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2 January 2019

There’s something everyone has missed about polls and the People’s Vote

This poll showing Labour members back a People’s Vote is big news, but not for the reason you think.

By Stephen Bush

A survey of Labour Party members has confirmed what we already know: that most Labour activists want another European referendum.

That confirms what we’d expect, given what we know about the demographics of party membership regardless of party: which is that it tends to be better educated than the country as a whole, and that the more qualifications you have, the more likely you are to have voted Remain in 2016. Labour members also score highly for social liberalism, which in combination with a larger preponderance of qualifications means that we would expect Labour members to be supportive of the idea. It also broadly echoes polling conducted by the People’s Vote campaign.

In a way, it doesn’t matter, as the Labour Party’s policy position is now set, and no amount of opinion polls of the party membership will change that (who despite their pro-Europeanism have consistently opted to give Jeremy Corbyn a great deal of latitude to set Brexit policy as he sees fit). But it does tell us something very useful.  

The big and important difference is that this is polling conducted by the Economic and Social Research Council’s party members project, a three-year programme of academic research into who party members are and what motivates them. Their brief isn’t to advance a political argument but simply to find out more about the people who join political parties.

That’s particularly important as far as this question goes, precisely because it slightly changes the question they’ve asked. The People’s Vote campaign has tended to use deliberately loaded questions in order to get the most favourable response. That’s why a People’s Vote poll by YouGov in September 2018 found that 86 per cent of Labour members want another referendum. In contrast, the ERSC poll (also by YouGov) found that 72 per cent want another referendum, still a large number but obviously quite a bit smaller than that found by the People’s Vote campaign.

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Why does that matter? Well, because elections aren’t ever conducted in the spirit in which academics commission polls, or pollsters themselves conduct their voting intention surveys (which, remember, don’t make them very much money and exist solely as a prestige part of the brand to pull in lucrative work from a supermarket or whatever). No pollster would ever think that commissioning a poll saying “would you rather stay in the EU or spend £350m extra a week?” would be a good way of getting an honest answer to that particular question.

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But it’s the job of campaign groups to try to do something similar in real life to what the People’s Vote campaign is doing with its polls. As it stands, at the next election, the Conservative Party will want the question voters are asking when they vote to be “is Jeremy Corbyn a strong leader?” while Labour will want the question to be “is the British economy working for people like you?”. Neither of those questions is a neutral “how will you vote at the next election?” type question, which is part of why voting intention surveys can often give us the wrong results.

It’s still not clear what the question that the Remain side will want the next referendum to be about. We know that the ballot paper will be something like “accept the deal/stay in the European Union” and that any Leave campaign will want the question to be “should politicians tell you what to do?”

The form of words that the People’s Vote campaign use to gin up support for another vote is a useful campaigning technique to get another referendum – but it isn’t the same as having a message to win it. We can also say with certainty that while the People’s Vote will try to make as many people believe that the question is the one they are putting in their polls, Brexiteers will want a loaded question of their own: and the media and cultural advantages that Leave had in 2016 are still alive and kicking in 2018.

It should worry Remainers that even among such a pro-Remain electorate as the Labour Party membership, switching from a pro-People’s Vote frame even to a neutral one shaves 14 points off their support. The resumption of political hostilities in the event of an actual referendum might yet end up with a more emphatic version of the answer the United Kingdom arrived at in 2016.

Note: Pollster Peter Kellner had thoughts on this argument. You can read his response here.