The public are wrong about wind power. Why it matters (and why it doesn’t)

Posted in Energy sources on March 2nd, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

There’s a current fashion in polling to ask questions designed to show that the public are wrong about particular issues. MORI got lots of coverage for a poll in 2013 revealing how badly people misperceive facts about UK life; they did a similar poll last year, replicating the results internationally.

A poll for RenewableUK has today done the same thing for wind power. It showed people overestimate 14-fold the amount consumers are charged through their electricity bills to subsidise wind energy. It also found a large majority under-estimate the popularity of wind power among the public overall.

Neither of these is particularly surprising. Wind farms have a reputation for facing local opposition, while some newspapers spend much of their time emphasising subsidies for green energy.

But in terms of their significance, I think the two questions are very different.

Finger in the wind

The apparent overestimate of the subsidies given to wind farms doesn’t feel that important. I’m sceptical that the average response of £259 subsidy in a £1300 bill is a meaningful answer, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, there may have been an anchoring effect in the poll. The question referred to a figure (£1300) as the average bill. Plenty of studies have shown that doing this skews responses towards that figure. I suspect the answer would have been much lower if the figure hadn’t been quoted in the question.

Secondly, people don’t seem that influenced in their views of wind power by the perceived level of government subsidies. We know from many polls that wind is among the most popular sources of power, even when built locally. We also know that people are far more likely to blame rising bills on energy company profiteering than on green levies.

So I suspect the finding on subsidies isn’t that significant. It’s artificial in that people largely haven’t thought about a figure before; when prompted they pluck a figure from the air (possibly anchored upwards); but their dominant view is that rising prices have been the fault of energy companies, and they still like wind power.

Spiral of silence

But the meta-question – what do you think people think about wind – is much more interesting and worrying to me.

This is partly because it provides a possible basis for what some have described as the Climate Silence: the way most people are worried about climate change, yet largely seem reluctant to talk about it because they think it’s an unpopular issue. Thinking that most people don’t like renewable energy might feed this silence; it might also feed a view that personal efforts to reduce emissions are wasted when others aren’t interested in doing so.

And specifically on wind power, the result fits neatly with what other polling has shown about some MPs’ views of wind power. Despite the popularity of wind power, just 16% of Tory MPs support onshore wind. Perhaps part of the reason may be that they, like most of the public, think wind power is much less popular than it really is*.

This seems important to me because decisions about whether or not more wind power plants are to be built may be shaped by this continued misunderstanding of the popularity of wind turbines.


*I suppose another option is they also think it’s much more subsidised from energy bills than it really is.

Today’s poll on climate change and flooding: a few comments

Posted in Climate Sock on January 29th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

A climate change and flooding poll by the Understanding Risk Group at Cardiff Uni has had quite a bit of coverage today, with pieces in Carbon Brief, the Guardian, IndependentTelegraph and BBC.

Those articles all picked up on the large increase in numbers who say they think the world’s climate is changing, and I won’t go over the ground covered by those pieces. But there are a couple of other points about the poll and the coverage that I found interesting:

Firstly, I’m uneasy about polls on belief in climate change. As I’ve written a few times, people’s response to questions about whether or not climate change is real is a bad measure of whether they want action to reduce emissions. Not only are the results misleading, these questions keep the debate about climate change in a place that’s far less useful than it would be if we were instead talking about what we’re going to do about climate change. Even when the results suggest people increasingly think climate change is real, the time spent talking about this could be spent talking about, for example, what kind of deal the UK should push for at the Paris climate conference this year – and it legitimises discussions of some future poll that apparently shows a fall in ‘belief’.

Secondly, I continue to be mystified by the answer choices in the question about the causes of climate change:

  1. It is entirely caused by natural processes
  2. It is mainly caused by natural processes
  3. It is partly caused by natural processes and partly caused by human activity
  4. It is mainly caused by human activity
  5. It is entirely caused by human activity
  6. There is no such thing as climate change
  7. Don’t know

It’s the same scale used in the DECC tracking poll, and as I said about that poll, I find it hard to interpret the results. If I think that climate change is mostly human but a bit natural, should I pick choice 3 or 4?  Both apply. If choice 3 is supposed to mean “equally” human and natural, it should say so, not “partly”.

It’s also not great to have one answer choice that is much longer than the others (pick a card, any card, particularly the one I’ve made stick out a bit) as well as one that combines the others and so looks like the middle-ground option (even though it means the same as 2 and 4). Unsurprisingly, choice 3 always gets by far the most respondents.

The only basis I can see for using these answer choices is to compare with previous polls that used it. But since the choices are so muddled it would still be better if it were dropped.

Finally, I was amused to see the Guardian refer to “only” 14% of people saying they would write to or phone their MP about climate change. If one in seven people really did this, each MP would get about 10,000 letters, emails or phone calls about climate change!

Will the election be the end of the Green Surge?

Posted in Politics on January 29th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

The Greens will almost certainly have their best ever Westminster election this year. Even if their support halves during the campaign, a vote of 3-4% will easily beat their 2005 previous best of 1%.

But the most likely result of the Green Surge – whether it results in a tripling or an octupling of their vote – is that their number of MPs stays the same: 1. There’s an outside chance that they could win another in the four-way contest in Norwich South, but that’s as far as it goes.

So after a best-ever result that may produce no increase in representatives, where do the Greens go next?

They will have a record number of members – potential door-knockers and leaflet-deliverers – who might help them increase their vote in future elections. After May, they will target the 2016 local government elections (so obscure they don’t yet have a Wikipedia page) and the 2019 European elections.

But progress at Westminster will still be the biggest prize and a Syriza-style storming of Parliament is much more difficult under our electoral system. When Syriza won 5% in 2009, and 17% then 27% in 2012, they got a proportionate number of seats each time – making them look like a potential largest party. That route isn’t open to the Greens, just as it hasn’t been to Ukip.

Given that, Westminster electoral reform may be the Greens’ chief goal ­– but none of the major parties will be interested. The Tories and Labour still benefit from first-past-the-post, and the Lib Dems may lose interest now they get only slightly fewer MPs than their vote demands. Reform would benefit Ukip but their priorities will be Europe and immigration, not changing voting systems. With one or two MPs, the Greens will have little chance of getting it into a coalition agreement. Their best hope for electoral reform might be the Lords or local government elections.

But there is one scenario where things at Westminster might work out for the Greens.

Suppose Labour becomes the largest party in May, and forms either a minority government or a weak coalition. It initially follows Tory spending plans before introducing its own austerity. Without a clear mission, or having convinced its supporters of the need for austerity, and with a divided parliamentary party, a large swathe of 2015 Labour voters – particularly those who’d voted Lib Dem in 2010 and other anti-austeritarians – can see no reason to stick with Labour. Its support drops to the low 20s, while the Greens’ hits the high teens with some polls putting the parties level*.

But even in this scenario there’s a further problem for the Greens. In 1992, a vote of 18% got the Lib Dems just 20 MPs. Something similar for the Greens in 2020 might seem like a springboard for the subsequent election, but come the election after 2020 austerity might be at an end, and with it, the centre of the Greens’ electoral appeal**. What they may need is for the election following 2015 to be early: coming far enough after May 2015 for Labour to have lost much of its support (in this contrived scenario) but not so far away that austerity is near an end.

And if all this goes right for the Greens – and wrong for the others on the left and centre-left – they might have a chance of avoiding Thursday May 7th 2015 going down as their high water mark.


* Ironic, this. Just at the time anti-austerity campaigners are calling for Labour voters to defect to the Greens, a Labour government pledged to austerity might be the thing that gives the Greens the best chance of being able to differentiate themselves.

** There’s a debate to be had about whether this will necessarily remain the Greens’ main appeal and whether it’s enough to win a large number of votes – I could see their emphasis changing, but if it does I’m not sure why they would appeal to any more people than they did in the New Labour era – but for now I’m taking the party as they currently are.

An update

Posted in Uncategorized on January 28th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

I’m out of the country for a bit, so my rate of blogging will be slower for a while and I’ve hung up my Polling Matters headphones for now.

In the meantime I’m working on a climate and public opinion project, which – if it sees the light of day – I’ll give more details about here.


Polling Matters podcast: internal political polls

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on January 8th, 2015 by Leo – Comments Off

In this week’s Polling Matters, Keiran Pedley and I are joined by Matt Carter, former General Secretary of the Labour Party and head of Message House, to discuss how parties use private opinion polls to hone policies and target key groups:

Polling Matters podcast: trust and responding to the Greens & Ukip

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on December 14th, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off

In this week’s Polling Matters, Hopi Sen, Keiran Pedley and I discuss trust in politics and how the main parties can respond to the rise of the Greens and Ukip. Should they try to match their promises, or is it better to play a different game altogether?


Will more floods change the debate about climate change?

Posted in Climate Sock on December 7th, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off

This article was originally published on Carbon Brief.

It’s nearly a year since the storms that led to flooding across much of the UK.

Over the last decade, the UK has experienced a range of extreme weather events: heatwaves, droughts, big freezes, as well as storms and floods. Scientists have  linked some of these with climate change, and the IPCC concludesplaces like the UK will experience some extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods more often as a result of climate change.

Some, like former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, have suggested that extreme weather events will be the only thing that prompts meaningful action on climate.

But when the UK next suffers more flooding, will it make any difference to the public debate about climate change?

To test the idea, I undertook a research project looking at published opinion polls, newspaper archives and records of parliamentary debates, from 2006 to early 2014, to see the impact UK extreme weather events have on how climate change gets talked about in public, the media, and parliament.

High-water mark of public concern

In terms of public opinion, last year’s floods coincided with a leap in concern about the environment, according to regular YouGov polls measuring which issues people consider the most important.

Following months of sustained flooding, in February 2014 the proportion of people naming the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from around 7 per cent to 23 per cent. That put it at about the same level as health and welfare. It’s hard to see any explanation for this other than the floods.

One crucial limitation of this measure is that it doesn’t show whether the public were concerned about the environment in general, or climate change in particular, although another poll at the time found 47% thought the floods were climate-related. It also doesn’t measure underlying attitudes, which might change over longer periods.

However, with questions that are asked consistently and regularly, the YouGov poll and a similar Ipsos MORI poll allow us to compare the impact of last year’s floods with responses to other extreme weather events, and see which have attracted the most public concern.

Looking at 13 extreme weather events occurring in the UK since 2006, none prompted a comparable increase in public concern about the environment. In fact, none were associated with any increase above 3 points, which is around the margin of error.

The difference in response to last winter’s flooding, compared with previous events, may be because this type of polling was less frequent before 2010. But it also suggests that last winter was unusual in the impact it had on people’s views about the importance of the environment as a current issue facing the UK.

Media and political: discussions of climate change

Public concern is just one part of the debate. I also looked at mentions of climate change in UK national newspapers, and found that on several occasions since 2006 extreme weather events have led to an increase in media discussion of the issue.

During storms and floods in July 2007, March 2008 and November 2012 (but not following other weather events), media mentions of climate change increased significantly, in each case by around two-thirds.

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Polling Matters podcast: marginals and the end of national polls?

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on December 5th, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off

In this week’s Polling Matters, Keiran Pedley, Stephen Bush of the Telegraph, and I talk about the growth of marginals polls and whether it spells the end of national polls.

Polling Matters podcast: Rise of the Greens

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on November 24th, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off

In this week’s edition, Keiran Pedley and I discuss the Green Party, their supporters and their prospects for the next election.

CORRECTION: In this episode, I said the Greens are 12 points down on Labour in Caroline Lucas’ constituency. That’s true, but Ashcroft’s poll asks a follow-up question, encouraging people to think about their constituency in particular. This puts the Labour lead at just 1 point. I suspect that’s a better gauge of how people are likely to vote, suggesting she’s in fairly strong position to keep her seat. Apologies.

5 years of this blog: my favourite 5 charts

Posted in Attitudes, Bad polling, Climate Sock, Energy sources on November 23rd, 2014 by Leo – Comments Off

I’ve been writing this blog for five years.  Most grateful to anyone who’s bothered to read it and to everyone who’s re-posted it or used my findings elsewhere.

In the spirit of these things, here are my five favourite charts that I’ve produced over the years:

5. Most people don’t understand the word ‘progressive’ 

Words are useful when they help people understand things. The word ‘progressive’ has become code among politics people for left-wing, or perhaps centre-left, or perhaps liberal in general.

It seems more common in the US and perhaps there people understand it as meaning ‘left-wing’. They don’t here though.

Here, for most people it has no political meaning at all: it just means “someone I like”:

Read the post


4. Wind farms are really popular, even when they’re built nearby

On one level I sort of understand the Tory Party’s opposition to wind farms. I’m sure there are some people that viscerally hate them, maybe even majorities in some communities, and perhaps Tory policy wonks think they’re a bad investment.

But the way some senior Tories talk, it’s as if wind farms are as popular neighbours as paedophile collectives – particularly compared with how they talk about fracking. They seem to assume that wind farms are hated, and everyone knows they’re hated.

Which is odd, because this is what people think about potential local power sources:

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3. People no longer think the monarchy make Britain better

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