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Public Opinion Polls (Prohibition At Election Times)

Volume 84: debated on Tuesday 22 October 1985

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5.15 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the holding of and publication of the results of opinion polls about voting intentions at times prior to general elections and by-elections for the House of Commons.
To try to help the House after the laborious points of order and everything else, I shall try to be as brief as possible and not deal extensively with market research opinion and so on.

All right hon. and hon. Members fully understand chat the only poll that matters finally in an election is the result of the votes counted at the ballot box. Many years ago that depended on the political parties' presentation of their policies. The electors listened to speeches on street corners, in parks or local halls and coverage by radio or other means had very little impact. But now, in 1985, with mass media coverage on the box in the corner of many homes, electors are easily persuaded by the announcement of the result of opinion polls.

Considerable sums of money are spent on the commissioning of those polls. We are all aware of the international code of practice that pollster organisations are obliged to follow. Nevertheless, the honesty, objectivity, efficiency and techniques used can result in the presentation of biased, manipulated results for partisan political purposes. Most hon. Members are well aware of many polls that predicted a totally different result from the actual result at the counting of the votes.

I refer in particular to the recent by-election at Brecon and Radnor. On the day of the election, one opinion poll gave the Labour candidate an 18 per cent. lead. That undoubtedly resulted in many known voters not voting, thinking that the candidate would be elected with a substantial majority. In fact, the alliance candidate won by 1·5 per cent.

I could give many more examples of similar results and predictions, such as one recent announcement that was not only a maverick but was absolute nonsense. It was bold enough to suggest to thinking, intelligent electors on 19 September that the alliance had a 9·5 per cent. lead over Labour. Surely that is proof enough that the Bill, with its objectives, is absolutely necessary.

Many countries ban opinion polls before elections— Portugal recently adopted legislation on similar lines. If we are to preserve the true democratic process of electing a Government by the majority accepting the presentation of political parties' policies, we must ensure that pollsters are not the deciding factor and that they are not allowed to sway electors to vote for a party the policies of which are not liked just to keep out another party that is liked even less. Tactical voting is encouraged by the present applied system. Until the electorate votes according to conscience, principle and the policies presented, uninfluenced by somewhat bizarre pollster predictions, we are allowing the franchise won for us after a considerable struggle by former generations to be lost to the fancies and favourites of the few large influential pollster organisations.

I conclude by hoping that those organisations will understand the real need for legislation. Only today I received a letter from the chairman of the Market Research Society, Mr. Peter Bartram, confirming discussions that I had with Phyllis Vangelder, Gordon Heald and himself welcoming the setting up of an all-party parliamentary working group to discuss matters of concern relating to the commissioning, execution and reporting of election polls.

I therefore urge all hon. Members to support my request for leave to bring in the Bill so that a fair, sound and practical solution is found for this extremely worrying problem.

5.20 pm

I oppose this Bill which has the same chance of reaching the statute book whether I got up or indeed whether the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) had got up. The Bill comes under the loose heading of finding cures for which there is no disease. It is a sour grapes Bill. If we look at the history we find it is quite simply that the Labour party was peeved that for once it had come top of an opinion poll —and commissioned the printing of a lot of newspapers with a lot of misleading headlines—and found at the end it had not won the election.

One has only to look at the identity of the person bringing it in, someone who lives not a million miles from Brecon and Radnor where we had such success and Labour had such failure, to see that the Bill is suggested by a whinger, an honourable whinger.

Were it ever to become an Act of Parliament it would be an instrument for suppression of the freedom of the press, suppression of professional opinion. It is an anti-free speech measure and an ineffective one because, given the way the Bill is proposed, only professional organisations will be barred from publishing, which means that if an amateur were to come up with findings there would be no way in which he could be stopped. The effect of the Bill would be rather like banning meteorologists from forecasting the weather a week before a garden party in case anyone might be put off from going. [Interruption.]

As I listened to the hon. Member for Ogmore, which is more than his hon. Friends seem to be doing to me, it appeared that he was against the publication of a technically devised, scientifically evolved opinion poll. If this were a Bill to gag MORI, that most inaccurate of opinion poll organisations, there might be a lukewarm argument in favour of it, but I should still oppose it because it is right for anyone who comes to a finding to have the right to publish that finding. We on these Benches have more respect for the virtue and responsibility of the electorate than to believe they are going to be vastly moved by an opinion poll, inaccurate as opinion polls have been found to be over the years.

In 1967 a Speaker's conference suggested that opinion polls be barred from publication for 72 hours before an election. The Labour Government that year very properly threw out that recommendation. In 1969 in West Germany legislation was brought in making it illegal to publish the results of opinion polls. The Times of London conducted a survey in West Germany and published it, and it was reported in the West German newspapers in their foreign affairs pages. That is what happens when you bring in legislation which is as impractical as that was.

This Bill would charter amateurs and would make illegal the professional findings of organisations which have spent much money and time trying to find a solution. If it were accepted it would be the precursor of a whole range of Labour legislation to ban what Labour does not like to hear. Anyone who believes in the freedom of the press, must oppose this Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 124, Noes 128.

Division No. 294]

[5.24 pm


Adley, RobertJones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Anderson, DonaldKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Archer, Rt Hon PeterLambie, David
Ashley, Rt Hon JackLamond, James
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Leighton, Ronald
Barnett, GuyLloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Beckett, Mrs MargaretLofthouse, Geoffrey
Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)Lord, Michael
Bermingham, GeraldLoyden, Edward
Bidwell, SydneyMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
Boyes, RolandMcNamara, Kevin
Bray, Dr JeremyMcQuarrie, Albert
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)McWilliam, John
Buck, Sir AntonyMadden, Max
Caborn, RichardMarek, Dr John
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Clark, Dr David (S Shields)Martin, Michael
Clarke, ThomasMason, Rt Hon Roy
Clay, RobertMaxton, John
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.)Maynard, Miss Joan
Cohen, HarryMeacher, Michael
Coleman, DonaldMichie, William
Conlan, BernardMontgomery, Sir Fergus
Conway, DerekMorris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)
Corbyn, JeremyOakes, Rt Hon Gordon
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)O'Brien, William
Crowther, StanOttaway, Richard
Cunliffe, LawrencePage, Richard (Herts SW)
Dalyell, TamPark, George
Davies, Ronald (Caerphilly)Patchett, Terry
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge H'l)Pavitt, Laurie
Deakins, EricPike, Peter
Dormand, JackPowell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Douglas, DickPrescott, John
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.Radice, Giles
Dykes, HughRaffan, Keith
Eadie, AlexRedmond, M.
Eastham, KenRichardson, Ms Jo
Edwards, Bob (W'h'mpt'n SE)Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Evans, John (St. Helens N)Rooker, J. W.
Fields, T. (L'pool Broad Gn)Rowlands, Ted
Fisher, MarkSheerman, Barry
Flannery, MartinSkinner, Dennis
Forrester, JohnSmith, C.(Isl'ton S & F'bury)
Foster, DerekSnape, Peter
Foulkes, GeorgeSoley, Clive
Godman, Dr NormanSpearing, Nigel
Golding, JohnStewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)
Greenway, HarryStraw, Jack
Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)Thorne, Stan (Preston)
Hamilton, James (M'well N)Tinn, James
Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Torney, Tom
Hardy, PeterWalker, Bill (T'side N)
Harman, Ms HarrietWardell, Gareth (Gower)
Harrison, Rt Hon WalterWareing, Robert
Heffer, Eric S.Weetch, Ken
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)Welsh, Michael
Home Robertson, JohnWilson, Gordon
Hoyle, DouglasWoodall, Alec
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Roy (Newport East)Tellers for the Ayes:
Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)Mr. Don Dixon and Mr. Frank Haynes.
Hunter, Andrew
Jessel, Toby


Aitken, JonathanLatham, Michael
Ashdown, PaddyLawler, Geoffrey
Aspinwall, JackLawrence, Ivan
Atkinson, David (B'm'th E).Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Stamf'd)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)Lightbown, David
Batiste, SpencerMacfarlane, Neil
Beaumont-Dark, AnthonyMacKay, Andrew (Berkshire)
Beggs, RoyMaclennan, Robert
Beith, A. J.McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)
Bevan, David GilroyMeadowcroft, Michael
Biggs-Davison, Sir JohnMiller, Hal (B'grove)
Blackburn, JohnMills, Iain (Meriden)
Bowden, A. (Brighton K'to'n)Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Braine, Rt Hon Sir BernardMorris, M. (N'hampton, S)
Brown, M, (Brigg & Cl'thpes)Moynihan, Hon C.
Bruce, MalcolmMurphy, Christopher
Budgen, NickNelson, Anthony
Carlile, Alexander (Montg'y)Nicholls, Patrick
Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (W'ton S)Page, Sir John (Harrow W)
Cash, WilliamParris, Matthew
Chapman, SydneyPawsey, James
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)Penhaligon, David
Cockeram, EricPercival, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Colvin, MichaelPowell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Coombs, SimonPowell, William (Corby)
Corrie, JohnPowley, John
Currie, Mrs EdwinaPrice, Sir David
Dickens, GeoffreyProctor, K. Harvey
Dicks, TerryRathbone, Tim
Dover, DenRoe, Mrs Marion
Evennett, DavidRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Farr, Sir JohnRossi, Sir Hugh
Fookes, Miss JanetRost, Peter
Forth, EricRowe, Andrew
Fox, MarcusSackville, Hon Thomas
Franks, CecilSheldon, Rt Hon R.
Freud, ClementSilvester, Fred
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Soames, Hon Nicholas
Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)Speed, Keith
Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnSpeller, Tony
Glyn, Dr AlanSpence, John
Gower, Sir RaymondStanbrook, Ivor
Grant, Sir AnthonyStern, Michael
Gregory, ConalStewart, Andrew (Sherwood)
Griffiths, Sir EldonSumberg, David
Grist, IanTapsell, Sir Peter
Ground, PatrickTaylor, John (Solihull)
Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Harris, DavidThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Hayes, J.Thurnham, Peter
Heathcoat-Amory, DavidTownend, John (Bridlington)
Hickmet, RichardTownsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Hill, JamesWainwright, R.
Hind, KennethWallace, James
Holt, RichardWarren, Kenneth
Howells, GeraintWatson, John
Hubbard-Miles, PeterWells, Bowen (Hertford)
Johnston, Sir RussellWells, Sir John (Maidstone)
Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)Wigley, Dafydd
Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineWood, Timothy
Kennedy, CharlesWrigglesworth, Ian
King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Kirkwood, ArchyTellers for the Noes:
Knight, Greg (Derby N)Mr. David Alton and Mr. Rob Hayward.
Knowles, Michael

Question accordingly negatived.