What are the most important issues facing Britain in 2020?

How valid are Mori’s survey’s as an indicator of the social problems facing Britain today?

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Brexit, the NHS and Crime were the three most important issues facing Britain in 2019, according to a recent poll conducted by Mori.

The following percentages of people responded that the issues below were ‘important’:

  • The Common Market/Brexit/EU/Europe – 65%
  • NHS/Hospitals/Healthcare – 36%
  • Crime/ Law and Order/ Anti-social Behaviour – 22%
  • Education/ schools – 21%
  • Poverty/ Inequality – 17%
  • Housing – 15%
  • Pollution/ Environment – 15%
  • Economy – 15%
  • Lack of faith in politics/ politicians/ government – 15%
  • Immigration/ immigrants – 10%

The above results come from Ipsos Mori’s ‘issues’ index/ poll, which is carried out every month, but at time of writing the September results are most up to date published version.

These results are based on a sample of 1027 adults aged 18 or over and it asks respondents to basic questions:

Q1 – what is the most important issue facing Britain today?

Q2 – what are other important issues facing Britain today?

The above results are a combination of the responses to Q1 and Q2. As I understand it these are open questions and there is no prompting from the person administering the survey.  

* means less than 0.5% of people said this

Analysis of these results

It’s no surprise that Brexit came out on top as the main issue facing Britain in 2019. NB if you look back at previous polls in preceding months, the results are similar, so the end of year 2019 issue review will no doubt show something quite similar to this September poll when it’s published later in the year.

Brexit hasn’t ‘stolen’ the importance of other issues either – if you take a long look back, before Brexit was on the agenda, the percentages for the next most important issues other than Brexit were mostly around the 10-40%s.

What’s interesting is how few people think anything other than Brexit and the NHS are ‘issues’ at all – even the third most important issue, Crime etc. is only regarded as an ‘issue’ by 22% of the public, and the topic closest to my heart, and no doubt most other sociologists’ – poverty and inequality – is only seen as an issue by 17%, or around 1 in 6 of the population – it’s no surprise Labour had such a dismal 2019 election results based on this!

If people are taking this poll seriously, then the British public seem to be pretty upbeat about what’s occurring in the UK at the moment, seeing an absence of social problems?

The following ‘issues’ have been growing as concerns over recent years….

There are quite significant differences in results by age and social class – the environment and housing come out much higher for younger people and crime and immigration higher for older people. Concern over immigration is twice as high for the lower social classes as it is for the higher social classes. Check out the later part of report for more details.

I’m very surprised mental health isn’t in the list, perhaps people don’t regard this as a ‘social’ problem?

Are social issues the same as social problems?

Common sense tells me that when people say something like Brexit or Crime is ‘an important issue’, they are really saying that’s it’s a problem, or a potential problem – that is something that is doing harm to society and needs something doing about it.

However, this remains an assumption on my part. There are issues of subjectivity with the interpretation of the word ‘issues’, sort-of pun entirely intended.

If this is the case, and people are reading ‘social problems’ when they read issues, it’s worth noting how few people think there are problems in Britain.

A few thoughts on the methods involved with this poll

This is research on opinions at its most very basic – a basic open question survey with two questions and the responses coded into ‘said it was an important issue’ or not.

We do get some very clear results from this survey, but as mentioned above, these are very general results and there could be a whole range of different meanings and opinions behind them. 65% of people might think Brexit is an important issue/ problem that needs something doing about it, but there’s no indication here of why they think it’s important or what should be done about it!

There are some validity concerns over the way the researchers have grouped some of the issues – why lump the three ‘Brexit’ and ‘Europe’ issues together but not put ‘drugs’ with crime for example? And why not put all of the economic type issues into a category called ‘money’. Also, ‘ageing population’ could be combined with the NHS issue as the two are fundamentally related.

Possibly the ‘Brexit’ issue has been exaggerated because of invalid grouping of anything to do with Europe being put in one category?

I also think ‘crime’ could be broken down into different types of crime. It’s much more general compared to say ‘housing’ for example.

Conclusions

It will be interesting to see what happens to public opinion on social issues/ problems in 2020 now that ‘Brexit’ has kind of been resolved and we have a majority Tory government in place.

Hopefully World War Three won’t replace Brexit as the most significant issue facing Britain this year!

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Public Opinion on Labour’s Policies – Far from Value Consensus?

Some recent opinion polls really seem to suggest that the British population have very different political views, suggesting there really is no such thing as value consensus around key issues, as key Functionalist thinkers suggested many decades ago.

According to The Week (30 November 2019) the following rather large differences in opinion have emerged from political polling…

45% of Britons are in favour of Labour’s policy to nationalise the gas and electric companies, 29% are oppossed

56% support nationalising the rail network, but 22% oppose

54% of Britons support putting employees in a third of corporate board seats, while 21 are opposed.

However, according to a recent YouGov poll, there does seem to be value consensus around the idea of providing free broadband for all, at least the vast majority of people support it (just not the means to provide it for free!)

A broad value consensus?

The stats above are all from a recent YouGov poll, you can find out more details here.

Why Do Voting Opinion Polls Get it Wrong So Often?

Surveys which ask how people intend to vote in major elections seem to get it wrong more often than not, but why is this?

Taking the averages of all nine first and then final polls for the UK general election 2017, the predictions for the Conservatives show them down from 46% to 44%; and Labour up from 26% to 36%.

voting intention 2017 general election

The actual vote share following the result of the general election shows the Conservatives at 42% and Labour at 40% share of the vote.

2017 election result share of vote UK

Writing in The Guardian, David Lipsey notes that ‘The polls’ results in British general elections recently have not been impressive. They were rightish (in the sense of picking the right winner) in 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010. They were catastrophically wrong in 1992 and 2015. As they would pick the right winner by chance one time in two, an actual success rate of 67%, against success by pin of 50%, is not impressive.’

So why do the pollsters get it wrong so often?

Firstly, there is a plus or minus 2 or 3% statistical margin of error in a poll – so if a poll shows the Tories on 40% and Labour on 34%, this could mean that the real situation is Tory 43%, Labour 31% – a 12 point lead. Or it could mean both Tory and Labour are on 37%, neck and neck.

This is demonstrated by these handy diagrams from YouGov’s polling data on voting intentions during the run up to the 2017 UK general election…

Voting Intention 2017 Election 

Statistics Margin Error.png

Seat estimates 2017 General Election

Seat Estimates

Based on the above, taking into account margin for error, it is impossible to predict who would have won a higher proportion of the votes and more seats out of Labour and the Tories.

Secondly, the pollsters have no way of knowing whether they are interviewing a representative sample.

When approached by a pollster most voters refuse to answer and the pollster has very little idea whether these non-respondents are or are not differently inclined from those who do respond. In the trade, this is referred to as polling’s “dirty little secret”.

Thirdly, the link between demographic data and voting patterns is less clear today – it used to be possible to triangulate polling data with demographic data from previous election results, but voter de-alignment now means that such data is now less reliable as a source of triangulating the opinion polls survey data, meaning pollsters are more in the dark than ever.

Fourthly, a whole load of other factors affected people’s actual voting behaviour in this 2017 election and maybe the polls  failed to capture this?

David Cowley from the BBC notes that…. ‘it seems that whether people voted Leave or Remain in 2016’s European referendum played a significant part in whether they voted Conservative or Labour this time…. Did the 2017 campaign polls factor this sufficiently into the modelling of their data? If younger voters came out in bigger numbers, were the polls equipped to capture this, when all experience for many years has shown this age group recording the lowest turnout?’

So it would seem that voting-intention surveys have always had limited validity, and that, if anything, this validity problem is getting worse…. after years of over-estimating the number of Labour votes, they’ve now swung right back the other way to underestimating the popularity of Labour.

Having said that these polls are not entirely useless, they did still manage to predict that the Tories would win more votes and seats than Labour, but they just got the difference between them oh so very wrong.

The problem of obtaining representative samples (these days)

According to The Week (July 2017) – the main problem with polling these days is that finding representative samples is getting harder… When Gallup was polling, the response rate was 90%, in 2015, ICM had to call up 30 000 numbers just to get 2000 responses. And those who do respond are often too politically engaged to be representative.