Opinion Polls: Should We Trust Them?

Opinion Polls: Should We Trust Them?

Following the astonishing election outcome of May 7th, we begin to question whether or not pre-election polls and forecasts can truly be trusted. For months, prominent organisations such as YouGov, ICM and Lord Ashcroft’s polls presented us with figures showing the Labour Party and the Conservatives neck-to-neck. The last official opinion poll conducted on Election

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Following the astonishing election outcome of May 7th, we begin to question whether or not pre-election polls and forecasts can truly be trusted. For months, prominent organisations such as YouGov, ICM and Lord Ashcroft’s polls presented us with figures showing the Labour Party and the Conservatives neck-to-neck. The last official opinion poll conducted on Election Day itself by the Ashcroft National Poll had both Labour and Conservatives at 33% which was similarly mirrored in the Populus poll with both parties shown as a tie. Nevertheless, this was far from reality. The final election result showed the Conservatives holding a majority at 331 seats with Labour behind at 232, far from what the opinion polls had indicated.

Prior to Election Day, there had been forecasts that the Conservatives would fail to gain enough seats to ensure a majority. Election polls had suggested the potential of a Labour/SNP coalition in such a situation. Once again the polls could not have been further from reality. Although opinion polls had predicted the SNP gaining substantial number of seats in Scotland, they failed to recognise the extent to which they would. The 2010 election saw the SNP gaining a total of 6 seats showing a stark comparison to the sturdy 56 seats that the SNP won last week.

What we have witnessed with the 2015 election, however, is that the polling figures were not aligned with the election results. Consequently, it has led people to rethink the extent to which they can trust and rely upon opinion polls. Although opinion polls failed to predict a clear Conservative majority, they did “pass over signs of a looming Tory victory”, according to YouGov’s President, Mr Peter Kellner.

Despite concerns being raised against the accuracy and reliability of election polls, we must also ask ourselves if completely abandoning the use of polls would be wise. Former Labour Minsters have already called for a ban on pre-election polls with Lord Foulkes publishing a bill to be put through to the House of Lords putting the case for the formation of a new “independent regulator of the polling industry” which would limit or even entirely prevent polling in the run-up to elections. He stated that the polls paved way for people to develop “snap opinions” and that the people who volunteer to be polled “inevitably become institutionalised” and that polls are “no longer a random sample of the population”.

So where does this leave us in terms of opinion polls? Arguably, people base their predictions and forecasts on opinion polls as they believe it provides them with an honest representation of the general public’s opinions. The use of opinion polls has its advantages, but it has also been exposed as a crude and blunt instrument providing misleading data thus creating a false sense of security to the users of the polls and pollsters alike.

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