UK Politics

Should polling be banned before an election?

David Cameron during the 2015 election campaign Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption David Cameron confounded the expectations of the polls at the 2015 election

The political implications of the polling errors at the 2015 general election were quite profound.

The six-week campaign was dominated by 92 voting intention polls, very few of which came anywhere near the actual outcome of a Conservative victory.

The fact that most polls suggested a hung parliament shaped the entire campaign.

Detailed interrogation of party policies took a back seat to endless discussion about who would go into coalition with whom.

And the final weeks before polling day were so dominated by talk about the SNP that one could have been forgiven for thinking it was a Holyrood election rather than one for Westminster.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Labour's poor performance came as a shock to the party

Should we cut through all this and simply ban the publication of opinion polls during election campaigns?

Pollsters object that, in the event of a ban, privately commissioned polls would be commissioned and their findings published abroad and then reported in the UK media. It would be virtually impossible to suppress them in this age of the internet.

A reasonable point: but does it invalidate the argument that election polls should be banned?

A 2012 international study conducted by the University of Hong Kong received replies from 83 countries when asked whether they operated any blackout period for polls during election campaigns.

Of these, 38 countries reported bans on the publication of pre-election polls in one form or another.

The list included Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, Greece, Mexico, Norway, Poland and Venezuela. In France, election polls are banned on polling day and the day before.

It is difficult to characterise the list as comprising countries where democracy is fragile and where authoritarian regimes prevail.

So, many mature democracies find no problem with restricting pre-election polls.

More debate

Would our own politics be any the poorer if such a ban were introduced?

In the absence of obsessive interest in the party horse race, might we discuss important subjects such as what the next government proposes to do for five years: the state of the economy, housing, the environment, schools and universities and the National Health Service?

I find the prospect very enticing.

However, if we ban the polls we could also lose the information they provide that is over and beyond simple voting intention, not least the priorities expressed by potential voters.

Polls contain very rich data about voter attitudes that the media often does not report.

But that suggests the media should sort itself out rather than Parliament legislating to cut off the supply.

There is also the argument that polls, with all their shortcomings, are far better than the alternatives we would be left with in the event of their being banned.

Would our news-hungry media fill the gap with leaks of "private" polls commissioned by political parties, ostensibly for their own use?

Or worse still, would every election campaign be splattered with reports of "sensational" canvass returns released by parties showing that they were sweeping the country in this election?

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Votes: The only thing that actually counts

Rumour and spin do not appear to be particularly attractive alternatives to opinion polls.

For my part, I am not persuaded that polls should be banned during election campaigns.

However, I think the pollsters are on a short leash: their dreadful performance in 2015 and the damaging role they played in misdirecting the entire six weeks of the campaign have shaken public confidence quite severely.

If they cannot restore that public confidence quickly they will find themselves bereft of friends and supporters should the appetite grow for curtailing their activities during crucial election campaigns.

Additional research by Chris Davies.

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