How to view the conflicting polls about the rail strikes

Both sides in the rail strike are keen to win the battle for public opinion, and both claim they are doing just that. What is the truth?

Let us start with the rival claims. On Tuesday, the RMT union cited a survey published by Savanta ComRes, saying that 58 per cent backed the strike, far outnumbering the 34 per cent who opposed it. The Rail Delivery Group, a consortium of rail companies, fought back with this tweet the same day: “A YouGov survey commissioned by @RailDeliveryGrp found only 1:4 support strike action by the RMT.” 

The gulf between 58 per cent and 25 per cent is vast. I have never known two reputable pollsters produce such different figures in polls conducted around the same time. Part of the explanation lies in the precise wording of the two questions. This what ComRes asked, and the numbers it obtained:

Q. To what extent would you say the rail strikes are justified or unjustified?

Justified: 58% (“absolutely justified” 20%, “somewhat justified” 38%)

Unjustified: 34% (“absolutely unjustified” 16%, “somewhat unjustified” 19%)*

Don’t know: 8%

(* yes, 16+19=35, but the raw numbers are slightly less that 16 and 19 respectively, so the total rounds down to 34, not up to 35)

Now the YouGov question:

Q. From what you have seen or heard, would you support or oppose the RMT rail union going on strike over pay and conditions this summer?

Support: 25% (“strongly support” 9%, “tend to support” 16%)

Neither support nor oppose: 21%

Oppose: 39% (“strongly oppose” 25%, “tend to oppose” 14%)

Don’t know: 17%

The first big difference is that YouGov offered a middle option, “neither support nor oppose.” This has a big impact. While it’s true that only one in four in YouGov’s sample backed the strike, it is equally true to say that well under half the public oppose it.

The second big difference between the polls is that ComRes uses the words “justified” and “unjustified,” while YouGov talks of “support” and “oppose.” Imagine the same person being polled by both companies. They sympathise with rail workers wanting their pay to keep up with rising prices, but worry about the likely impact of the strike. Their sympathies prompt them to say “justified” to ComRes but either “oppose” or “neither” to YouGov.

We can take this a little further with the findings of a separate YouGov poll, which also asked about “support” and “oppose” but omitted the “neither” option. Its results: support 37%, oppose 45%, don’t know 18%. Its figures for both options are higher than in its survey for the Rail Delivery Group. Now, with the “neither” option omitted, the only significant difference with ComRes is “support” versus “justified”. It really does seem that the precise words used makes a material difference.

This has prompted some to dismiss all polls on the strike as pointless. I disagree. I think something significant is going on. When most people have definite views on something, the precise wording makes little difference—such as with Boris Johnson’s rating, or support for Brexit. But if most people have mixed or shallow opinions, the wording can make a big difference.

That, I believe, is what is happening here. Many—perhaps most—voters have yet to come down firmly pro-strike or anti-strike. My notional respondent, sympathetic but worried, speaks for millions of us. And this means that views could shift in either direction if the strikes persist. ComRes and YouGov have given us glimpses of early skirmishes in the battle for public opinion that has yet to be decisively won or lost.

What will decide the outcome? It’s worth considering two examples from bygone days when big strikes were far more common. In early 1974, coal miners went on strike. Edward Heath, the Conservative prime minister, decided to face them down. To preserve coal stocks, his government imposed a three-day working week and instigated a programme of planned, rotating power cuts. Polls showed that the public backed him. He decided to call a snap election. As the campaign progressed, the same polls showed opinion shifting, with fewer people backing Heath and growing numbers blaming him for failing to achieve the quick victory he wanted. He lost the election.

Five years later, James Callaghan’s Labour government grappled with the “winter of discontent” when public sector workers went on strike, leading to graphic stories of rubbish not being collected and bodies remaining unburied. In the early stages, most voters backed the government’s tough line. But, again, as the strikes went on, more and more voters blamed the government for failing to restore local services. Labour lost the subsequent election, leading to Margaret Thatcher becoming prime minister and ushering in 18 years of Conservative rule.

The pattern, and I don’t think it has changed fundamentally since the 1970s, is that many voters will back tough government policies—until they fail. Their support for muscular politics is conditional on success. If a government gets embroiled in any struggle, whether economic, social or military, it will be judged in the end by results. This week we are told that Johnson is willing to face down the rail workers, and now teachers, even if this means that our trains and schools are disrupted for many months. Whatever the merits of this plan, I would expect support for the government to dwindle over time.

What if there are deals with the RMT and public sectors workers that stop strikes but contribute to a wage-price spiral, higher inflation, dearer mortgages and other financial horrors? Come back next year and we’ll see what voters think then. The government is plainly in a difficult position. Johnson badly needs an early end to the rail strike that does not feed inflation. Anything else and the Conservatives will be in real trouble.

This blog was first published by Prospect