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Your truth or theirs - the making of public opinion introduction

Updated Friday, 5th November 2010

A public form of political gossip, a way for politicians to test out public reaction to policies, an accurate prediction of how people will vote? Getting political opinion polling in perspective...

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Copyright The Open University


Copyright The Open University


Vox pops:
I think you should believe opinion polls sometimes but I think people can manipulate them in whatever way they want to. Especially politicians which are known for that anyway. 

Vox pops:
It's lovely to open a newspaper at home and be able to see what the public are feeling and you know what people are thinking, but at the same time it all depends on, you know, who’s been asked, where, when.

Vox pops:
They shape opinions, they massage opinions and I don’t think they are democratic.

Jeremy Vine (archive):
I show you a graph first of all these are the polls… 

Peter Snow (archive):
The swings suggested by the polls is a mere 3 per cent. Only a couple of seats.  

Mark Pack:
Opinion polls are sort of the public form of political gossip, you know, who’s up, who’s down, who’s doing well, who’s in, who’s out. And in the end politics is about who is the most popular with the public. 

Peter Riddell:
All politicians deny being led by polls. I mean if you ask a politician: “The poll shows you know, you’re doing disastrously, you’re 15 points behind”, or something like that, so: “Oh, I don’t pay any attention to the poll. The only poll that matters is on Polling Day.” Well, that’s baloney.

Mark Pack:
People often use opinion polls to test out: “Well if we said this or we took this line on a policy, or we changed our mind on something else, how would the public react?” 

That gets into quite tricky territory because to the extent the job of a politician is to decide what they believe in and try to persuade the public to believe in it.

Peter Riddle:
For newspaper and media outlets, they’re partly a marketing tool, because they can make headlines, they can get picked up by other papers. Also, it’s what they regard as part of their tool for covering politics.

Mark Pack:
The very fact of reporting that the public think something then makes the public more likely to think that. The classic example being levels of liberal democrat support in parliamentary by-elections, where very often, when the party support had begun to grow and therefore there will then be tangible signs of that, including sometimes constituency opinion polls, then more people support the party, and so you get this bandwagon effect that can roll and roll and roll.

Jacqui Smith:
My experience of going out and knocking on doors during election campaigns is that people will play back to you the opinion polls, not you know not directly but they will say things like, well of course you're behind at the moment, aren't you, and things like that. 

Vox pop:
If you hear that Gordon Brown is behind every day you're not likely, you know, to cast your vote for him - you think, well he’s a loser so what’s the point of me backing him? 

Archive voiceover:
And the winner is Nick Clegg, at least so say the post debate polls and even his political opponents.

Jeremy Vine (archive):
Suddenly they are pushing Labour into third place and it gets better for them. Amidst all the Clegg-mania, so called, they then start wrestling with the Conservatives for the first place here. 

Peter Riddell:
One of the problems with polls is to get them in perspective, to realize the difference between underlying trends and what might just be a temporary blip. And we saw that, classically, in the 2010 election, when there were instant polls, and it turned out that they did register quite accurately what people thought at the time. Nick Clegg’s ratings rose a lot, but it was almost like a reality TV show - when you’re actually asking people how they’d vote on Polling Day, it turned out different answers.

Jacqui Smith:
Interestingly, what you saw, is a bit of a conflation of what people's voting intentions were and who people thought had done well in the debates. People will need to be more sophisticated about whether or not what their polling is, do you think that X has done a good job on the television, rather than which way will you vote if the election is tomorrow.

Peter Riddell:
As a journalist, my own feeling has been very much that you’ve got to report polls responsibly… but it’s very difficult, sometimes, to say, actually this poll might be wrong or it may exaggerate it, let’s be cautious.

Mark Pack:
There are or have been occasions, several General Elections, even in my lifetime, let alone over a longer period of time, when the opinion polls have turned out to get public opinion badly wrong. So you have to remember that they’re not absolutely perfect, they are a degree art, as well a degree science.

Neil Kinnock (archive):
Comrades, well, alright!






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