FEATURE10 May 2011

Is research more democratic than elections?

Democracy has been said to be the worst form of government except for all the other ones. But what about research? Don’t surveys gives people a better chance to make their voices heard? Politicians, academics and researchers debate the question.


Is research more democratic than elections? That was the question asked of participants last night in a debate hosted in a committee room at the Palace of Westminster. It was a timely question and setting, coming less than a week after the UK voted on whether to change the way politicians are elected to a system whose supporters claim is more representative of the public’s wishes.

The theme of representativeness was central to the arguments of those on the side of research, chiefly GfK NOP’s Nick Moon who said that the UK voting system as it is, built to support a ‘trustee’ model of democracy, “can only be simplistically said to give power to the people”.

“Research, rather than elections, gives the loudest, most enduring voice to the widest range of people”

Penny Young

The ‘first past the post’ system has on many occassions delivered strong majorities in parliament for parties that have barely reached 45% of the popular vote, let alone the 50-plus percent that one might consider necessary to claim a mandate from the people.

Indeed, Moon said one benefit of research was that it could stop a government “claiming a mandate it doesn’t have” – either by using opinion polls to show that the public disagrees with a particular policy, or as in the case of Ukraine in 2004/5, when exit polls differed from the ‘official’ outcome of a presidential vote, by helping the public force out illegitimate rulers.

Penny Young, the chief executive of the National Centre for Social Research, supporting Moon, said “research, rather than elections, gives the loudest, most enduring voice to the widest range of people”, and not just in the political sphere. She made the point that much of what is important in people’s lives is delivered by corporate institutions, and it is through research that people are able to exercise influence over the products and services they rely on.

But that influence extends in the corporate world only as far as it does in politics, suggested a voice from the floor. Whether expressing your opinion in the ballot box or in a survey, the ultimate power of decision-making rests with the MP or client.

“Democracy is our chance to participate. It’s not just about answering a question”

Vernon Bogdanor

This is right and proper, argued Vernon Bogdanor, a King’s College professor of contemporary history, a constitutional expert and a former tutor of Prime Minister David Cameron. Democracy, he said, “involves leadership as well as followship” and it’s perfectly fine for a leader to pursue a course of action that a majority of people may initially oppose, but to try to win people round as they go.

“Democracy,” he said, “is our chance to participate. It’s not just about answering a question.”

Arguing alongside Bogdanor was Nick Yarker, a Conservative councillor on Westminster City Council and a Saatchi ad man. He called research a valuable tool “that helps deliver government for the people”, but he said answering a survey question differs entirely from casting a vote which you know has consequences.

Elections are not perfect, Yarker said, but nor is research. And just as the recent referendum on whether to adopt the Alternative Vote saw arguments over the pros and cons of various voting systems, Yarker made the point that a world in which research was the dominant means of democratic expression would no doubt see similar debates over survey methods, sample selection and sample size.

Any politician who tries to deliver government for the people by constantly asking the people what they should be doing, he said, will not remain in office for long.

The motion – “Research is always going to be more democratic than elections” – was defeated. But let us know whether you agree or not in the comments section below.


13 years ago

An interesting debate I'm sure! An important distinction between research and elections for me is that by casting a vote you have a direct impact on the outcome. By answering a research question, the impact is less direct and quite often you don't even find out what happened with the survey findings. Elections are highly exposed and the outcome is immediate. Research is less exposed and the outcome is never immediate. As a result, a direct comparison between research and elections is somewhat like comparing apples with pears (as researchers, a concept we try to avoid!). On the flip side, the majority of research is unbiased and non leading. As a result, the answers are deemed to be reliable and trustworthy (subject to margin of error). However, elections are often biased and very leading. Take the AV referendum. Both sides trying to brainwash the nation into voting one way or the other, without anyone taking an independent stance and trying to articulate the benefits and drawbacks of the two systems. As a result, is the outcome of the referendum really what people want? Or have they simply been effectively brainwashed? Or do they care, and as a result the staus quo wins the day? We'll never know, but one thing is fairly clear - elections are there to facilitate a direct outcome. Hence the importance to those standing of making sure that people vote for them. Research is there not to serve a direct outcome but to facilitate the journey towards an outcome.

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13 years ago

It was an entertaining evening and thanks must go to all those who were there contributing to the discussion. It was somewhat surprising (with the MRS as sponsors and the proliferation of researchers there) that the motion was defeated. For me it was also touching that in the summing up a dedication was made to Andrew McIntosh, IFF Research’s founder and, of course, subsequently Lord McIntosh of Haringey, who sadly passed away last year. While Andrew would I am sure have relished the debate I think he would have probably (with one foot firmly placed in both the research and political camps) come to the conclusion that a number of us did – general elections serve the purpose of deciding the future big picture for the country, while research is fundamental in helping the elected government to paint in the details of that big picture while in power. One is not more democratic than the other – rather they are inextricably linked but serve different roles. Mark Speed, Joint Managing Director, IFF Research

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12 years ago

In election everybody has an equal chance to cast its vote; a lot of people refuse this opportunity but nobody can claim that they did not have an opportunity to exercise his/her democratic right. The first-past-the-post system is not the most representative system (proportionate representation would be the most representative system) but is certainly democratic. A lot of research is based on samples where members of the population of interest do not have a chance of being selected in the sample (for example, quota samples or samples based on online panels) and none of these sampling methodologies are democratic. Random (or probability) samples do not have this problem since every member of the population has a chance of being selected with call backs to those not at home at the time of first call. Those who refuse to participate in the survey cannot claim they did not have an opportunity to participate in a survey (and influence public policy decision makers – these days probability samples are almost exclusively run by central Government agencies). I would say that random (probability) samples are the most democratic way of selecting the sample and conducting the research.

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