The BPC needs to embrace competitiveness

By on September 13, 2011 4:58 PM

A response to an article on by Nick Sparrow, former head of ICM and founder of the British Polling Council

In response to an article in Research Live, one of the gurus of British political polling and the driving force behind the creation of the British Polling Council in 2004, Nick Sparrow, asked ‘the elephant in the room’ question – are too many opinion polls damaging the political polling industry?

Based around a recent ‘crisis’ in Canadian political research, Mr Sparrow argues that political polling is essentially being cheapened and damaged by the plethora of polls from different companies. This has come to a head in Canada (as reported by Research Live) with the professional body of Canadian market research (MRIA) taking out a full page advert in a national newspaper in an attempt to ‘restore confidence’ in the industry.

The worry in Canada is, according to Mr Sparrow is, “… not simply that there are just too many polls; they are also said to suffer from a “combination of methodological problems, commercial pressures and an unhealthy relationship with the media””.Furthermore he goes on to ask whether this is not just a problem in Canada, “… the elephant in the room; the one that you would prefer I didn’t ask……….. How many of these criticisms could be levelled at the UK polling industry and journalists who report the findings?”

On the forefront, Mr Sparrow’s argument is hard to dispute. An industry that can, on any single day, generate a variety of often contradictory results gives ammunition to those who want to demean it. There are all too many people who either don’t understand methods used in opinion polling, or moreover want to manipulate results to fit their agenda. A plethora of polls with a range of results can easily be distorted or misconstrued. Furthermore, those members of the British Polling Council who strive to produce scientific, accurate opinion polls are more likely to be lost in a crowd with polls that may be produced with less rigour.

Another aspect of this debate, however, is skirted over by Mr Sparrow in his piece. And that is the competitiveness of the current market research industry and indeed the media themselves. Fleetingly he touches on this aspect quoting ‘pollsters’ saying that “”…There is so much competition that polls are given away free, in hopes the attendant publicity will boost business””. This, however, is the heart of the argument.

Right from start of the market research industry, political polling has not only been one of the great testing grounds for new ideas and techniques, but a way for agencies to make their name. The father of modern market research himself, George Gallup, using his new sampling techniques, predicted that Roosevelt would win the US Presidency in 1936 against received wisdom. Getting the result ‘right’ catapulted his company to prominence and gave him the opportunity to spend a lifetime developing research techniques as well as a big business.

Indeed, most of the well known research companies in Britain have made their name through political opinion polling. However, the majority do not make a great deal of money from running in house polls for the national dailies, with the vast bulk of their revenue still coming from their private clients. Having a high profile political poll certainly works to their advantage though.

Smaller agencies are often told after tenders that the only factor that could separate the offer was that the one of the bidders had a ‘trusted name’. More often than not, when that phrase is used, it is not hard to guess which agency might have secured the contract. In that sense, then, these mass media sponsored polls have always worked as a fantastic form of marketing for those who have that platform.

In the seven short years since the British Polling Council was founded, traditional news organisations have themselves seen their monopoly on news and comment gradually eroded, with the internet blowing open opportunities for a multitude of voices. And the new media are themselves vying for information that they can use to attract readership. It is unrealistic to think that new and small research companies are not going to try to exploit this situation, any more than the companies of the past published their polls in the media partly to make their name.

Marketing Means are unusual as a British Polling Council member as we do not have a contract with a daily newspaper. Nearly all of the other members do, or have done in the past. Other companies with results that might be freely available on the internet, or being given away free to media organisations, are not currently members, or even encouraged to be members. But they are not going to stop polling and whether we like it or not their results are going to be disseminated and have an impact on political discourse.

So if one of the driving forces of political research has always been the collaboration of the media and agencies that it makes sense for the British Polling Council to embrace the new companies. The organisation should take the lead, seek to expand its membership, and welcome the new companies that want to undertake polling. No one who is serious about research wants to see poor polling undermine what has become a vital part of an open democratic system. But one of the driving forces of improvements in polling, from Gallup onwards, has been competition from the bright young things.

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