Analysis: Behind the MPs poll on marriage equality

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Yesterday, reported that in a survey by ComRes on behalf of the Coalition for Marriage (C4M), 56% of MPs thought that proposals for equality in marriage is likely to go ahead, the proportion rising significantly among Labour and Lib Dems, but declining with equal significance among the Tories. Here, BR presents a detailed analysis of the poll and its findings.

The polling organisation ComRes has published today the full results of the survey it conducted on behalf of Coalition for Marriage (C4M), the latter an umbrella-group of cash-rich organisations with deep but ill-understood origins in evangelical Christian movements. The survey was conducted between February and March among 154 MPs, and it was unsurprisingly concerned with the current government-led proposals to extend civil marriages to same-sex couples.

The survey consisted of two questions, the first being split into a series of statements with which the respondent had to agree or disagree. These statements were: (a) The proposal is of significant importance to my constituents, (b) Legalising same-sex marriage is likely to be good for the relationship between the churches in the UK and the UK Government, (c) Civil partnership already gives the same legal rights as would be afforded by same-sex marriage, and (d) Redefining marriage risks opening the law to challenge from people wanting to introduce other variations on traditional marriage such as polygamy. The second question  was arguably more straightforward: Do you personally expect the current proposal to legalise same-sex marriage in England & Wales to succeed or fail?

A quick summary of the findings. Across all parties, only 29% thought the proposal significant to their constituents, with 60% thinking the opposite; 72% thought the relationship between the churches and the government would strain as a result, and 17% thinking things might improve; 62% thought civil partnerships granted same-sex couples the same rights as marriage for heterosexuals, with 29% thinking otherwise; and 41% thought same-sex marriages would lead to “variations on traditional marriage such as polygamy,” and 49% did not. On the second question, a clear majority of 56% thought the proposals would end as a law, with 29% thinking it would fail, and the rest unsure. On all these questions, Tory MPs voted on the more conservative side of spectrum, with Labour and Lib Dem MPs on the more liberal side. For full tables, click here.

I am aware that readers of this website prefer ‘equal marriage’ to ‘same-sex’ or ‘gay marriage’ when describing unions between same-sex couples. However, in the light of how this survey was framed, I use these terms interchangeably throughout this article.

Earlier today, I wrote to Mr Andrew Hawkins, Chairman of ComRes, and asked him for some clarification as to the methodologies and structure of the survey. To help dispel a few possible misconceptions, I can confirm that not all 650 MPs in the Parliament were contacted for the survey. ComRes has a pre-recruited panel of MPs from all parties, and across all regions, with whom the survey was conducted by online or through post. Plus, as is customary, the respondents did not know who commissioned the poll, nor were they asked of their voting intentions, as the latter was not stipulated by C4M in their commission.

I asked Mr Hawkins to what extent he thought the poll was representative of the MPs at large. He said: “The accuracy of our tool for surveying MPs has been tried and tested over many years.  In the last free vote to coincide with one of our surveys, we were within one percent of the parliamentary vote.” The statistical margin of error comes to roughly 7%.

My main concern stemmed from two directions. Firstly, to what extent was C4M involved in the framing of the questions in the survey. To which, Mr Hawkins said: “We wouldn’t normally discuss how questions were drafted but they tend to be the result of deliberative discussion and drafting from both us and our client.  Our clients know their sector and the issues better than we do, while we know how to draft questions in a robust and professional way.” He added that given that the poll was commissioned by C4M, it would be unreasonable to expect that they wouldn’t be involved in it.

True. But, my concern remains that as an organisation with a self-declared anti-equality agenda, indeed I think I am justified to say, it is an organisation that is deeply homophobic, whatever the intentions of ComRes in making the survey as politically neutral as possible, the language in which the survey is couched is ultimately far from neutral. There is, I think, a difference between the BBC commissioning a survey on voting intentions, and from, say, UKIP commissioning one.

Which brings me to the second, more disturbing, concern, with which the first is intimately related. I put it to Mr Hawkins that by including a statement that many would find deeply offensive, i.e., putting monogamous same-sex relationships to polygamous ones — one has to be grateful that paedophilia wasn’t there, I suppose — the survey was stripped of all neutrality. He contended that, concerning the first question, with the exception of the last statement, i.e., one concerning polygamy, the rest were either neutral or positive.

I beg to disagree, and firmly so. Firstly, while I appreciate that many MPs thought the issue not so significant for their constituents, it is interesting that the group that would be most affected by these proposals, namely, gay and lesbian couples, have not been factored into the survey. Would the proportions have been different if the survey had asked how they significant they think it might be for their LGBT constituents?

Secondly, we know that most religious organisations, with the odd exceptions of liberal factions in Christianity and Judaism, stand extremely opposed to same-sex weddings, even as it is known that they wouldn’t be forced to conduct any marriages against their will. Then, the second statement merely looks redundant in this regard, though Mr Hawkins thinks, perhaps rightly, it is an indicator of whether the MPs might be willing to stand up to the churches on the proposals. The trouble is, the survey does not ask the MPs whether they think the proposals should go ahead despite religious opposition. Now, that would have been interesting. Similarly, it is equally well-known that civil partnerships provide the same legal benefits for gay couples as marriage does for heterosexual ones, and the difference is more about the significance of the word and the status it accords in society more than it is about legal rights.

Thus, none of the statements in the survey to me seem especially positive, and are neutral at best. But, seen in the disturbing light of the comparison with ‘polygamy’ (and thank goodness they didn’t mention ‘incest’), the structure of the survey seems to me anti-equality. This is the source of my concern regarding the level of involvement of C4M.

Mr Hawkins said he did not think he could comment on the last point, but because it was an argument deployed in the current debate, if debate be the right word, it was legitimate to test it. Indeed, but if prefaced with a question whether they thought such comparisons were helpful or merely offensive.

All said, perhaps the most important aspect of the survey is not so much its findings as how the media reported it. Even before C4M released it on their website, in the late hours of Monday night, it was the Telegraph which broke the story first. So far as I can gather from news aggregator websites, even the Daily Mail has yet to report the findings.

Given that a clear majority think that the proposals will become law, it is an indication of the desperation to which headline writers resort to in order to spin the story the way they want, that the headline in the Telegraph was: “Tory MPs think Cameron’s gay marriage law will not succeed.” And the first line of the story was: “An all-party poll of MPs found only 56 per cent believed the proposal to legalise same-sex marriage would succeed, with 41 per cent of Conservatives believing it.” They add, in what seems a misrepresentation of the poll findings: “It means that three out of five Tory MPs have doubts that the plan will go ahead.” That 22% of Tories were unsure, does not mean, I’m sorry to say, that they do not think the plan will go ahead.

This is not to deny that Tories are more opposed to the proposed measure than other political parties. Mr Hawkins said to me: “the findings are entirely consistent with previous waves of research among MPs…  There is no doubt from what they say publicly and privately that Conservative MPs are significantly more hostile than either Lib Dems or Labour MPs towards the proposal.” But, there is a difference between saying Tories are more hostile to the proposals, and saying that the majority of Tories are opposed to it.

The C4M and the right-wing press have enjoyed an extremely cosy alliance, which is not surprising of course, especially not in the light of the strange editorials to which the Telegraph and the Daily Mail have resorted. Notwithstanding the vacuousness of their arguments, it is a grave disservice to their readers that, even when more Tories (41%) believe the move will succeed than believe it will fail (37%), and the majority of MPs at large (56%), think that equality in marriage will become law, they use the findings to “report” the opposite.

Mr Colin Hart, director of C4M, and of the notoriously homophobic Christian Institute, seems always ready to offer a comment to the right-wing press, but seems unavailable whenever we, or the Independent, attempt to contact him.

It is unfortunate that the other arms of the mainstream press, the left-wing and the politically neutral, seem unwilling to match the extent of coverage that the anti-equality campaign receives. The result is a strange political imbalance, and it does seem to the casual observer as if the latter are gathering political momentum, where one poll after another suggests otherwise.

But, ultimately, it does not matter what any polls say on the issue. My intention in writing this piece is to talk about issues and concerns that the rest of the press are wont to ignore. It must then be remembered that when fuelled by moral and ethical principles, the onus lies on the MPs to vote according to the dictates of their conscience, considering the importance of protecting vulnerable minorities, and giving them the legal and social equality that is their due. Perhaps it is the duty of their constituents, whatever their sexuality or gender identity, to remind them of that.