Private Members' Bill on Political Polling is a threat to academic freedom according to UK politics experts
19 June 2015
A new Private Members’ Bill which proposes the establishment of a Political Opinion Polling Regulation Authority is being opposed by the Political Studies Association (PSA), the UK’s leading learned society for politics academics.
The bill, which is being sponsored by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, is set to have its second reading in the House of Lords today (Friday, 19th of June 2015).
If passed, the new Authority would have the responsibility for regulating any poll, survey or inquiry designed to measure the public’s intentions with regard to voting in any local authority or parliamentary elections held within the United Kingdom, including any elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the National Assembly for Wales. Any polls, which intend to measure the public’s voting intentions in a referendum held within the United Kingdom, would also be subject to regulation.
The bill is a threat to the academic freedom of its members, according to the Political Studies Association, as it would also give the Authority the freedom to make strict rules for political opinion polling in the United Kingdom, which could have a negative effect on the methods used to carry out academic survey research.
Professor Matthew Flinders, Chair of the Political Studies Association, said:
“Lord Foulkes’ Private Members’ Bill on the regulation of Political Polling in the UK is a worrying development for our members, many of whom dedicate their careers to researching public opinion and elections. The important work done by the likes of the British Election Study and our own EPOP (Elections, Public Opinion and Parties) Specialist Group would be seriously disrupted if they were forced to adhere to rules of sampling and question wording laid down by the authority, as this bill proposes”.
“The PSA feels that the bill is ill-advised and is being unnecessarily rushed through. It should not be considered at least until after the findings of the British Polling Council Inquiry.”
Professor Charles Pattie, convenor of EPOP, a research group within the Political Studies Association that studies elections and public opinion said:
“This bill looks to me like the social research equivalent of the Dangerous Dogs Act - an impulsive piece of legislation aiming to tackle a non-issue, but with the very real potential for seriously detrimental and counter-productive effects once in operation.”
“There's a fundamental issue of academic freedom here. The bill seems to lack safeguards to prevent someone on the Authority vetoing or substantially rewording polling questions on issues they deem unhelpful or awkward. And as the political parties are to be represented on the proposed Authority, that raises deeply worrying risks of political censorship of academic research into elections, parties and politics. In this case, it isn’t just the academic community that would be affected if there is censorship of poll questions by the parties through the Authority but the general public too”
Many of the PSA’s polling experts were familiar faces in the media as part of the 2015 General Election coverage. Six of the experts known as the “exit poll eight”, the polling team led by Professor John Curtice who came up with the BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll on the night of May the 7th, are influential members of the Association.