Belfast Telegraph

Opinion polls will always be needed to assist democratic debate before elections

By Bill White

The polling industry has taken a bit of a bashing over the past few months with the polls building up to UK general election ending up being out of kilter with the actual result.

However it should be said that in that election the polling was accurate in terms of Ukip, Greens, LibDems, and especially Scotland. Plus following the UK election the Southern Ireland polling companies did very well in terms of their forecasting of the recent Irish same-sex marriage referendum. So some credibility has been restored.

However some people say why should we have polls? But polls are needed to see what the issues are that matter to the public, at a point in time, and especially during the build-up to elections. How else can the public hear the views of their potential political representatives about the issues that matter to them - if we don't know the issues that matter to the voters, then how can the debate be meaningful.

After all, at an election we vote for a candidate, or candidates, and a political party. But why did the votes go that way - what will prompt the voters to vote for a particular candidate or party. Indeed did the voter vote for the candidate or party or a mixture of both? Polls fill the gaps of information that elections can't provide e.g. views on specific policies?, what are the male and female views on issues?, what do high-income voters think compared to lower-income voters?, what way will Protestants vote as compared to Catholics?, and so on and so forth.

The need for polling is even more clear with referendums. After all a referendum comes down to a straight Yes or No on an issue e.g. the forthcoming UK EU referendum. How are we, and particularly the various political groups involved in a referendum, going to ascertain what are the key issues that are going to influence voters without polling. In terms of the forthcoming UK EU referendum is it immigration, jobs, Brussels bureaucracy,...etc.? What do rural voters e.g. Farmers think about the EU compared to urban voters etc. Are younger people more in favour of the EU than older people etc.? Here in NI, are Nationalists more in favour of the EU than Unionists? etc.

A good example of a referendum without polling was the NI 1998 Good Friday agreement referendum - it came out 71% Yes, 28% No, - but Why?, what prompted that result? Did those 71% vote Yes because they were expecting immediate decommissioning of IRA arms?, was it just the hope of peace?, did views on policing play a part in voter decisions?, and crucially did a majority of Unionists vote Yes? Nobody knows the answers to any of these questions (and many others), and this left a huge gap in the ongoing 1998 Good Friday agreement debate as nobody had any real meaningful information on which to base their views.

That 1998 referendum was close to useless in terms of what it told us and this may have been a contributory factor as to why the Stormont institutions were so unstable during the following 5-7 years (the institutions collapsed several times during that period). The DUP were the main 'No' party at that time, and they rose to prominence as NI's leading party during that period after the 1998 Good Friday agreement. The DUP more or less disregarded the Good Friday agreement referendum saying it said nothing, and frankly they have a point. There was no pre-referendum, or indeed also no post-referendum polling, to say what the result actually meant. That lack of confidence in the 1998 referendum gave the DUP a momentum which they used to good advantage, and which the electorate rewarded in later years. It also gave the DUP the credibility to go for a renegotiation over the next 7 years i.e. what they called their 'fair deal' which (according to them) they eventually achieved. 

Without polls, an election or a referendum campaign would be like stumbling through a darkened room, with no sound, for the 3-4 weeks of the campaign - then the light goes on, a ballot paper is immediately put in front of you, and you're asked to decide your vote. How can you properly decide without information as to how other fellow voters are thinking, or what the trends are etc.? Independent polls will always be needed to assist democratic debate.

Bill White is Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk. 

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