My election notes. E-Day – 25

by Pseud O'Nym


As anyone who’s been following these posts will know, I’ve returned to the topic of opinion polls more than once, not just because the polls themselves can be manipulated, but more because it only tells one what a statistically insignificant proportion of the population are thinking. There are estimated to be somewhere in the region of 51 million  eligible voters in the UK – whether they’ve bothered to register to vote or not is the subject of another post – and yet typically a survey will ask no more than 4,000 what they think.

And that’s being generous.

So in the Observer today, I was intrigued by a headline on its homepage that announced that;

Nearly 50% are of no religion – but has UK hit ‘peak secular’?

Curiosity piqued, I read on. It stated;

Analysis of data from the annual British Social Attitudes survey and the biennial European Social Survey was carried out by Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. “The rise of the non-religious is arguably the story of British religious history over the past half-century or so,” he says in the introduction to his report, The ‘No Religion’ Population of Britain.

It paints a picture of a Britain in which Christianity has seen a dramatic decline – although figures suggest a recent bottoming out in recent years. The avowedly non-religious – sometimes known as “nones” – now make up 48.6% of the British population. Anglicans account for 17.1%, Catholics 8.7%, other Christian denominations 17.2% and non-Christian religions 8.4%.

And for good measure, to make the survey appear to have some methodological integrity so as to reassure us that we could trust what the headlines told us, there was…er nothing.

Nothing at all, no detail as to how many adults were surveyed, how they were surveyed – face to face, telephone or online – or a breakdown of the respondents by geographical region. Annoyed by this, I clicked on the link that the story gave. It took me here. Not helpful.

Most people would have left it there, thought no more about it and enjoyed the good weather we’re having.

But I’m not most people.

I found this on the British Social Attitudes website;

 The British Social Attitudes survey has been carried out annually since 1983 and is our longest running survey. Over 90,000 people have taken part in the study so far.

90,000 people since 1983?

This survey neatly demonstrates how it is possible to extrapolate a meaning from a statistically insignificant amount of people who were asked the same question. In a survey about politics though this matters.

The BBC regularly publishes a poll tracker, which compiles all the data from the major polling organisations and produces a handy graph. Here’s the latest one.

It also adds that;

As everybody knows, the polls got the 2015 general election wrong.

They suggested that the likely outcome was a hung parliament but, as we know, the Conservatives won an overall majority. So is it worth paying attention to them this time?These methodological changes vary from pollster to pollster but there are some general trends.

Several of them now ask the people who take part about their educational background. The aim, as with questions about class, age, gender and region is to get a sample of people who are representative of the population as a whole.

Others have developed more sophisticated ways to estimate how likely it is that somebody who takes part in a poll will actually vote. Just asking people whether they will vote is not a good guide.

Of course, we can’t be sure whether these adjustments will make the polls more accurate. So some people will no doubt decide to ignore them all together.

But there’s still clearly an appetite for them.

No fewer than 30 have been conducted since the Prime Minister made her surprise announcement on 18 April.

That’s more than one a day.

And where does this appetite come from? The very people that commission them and turn them into news!

Inherent in all of this is the danger of the ‘bandwagon effect’,  which Wikipedia describes thusly;

 The bandwagon effect is a phenomenon whereby the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. In other words, the bandwagon effect is characterized by the probability of individual adoption increasing with respect to the proportion who have already done so. As more people come to believe in something, others also “hop on the bandwagon” regardless of the underlying evidence.

The bandwagon effect occurs in voting: some people vote for those candidates or parties who are likely to succeed (or are proclaimed as such by the media), hoping to be on the “winner’s side” in the end.


That’s the problem with political polls; they help create the very thing they measure.