British Polling Council Introduces New Rule on Uncertainty Attached to Polls

The British Polling Council announces today that it has introduced a new requirement on its members when reporting estimates of vote intention. This requirement is an obligation to publish a statement of the level of uncertainty that has historically been associated with polls of voting intention.

The statement reads as follows:

‘All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error. On the basis of the historical record of the polls at recent general elections, there is a 9 in 10 chance that the true value of a party’s support lies within 4 points of the estimates provided by this poll, and a 2 in 3 chance that they lie within 2 points.’

The statement has been developed following an analysis of the performance of the final polls at every general election since 2001. That analysis revealed that 90% of the estimates of a party’s share of the vote in the final polls were within four points of the eventual true result, while two-thirds were within two points.

Hitherto, it has often been noted that, according to statistical theory, there is a 95% chance that in a poll of a thousand people the true value of a party’s share of the vote lies within three points of the poll’s estimate. However, this statement refers solely to the error that may be occasioned by the chance variation to which all sample surveys are subject. It does not take into account any of the other many possible sources of uncertainty in a poll. The new BPC statement attempts to reflect all of the sources of uncertainty that practical experience suggests is associated with polling in Britain.

The statement is intended to discourage the media and others from reporting small changes in a party’s support – or variation between pollsters – as firm evidence of a significant change in its popularity.

The new BPC rule has been introduced in response to recommendation 11 of the Inquiry into the 2015 British general election polls that was chaired by Prof. Patrick Sturgis. This recommendation read that:

‘BPC members should provide confidence (or credible) intervals for each separately listed party in their headline share of the vote’.

The introduction of this requirement means the BPC has now responded to all of the recommendations that were made to it by Prof. Sturgis and his colleagues.

Notes to Editors

  1. The British Polling Council (BPC) is an association of polling organisations that publish polls. The objectives of the Council are to ensure standards of disclosure that provide consumers of survey results that enter the public domain with an adequate basis for judging the reliability and validity of the results. Through full disclosure the Council aims to encourage the highest professional standards in public opinion polling and to advance the understanding, among politicians, the media and general public, of how polls are conducted and how to interpret poll results.
  2. For further details of the Council see https://www.britishpollingcouncil.org/
  3. The report of the Inquiry into the Performance of the Polls in the 2015 Election is available at the National Centre for Research Methods (NCRM) pdf