Welsh attitudes to opinion polls need to change

Laurence Janta-Lipinski makes the case for tracking the views of the Welsh electorate

Over the past 30 years, there has been very little in the way of political polling in Wales. There are a number of reasons for this but, mainly, it appears be a lack of interest from a commercial perspective. That is not to say there was no interest in polling at all, just that there was little scope to conduct small pieces of cost-effective political research. Without clients, any potential for large scale political research in Wales was lost, depriving us of the kind of richness of data available in Britain as a whole.

With this in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising that YouGov took the plunge and developed, marketed and continues to supply a Welsh Omnibus survey. With this product, clients can pay for research on a per question basis, reaching 1,000 representative Welsh Adults within 48 hours. On the back of this service, there has been more political opinion research in Wales in the past 12 months than there was for three decades. This has allowed us to start building a rich stream of data in Wales which will hopefully continue into the future.

However, this does not tell the whole story. In our experience, the attitude towards polling in Wales is very different to that of the rest of Britain. We believe this needs to change if political polling is to thrive. In one conversation with a potential client we were informed that they would not be interested in polling on a certain topic as it could “upset the parties”. The best national opinion polling is not about pleasing or upsetting political parties, though it regularly does. Rather, it is about giving the public a voice to give their views on government policies.

At YouGov, our aim is to know “what the world thinks” – to provide a continuous stream of data so that companies, governments and institutions can better serve the people that sustain them. This is exactly why we believe in the value of tracking public opinion and reporting it as and when it changes. Vital to a democracy is the ability of its citizens to tell a government when they are pleased or angry, when they want changes or when they are happy for their government to carry on. At YouGov, we go to great lengths to perfect our methods to make sure that our samples represent the right proportions of men and women, young and old, and the political parties. Accurately gauging public opinion in this way and contributes a valuable voice to Welsh political discourse.

YouGov successfully predicted the outcome of the 2010 UK General Election in Wales with an average error of just 1.4 per cent. ITV Wales then commissioned YouGov for monthly polls leading up to the referendum and Assembly elections in March and May of this year. With the 1997 referendum ending in an almost 50/50 split, with Yes winning just 50.3 per cent of the vote, many expected the 2011 referendum to be a similar, tight contest.

Of course, YouGov’s polling in the months leading up to referendum showed something different. Even as far back as July 2010, when we were showing a 60/40 split to the Yes side, some believed that the No vote from 1997, whilst concerned with different issues, would not drop this low. However, the 40 per cent dropped even further over the coming months and, exactly as we had been predicting for almost a year, the Yes vote recorded a crushing victory over No.

Whilst our polls in the run up to the referendum remained consistent, the Assembly elections were proving to be a much more interesting story. For the best part of a year prior to the elections, our Assembly polling had been showing that if Labour did not get a majority, they would be very close. There was also the continuing story of the decline of the Liberal Democrats. In the aftermath of the General Election and the broken tuition fee pledge, like their colleagues in Westminster, the Welsh Lib Dems saw their support fall off the edge of a cliff. In August 2010, they were polling at just 10 per cent, half what they polled in May. They did not recover from this position, and indeed regularly fell into single figures for the regional vote.

In our final poll for ITV Wales, it was clear that Labour was going to be right on the edge of a majority. We knew it would be close but were still not sure whether Carwyn Jones would be able to lead a Labour Government without the need of a coalition partner, a position that was still unclear even as results were announced on the Friday following the election.

Traditionally, national polling has had a tendency to overstate Labour support and underestimate the Conservative vote. Whilst we got the story spot on with Labour on the cusp of a majority, our final Assembly figures appear to contain some of this bias and we are actively looking to put this right for future elections. There was however some anecdotal evidence suggesting a further reason which could have contributed to the Conservative’s excellent performance. Some claimed that opposition to AV amongst Conservative voters played a major role in motivating them to get out to the polls. We tested this theory in our first post-election poll, asking respondents whether they went to vote mainly in the AV referendum or for the Welsh Assembly election. Whilst the majority of voters for the four main parties all stated that they were motivated to vote in both elections, three times as many Conservative voters (16 per cent) went mainly for the AV election as those (5 per cent) who went mainly for the Assembly vote. Only Liberal Democrat supporters had as few people stating they were voting mainly for the Assembly elections.

While the past 18 months have been an exciting time for Welsh politics, with four polls, it does not mean that opinion polling should simply cease until the next set of elections. With Labour now looking to run a minority government, Welsh politics shows no signs of losing its excitement. How the Labour party copes with compromise and conflict will be crucial for their electoral success. All this can be tracked, analysed and built upon as the Assembly faces its changing circumstances.

There is also a real interest in the changing nature of devolution in Welsh politics. Whilst there appears to be no real appetite for independence amongst Welsh adults – just one in ten actually wants full independence right now – there are two important factors that could influence the devolution debate in Wales. Firstly, the additional powers gained in the referendum have given the Welsh Assembly a greater mandate to rule without Westminster interference and it will be vital for Carwyn Jones to prove that the faith the Welsh population showed in March was not unfounded.  It will be important to track what impact, if any, the additional powers have over ordinary people in Wales as well as indicating how well, or badly, the Assembly is working in light of these changes.

Secondly, there is the issue of Scottish independence which could potentially have an impact for Welsh feelings on devolution. Whilst there is much greater demand for independence in Scotland it would be foolish to assume that there is little appetite for constitutional changes in Wales. One in three Welsh adults want the Welsh Assembly to have more powers than it was granted in March this year. Should Scotland break from the rest of Britain, it would focus many Welsh minds on exactly how they see the future of their country. So, whilst an increased appetite for independence looks extremely unlikely, there will be important questions about the extent of devolution that people desire that polling can help to answer.

Laurence Janta-Lipinski is a Senior Political Researcher with YouGov political@yougov.com

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