The Politics of Polling (Liaison Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 4:21 pm on 19th May 2022.

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Lord Lipsey:

Moved by Lord Lipsey

That this House takes note of the Report from the Liaison Committee The Politics of Polling: an update (8th Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 197).

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour

My Lords, I start with the history of this matter. I proposed and was asked to chair the original Select Committee on opinion polls, and chaired it for most of its history, until I had an unexpected engagement with the grim reaper across the river. My noble friend Lady Jay kindly took over and, with her usual supreme competence, finished off the report. I am not saying this to get out of any of the things the committee then decided; I am sure they are all perfect.

That committee reported in April 2018 and there was a debate in the House in July 2018. Under the new procedure of the House, the Liaison Committee set up a follow-up committee to see how its recommendations fared. It reported in December 2020 and, after the usual inexcusable lag, this is the report we are debating today. In that context, I particularly thank that wonderful servant of the House, Michael Collon, whose work as clerk to the follow-up committee—I think his last for this House—showed why he was a legend in his lifetime and a remarkable man.

As the follow-up report points out, the Liaison Committee report differs from most of those that are considered by this House, as did the original report, in that its recommendations were mostly targeted not at the Government but at the polling industry. We therefore do not have to focus on the Government’s reply—the kind of stuff that greets Select Committee report after Select Committee report, and reflects some civil servant’s attempt to disguise the Government’s refusal to seriously consider the central recommendations in warm guff. The quality of our Select Committees is reduced in its impact by the Government’s refusal to take them seriously.

Even in this case, the Government turned down one recommendation—an enhanced role for the Electoral Commission. That comes as no surprise now, since the Government have shown through the Elections Act that the idea of an independent elections commission is foreign to their nature.

However—and I say this with great satisfaction—the industry’s response has been very different. In particular, I thank Sir John Curtice, the head of the British Polling Council, and Jane Frost, of the Market Research Society, for what they have achieved in bringing polling into the present century.

I think that we can claim that we had some influence on this as our recommendations helped the progressives in polling to push ahead against some resistance. I am particularly surprised that good progress has been made on the problems of polling and, at least as important, on the reporting of polling, which was so evident following the polling disaster of the 2017 general election—do we all remember Theresa May’s landslide that was not?

Polling is now more transparent, the technical issues surrounding it are more understood, its spokespeople are more measured in their claims and, most of all, reporting is now, with rare exceptions, less misleading. The days when you had stories saying, “Disastrous poll for Labour”, when all that had happened was that Labour had gone down 1% in its poll rating—well within the margin of error, as our committee pointed out—have mostly gone, thank the Lord.

I cannot say, however, that I am 100% confident that the polls will not get it wrong again. It has happened intermittently throughout the history of polling. Mark Pack, who produces an invaluable polls blog, reminds us of this in his new book, Polling UnPacked. As the first editions of the Chicago Tribune appeared in 1948 with the headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman”, Pack reports that pioneer pollster George Gallup turned to his staff and said,

“Boys, I think we’re in trouble”.

This happened in this country too, in 1974, 1992, 2015 and 2017. I remember the report of Professor Patrick Sturgis, now of LSE, on the 2015 failings. He was, incidentally, a distinguished specialist adviser to our committee.

Talking of errors, I remember most vividly and very personally the American election of 2019. I am generally only a small gambler—£5 each way is a lot for me—but in that particular case the polls were so overwhelmingly certain that Biden was going to win that I had, I am afraid, a four-figure sum on his victory. I went to bed that night—before midnight—cheerful. I woke in the middle of the night to the BBC reporting, “Well, it’s looking as if Trump has won.” I did not easily get back to sleep. We now have the report of the American Association for Public Opinion Research on that poll, though I am afraid that it concludes that it was impossible to identify the source of the error, which does not give total confidence that it will get it right in future. Anyway, as a result of that very poor night’s sleep, I am finding it possible to resist the temptation to back Labour to be the largest party after the next election in Britain, though I find the current price of 6/5 against unbelievably tempting.

As poor reporting lies at the heart of so much of perceived poll failures, I start with that. Better practice was first encouraged by ESOMAR, the European polling association, which published an excellent guide written by the doyenne of British polling journalists and a great friend of this House, Peter Kellner. More recently, the National Council for the Training of Journalists produced a professional training course for journalists, which was developed with the BPC and MRS. I was really pleased to be present at the launch of its short version of that guidance, which is great.

Sympathising a little bit with my old profession, I have to say that good reporting is not quite as easy as you might think. I reported on polls for the Sunday Times. There was a good deal of cross-pressure on me as a journalist. On the one hand was the sacred duty to report accurately and without hyperbole, and on the other hand was the news desk wanting the biggest possible splash. You might have thought that the pollsters would be the allies of the careful journalists. Certainly, MORI, which did our polling, wanted sight of the copy as we submitted it, but it, too, wanted a big splash; indeed, I think there were more occasions on which Bob Worcester, the redoubtable boss of MORI, pushed me to puff up the findings than occasions when he asked me not to go too far. One still gets the odd distortion—I had to take the Express to IPSO recently for presenting a poll of its readers as if it were a proper poll, because the idea that Express readers are representative of the nation as a whole seems bizarre—but such errors are much less frequent, and we are better off for it.

As for transparency, the BPC has certainly tightened its practices, with details of the methodology appearing on its website. It has taken on board a huge increase in the number of polling companies—I think that 28-odd are in business now, and all those are now carefully scrutinised.

After correspondence with Full Fact—I declare an interest as a past vice-chair of that organisation—the BPC has introduced a new rule that lays an obligation on members to check whether the accuracy of the figures quoted in any initial publication of a poll is justified, so that things can be put right. So things have moved forward, and I would claim on behalf of my excellent committee some share of the credit.

However, there is always a danger that things will go wrong again. It is true that, on average, polls have not got worse over the years—research by Will Jennings of Southampton University shows that—but, in reality, it is not the average error that matters; it is the disasters that everyone remembers and that can have a consequential effect on politics, which is why, for example, the French do not allow publication of polls during election campaigns. I therefore remind the polling industry of what our committee said. We came down against a ban on polling during the elections—we were not copying the French—and we came down against heavy-handed regulation, but we also said that if the polls messed up by too much too often, such issues would need to be revisited. It is vital that they keep their eye on the ball and keep their standards up; otherwise, this Parliament will have to make up for their failings.

To be fair to the industry, polling is a lot more difficult than it used to be when I started in the trade. A voting intention poll was quite easy in those days. You just had to get the right number of working-class people in your sample. Working-class people all voted Labour, so if you got the right number of them in your sample, you would get the Labour vote about right. That was before the days of the blue wall seats. The industry is adapting. For example, it now turns out that an important factor in voting intention is education, particularly university education, with graduates being much more likely to vote Labour than people who have not been to university—I could perhaps carry that as an accolade for my party; at the same time, if we do not get the working class back, we are going to be in trouble.

Techniques are still evolving. On balance, it is best for government to keep its distance and allow experimentation to proceed. Nobody has yet supplanted the basic principles of opinion polling, but there are interesting methodological developments that need to be tried and tested. That said, polls are too important to be left entirely to pollsters and, more crucial still, too important to be left entirely to journalists. The price of democratic liberty is eternal vigilance, and that includes, as the Liaison Committee report shows, eternal vigilance over opinion polls and their reporting. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Hayward Lord Hayward Conservative 4:34 pm, 19th May 2022

My Lords, before I start my comments in relation to both the committee and the Liaison Committee’s review, I pay credit to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for his chairmanship. He alluded to his ill health. I think that everybody who was on that committee, and Members of this House who were not, are extremely pleased to see him looking so well in his place in this Chamber. I think we all welcome that.

In relation to polls, we automatically assume that everything is fine as long as the polls got the figures and the direction right in the last general election. The moment the pollsters fail to get the correct party in government, they are blamed for everything, and that is not fair. As the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said, there are large numbers of polling companies in operation now. I believe they work incredibly hard. It is in their own interests to produce the right results, because that is what they market to the public at large, but I do not share the confidence of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in relation to the possibility that they might make errors in future. He indicated that they could, but I am not convinced that they are any more or less likely to make an error than they were previously. I say that because of the reason he identified: polling companies have to identify major demographic shifts, such as university education as against age or class, and the changes that have taken place over the last decade.

It is very interesting that the noble Lord referred to Peter Kellner, who in some of his research recently identified that some 50% of the nation’s voters have voted for different parties in the last decade because of the issues of Brexit and the changes in the red wall. Polling companies always tend to be somewhat backward-looking, because they are using how people voted last time by class, age, education or part of the country. Unfortunately, that is rather like fighting a war using the weapons they won with last time around. There is the probability that they will make the same errors again in future, when there is that same demographic shift.

The other aspect that still concerns me—I will come on to a further, small element at the end—is the way polls are reported. Again, I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, that journalists report things well. I am afraid that the pressures to which he referred—to sensationalise—result in a high level of hyperbole being applied to figures in any poll.

Take Ipsos MORI, which this afternoon published a poll saying that this year 31% of people have reduced their expenditure on their holiday plans. When people are asked questions, there is a temptation to give the answers they think they ought to give. Polls try to deal with that issue, and in fact the wording in Ipsos MORI’s question is quite clear—it says “noticeable reductions”. But if one compares that 31%, which produces a dramatic headline if you choose to use it—and all too often the media do use those sorts of figures—does that actually match up with what is happening at the moment?

The other day I listened to Michael O’Leary from Ryanair talking about revenge tourism. I checked just now, having seen this figure from Ipsos MORI. A year ago, his load factors were 67%; he had 1.04 million passengers in April last year. In April 2022 he had 14.24 million people flying on Ryanair, with a load factor of 91%. Does that really match up with the 31%? No—one has to take things in the round.

What worries me is that, when the media present figures from polls, they fail to take things in the round. The tendency is to give two or three questions and then we are on to the next subject. I recognise the pressure that journalists are under from producers and editors, but I wish that the media would look at things in much broader detail, rather than dashing on from one subject to the next, and that they would try to help educate.

In conclusion, I shall pick up one point from the response to the Liaison Committee by the BPC. This is associated in part with my previous comments on the use of figures and concerns where organisations pay for polls which are clearly intended to produce a certain result so that the result can be portrayed to the media, who can then portray it in hyperbolic form. This is not good for anybody. The Library briefing notes that

“The BPC also rejected the suggestion that its members should be obliged to disclose who funded each poll”.

I understand matters of commercial confidentiality; I have been involved in negotiating such agreements, though not in the field of polling. I understand the issue, but it really ought to be clear in every poll—on the can—who has funded it, so that the listener, reader or viewer can clearly understand what the intended message was in the first place. I do not think it does polling, or anybody, any good to be less than open on such matters.

Photo of Lord Rennard Lord Rennard Liberal Democrat 4:41 pm, 19th May 2022

My Lords, I too pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, for his tenacity in trying to insist on statistical accuracy.

It was a pleasure to serve as one of two Liberal Democrat Members on the Select Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media, which met in the 2017-19 Session, and also to provide evidence to the Liaison Committee, which reviewed its work in 2020. One of the main issues we addressed was whether, as in some countries, there should be an attempt to ban the publication of opinion polls for some days before polling day. Polls are, of course, sometimes responsible for guiding public opinion, rather than merely reflecting it. However, I think the Select Committee helped to dismiss any suggestion that polling companies generally set out to fix the outcomes of their polls in order to influence elections and referendums.

We discussed how a final weekend poll in the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 caused considerable controversy. I remember reading the Sunday Times with some shock when it reported a poll with “yes” to independence leading by 51% to 49%. It was later suggested that this must have been inaccurate because independence was rejected in the votes cast a few days later by 55% to 45%. However, I do not think it was fair to attack the Sunday Times for publishing a poll which did not appear to be an accurate forecast. My own sources within the Better Together campaign suggested that “yes” may well have moved into a narrow lead at that point and that far from leading to a further surge in favour of independence, the poll served as a wake-up call to those opposed to it and led to some dramatic interventions, most notably by Gordon Brown, and plans to give people in Scotland what most of them wanted—which was more power to their Parliament while remaining part of the UK.

Of course, polls should be seen as only snapshots of opinion, and it has always been irresponsible to simply suggest that they are forecasts of what will happen on polling day. In many of the famous by-election victories in which I was involved, my party was often second in the polls, but I knew that we would win, because momentum and tactical voting would see us in the lead on polling day—the day that really mattered. I notice the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, smiling, recalling no doubt the 1993 Christchurch by-election, where I think his party never actually had a lead—if memory does not serve me correctly, no doubt he will correct me.

Knowing what other people think is an important factor in deciding how to vote, and an entirely legitimate one. But the danger is that polls can be inaccurate, and the reporting of them can be highly misleading. I think our Select Committee was on the whole supportive of the polling industry’s significant attempts to improve the accuracy of polls and the way in which it is helping to discourage misleading reporting of them. That is why there was little support for banning the publication of polls immediately prior to polling day. We felt that banning publication of properly conducted opinion polls might give even greater power to unscrupulous people with too much control over much of the media.

The potential power for the polling companies to inform the electorate was shown when they conducted snapshot polls at the end of the first leaders’ televised debates in the 2010 general election. Some 20 minutes before the conclusion of the first debate, I sent the late and much-missed noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, into the media room to claim a knockout victory for Nick Clegg. My view of what the public perception would be was quickly confirmed at the conclusion of the debate by the publication of instant polls. Typical of the polls was Populus for the Times. It found that Nick Clegg was declared by the public to be the overwhelming winner, with 61% saying that he had won the debate, compared with Cameron and Brown, who were trailing on 22% and 17% respectively. The broadcast news programmes accurately led with reports of these polls, but some of the tabloids struggled with the news. In the media room at the debating centre in Manchester, I watched George Osborne and the Sun writing team looking agonisingly at draft front pages on their computers as they struggled to try to suggest in any way that the debate had been a win for David Cameron.

There was general agreement in our committee’s deliberations that, if there are problems with the use of opinion polls in elections and referendums, the problems are generally with how they are reported rather than with the polling methodologies themselves. I will cite four examples. First, the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, has already referred to the infamous Chicago Daily Tribune headline, “Dewey Defeats Truman”, in 1948. The headline was based on polls, rather than many of the votes actually being counted.

Secondly, and more recently, the polls appear to have been inaccurate in our 1992 general election when John Major won what was called a “Lazarus-type” victory after trailing in the polls. My own view is that this was explained in part by a late swing against the prospect of a Kinnock-led coalition.

Thirdly, the opinion polls during the 2017 general election led canvassers such as me to personally assure voters I was speaking to that there was no danger of Jeremy Corbyn getting in. He did rather better than the polls had indicated, but perhaps that was because some people felt that they could vote for him as a protest—perhaps against the incompetence of the Conservative campaign at the time—without any prospect of him becoming Prime Minister.

Finally, the polls suggesting victory for remain over leave in the 2016 EU referendum by a margin of 52 to 48 were contradicted by actual votes being cast in reverse proportions. But who knows what the effect was of 150,000 Russian bots mobilised in the last few days of the campaign to spread Putin’s propaganda in favour of Brexit? The Minister shakes his head at that, but his Government refused specifically to investigate that, although we now know that 150,000 Russian bots were mobilised on that campaign. Some people certainly voted leave as a protest, believing from the polls that leave would not win. Perhaps some of its principal proponents campaigned for leave only because they trusted in polls showing that we would remain but that they could become Prime Minister by supporting leave.

As a committee, we certainly sympathised with the polling industry struggling to refine techniques on which their professional reputations rested. I highlighted to the Liaison Committee one of the problems for the polling companies: the disconnect between those over 18 legally entitled to vote and those who make it on to the electoral register. When people are asked whether they are on the electoral register, they often do not know, and the Government do not make it easy for them to check.

The Electoral Commission has estimated that around 9 million people who are entitled to vote are either missing from the registers or inaccurately included on them—so the pollsters’ task is not an easy one. Despite this, the evidence is that polls were rather more accurate in the 2019 general election than they had been in the two previous ones. Efforts have certainly been made by the British Polling Council, the Market Research Society and others to encourage better and fairer reporting of opinion polls. This reporting is important because it does have real influence on the outcome of elections and referendums. The best, fairest and most accurate reporting of polls comes often, although not exclusively, from public service broadcasters, and some of the worst comes from what some of us still call the tabloids.

I will conclude by saying that the constant threats to the independence of the BBC by reducing its income and promising to end the licence fee, together with the planned privatisation of Channel 4, are significant threats to the health of our democracy

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and International Trade) 4:51 pm, 19th May 2022

My Lords, I very much welcome this new format, which allows your Lordships’ House an opportunity to revisit previous committee reports and consider what changes, if any, have arisen as a result of the work undertaken. Like others, I continue to be grateful to my noble friend Lord Lipsey, who is a paragon in this field, and to his colleagues, for their work in this area. As he noted at the time of the original report and repeated today, it was not so much about recommendations for the Government, but rather offering a commentary on some of the trends and developments in the field. As noted by the Liaison Committee’s 2020 report, polling throughout the general election for 2019, as the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, said, seemed to be rather more accurate than during the 2015 and 2017 elections, and—notoriously—the EU referendum.

As we have learned, there are likely to be a number of reasons for this: different political contexts, changes in how polling is carried out and understood, the sorts of questions asked and how they are asked, and so on. However, as noted by the House of Lords Library briefing, the US presidential election served to highlight that polling reliability, or the lack of it, is not exclusively a British challenge. I hope we will see a number of changes to the conduct of polling in the future, and perhaps also the conduct of British elections in coming years. Of course, we are to have some of these as a by-product of the Government’s recent Elections Act, and although on the face of it these should not impact on polling, it would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether they gave any consideration to this as part of those reforms. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment when he comes to reply.

There is every possibility that we will have some debate on polling-related issues when we come to discuss the forthcoming media Bill, which will have a broad scope and perhaps give rise to some of the issues to which the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred. It has been suggested by experts such as Professor John Curtice that media regulators be given a role in regulating the reporting of polls. This change would sit alongside industry initiatives to improve the understanding of polling practices but comes with the logic that the problem is the interpretation of the data rather than the raw data itself. In other words, it is more a question of how polling is used than of its content. As a semi-anorak who is fascinated by electoral outcomes, I have long been interested in the relationship between early polls during a by-election campaign and the eventual outcome. Of course, we have the now famous corrupted use of bar charts and their impact on electoral performance to thank for some of this, although I think they are now rather more the subject of challenge.

Questions seemingly remain about the role of the British Polling Council. While it is an independent organisation, and while the Minister may not wish to go into a huge amount of detail, it would be helpful to know whether there has been any shift in the Government’s previous position on self-regulation and whether there have been any general meetings with representatives of the BPC as part of the usual stakeholder engagement process. In an age of fact checking, does the Minister think that there is a case for some form of regulation of the polling industry? If there is, perhaps the Minister will set out how it might work.

This is a fascinating subject and one that those of us interested in the art of politics tend to dwell on perhaps more than we should. The health of a democracy cannot be measured through polling, although polling does, of course, help to promote a healthy democracy, or at least it should.

Photo of Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:56 pm, 19th May 2022

My Lords, it is a pleasure to respond to this debate initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey. We are indeed pleased to see him hale and hearty and back in your Lordships’ House. He has devoted admirable time and effort to an issue which, as the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, said, plays an important role in the functioning of our democracy, even as headlines about the failures of pollsters in recent electoral events have begun to fade in the memory somewhat.

The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, brings a wealth of experience to this debate as an advisor in government, a former member of the advisory committee of a pollster and, as he mentioned in his opening speech, a journalist wrestling with competing priorities in the reporting of polls for the Sunday Times and other organs. Unlike him, I never place bets on electoral events, partly out of superstition and partly because I do not think I could deal with the additional emotional turbulence that would ensue.

I begin by reiterating the Government’s position that we continue to support the independent self-regulation of polling by the British Polling Council. As such, I will, as noble Lords anticipated, tread lightly in offering any opinion on the nature of the changes that it and the Market Research Society have made in response to the 2018 recommendations of your Lordships’ Political Polling and Digital Media Committee. Similarly, I do not intend to opine in detail on the progress which those organisations have made, in partnership with Impress and the National Council for the Training of Journalists, in providing resources for journalists on the accurate reporting of opinion polls. The Government are committed to a free and independent press and do not intervene in what the press can and cannot publish.

Instead, I will limit myself to some broader observations about the operation of political opinion polls in our democracy and on the impact of the work of the 2018 committee on this issue. With regard to recent failures in political polling in the United Kingdom, a measure of uncertainty in the prediction of elections and referenda is perhaps welcome. The noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord Rennard, mentioned the infamous failure of pollsters in the United States of America to anticipate Harry Truman’s victory over Thomas Dewey in 1948. In response to that, the American essayist EB White wrote:

“The total collapse of the public opinion polls shows that this country is in good health. A country that developed an airtight system of finding out in advance what was in people’s minds would be uninhabitable.”

I think we can agree with that wisdom.

However, as my noble friend Lord Hayward said, the polling industry’s prosperity is built on trust. Inaccurate, poor-quality or dishonest polling undermines public trust in the organisations which produce polls. I shall refrain from mentioning how the inaccurate reporting of polls in LibDem Focus leaflets has clouded my judgment about that organisation and the private companies that do them. While this may make the financial and reputational repercussions an effective deterrent to poor practice, I recognise also the key democratic role that polls play in informing the debate leading up to elections and referenda and thus the heightened importance of accuracy.

On that basis, the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee’s inquiry in 2018 was timely. The Liaison Committee’s follow-up report demonstrates that it was also constructive. It is a testament to the forensic attention that your Lordships’ committee paid to this subject that, in learning from mistakes made since 2015, the polling industry has since adopted many of the committee’s recommendations, and I commend the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and the other members of your Lordships’ committee for their part in that.

I turn briefly to some of the recommendations directed at government in the committee’s 2018 report. Although the follow up report does not revisit those recommendations, it may be instructive to summarise some of the Government’s more recent work here. The committee recommended that the Government act to help ensure that people of all ages have the critical digital literacy skills to enable them to assess and analyse the information that they read online. In July last year, the Government published the Online Media Literacy Strategy, setting out our vision for improving the national media literacy landscape. We have since delivered a range of initiatives designed to tackle the challenges laid out in the strategy. We recently published our second-year action plan, announcing a significant increase in resources to continue increasing the inclusivity and impact of media literacy providers.

The committee also supported calls for online campaigning material to be required to include an imprint stating who has published it, as is and has long been the case for printed material. Following Royal Assent last month, the Elections Act delivered this recommendation by introducing a new digital imprint regime. This will go much further than the print imprint regime, increasing transparency and empowering voters to make informed decisions about the material that they see online. It will be one of the most comprehensive digital imprint regimes operating in the world today, applying all year round across the United Kingdom, regardless of whence in the world content is promoted.

More broadly, the committee raised concerns about the problems posed to democracy by the rise of digital and social media, and recommended that the UK Government engage with others to discuss international approaches to tackling some of these problems. In July last year, the Government published our plan for digital regulation, which sets out our overall vision for governing digital technologies to drive prosperity, while minimising harms to the economy, security and society. One of its key pillars is promoting a flourishing democratic society, and we are taking action to support this through the measures that I described earlier: the Online Safety Bill, which will have strong protections for content of democratic importance and journalistic content; our data protection regime, which will protect people’s data rights and build trust; and a broad range of measures to support the freedom and sustainability of the press. As the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton, said, the Bills that we will debate in this Session touch on all of these areas and more.

Through the plan, the Government committed to building in international considerations from the very start of the policy-making process and ensuring that we engage constructively on digital regulation issues on the international stage. Last year, for example, at President Biden’s multiparty Summit for Democracy, the UK committed to sharing best practice with like-minded partners on approaches to countering disinformation, both bilaterally and multilaterally. The UK will build on its international and domestic work programmes throughout the summit’s “year of action” to promote our vision for UK democracy: a system that is modern, secure, inclusive, transparent and fair.

As noble Lords noted, political polling plays a crucial role in shaping the narrative of election campaigns. I certainly do remember the example of the 2017 general election. I was a candidate in the 2010 general election, at the height of “Cleggmania”, after the debates that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, reminded us of. I was standing in Newcastle upon Tyne North, a part of the country that has a very high number of postal votes because of the old postal vote experiments conducted by the Labour Government in 2004. It was very striking to me as a candidate, knocking up on polling day, to see how people had cast their votes because of the televised debates and the reporting of the opinion polls. Even two weeks later, they may in some cases have begun to change their minds—alas, not in my direction in many of the cases.

All of us have an interest in the fair and robust design, execution and reporting of polls which take place, particularly during electoral events, so we should all be reassured by the recent advances made by the industry as highlighted in this report. This is particularly the case when these advances are considered alongside the action which the Government are taking to protect and enhance the broader environment within which political polling operates, and to make our democracy more resilient.

With renewed thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and to all noble Lords who have spoken in today’s debate, we are grateful for his work in this important area.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 5:04 pm, 19th May 2022

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that thoughtful reply. I particularly thank noble Lords for the extraordinarily kind remarks they made about me personally, especially when, if I had popped it, they might not be kept in this House on a Thursday afternoon when the last summer sun is shining outside. I have always sworn never to use the phrase “the House of Lords at its best”, but I tiptoe near that by saying that this has been like an excellent webinar on the present state of polling, and I appreciate it.

To correct any misapprehension, I should say that I am not at all Pollyannaish about polls. I worry about their vulnerabilities, and in particular, to introduce one final new point, I am worried about their dirty little secret: essentially, the percentage of the public who agree to respond to pollsters’ questions keeps on falling, and as you get dodgy social media the whole time, people are more and more fearful of committing their views, and that will make it much more difficult to predict in the future. This is a concern that I know everybody in the industry shares, that everyone reading polls should share, and which we need to keep a careful eye on.

This is not the last word. We are not in a bad place today; we are in a better place than we would have been without these reports and the consequent action. However, we have not yet reached the sunny uplands for ever, and we need to keep our eye on what is going on and be ready to act if things start to go wrong in a way that genuinely endangers our democracy.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 5.07 pm.