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Stephan Shakespeare

Stephan Shakespeare: Should an opinion poll affect the outcome of a critical vote in Parliament?

Stephan Shakespeare is a founder and global CEO of YouGov. FolloStephan on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-09-11 at 05.57.39A few weeks ago the British Prime Minister indicated to the American President that he would provide support for action against Syria - and recalled Parliament for approval. The vote went against him, and the course of history was at least slightly deflected: the military action did not take place when intended, and the President has himself gone on to seek broader approval before committing to action, creating a potentially important precedent for the future in this type of case (neither Clinton nor Obama sought Congressional approval for air strikes against Iraq in 1996 or 1998, in Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011).

David Cameron had expected to win the vote, if narrowly. All sorts of things might have affected the outcome - a YouGov opinion poll was widely credited with being prime among them. On August 28th, the day before the vote, the front page of The Sun read “Brits say no to war in Syria” and citing “the first poll on the new crisis”, showing a ratio of two to one against missile strikes.  The front page of The Times featured the same poll, saying that it “suggests that voters overwhelmingly oppose… the use of British missiles against missile sites inside Syria.”  It was also carried in the Daily Mail and The Independent , including data comparing the case made for the 2003 invasion of Iraq with the case for intervention in Syria.

On the morning before the Commons debate, the front page of The Times carried a new YouGov poll showing that “public opposition to military intervention has hardened in the 24 hours since No 10 confirmed it was considering a bombing strike.”  A spokesman for No 10 said: "The PM is acutely aware of the deep concerns in the country caused by what happened over Iraq. That's why we are committed to taking action to deal with this war crime – but taking action in the right way, proceeding on a consensual basis."

MPs voted 285-272 to reject any UK involvement in US-led strikes. In a statement following the decision Cameron said: “It is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the government will act accordingly.”
It is of course impossible to determine whether the poll significantly affected the outcome. I doubt very much that anyone who has deliberated on an issue and come firmly to conclusion A, then pronounces B when handed a survey result. But in cases such as these, someone who has not yet come to a firm conclusion, and is perhaps caught between two courses – for example, wanting to support a leadership proposal but not really believing in the cause - might very well be emboldened to stick with their caution.

Is it right that an opinion poll should have this effect? Burke of course argued that an MP should ignore public opinion, make up one’s own mind, and hope that events prove him right. Would we agree with that prescription in all cases? Would an MP who says, “When deciding how to vote in parliament, I always ignore the views of my constituents” be deemed wise or foolish?

It an absurdity to imagine that any MP makes up their minds without regard to the opinions of others. Should they only regard the views of their colleagues? Or of experts? Or of friends? We always make up our minds with consideration to the views of at least some other people. On occasion, might we not be influenced by the whole nation?

Some decisions require specialist knowledge and expert analysis. Others demand that the people influencing a decision are not those who narrowly benefit from it. We elect MPs to make difficult long-term decisions that we might be tempted to avoid when considering our short term concerns. But there is at least one case in a democracy where listening carefully to the views of the nation must be justified: when an issue has been fairly widely discussed in public, and where people have strong collective recent experiences to bring to bear – such as getting involved in military action in the Middle East.

So YouGov, in spite of receiving some criticism for publishing a poll with this effect, continues to believe that accurate and timely opinion research is an important part of the democratic process. That is why we have a partnership with the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at Cambridge University – to provide in-depth research on areas such as international relations. The next YouGov-Cambridge Forum takes place on Thursday and Friday at Magdalene College, and we will be releasing a wealth of new data on opinion not only from the UK but also the Middle East.


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