Academics attack plans for opinion poll regulator

Lack of safeguards raises ‘fundamental issue of academic freedom’

June 21, 2015

Plans for a state-backed regulator to oversee opinion polling, launched by a Labour peer, risk “political censorship” of academic research, critics claim.

A private member’s bill on the establishment of a Political Opinion Polling Regulation Authority, put forward by Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, had its second reading in the House of Lords on 19 June.

The bill follows widespread criticism of the inaccuracy of opinion polls in the lead-up to the general election. Labour figures, in particular, have argued that by suggesting a closer race than was in fact the case, the polls helped the Conservatives make the issue of Labour and Scottish National Party relations in the event of a hung Parliament the main focus of pre-election debate.

Private members’ bills usually have slim chances of ever becoming law.

The British Polling Council has already announced an inquiry into the failings of the polls in the run-up to the election.

Lord Foulkes’ Regulation of opinion polling bill proposes that the new state-backed authority would “have responsibility for the making of rules for political opinion polling in the United Kingdom”.

This would include “specifying approved sampling methods” and “producing guidance on the wording of questions to be put to the public in a political opinion poll”, the bill says.

The authority – on which polling organisations, the media and political parties would be represented – would also decide whether the publication of polls was allowed “in such a period that the authority considers appropriate before the election or referendum to which they refer”.

Matthew Flinders, chair of the Political Studies Association and professor of politics at the University of Sheffield, said that the bill “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.”

Professor Flinders added that the bill “should not be considered, at least until after the findings of the British Polling Council Inquiry”.

Charles Pattie, convenor of EPOP and professor of geography at Sheffield, said: “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.”

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

Reflection of man in cracked mirror

To defend the values of reason from political attack we need to be more discriminating about the claims made in its name, says John Hendry

But the highest value UK spin-off companies mainly come from research-intensive universities, latest figures show