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Secret polling is a threat to our democracy

(Alamy)

3 min read

A few weeks ago, The Telegraph published a YouGov opinion poll forecasting a 1997-style electoral wipeout for the Conservatives. What shocked me about the poll wasn’t the prediction itself, but that it was anonymously funded.

This triggered my concern over the lack of transparency and regulation of opinion polls. We live in a strong democracy here in the United Kingdom, but opinion polls which are anonymously funded and set out specifically to influence politics one way or another are simply antidemocratic.

I wrote to the Electoral Commission chairman John Pullinger shortly after the poll was published to assess and review the need for fresh regulation.

I am pleased to have received wide, cross-party support in both Houses.

We still do not know who is behind the elusive organisation that funded the poll, a group called the Conservative Britain Alliance. It’s a huge failure that nobody – not YouGov nor The Telegraph – identified who was funding or steering the poll. 

They lack the courage to stand up and admit what they are doing. It is a case of fat wallets and no honour

I don’t know why these people want to stay anonymous. Who are they? My best guess is that they want to have their cake and eat it: support the government whilst also undermining it. And the agenda in this case is clear – to undermine and seemingly replace Rishi Sunak. The problem is they lack the courage to stand up and admit what they are doing. It is a case of fat wallets and no honour. 

These people are clearly not democrats. If taken up more widely by political parties and other organisations our democracy would suffer.   

This is particularly problematic when we have a number of elections taking place this year, starting with the mayoral elections in May. Opinion polls are a key aspect of political debate – if it turns out they aren’t properly protected from external influence, how can we be expected to trust what they are telling us? This subterfuge puts our whole democratic system at risk. Across the world people are desperate for a democratic society. We take ours for granted at our own peril. 

This case has shown that the polling world is not adequately equipped to cope with this form of politics and electioneering.  

Since raising these concerns, the Electoral Commission has responded to my complaint. At this early stage, it’s not yet clear exactly if it needs to change the regulation but it’s my belief that it is open to doing something. Indeed, there might not be any regulation in place that allows the Electoral Commission to do anything, in which case it will be up to the political parties to take action.

As legislators, we might need to change the regulation after the election and fortunately all political parties appear to be concerned. In the meantime, I hope that polling companies and the media will heed the mistakes of The Telegraph-YouGov poll and avoid undertaking something similar.  

What the Electoral Commission may have missed in its response is the question of rules in relation to funding. I am keen to look at this more carefully before I go back to them in relation to elements of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act.

If we stand by and do nothing, our strong and healthy democracy will fall into disrepute. If we let those concerned get away with it, then it throws the door open for any number of people to do the same thing. We cannot allow that to happen. 

Will they now come forward and end the uncertainty? 

 

Lord Hayward, Conservative peer and polling expert

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