Peter Robinson: Opinion polls matter, if questions are well-defined

People are deeply sceptical of opinion polls, especially when the outcome is at odds with their own views.

By Peter Robinson
Friday, 12th November 2021, 5:30 am
Peter Robinson  Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.
Peter Robinson Picture: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker.

Politicians publicly pay scant regard to poll findings while privately pouring over their every inflection. As each year passes, opinion polling inserts itself more and more into the political process to the extent that it now, for some, tends to shape opinion – or at least attempts to lead it – rather than merely registering it.

In some circumstances, this can generate dangerous and anti-democratic consequences.

I confess that I am a psephologist (I assure you it is quite legal among consenting adults). I have a fascination with electoral results.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

I study the shifts in public opinion and the fluctuation in support for those courageous enough to face public evaluation. It follows that I am intensely interested in opinion polls and more than curious about their reliability.

When I see a poll conducted in a reliable manner, I take notice. The number of people polled must be sufficiently large and representative, the right questions must be asked, the wording of the questions must not be manipulated in order to elicit a predetermined response, the questions must be asked in a neutral manner, and they must not be open to misinterpretation and they should be capable of capturing a clear opinion.

Which leads me towards some recent polling on issues relating to Northern Ireland.

There have been two recent polls. One was given significant coverage and inserted repeatedly into political commentary.

The reason was that it showed, absurdly in my view, that the DUP had less support than the UUP and even the TUV. Sections of the media were overjoyed at a result that was in tune with their own predisposed anti-DUP sentiments. That they were not stating facts did not disturb them.

The second and latest poll showed that the DUP was the largest unionist party and that the gap between the DUP and Sinn Fein was within the margin of error.

Even though any and every independent and intelligent observer would surely recognise that the University of Liverpool poll was the more reliable opinion poll it has only produced a small fraction of media interest in highlighting that the DUP is the only alternative to Sinn Fein dominance.

Having watched the republican triumphalism at their party conference, and their arrogance and smugness at the prospect of topping the “real poll” next May,

I am certain it will not be lost on unionists who are horrified at the thought of the mouthpieces for the republican movement becoming the main voice of Northern Ireland and the consequences that would flow from such a result.

As it is, Sir Jeffrey should be very pleased with the position of his party in the latest survey. A very small bounce will place the DUP, once again, as the largest party.

He has steadied the ship and demonstrated that the party has been revived and refreshed.

Members are already talking about his energy and willingness to get out to the constituencies and meet voters on the ground.

I know the trite answer when a pollster is shown to get it wrong by subsequent happenings. “That was a snapshot of where things stood at that particular moment in time. Attitudes change.”

Of course, over an appreciable period of time interrupted by mind-altering events this can and often does happen – but not overnight.

The University of Liverpool poll had some very detailed data on attitudes to the EU Protocol. Not all of it would be what I wanted to hear nor indeed what I pick up on my travels, but one thing is clear – the more well-defined the question, the more robust the result.

A single question very seldom accurately captures peoples’ opinions, and this poll asked a series of questions to gain an insight into people’s thinking.

But people are complex, and their opinions can be complicated. Thus, the poll found what might appear to be conflicting views about the protocol with respondents endorsing both the UK and EU proposals to deal with the crisis.

Nonetheless it was a valuable contribution to the discourse on the subject and politicians should study the data and take it into account.

What was not contradictory was the expression of support for remaining within the United Kingdom.

Those who wished to maintain the Union massively outweighed those who wanted to reduce our standard of living in a united Ireland.

In summary, I believe people accept that carefully conducted polling can be a beneficial and constructive instrument in a democracy, whereas a poll which isn’t so careful, not only demeans opinion polling but misleads the public and rather than measuring opinion can be used to manipulate it.

If you doubt me, why not carry out an opinion poll.