Public Affairs: Beware polls telling you evident rubbish…

Polling is in fact an incredibly complex subject – the recent US Elections demonstrated this. You would have thought that going and asking someone what they think was straightforward. Far from it.

This “poll“, which is about as flawed as a poll possibly could be (but no doubt innocently so) is a perfect demonstration of this – but the same warning applies to any poll or survey. I have no idea who carried it out, and actually the pollsters themselves did a perfectly good job – but the questions they were asked to pose caused the entire poll to be utterly redundant. Rubbish in, rubbish out.

Firstly, you need to ask questions which are in fact viable. This poll, whose questions were apparently set by the “Conservative Party” (but I have no idea by whom or by which section of it) and encompassed “the east of Northern Ireland” asked:

Do you believe there should be an official opposition at Stormont, similar to Westminster or the Dail [sic]?

This is not a valid question. Northern Ireland has compulsory power-sharing because it is fundamentally socially divided along sectarian lines, so a straightforward majority/minority government/opposition system (which is what they have at “Westminster or the Dail”) is simply not an option.

Not only is the question illegitimate, but it also asks questions of the knowledge of the people who asked it – since it is an obvious impossibility to anyone with any knowledge and understanding of Northern Ireland. Do not trust evidence presented by people who do not understand the very people who are the target of the survey!

Another question asks: Several highly respected economic reports state that reducing Corporation Tax from 24% to about 12.5% will attract significant local and international business investment into NI and will create tens of thousands of jobs to [sic] NI over the next two decades. Would you accept a 2% reduction per annum in NI spending to pay for this?

This is the classic leading question. Firstly, there are of course other reports that suggest it would make no difference; secondly, the “2% per annum” is not defined (is it year-on-year or just once) and nor is “NI spending”; thirdly, it is not clarified as to whether this move would apply only to NI, or what the difference would be if it were at the same time applied, say, to Wales. Also, we do not in fact know what the actual cost would be, nor do we know what the political ramifications will be; and, importantly, we do not know if the move in NI would be matched by a similar move, say, in Wales, and what difference that would make.

So, rephrased, the question could read: “Several highly respected academic reports cast doubt on the assumption that reducing Corporation Tax from 24% to 12.5% would create any jobs at all and that it is, at best, a risk. Would you accept cutting public spending by the amount needed to pay for at least 8,000 nurses in order to take this risk?” – an equally legitimate question, but one which obviously would get a different answer!

Do not trust the answers to leading questions.

Another question asks: Do you think that the current way Northern Ireland’s First Minister and deputy [sic] determined [sic] should be carried out as per the original Belfast agreement in 1998, were [sic] the First Minister would come from the largest community (i.e Unionist or Nationalist), and not from the largest political party?

What on earth does this even mean?!

It is factually incorrect anyway. The “original agreement” had the First and deputy First Minister elected by the Assembly via cross-community vote.

It was in fact the St Andrews Agreement in 2006, not the “original agreement”, which determined that the largest party in the largest community designation would get the First Minister. A minor amendment to the subsequent legislation, however, essentially removed “in the largest community designation” and automatically gives it to the largest party (provided, effectively, that it fall within one of the two largest designations).

So, do not trust polls which are factually incorrect (far less still if they are grammatically incoherent).

The poll also claims: 68% of Catholics, if they lived in Great Britain, would vote Conservative.

Remind me, which party set the questions for the poll?!

Beware outliers – and ignore outright nonsense! Most of all, if you ask daft questions, don’t be surprised if you get daft answers.

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4 thoughts on “Public Affairs: Beware polls telling you evident rubbish…

  1. The Conservatives (the larger party) with their colleagues in Britian already lowered corporation tax by 2%, with near neglible effect in Northern Ireland in terms of private sector growth, that’s not to ignore the fact that the Republic have clearly gained a competive advantage through their corporation tax strategy. The Laffer curve attraction that low taxes actually bring in higher tax revenue does have some degree of validity, but we know it is only a second order effect after major public sector cuts or increased revenue generation elsewhere (tax, rates, social charges, public-private partnerships, efficiency savings etc.)

    My guess is that reports were done at a time the risk would have paid off, but indeed when the facts change you need to change your mind, the debate has opened in the Republic whether low corp tax is a cash cow or a sacred cow, by some.

    With regards to what the latter question actually means, I think they’re asking if say the Alliance (which feasibly may have a long shot chance of being the largest party) were the largest party should they be denied the opportunity to either rewrite the agreement or to govern. By extension, the real question they are asking is should the Conservatives who will not call themselves Unionists any more but will still act like a pro-union party become the largest party could they form their own coalitions. This is clear fantasist politics given the Conservatives present position in Northern Ireland, David Vance and Eammon McCann have a better chance of being first and deputy first minister.

    If Alliance became the largest party, they would have the choice to rewrite the agreement in some regard. Under the present system they would be forced into a cross community coalition anyway, should under reasonable assumption, two communities still remain. Under an opposition/government system they’d have manditory first choice on who to form a government with and would be forced into accommodating at least one unionist party and at least one nationalist. But what the Tories seem to be arguing is that under present rules, Alliance may not have either first or deputy first minister roles, which may be true, then again I don’t see it being impossible for Alliance to get the first ministry and share the deputy ministerial roles between a unionist and nationalist party.

    St Andrew obviously set the precedence for allowing the parties with the highest mandates to change the system, indeed some would argue that the UUP and the sDLP made their own changes (junior ministries) outside the GFA. I don’t see how Alliance would be discriminated against in this case, but I would think the Conservatives should focus on building their own vote.

    The final issue with regards to right wing Catholic voters in the East of Belfast choosing Conservative in Britian seems wishful thinking, given that the Conservatives truffle to win the Catholic vote in Britian anyway, 68% of English Catholics wouldn’t vote Conservative. Large sections where Northern Irish Catholic diaspora reside vote Labour, Ruth Kelly the last Northern Irish born Catholic cabinet minister was in the Labour Party, and most Catholics here generally vote Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance, Green, radical socialist and or Republican Party with a few votes going the way to unionist parties which are usually left of the Conservatives anyway.

    The conservatives see their opportunity here in middle class voters apparently targeting Catholics because they are not given a right wing alternative in the same way the Labour Party targets Left wing Protestants, however unless they truly understand the local ecosystem as to why local divides occur they will never make any progress creating focus groups.

  2. East of Northern Ireland even

  3. Henry Hill says:

    Agree with a lot of what you say, Ian, but not your indignation over the first question. There is no rule that the questions in polls need to be practicable.

    Regardless of whether or not the hardliners who NI’s political system is designed to appease would accept it, there is nothing wrong with polling to find out if people would *like* a normal, adversarial parliamentary set-up, even if only in theory. It is, in short, a perfectly “valid” question.

    The question on Corporation Tax is ridiculously leading and ill-defined, looks almost like an exam question for would-be pollsters about how not to do it.

    • Well, it is at best pointless. But it is at worst dangerous – hinting at an option which would actually take us back to the old Stormont as if a “return to the good old days” is a viable option. No doubt many would like such a return – but they should not for one second be encouraged to pursue it when, for good and important reasons, it is impossible.

      Why not simply ask “Would you prefer an Opposition, provided it maintains the cross-community government fundamental to the Agreements of 1998 and 2006?”

      I was trying to be subtle, but my point was that whoever set the question (and I doubt it was the polling company) *fundamentally* doesn’t understand Northern Ireland. Such people tend not to get very many votes in Northern Ireland. Just an observation!

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