FEATURE11 January 2010

Surveying the changing political and social landscape

Features News

2010 promises much to excite UK psephologists: a general election and the chance of a change in government after 13 years of Labour rule. But are the electorate enthused by the upcoming political bun fight? TNS-BMRB’s new unit aims to find out.

The topic of political engagement (or the increasing lack of it) is among the many social trends set to be tackled by TNS-BMRB’s new Social & Political Attitudes Unit, which launches this month.

Unit head and TNS-BMRB chief executive Michelle Harrison said: “There is so much fantastic work that’s being done, especially around social research, and then there are also businesses that do political voting intention polling. What I’ve thought for a long time is that some of the most interesting questions involve bringing those two things together.”

The unit, she says, is about understanding how the major social trends in the UK are influencing voting intention and political behaviour – “most importantly,” Harrison adds, “this issue of the democratic deficit and why Brits are less politically engaged than they used to be”.

Her aim for the SPA unit is to create a centre of excellence which will eventually become the first port of call for government experts and academics. Harrison is supported in the venture by, among others, BMRB’s Nick Howat and head of methods Joel Williams.

With an election looming the launch might seem opportune, but Harrison says the timing has more to do with recent corporate changes. “With the integration of BMRB and TNS we’ve got the scale that allows us to be able to devote a bit more time to things that we’re not actually selling but are about us developing our insight and knowledge.”

Commercially, other parts of TNS-BMRB do stand to benefit, said Harrison, as the work carried out on how social trends affect political behaviour are used to “inform” the way the firm approaches certain issues.

She said: “What I would like is for us to develop a reputation for doing really insightful work that is renowned. I want us to make sure that what we’re communicating is that we’re about integrity and quality. We haven’t set this up in order to become competitive in voting intention horse-race polling – that’s not quite where we’re going with this. But I would like to think that in 18 months’ time we are regularly contacted by government and academic partners when they have got tricky questions around understanding wider social trends.”

The unit will use the TNS Omnibus service for its online work, while an in-house qualitative team will recruit for qual and deliberative work. Future surveys will be carried out using a mixture of telephone, online and face-to-face.

Harrison said: “One of the things we haven’t got is historical data, which is very valuable in voting intention work, but at the same time it ties you to a particular mode, and I think we see that with some of the other pollsters that are out there.” Without such “ties”, Harrison said, the SPA unit will be free to “experiment” with a variety of techniques.

“Over the next few months some of the things we’ll be looking at are about the relationship between social trends and voting intentions, the first one we’ll be doing is how people’s family relationships influence their voting intention. There are some large scale social trends that we will be tracking on a monthly basis,” she said.

“When we talk about opinion polling we’re not in the field of saying ‘The next big thing is pink’. What we’re interested in is that we’re potentially entering a period of political change and what we want to know is how people’s values and attitudes are responding as we see underlying changes in the economy and politics.”