Poll about support for violence against MPs is flawed

Published: 28th Oct 2019

In brief

Claim

A majority of voters say violence against MPs is “worth it” to get their way in Brexit.

Conclusion

Incorrect. A majority said the “risk of violence” is “a price worth paying”. There’s a big distinction between the two, and survey it’s based on suffers from a number of flaws.

“Violence against MPs “worth it” to get way in Brexit, say majority of voters in poll”

Sky News, 25 October 2019

“Most voters think risk of violence against MPs is 'price worth paying' over Brexit”

The Guardian, 24 October 2019

Last week, a Cardiff University press release reported that a recent survey it had commissioned found that a majority of both leave and remain voters “think violence towards MPs is a ‘price worth paying’” for their preferred Brexit scenario.

This was picked up widely across the press. Some, like Sky News, reported that voters think violence against MPs is “worth it” to achieve their preferred outcome, while others, like the Guardian, amended its headline to clarify that people think the “risk of violence” is “a price worth paying”.

This is a very important distinction.

While a majority did see violence against MPs as a risk worth taking to achieve their preferred Brexit outcomes, it’s not clear whether a majority also thought that risk was likely.

It’s plausible that at least some people said the risk of violence is worth it because they think the risk of violence is low, or because the risk is the same whether we leave or remain in the EU.

It’s irresponsible of Cardiff University to issue a press release which sensationalises and distorts the findings of its research.

There are also problems with the underlying survey methodology which mean we shouldn’t read too much into the results.

Problems with how the survey was reported

Media outlets repeated the wording of Cardiff University’s press release: that a majority of voters felt violence against MPs was “a price worth paying” to achieve their preferred Brexit option.

The survey actually found that 58% of Remain voters agreed with the statement that “I see [violence directed towards MPs] as a risk but it’s worth it to remain in the EU”.

71% of Leave voters agreed with the reverse proposition: “I see [violence directed towards MPs] as a risk but it’s worth it to take back control”.

Tolerating the risk of violence towards MPs is different to actively thinking that violence is a price worth paying for your preferred Brexit outcome. You might well think that there is some risk of violence against MPs from your preferred outcome, but that the level of risk is low—making it a risk worth taking.

Indeed, the survey found that 66% of Leave voters thought it was unlikely that violence would be directed towards MPs if we left the EU. Conversely, 39% of Remain voters thought it was unlikely violence would be directed towards MPs if we remained in the EU.

We don’t know exactly how great a risk of violence respondents are willing to tolerate for their preferred Brexit outcome—because the survey did not ask them.

The list of possible answers was too simplistic

Ultimately, the survey is asking people to weigh up the potential risk of political violence towards MPs, against the potential rewards of a preferred political outcome. This is a complex question.

But the survey only gave respondents three simplistic answers to choose from:

  • “I want this to happen regardless of Brexit”
  • “I see it as a risk but it’s worth it”;
  • and “[leaving/remaining in the EU] is not worth the risk of this happening”.

There was no option in the survey for people who don’t see violence against MPs as a risk; or for people who think that there would be a risk of violence regardless of the Brexit outcome.

This could well be a substantial group of people—as just over half of respondents thought violence against MPs was likely if we leave the EU, and just over half also thought it was likely if we remain. If you think violence is likely no matter what happens with Brexit, and so respond “I see it as a risk but it’s worth it”, it would not be fair to say that this means violence is a price you’re willing to pay for your preferred political outcome. It’s just that there are no other options in the survey that represent your view.

With a set of options this limited, there is little meaningful that we can extract about how far people are willing to accept the risk of violence against MPs.

Other problems with how the survey was conducted

The survey wording also downplayed the risk of violence against MPs, and so could have inflated the numbers agreeing that a risk of violence was worth taking.

In the preamble to the violence question, the survey says “Some have suggested that **leaving the European Union** might present challenges to the UK but others disagree, labelling this as Project Fear.”

Mentioning “project fear” in the question could have an impact on how respondents answer the question. “Project fear” is a trope used frequently by the Leave side of the debate, both during and after the referendum, to indicate a claim that it thinks is false or exaggerated. Including it in the question like this could therefore indicate to a respondent that the “challenges” that some have suggested are associated with leaving the EU are either false or exaggerated, and this therefore might lower the respondent’s perceived risk of violence.

Emphasis has also been put on the fact that 7% of people said that they want violence against MPs to happen “regardless of Brexit”.

This is a more concerning answer. But it’s worth noting that in the same survey 5% say they want to get substantially poorer regardless of Brexit, and 11-12% said they want the party they support to lose the next UK general election.

It suggests the possibility that some people either misunderstood the questions, or perhaps were not answering the survey entirely seriously. Added to the problems above, we should be very wary of over-interpreting the answers.

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