Plugging an information gap

Michael Haggett argues we need more regular opinion polling on Welsh issues

One thing I’ve particularly missed over the past few months has been the monthly opinion poll by YouGov commissioned by ITV Wales. Of course I can understand why ITV decided not to keep it up. The referendum on primary lawmaking powers and the Assembly elections were big events in the Welsh political calendar and they were enough to justify a month-by-month analysis of political opinion in the lead up period. But as a political junkie, I have to say that I’m suffering withdrawal symptoms and am in desperate need of a regular fix. I’d like to think I’m not alone.

It’s probably fair to say that there is a general consensus that Wales is not as well served as it could be in terms of either informing or measuring public opinion on social and political issues. From this report a few weeks ago, it seems likely that the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee will launch an inquiry into the state of the Welsh media in September. This is long overdue and badly needed.

In this respect, it’s worth noting that it is newspapers that are largely responsible for commissioning opinion polls in the UK as a whole. However, in Wales — probably because we do not have a strong print media of our own — the broadcast media have had to step in to fill the gap. It was good while it lasted, and if it had proved to be sustainable on a long-term basis there wouldn’t now be a problem. But it wasn’t sustainable. Therefore we need to look seriously at other ways of filling that gap.

Over the past few years I’ve been following the situation in Catalonia and Euskadi, and these two countries provide us with examples of how this problem could be solved.

For example the Generalitat, the Government of Catalunya, has set up the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, which conducts a comprehensive survey of public opinion four times each year as the Baròmetre d’Opinió Política. The sample size is 2,500 and the survey covers a wide range of socio-political questions including what issues people consider most important, what media they use to obtain information, and their opinions of political parties. Euskadi produces a similar Eusko Barometro, but twice a year and with a sample size of 1,200. I particularly like the Catalan version, and would recommend that people look through the latest survey to see the range of questions asked. It is much more than, “If there were an election tomorrow, who would you vote for?” Cut and paste the text from the pdf into Google Translate if any of the questions are unclear. That’s what I do.

There is no reason why the Welsh Government should not use public money to set up something similar in Wales. It would serve a number of purposes: it would give everybody interested in politics and public policy a much better idea of how people in Wales see certain issues; it would help both political parties and other organizations to formulate better policies that are more relevant to what people in Wales want; and it would help stimulate a more informed public debate in the media.

Political debate in Wales is too shallow, often consisting of assertions made without any real grounds for support followed by knee-jerk reactions from all the usual suspects. Our media in Wales might well be weak, but perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that we’ve only got the media that our current level of public debate and involvement deserves. How can we expect our level of public debate to become more mature or our national media to grow stronger without giving them something much more solid to feed on?

Michael Haggett blogs regularly on Welsh matters here

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