In April 2018, the House of Lords Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media published a report on polling in the UK. The committee was formed specifically to produce this report and it then disbanded. In 2020, the House of Lords Liaison Committee carried out a follow-up inquiry and published a report entitled ‘The politics of polling: An update’ on 21 December 2020. The House of Lords is due to debate this follow-up report on 19 May 2022.

1. House of Lords Committee on Political Polling and Digital Media, 2018

1.1 Findings of the report

The 2018 ad hoc committee report examined issues such as polling methods and accuracy, the regulation of political opinion polling and social and digital media coverage of polling. Lord Lipsey (Labour, though unaffiliated at the time of the report), the chair of the committee, stated that it was unlike most parliamentary committees as it did not seek to produce a set of recommendations to government for changes in policy and the law.

Instead, Lord Lipsey said the committee investigated questions such as whether polling remained “fit for purpose”. In particular, the committee examined concerns that arose from what it called the “considerable impact” of polls on politics, combined with their recent inaccuracy. The committee said this gave rise to a “a significant risk that future elections will be affected by misleading information, potentially distorting the democratic process”. For example, it described the 2015 general election where it said the “dominant narrative”, resulting from the polls, was that a coalition was the most likely outcome (when in fact the election delivered a Conservative majority). The committee quoted evidence that this influenced party strategies and media coverage and ultimately may have affected the result itself.

The committee also described other “collective failures” of the polling industry, including incorrect forecasts of the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election.

In response to these concerns, the committee considered whether there should be a ban on polling in the run-up to elections. However, it rejected this idea for practical reasons, for example that polls could be carried out anyway from overseas. It also rejected statutory regulation of polling, which it said might inhibit innovation in the industry and could threaten freedom of speech. Yet, the committee also suggested that, if polls continue to be inaccurate and if the reporting of polls misled “public and political discourse”, these options should be revisited.

The committee also heard evidence that it was becoming harder for polls to estimate political opinion accurately. The reasons for this included that it was becoming more difficult to persuade people to take part in polls and that the electorate was becoming more volatile. In addition, pollsters described shifts in demographic predictors of voting behaviour. For example, they said that social class was now a less good predictor of voting intention than previously, while education and age had become more important.

The committee’s other findings and recommendations included:

  • Many of the issues around polls arise because media coverage of polls does not always accurately reflect the results of those polls; for example, not explaining the relevant margins of error. The committee said the British Polling Council (BPC)—an association of polling companies that seeks to uphold standards of disclosure around survey results—and other organisations should develop further guidance for the media on reporting polls.
  • The oversight of polling in the UK should be overhauled. The report said at the time oversight was “fragmented and disjointed”. It recommended enhanced roles for both the BPC and the Electoral Commission; for example, that the commission should publish the sources of funding of each poll during an election period. The committee also urged greater coordination with media regulators such as Ofcom, the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) and the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
  • The internet and digital media have brought new opportunities and challenges for polling. The committee said this represented “a very significant threat to our democratic processes”. It called for further action to understand the impact of digital media on politics and how regulators and polling companies should respond.
  • Online campaign material should, like printed equivalents, be required to include an imprint stating who has published it.

1.2 Responses to the 2018 report

The government’s response to the ad hoc committee’s report rejected an enhanced role for the Electoral Commission, arguing that polling should be self-regulated to reduce bureaucracy and costs. It also said that the government was considering ways to tackle online “manipulation” of political debate, and discussed online misinformation more generally. For example, it referred to the government’s ‘digital charter’, which it described as “a rolling programme of work to agree norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice”.

The BPC also issued a response to the committee’s report. It welcomed the fact that the committee did not recommend a ban on opinion polls in the run-up to elections. However, it acknowledged that the polling industry has a responsibility to promote best practice. As such, the BPC agreed to prepare guidance and training for journalists in the reporting of polls. It also committed to a review of the conduct of polls after each election or major referendum.

1.3 House of Lords debate on the report—July 2018

The House of Lords debated the ad hoc committee’s report on 3 July 2018. In his opening remarks, Lord Lipsey said that “internationally, there is not much evidence of a decline in polling accuracy over the years”. However, he argued that there were reasons to be cautious about trusting polls. He said one of these was that polling was getting more difficult, for example because response rates have fallen, creating a bias in respondents towards those interested in politics.

Responding to the debate, then minister at the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Lord Ashton of Hyde, stated that the government would not comment on the detail of the recommendations. He said ministers would “continue to support the independent self-regulation of polling by the BPC and judge that this model is most effective at addressing the risks”. However, he did commit to a consultation to consider how digital imprints could be included in online campaign material.

2. Liaison Committee report, 2020

The Liaison Committee’s 2020 report welcomed the fact that polls in the 2019 general election were more accurate than in the previous two general elections and the EU referendum. The committee also observed that polling companies were altering their methodologies to reflect the changes in demographic predictors of voting described above.

In addition, the committee discussed the role of the BPC in more detail, following the 2018 committee’s recommendation that its remit be expanded, and concluded that this remained a “matter for active debate”. It quoted a letter submitted in evidence from the BPC arguing against expanding its own role. For example, the BPC said it should not become an “advice centre” because polling companies can have legitimate disagreements about methodology. The BPC also rejected the suggestion that its members should be obliged to disclose who funded each poll, saying it is often simply the polling company from its own resources.

However, the Liaison Committee’s report also described how BPC had committed to being a more “active” body within its existing remit. For example, consistent with its response to the 2018 ad hoc committee, in October 2020 the BPC published a short guide for journalists on how to report polls. The BPC has also issued advice to its members on the implications of the Financial Conduct Authority guidance on polls and market abuse.

In evidence to the committee, Professor Sir John Curtice, president of the BPC, argued that regulating the reporting of polls, rather than the polls themselves, should fall to media regulators, such as Ofcom, or to the Market Research Society (MRS). The MRS is the UK professional body for market researchers and operates a code of conduct that sets standards for its members working in market, social and opinion research. It also operates a disciplinary system to consider complaints against members.

The Liaison Committee reported that the MRS has produced range of resources for journalists reporting on opinion polls. The committee described both the MRS material and the BPC guide for journalists as “excellent”.

Professor Curtice also said that the BPC and MRS are also working with the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) to produce a module on the reporting of opinion polls. He hoped this would be included as an option in courses run by the NCTJ.

Looking beyond the UK and lessons for the interpretation of polling data, the committee described the performance of opinion polls in the 2020 US presidential election as “disappointing”. The committee said it expected these “failings” to be explored by the American Association for Public Opinion Research, following which it expected the British polling industry to “consider in depth the implications of this failure for British polling”.

At the time of writing, no formal responses to the Liaison Committee’s 2020 report have been published.

3. Developments since the Liaison Committee’s report

The American Association for Public Opinion Research has published its evaluation of the 2020 US presidential election. The association found that polling error in the election was the highest in 40 years for the national popular vote and tended to overstate the lead held by the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, by around four to five percentage points. Examining why this was the case, the association ruled out a number of factors, such as a failure to weight by education level and a reluctance of Trump supporters to reveal their preference. Overall, the association said it was “impossible” to conclusively identify the source of the error. However, it did put forward a number of possible factors, such as the polls incorrectly accounting for new voters (in other words, whether the proportion of new voters in 2020 in polling samples matched the proportion of actual new voters). In relation to the Liaison Committee’s recommendation, there does not appear to have been any published analysis of the implications of these findings for the British polling industry.

The Elections Act 2022, which received royal assent on 28 April 2022, contained a provision to ensure that online campaign material included a digital imprint that tells voters who produced it.

In relation to online misinformation more generally, the government launched an online media literacy strategy in July 2021. It aims to increase skills amongst teachers, library workers, youth workers and carers. It also established a cross-sector taskforce to consider collective action in the area. In addition, the Online Safety Bill was introduced to the House of Commons on 17 March 2022. It aims to increase online protections while safeguarding freedom of expression. For example, it contains provisions to ensure internet platforms remove illegal material and protect young people from legal, but harmful, content. The bill received its second reading on 19 April 2022 and was then carried over into the 2022–23 session.

4. Previous private member’s bills

In January 2020, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour) introduced a private member’s bill that would have made provision for a regulator for political opinion polling in the UK. The regulator would have had powers such as specifying approved sampling methods, producing guidance on the wording of questions and overseeing publication of polls results. The bill did not receive a second reading. A previous bill with similar provisions in the 2015–16 session completed its passage through the House of Lords but fell before it received a second reading in the House of Commons.

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Cover image by Andreas Breitling on Pixabay.