The truth about the polling company behind those ‘Corbyn as unpopular as Trump’ headlines

Corbyn McCluskey BBC
Kerry-anne Mendoza

A new poll has found Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to be less popular in Britain than Donald Trump. We did some digging on the company behind the poll, and this is what we found.

The polling company

Between 1 and 15 March 2017, polling company GfK interviewed 1,938 individuals. The firm weighted participants to form a cross section of Britain. And their peers at Number Cruncher say GfK can be trusted to deliver accurate polling. But who are they?

This is the first time Gfk has conducted a UK political poll in 12 years. The Independent fired GfK (then known as NOP) mysteriously after the 2005 general election. The company’s board is a who’s who of international business; containing former employees of firms like IBM, Unilever, Accenture, Johnson and Johnson, and Proctor and Gamble.

The research director in charge is London School of Economics graduate Keiran Pedley. He spent three years in Washington-based firm PSB, which represents clients such as Coca Cola, Walmart and McDonald’s.

The problem with polls

Polls can be used to influence elections. One method used is called ‘push-polling’; whereby polling companies write questions in such a way as to ‘push’ the interviewee towards a response. The Canary and Channel 4 News have published whistleblower testimony and footage suggesting the Conservative Party used ‘push-polling’ as recently as 2016. For example, poll firm Return Marketing asked people this question in the run-up to the EU Referendum: “The EU costs Britain £350 million per week, how important is the cost of the EU?”

The £350m claim has been widely debunked as a eurosceptic myth. So why was it included as a fact in Return Marketing’s polling? Experts argue that it’s to influence the opinion of the respondents.

Second, pollsters are not neutral observers. They are lobbyists. As Kate Ackley of research firm Mellman Group writes:

They wield uncommon clout on Capitol Hill and possess just about every other quality a well-paying client wants in a lobbyist: the Member’s trust, political acumen and the power to persuade. They sometimes attain consigliere status with lawmakers, gaining entry to strategy meetings of the highest order. But the city’s legions of political pollsters are still not lobbyists – at least not as the law defines them.

The same is true in the UK.

Pollsters as lobbyists

Conservative commentator Peter Hitchens laid out the issue with polling, writing:

Polls are now the best way to influence public opinion, largely because they’re treated… as impartial oracles of the truth by most people who read them. As readers of the excellent political thrillers of Michael Dobbs (serialised on TV with the incomparable and much-missed Ian Richardson playing the ultra-cynical politician Francis Urqhart) will know, it’s not quite that simple. Dobbs has one of his characters say (roughly) “The thing you must realise about polls is that they are not devices for measuring public opinion – they are devices for influencing it”.

Pollsters are not independent. And their conclusions are not the neutral observations of independent researchers. More often than not, they are an exercise in political lobbying. This isn’t some shady conspiracy. And this form of influencing is a well-known reality of modern political life. All sides engage in it, and they’ve done so for many years. The responsibility rests with us to treat them as such.

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Featured image via Wikimedia

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