Bishop of Derby: Opinion polls ‘more in the realm of entertainment than science’

“My opinion is that we should let the polling industry do its best. I would categorise it more in the realm of entertainment than science. It is helpful, people enjoy it and it is useful but we need a sense of proportion.” – Bishop of Derby, 18/6/15

On Thursday 18th June 2015 the Bishop of Derby, Rt Revd Alastair Redfern took part in a Lords debate tabled by Lord Lipsey, to ask the Government “whether they plan to regulate the opinion-polling industry.” He said:

Bishop of DerbyThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I want to look at opinion poll industry regulation in a general way, rather than focusing on a particular case, as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McColl, have done.

In the spirit of the Motion I am going to offer an opinion. My first point is about opinion itself. Opinion is, by definition, fragile and changeable. It is lite—that is L-I-T-E, for Hansard—and that is very different from attitudes and prejudices, which are firm and more long-standing. We live in a time of opinion, when people just tweet things without much thought—bang, out goes the view. Very few people now are paid-up members of political parties, unions or churches because they want to live in a freer world of opinion, not of attitudes and prejudices. That means that politicians and churches, but also pollsters, have to work a lot harder at trying to capture what is in our minds, because we live in this world of opinion. It means that opinion polls are inherently inadequate in giving an objective view, because they are not dealing with objective elements in people’s minds. We have to be very careful in trying to regulate something that we cannot control or weigh the expectations of very easily.

I want to look at the 2015 election, which seems to have raised a lot of questions about the polling industry. This illustrates my point about the nature of opinion and how fragile and shifting it always is. I invite noble Lords to think about the difference between being asked to answer a set series of questions and going into a particular context—a booth in a polling station—for a private moment of making a decision with a pencil and a piece of paper. They are very different moments of the mind, of engagement, of thoughtfulness. The attempt to correlate them by the opinion poll industry will therefore always be rough and inexact. We have to be careful about comparing and assuming a necessary correlation between the views expressed when there is a set series of questions and voting and acting privately in a particular moment.

Like religion, politics requires an extended conversation that helps opinion find its place in a bigger scenario. That is why good politics, like good religion, works through conversation. In theology, when we try to interpret the word or words, we practise what we call hermeneutics. Some of your Lordships will know that Hermes was the Greek messenger god—the god of travellers, because there is movement, and also the god of thieves, because there is sometimes destruction and disruption. Real meaning and values in human life come from conversation that is extended, set out and developed, and within which people have opinions. We are influenced by forces that are not easily measurable by one set of answers in any one moment, because we are influenced by our intuitions, feelings, hopes and fears. Those things do not fit into a person’s predetermined set of questions captured in a moment, which we have to answer in a way that is measurable alongside the answers of others. The material that the pollsters are dealing with is inherently unstable, developing and very difficult to capture.

Therefore, it was rather inaccurate when one of the commentators said that,

“the 2015 election was a collective failure for the British polling industry”.

It is enormously self-indulgent to think that. The 2015 national election and the difference from the polling industry was not a collective failure of the British polling industry. It was a victory for voters, free speech and free thinking, and for having the opportunity to be free and to make a decision in a moment that counts, and not being held to account by a predetermined set of questions that some pressure group or interested party has asked the voter to engage with—as the noble Lords, Lord Lipsey and Lord McColl, said—for their own advantage and benefit rather than for what the political process is all about. Sometimes we need to wait for freedom to be expressed and to emerge. We cannot capture it when it suits a particular group at a particular moment for a particular set of phone calls.

My opinion is that we should let the polling industry do its best. I would categorise it more in the realm of entertainment than science. It is helpful, people enjoy it and it is useful but we need a sense of proportion. I think it will always be a sideshow to how freedom operates and human beings coming to a mind and collectively expressing that.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Lord Bridges of Headley) (Con): [Extract] ….Regulation would threaten the debate and innovation on which polling depends. Polling is similar to that most dismal of sciences, economics. It was famously asked of the economics profession, why did they not see the crash coming? Yet despite this collective failure, no one has yet called for statutory regulation of economists—I do not want to put ideas in your Lordships’ heads. This is because we understand that the technical problems inherent in economic forecasting cannot simply be regulated away. We know that improvement will only come through intensive research, open debate and rethinking of old assumptions. I would argue that it is just the same with the science of public opinion polling—a point that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby spoke eloquently about….


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