Why Bother with Opinion Polls?

Article excerpt

DESPITE the humiliation, despite the ridicule, the opinion pollsters, who without exception got the 1992 general election result wrong, are flourishing.

It is almost as if nothing had happened. Figures released last week showed that marketing managers, newspapers and political parties are paying hundreds of millions of pounds for polls which, if the Conservatives' victory is a guide, are at best inaccurate and at worst worthless.

In the election year itself, members of the Association of Market Survey Organisations, which represents the big polling companies, saw their business grow by 11.3 per cent. In 1993, the take rose by a further 10 per cent to pounds 329m. Derek Martin, the association's chairman, estimated that the total market for polling and surveys is about pounds 500m.

After the election there was a great deal of criticism of newspapers for filling their front pages with poll results, which turned out to be spurious, instead of discussing issues affecting the electorate. But two years on, newspapers are still paying between pounds 5,000 and pounds 10,000 a time for polls during the local and European election campaigns, putting them on the front page and treating the results as if they were facts. (This newspaper and its daily sister have dropped regular polls but still use them occasionally.) Advertisers and manufacturers, meanwhile, who provide the vast bulk of opinion companies' business, are commissioning more and more surveys despite the recession. "What's the alternative? There is no other way to find out about public opinion," said Professor Ivor Crewe, of Essex University, echoing the general view of academics and pollsters.

But beneath the surface, the opinion poll industry is nervous. In the summer, a Market Research Society inquiry will issue a 125-page report on what went wrong in the 1992 election. It is already clear, however, that the society has found no agreement among opinion poll companies on how they should change their procedures to prevent another mistake. More serious for the industry, some of the most respected voices in social research are now suggesting that all opinion poll companies' methods are fundamentally flawed.

Next month, The 1992 British General Election Study - the most authoritative account to date of what happened in the campaign - will be published by Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR) and Nuffield College, Oxford. Its findings will make disturbing reading for the assorted pundits, journalists and party managers who still believe that polls are accurate.

There was no late swing to the Conservatives which could explain how they got 42 per cent of the vote and Labour 35 per cent when all the polls had put Labour on 40 and the Tories on 38, the study found. The acres of newsprint devoted to polls turned out to be a waste of space. "The Conservatives were ahead throughout and nothing changed very much during the campaign," said Roger Jowell, the director of SCPR. "They were always going to win."

Mr Jowell and his colleagues explain the fiasco by highlighting a key error in the pollsters' method. They have pointed out that the companies failed to take account of the huge numbers of people - sometimes 45 per cent of a sample - who more or less politely tell market researchers to go away when they are stopped in the streets. …