Opinion

Opinion polls are an important cog in our democracy – but the only poll that counts is election day

While opinion polls have their uses, the only poll that really counts is on 4 July

A polling station sign hangs on a wire fence outside a building

Thousands across the UK are heading to the polls to elect their local representatives. Image: Paul Wilkinson/Flickr

After a hectic six weeks of campaigning the country is now just days away from heading to the ballot boxes to decide who will form the next government. Yet an estimated five million people are still unsure how they’ll vote, so it’s imperative that we all take the responsibility to encourage informed decisions and tackle misinformation in the run-up to 4 July.

This campaign period has thrown up challenges both old and new for democracy, not least a surge in deepfake content of politicians across social media, thanks to developments in generative AI. This is particularly worrying given recent Ofcom research which shows that almost two-thirds of people rely on online platforms for their news.

In the world of opinion polling, as well as the usual instances of parties or media outlets misusing research data – either consciously or not – to influence voters, we’ve also seen things complicated by multilevel regression and post-stratification (MRP) models. MRPs combine national survey findings with demographic data such as the census to predict voting outcomes in individual constituencies.

While they can provide a greater level of insight than an average, national poll, politicians, the public and journalists alike are still getting to grips with how they work and just how they can predict election results. Consequently, we’ve seen a range of bold claims from columnists and candidates – from a Labour “supermajority” to Conservative “extinction” and Reform UK declaring themselves the new “party of opposition”.

These kinds of sensational claims are fanning the flames of assertions that opinion polls hold undue influence over the democratic process. In reality, polls play a vital role in supporting our democracy, giving a voice to ordinary people, informing national debate on key issues, and encouraging voter turnout by raising political awareness.

However, we all have a role to play in managing the risks of polls’ potential to mislead and ensure that they support, rather than damage, our democratic process.

For campaigners, that means resisting the temptation to make unfounded claims as they desperately scramble for last-minute votes. Research shows that trust in politicians is at record lows – something that has likely been exacerbated over the past six weeks – and cynical attempts to mislead voters will only erode faith in democracy further.

We, the public, also need to take responsibility to ensure we aren’t taken in by rogue polls or headlines. Rule number one is to check the source and whether the pollster is accredited by a body such as the Market Research Society or British Polling Council and therefore held to robust standards.

That rule goes for journalists too, who should be making sure they provide people with accurate, reliable information based on sound, representative data, and avoiding overly simplistic statements which could misrepresent the facts.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that polls and models only capture a snapshot of public opinion at a given time – they’re not a crystal ball and can’t guarantee the outcome of elections. Any sweeping or definitive statements about the makeup of the next parliament based on current data should be treated with caution.

This is particularly true given the large number of undecided voters, which leaves the potential for significant swings in voting intentions in the coming days. It would be foolish for anyone to consider this election a foregone conclusion.

If people want to have their voices heard, then there is simply no substitute for turning up and casting their ballot on Thursday. After all, the only poll that really counts is on election day.

Jane Frost is CEO of the Market Research Society.

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