Political parties, especially the Tories, have a morbid fascination with polls. They see the polls and the companies that produce them as some sort of Delphic Oracle. What interests me isn’t the Tory fascination with polling companies but their involvement in them, since polling companies are always at pains to tell the general public that they are politically neutral. Yet, as any qualitative researcher will tell you, it is not possible to be 100% objective and put one’s ideology or cultural baggage to one side. The researcher must act self-reflexively. Bourdieu and Wacquant discussed this at some length in An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The researcher must consider their own position. Yet this idea of self-reflexivity appears to have escaped the pollsters. I have discovered that a number of Tory MPs are being paid by polling companies and there is no indication why they are being paid. Polling companies don’t deal in human vagaries: they and those who pay for the polls (usually the press and politicians) are interested in abstract numbers from which they hope to divine the future. That is the nature of quantitative research methodologies. They’re not particularly interested in why a certain number of people feel a certain way, because that’s the business of the qualitative researcher. The questions of what, how and why are of little interest to them. On Sunday I posted the following Tweet.
Andrew Hawkins of ComRes fired back.
My reply was blunt.
I was using my phone, so I didn’t have access to the necessary information to properly rebut his aggressive response. A couple of years ago, I was investigating Priti Patel’s business interests after I’d discovered she had close ties to the United Arab Emirates and to Bahrain, in particular. My research began after Patel had claimed she was a champion of Human Rights. I also knew Patel was involved in the right-wing Free Enterprise Group, which advocates among other things, abolition of the minimum wage to “grow the economy”. So I knew she wasn’t being entirely straight with her interviewer. I started my investigation by looking at the Searchthemoney website, and was astonished to discover that Patel had received £75 on 11 occasions between 2011 and 2013. It wasn’t clear why she was given this money nor was it clear what she’d done to deserve it.
I’d then noticed that many other Conservative MPs had also been paid money by ComRes. You can see the list here. Philip Davies, for example, was paid the same amount of money on more than 18 separate occasions between 2011 and 2014. YouGov is another polling company that’s cited for its supposedly rigorous methods. Yet this company was founded by Tories Stephan Shakespeare and Nadhim Zahawi. The company’s public face is Peter Kellner, who often appears on television to explain how the polls work. However Kellner isn’t as non-partisan as he seems to be. According to Lenin’s Tomb, Kellner intervened in the 2010 Labour leadership contest.
Firstly, Kellner uses figures relating the division of ABC1 and C2DE voters among the electorate to support his point that the number of ‘working class’ voters is declining precipitously. If he is right, then the proportion of ‘working class’ voters dropped from 51% to 43% between 1997 and 2010. That’s a rapid rate of employment change, though – given the way New Labour allowed manufacturing industries to collapse and shed employment – not all that incredible. However, the conception of ‘class’ deployed by Kellner is the old, misleading ‘social class’ model preferred by market researchers. His ‘classes’ (ABC1 = middle class vs C2DE = working class) are based on the National Readership Survey classifications derived from official statistics. As he revealingly puts it, according to his conception the middle class are those who work primarily with their brains, the workers primarily with their hands.
Kellner, according to Richard Seymour, was a member of the Labour Party in the 1970s but soon swung behind Tony Blair in 1997. It’s a position that he’s maintained ever since. He’s also married to Baroness Ashton, a dyed-in-the-wool Blairite. YouGov also bungs money to Tory politicians. Caroline Dineage, for example, has accepted £280.00 from the company, while Philip Davies collected the cool sum of £1,030.00. Ipsos Mori has also slipped Tory MPs money and it seems as though there isn’t a single polling company that doesn’t do this. If there are any Labour MPs being paid by these companies, I haven’t managed to track them down yet.
Many political opinion polls are conducted as part of what is known to market researchers as an ‘omnibus survey’. The polls are often tacked onto the end of some survey about chocolate or soft drinks, or dropped into the middle of the survey on home insulation.
If polling companies want us to take their polls seriously, then perhaps they should tell us why they donate money to Tory MPs. They should also try and behave more self-reflexively. Say what you like, but I know what I’m getting from an Ashcroft poll; he’s a Tory donor and everyone knows it.
The main polling companies are members of the British Polling Council, which oversees standards in the industry. The founding members of this council are YouGov, Mori, NOP and ICM. The BPC was founded to establish best practice in the industry to ensure validity and reliability. Prior to the formation of the BPC, polling companies did as they pleased and there was little, if any, accountability. Even so, there are questions that need to be answered but will the BPC or the polling companies answer them or will they obfuscate?
When it comes to objectivity I’m with Hunter S Thompson, who wrote the following about ‘objective’ journalism.
“So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here–not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”
To adapt the Merovingian in The Matrix, objectivity is an illusion created between those with power and those without.
Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L.J.D. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press