Paisley N)Anderson, Donald
Adley, RobertAshton, Joe
Atkinson, N. (Tottenham)Leadbitter, Ted
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Lewis, Terence (Worsley)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Barron, KevinLofthouse, Geoffrey
Bell, StuartMcCartney, Hugh
Bidwell, SydneyMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
Boothroyd, Miss BettyMcQuarrie, Albert
Caborn, RichardMcWilliam, John
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Carter-Jones, LewisMason, Rt Hon Roy
Carttiss, MichaelMaxton, John
Clarke, ThomasMaynard, Miss Joan
Clay, RobertMichie, William
Clelland, David GordonMikardo, Ian
Cohen, HarryMoate, Roger
Coleman, DonaldMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Conway, DerekO'Brien, William
Cook, Frank (Stockton North)Park, George
Corbyn, JeremyPatchett, Terry
Craigen, J. M.Pavitt, Laurie
Cunliffe, LawrencePeacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Pendry, Tom
Duffy, A. E. P.Pike, Peter
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Eadie, AlexRadice, Giles
Eastham, KenRattan, Keith
Faulds, AndrewRandall, Stuart
Fenner, Dame PeggyRedmond, Martin
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Richardson, Ms Jo
Finsberg, Sir GeoffreyRoberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Fisher, MarkRoss, Ernest (Dundee W)
Flannery, MartinRossi, Sir Hugh
Fookes, Miss JanetSheerman, Barry
Foulkes, GeorgeSheldon, Rt Hon R.
Garrett, W. E.Skeet, Sir Trevor
Glyn, Dr AlanSkinner, Dennis
Godman, Dr NormanSmith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Gower, Sir RaymondThompson, J. (Wansbeck)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)Thome, Stan (Preston)
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Thornton, Malcolm
Hamilton, W. W. (Fife Central)Tinn, James
Hardy, PeterTorney, Tom
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterTownend, John (Bridlington)
Hawkins, Sir Paul (N'folk SW)Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Home Robertson, JohnWalker, Bill (T'side N)
Howells, GeraintWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Hoyle, DouglasWeetch, Ken
Hughes, Roy (Newport East)Welsh, Michael
Hume, JohnWilson, Gordon
Hunter, AndrewWinnick, David
Jessel, TobyWinterton, Nicholas
John, BrynmorWoodall, Alec
Jones, Barry (Alan & Deeside)Young, David (Bolton SE)
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Key, RobertTellers for the Ayes:
Lambie, DavidMr. Frank Haynes and
Lamond, JamesM. Don Dixon.
Lawrence, Ivan
Alexander, RichardBeith, A. J.
Arnold, TomBenn, Rt Hon Tony
Ashby, DavidBest, Keith
Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)Bevan, David Gilroy
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E)Biggs-Davison, Sir John
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)Blackburn, John
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Body, Sir Richard
Batiste, SpencerBright, Graham
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyBrown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)
Buck, Sir AntonyLivsey, Richard
Budgen, NickLloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Burt, AlistairMcCrindle, Robert
Butterfill, JohnMaclennan, Robert
Campbell-Savours, DaleMcLoughlin, Patrick
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)Maples, John
Cartwright, JohnMeadowcroft, Michael
Cash, WilliamMoynihan, Hon C.
Chapman, SydneyMudd, David
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Neale, Gerrard
Coombs, SimonPawsey, James
Cranborne, ViscountProctor, K. Harvey
Crouch, DavidRaison, Rt Hon Timothy
Dickens, GeoffreyRhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Dicks, TerryRoe, Mrs Marion
Dorrell, StephenRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.Rost, Peter
Dover, DenSackville, Hon Thomas
Dykes, HughSayeed, Jonathan
Fletcher, Sir AlexanderSedgemore, Brian
Forth, EricShaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Freud, ClementShields, Mrs Elizabeth
Gale, RogerSims, Roger
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
George, BruceSpeed, Keith
Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir IanSpencer, Derek
Goodhart, Sir PhilipSquire, Robin
Gow, IanStanbrook, Ivor
Greenway, HarrySteel, Rt Hon David
Griffiths, Sir EldonStern, Michael
Hargreaves, KennethStewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Haselhurst, AlanStradling Thomas, Sir John
Hayward, RobertTerlezki, Stefan
Heddle, JohnThomas, Rt Hon Peter
Hind, KennethThorne, Neil (Ilford AS)
Holland, Sir Philip (Gedling)Thurnham, Peter
Hubbard-Miles, PeterWall, Sir Patrick
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)Wallace, James
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Whitfield, John
Jones, Robert (Herts W)Wood, Timothy
Kennedy, Charles
Kirkwood, ArchyTellers for the Noes:
Knight, Greg (Derby N)Mr. John Page and
Knox, DavidMr. Conal Gregory.
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ray Powell, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Frank Haynes, Mr. Gareth Wardell, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Roy Hughes, Mr. Doug Hoyle, Mr. Lawrence Cunliffe, Dr. Roger Thomas, Mr. James Hamilton, Mr. Jim Callaghan and Mr. Martin Redmond.