Analysis: Did the Catholic Voices poll show a Britain opposed to gay marriage? Not really

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Given the relative ease with which Civil Partnerships were introduced in the UK, back in 2004, and the fact that there is broad cross-party support for the introduction of gay marriage before the next general election, the chances are that, if someone told you that the majority of Britain was against gender-neutral marriage, you wouldn’t believe it. Yet, a poll has just been published, commissioned by Catholic Voices, and conducted by ComRes, which appears to suggest the contrary.

Apparently, a majority of Britons are opposed to it: 70%, would you believe it? Compare this to America, where there runs an actual cultural war between the secular and the evangelical — the last opinion poll conducted there found that roughly as many were in support of gay marriage as they were opposed to it. Indeed, a Gallup poll in May 2011 found that a majority of Americans supported gay marriage (53%) as opposed to 43% who opposed. Meanwhile, 73% of Irish people, according to the latest polls, support equality in marriage.

Also consider this. As early as 2004, a Gallup poll found that 52% supported gay marriages in the UK, 1% above Canada, and 17% above America. Remember, Canada has legalised same-sex marriage. The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, only two years ago, found that 78% of Scots supported same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, just last year, Angus Reid found that 43% of Britons wanted marriage equality, with 34% suggesting that gay people should have civil partnerships, not marriage. Yet current poll seems to find a significant reduction in support for both gay marriages and civil partnerships.

Could all this be true? That we are more illiberal than our Irish and American counterparts, and that we have taken several steps backwards in sexual equality?

Something doesn’t feel right. Are there alternative explanations? Could there be something wrong with the poll’s methodology itself, or the way it was framed? Or should we resign ourselves to a new reality, that we are forever subject to the swaying opinions of the majority, and that for now, Britons at large do not want marriage equality?

Let’s first begin with the questions themselves. There are, in the poll, four statements with which respondents may agree or disagree. One, marriage is important to society and should be promoted by the state. Two, although death or divorce may prevent it, children have the best chance in life if raised by their own mother and father in a stable, committed relationship. Three, stable relationships between same-sex couples should be legally recognised through the civil partnership scheme. And four, marriage should continue to be defined as a life-long exclusive commitment between a man and a woman.

The first statement is obvious enough, and general enough, and is the very reason why sexual minorities seek equality in marriage. From the second statements onwards, territories become murky.

Insofar as a child is born as a result of heterosexual marriage, few would disagree that it is best if they are brought up within the environment forged by its parents. What the statement does not talk about is adoption, or children born out of fertility treatments and artificial insemination, which is the main means through which same-sex couples have children. Given the universality of the statement, and therefore the tendency of most people, homosexuals included, to agree with it, one wonders how exactly this affects a survey on gay marriage. Just screaming the word ‘children’ doesn’t work, I’m sorry to say. Gay marriage is not the opposite of rearing children, you may be surprised to hear.

The third statement is the most useless yet. Same-sex relationships are already recognised through civil partnerships, thank you very much. So, we’re doing just fine. While hearteningly 59% agree with this statement, according to the poll, and 23% don’t, we don’t exactly know whether this means that people want recognition of same-sex relationships to stop at civil partnerships, and not go to the level of marriage, or not. Had the statement read, “only through the civil partnership scheme”, the poll would have been made much more interesting. One would hope the final statement would put that unequivocally to the test. No luck. Again, that critical word “only” is missing. The trouble is, even if the government were to legalise same-sex marriage this instant, that does not amount to a complete privation of the final statement in this poll. It will still refer to the commitment between a man and a woman, along with a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.

Isn’t this all a bit too much of close reading, you ask. Perhaps. But, it is helpful to compare the statements of the previously published polls with the present one. The Angus Reid poll of July 2011, for example, had these statements: “Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry,” “… to form civil partnerships but not marry,” “… should not have any kind of legal recognition”, and “not sure”. It also asks, unequivocally, if the respondent would define marriage as a union “between a man and a woman”, or “between two people”.

Equally, a poll which purports to definitively establish that the majority of Britons oppose same-sex marriage should have been much more cautious and unequivocal in its formulation. By beginning with the most banal, and ending with an ambiguous statement at best, the very structure of the poll undermines its claims. You see, the framework of the poll suggests that the people who formulated it supposed that gender-neutral marriage undermines marriage, and is harmful to children. How else would you explain the first two statements? However, if those who support same-sex marriages do not make these presuppositions, as they wouldn’t, then why should they expect to disagree with any of these statements?

Which brings me to the question of methodology. I do not have any doubts as to the independence of ComRes itself. But, I do have to question some of their methods, and their weighting. If I have the following doubts at all, the onus is on ComRes and Catholic Voices to come up with the goods, thanks to the apparent lack of transparency in the method.

Firstly, who framed the questions? Was it Catholic Voices or ComRes? If the former, why wasn’t this clearly stated in the report, nor the press release? Most importantly, why not simply ask: “Same-sex Marriage should not be introduced in the U.K.”, and see how people respond?

Then, there is the question of sampling. Both Catholic Voices and ComRes have stated that the polling was conducted online. One can find the online polling methodology of ComRes here. I shall assume that the methodology used for the polling is exactly the same as described here. If so, a few nagging questions remain.

One, only 70% of respondents are polled through online random sampling, which is to say, through random pop-ups and online invitations: you know, those pesky yellow boxes that often crops up where you least expect them. What about the remaining 30%? How were they polled? Two, is the placement of survey-ads also random? Or were they primarily placed on Catholic Voices or similar religiously inclined websites? If the latter be the case, surely there is a strong sampling bias involved.

Sampling bias could have been avoided, had the survey also identified the religious affiliations of those filling the polls. That hasn’t been done. So, we simply do not know how many of those respondents identified themselves as Catholics, for example, or practising Anglicans or Muslims. If, say, 70% of those polled identified themselves with one of the monotheistic faiths, would we still consider this polling to be representative?

Three, supposing the polling to be indeed truly random, well, at least 70% of it, then, who would be inclined to actually take part in it? (There’s a decline button there too, you know.) Those who are indifferent to the outcome, or those with a vested interest in saying one way or the other? Furthermore, when the polling was done, did the respondents know who commissioned the poll? If so, is there not a case of additional sampling bias there?

Finally, how many of the respondents were gay or lesbian themselves, or had gay or lesbian friends? Do we know? Does it not matter?

It is all very well for the Catholic Voices to release a press statement to the effect that political parties do not have a mandate in legalising same-sex marriage, but, it seems highly unlikely that this poll can lead to such a conclusion. Given that only 68% of respondents think that marriage is important and should be supported by the government, it seems rather silly that a greater proportion of the respondents should think it right to restrict marriage exclusively to heterosexual couples. The statement by Dr Austin Ivereigh, that marriage is an institution unique to heterosexuals, the preserve of the procreative, and that this follows from this ambiguous poll, borders on the ludicrous.

Ultimately, beyond providing sensationalist soundbites, and getting the anti-equality camp and their opponents (including yours truly) excited or angry, these polls should not, and do not, matter. (My own writing of this piece is more a defence of a welcoming and accepting country than an argument that political policies must only and always follow public opinion.) If history is anything to go by, it is not uncommon that, when it comes to persecuted or discriminated minorities, against whom the beast of majoritarianism roars its head, it is often only after the establishment of civil law that civility follows. Catholics in this country of all people should know this very well. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.) So, if moral philosophy be your light, and secular democracy your path, then, there is only one way ahead for Britain: to make marriage devoid of gender. Politicians, take note.