Leading questions: Surveys have been leading respondents by the nose for decades, on many different subjects.
I learned about this trick years ago, when I was working for a broadsheet newspaper.
There had been a great deal of debate over its page size in previous years, but this had been settled by a survey, written by the paper’s bosses (who didn’t want any change).
You’re probably thinking the question was “Should this newspaper continue as a broadsheet or change to tabloid size?” If so, you’re a long way out. The actual question was this:
“Should this newspaper be smaller?”
Of course, the answer was a resounding “No!” People wanted value for money, and didn’t realise that they were being asked about the size of the paper’s pages and not the number of pages in the paper as a whole.
Today I was made aware of another survey that attempts to manipulate the responses it receives by cleverly-worded “leading” questions – except I’m referring to a survey on the Conservative Party website, so neither the questions nor their wording are particularly clever.
You can see it for yourself if you like but I’ll quote it verbatim here anyway.
“We’re interested in your view about the fairness of our benefit reforms” is the overture. I have to admit that, on reading this, I was overjoyed. At last a chance to let the Tories know how wrong-headed their approach has been! That they are hitting the vulnerable in society – and that their policies are in fact leading to the deaths of many of the most vulnerable. Fat chance.
“Conservatives in Government have made a decision that we will support people who work hard and that work will be rewarded.” This was the snap back to reality. Anyone reading this has to see that it’s a propaganda exercise. The only other response is to ask, when is this support going to happen?
“Labour say that benefits should go up by more than average wages – even though it will be the taxes of people in work that pays for this increase.” Whoa, whoa, WHOA, wait. The Conservatives aren’t about to lower the base rate of taxes (only the top rate, for the benefit of their extremely rich friends). Nor are they about to increase taxes. This is disingenous and manipulative. They are trying to say that their decision to depress rises in benefit payments is reasonable because it is in line with employers’ (and let’s remember the government is itself an employer) unreasonable decisions to keep their employees’ pay down (and we’ll get onto their own pay rises in a moment).
“We don’t think this is fair for the following reasons…
“1. A real terms increase would have meant that benefits increased more than the average salary. Since 2007, benefits have increased by 20% whilst salaries have only increased by 10%. If the Government continued to increase benefits at a higher rate than salaries, this would not be fair on working people. The same working people who pay the taxes which fund the benefits to begin with.” Hogwash. Since 2007, benefits have increased in line with inflation and, as a result, people on benefits have been able to survive. Salaries may well have increased by only 10 per cent. I recall my own pay – before I became self-employed. Month after month, year after year, I saw my disposable income being whittled away in a series of poor pay increases, until I reached the point where continuing to work at the same company would put me into debt. That is the harsh reality of the British workplace in the 21st century, under the Tory-led Coalition.
“2. Working people are having their taxes cut. Changes to the personal allowance mean that working people will pay less tax and will keep more of their earnings. Anyone in work and receiving benefits will gain more from paying less tax, than what they lose from benefits not increasing in real terms.” This is simply untrue. 60 per cent of households attacked by the Tory-led government’s cuts to benefits are working households.
“3. To increase benefits in real terms would have meant borrowing more money. This Government is reducing borrowing and cutting the deficit. Labour would borrow more and add more debt to fund unlimited benefit rises. The Conservatives don’t believe that we should burden future generations with our debts in order to live beyond our means today.” The Conservatives are in fact borrowing more money now than Labour would have, if they had won the 2010 election – £212 billion more than planned, by 2015 alone. Using an expected increase in borrowing as an excuse to deprive the most vulnerable of their ability to survive adequately is plain disgusting.
“Have Your Say on Benefits
“We’re interested in what your think about benefits. That’s why we’re asking you whether or not you support two fundamental principles upon which our welfare policies are founded – many will say they don’t but many will also be in favour. Your responses will tell us what the majority think.
“Please also leave your comments.”
Here’s the first question. Remember what I said at the top, about the way the writers manipulate the wording of these things:
“Should benefits increase more than wages?”
See what I mean? The only possible answer to that is “No” – because they shouldn’t! That doesn’t mean that Tory welfare policy is right, though. It means employers aren’t paying their workers well enough (as proven by my own experience). Next question:
“Do you think it’s fair that people can claim more in benefits that (sic) the average family earns through going to work?” Again, the only reasonable answer is “No” – but again it doesn’t mean Tory welfare policy is right. It means this question – like the first – has been carefully worded to prevent anyone responding from giving an unwanted answer.
Never mind – there’s a box for comments, in which respondents may explain their answers. Here’s what I wrote:
“Your questions are slanted to produce a particular set of answers, I notice. My answer to the first is that they should increase in line with inflation. Wages should do that as well. The simple fact is that the majority of employers in this country seem to see fit to fill their own pockets with cash while depriving their workers. It is THIS imbalance that needs to be redressed. Company bosses have given themselves generous pay rises totalling 700 per cent over the last 20 years, while employees’ wages have risen by an average of just 27 per cent in the same period. That is completely unfair – and the reason it is possible for people on benefits to make more money than the average family earns by going to work.
“You don’t make work pay by cutting benefits to the point where people can’t afford the necessities of life – you do it by actually paying people in work enough money to make doing their job worthwhile.
“I don’t think it’s fair for people in benefits to have more money than the average family earns through work, but the answer is not to cut benefits; you must stop the ruthless exploitation of working people by fatcat business bosses. It isn’t rocket science. It’s common sense.”
I pressed the ‘submit’ button and immediately saw this message, in red:
“How do you think we could make the benefits system fairer? must have at least 0 and no more than 300 characters.”
Apparently they wanted an answer only a little longer than a tweet. In other words, one in which it is impossible to present a reasoned argument.
I tried again:
“Your questions are slanted to produce biased answers. Benefits should increase with inflation. Employers have increased their pay by 700% in the last 20 years; employee pay has increased by 27%. It is THIS imbalance that needs to be redressed. You don’t make work pay by cutting benefits – you do it by paying working people fairly. It isn’t rocket science. It’s common sense.”
It was still a little too long but I managed to shave a few bits off.
Sadly (for the truth), I don’t think it matters. It’s the headline figure – the number of people who answered “No” to the two questions – that will give the Tories what they want.
No doubt they hope to delude huge swathes of the voting population with their results.
That’s why I’m publishing my response – in full – in this article.
Please visit the site and see it for yourselves. Then – if you’re as disgusted as I am – make your opinion as public as you can.
Hunter S Thompson once said of Richard Nixon that he was so twisted he needed help to screw himself into his trousers every morning. That could also be said of the Conservative Party.
Let’s make sure they can’t screw the facts.
These people are an obscenity.