The serious problems with MSM/FBPE claims about ‘Unite’ 2nd-ref poll

At the weekend, the Guardian published an article with a misleading headline about a poll supposedly showing that a majority of members of the Unite union back a second referendum or “people’s vote” before the UK leaves the European union. Other mainstream media followed similar lines.

The paper was quickly pulled up on it by Unite’s general secretary Len McCluskey:

lm graun poll.png

McCluskey was completely right – the poll was commissioned, unsurprisingly, by ‘stop-Brexit’ group Open Britain’s campaign-front ‘People’s Vote’ (OB/PV). The Guardian subsequently altered its headline to “Poll of Unite union members piles pressure on Corbyn“.

But was calling it a Unite poll the only misleading aspect of the headline? Does the poll really ‘pile pressure’ on the Labour leader?

It’s highly debatable at the very least. The SKWAWKBOX spoke to both pollsters YouGov and to Unite to dig into the detail of the poll and see whether the claims of the article are justified.

Am I bovvered?

As the YouGov survey and the Guardian article admit, the poll is based on the opinion of just 913 respondents. Unite has over 1.42 million members,  so that’s a very small sample – but it’s not even all the Unite members that YouGov has in its database.

YouGov was unable to say how many Unite members had been invited to respond to the questions, but confirmed to this blog that the 913 respondents were just a part of the total number invited.

This means that an element of self-selection took place – only those invitees who cared enough to bother responding did so.

That proportion might be significant or might be tiny – YouGov won’t/can’t say. But it means that the survey is automatically skewed toward the opinion of those who attach more importance to the issue. In other words, the relative importance of the issue to union members is amplified – or ignored, depending which way you look at it.

For all we know from the survey results, 90% of invitees didn’t think the issue was important enough to bother responding. Even those who did respond were not asked how important it is or how much they care – a serious omission for anyone who wants an accurate reflection of the opinions of Unite members.

If a majority of a tiny fraction have an opinion on an issue but don’t rate it as very important, that certainly doesn’t ‘pile pressure on Corbyn’. And that’s a perfectly possible interpretation of the survey’s results.

The SKWAWKBOX asked YouGov to disclose the scope or brief of the survey agreed with OB/PV, but YouGov declined to do so. The issue of ‘how much do I care’ might have been discussed or might not – there is no way to know whether/how it was excluded from the questions.

Inverse proportions

The referendum result went in favour of leaving the EU by 52% to 48%. But the percentage of leave-voters in the survey was far lower:

yg ob leave.png

Only 35% of YouGov’s Unite respondents voted to leave. It would, of course, be expected that remain voters would be more likely to favour a second referendum – but that in itself decreases the significance of the Guardian headline, which would have had to include mention of the imbalanced sample to be accurate.

This doesn’t, of itself, make the results wrong, but it does mean caution should be exercised in drawing conclusions from them.

Unite did not have specific figures for leave/remain voters among its members, but a press spokesperson said that the union believes its membership voted broadly in line with the referendum result. If this is accurate, then it means that YouGov’s sample may have been seriously skewed toward remainers, who would naturally be more likely to prefer another chance to remain.

But even then, there are further issues. The percentage of remainers in the overall sample was 65% – YouGov was unable to provide information on the leave/remain percentages by party support – but as it’s likely that Labour supporters had a tendency to vote remain, the percentage of remainers among Labour voters was higher than 65%.

But the percentage of (responding) Labour-voting Unite members who thought the union should be a “people’s vote” was lower than the overall remain percentage:

ob yg 2ref

And while the MSM and anti-Brexit campaigners have focused on the Labour-supporting 73% who said they would like a second referendum, more Labour-voting respondents said they believe that the Labour leadership is taking the right approach to Brexit than said they didn’t:

yg ob supplab.png

This means that, even in an imbalanced sample, a large proportion of those who wish for a second referendum recognise the political difficulties Labour would face if the party supported one and that Corbyn is handling the situation intelligently.

An even bigger difference was seen in the proportion of the Labour-voting sample – a sample imbalanced in favour of those who prioritise EU membership – who feel Jeremy Corbyn personally can be trusted to handle Brexit.

By contrast, barely a quarter – 26% – of Labour-voters trusted MPs with the issue, which speaks volumes about the vocal anti-Brexit back-benchers attacking Corbyn over the issue. Overall, three-quarters of respondents supporting all parties had little or no faith in MPs.

Try finding any of that in an ‘MSM’ article about the survey.

A middle-class obsession?

One of the most telling numbers in the YouGov data concerns the socio-economic status of those who responded:

yg ob abc1.png

547 – sixty percent – of respondents belonged to the National Readership survey (NRS) ABC1 ‘social grade’ classification. YouGov’s weighting only took that down by a single percentage point.

According to the latest NRS figures, in the general population of the UK, fifty-five percent of UK people fit the ‘ABC1’ category. This means that the YouGov respondent sample was skewed compared to the general population.

But what does ‘ABC1’ mean?

According to the NRS, which devised the classification system, it refers primarily to ‘managerial’ grades or higher:

nrs categs.png

It’s a safe bet that higher- and intermediate-managerial members are relatively rare in a union, especially one that represents general workers – and Unite confirmed that a majority of its members are in the C2DE category that only represented 40% of the responding sample.

This means that the sample was seriously skewed, relative to the composition of Unite’s membership – again, a significant factor that mainstream coverage has ignored.


Opponents of the various ‘stop Brexit’ organisations and of ‘FBPE’ (follow-back pro-EU) campaigners (or in some cases bots) on social media routinely contend that stopping Brexit is a middle-class obsession – a fixation for people who are in fact the least likely to be affected and whose real political objectives are more to do with a centrist wish to undermine the Labour leader.

The results and omissions of the survey, the nature of those who responded – and the way in which those results have been selectively handled by the ‘MSM’ and by stop-Brexit campaigners tends to support that view.

Given the skewed nature of the pool of Unite members covered by the survey, the fact that significantly more Labour-voting respondents consider Labour’s leadership is taking the right approach to Brexit is the most significant aspect of the results as far as Labour voters are concerned.

Especially when the MSM headlines have focused on the 73% who they say would support a second referendum.

But in fact, the most interesting aspects of the survey lie in the column for Tory-voting respondents:

  • almost half of those said they have little or no confidence in the Tory government to ‘make the right decisions about Brexit
  • six out of ten Tory-voting respondents said they thought the Brexit process was going badly or very badly
  • forty-one percent of Tory-voters who responded have little or no confidence in Theresa May personally as far as Brexit is concerned – suggesting an opportunity for Labour and reinforcing the intelligence of Corbyn’s approach

But again, try finding any of that in MSM coverage – and don’t even bother looking among OB/PV statements or the tweets of the FBPE-obsessed.

The full YouGov results can be downloaded here.

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  1. The Guardian has become such a joke of a publication. Good article Skwawkbox.

    1. It’s a point of view, but a very naive one. The objection is not to the idea, but to the way in which backbenchers etc are weaponising it instead of recognising Corbyn’s intelligent strategy of not committing to a position early, which would do the Tories’ (and blairites’) job for them

  2. Nice analysis.

    Another oddity is that 18% (160) of the unweighted sample are aged 65+. Now I know that you can remain a Unite member when retired, but I doubt 18% of the membership have bothered to stay on as retired members. A untypical sample in this regard it seems likely.

    Furthermore state pensioners are defined to be in social group E. If we assume 90% (144) of the 65+ are state pensioners, then 40% (144 / 358) of the already too small C2DE social group are pensioners. Adding to the social group implausibility for typical Unite union respondents.

    All rather odd.

  3. Like a lot of privately commissioned polls the data can often be presented to show that either the cup is “half full” or that it is “half empty”. More often than not the “findings” are usually presented in a way that compliments the opinions of those who have paid for the “research”.

    The presenters of such polls like to pretend that they are thorough and impartial academic studies when in fact they don’t even come close to being so. Pollsters are not idiots they know that they have to provide their customers with something that they want to see or the customer won’t be back. As a result I always take all of these things with a very large pinch of salt.

  4. I have been registered with yougov for several years now. At first I was not ask to take part in any political surveys at all only mundane questions like what daily newspaper do I read (the Morning Star never being on the list)’ or which credit card, or what bank etc. etc. I eventually pointed this out and started receiving the odd political survey. One of which ,I responded to late one Friday night, the result was on MSN the following morning. An impossible timeline.
    You only need to look at who founded yougov to realise its credibility.

  5. MSM fake news…

    Whilst we are still on matters BREXIT, can someone kindly explain why it is not worth the exercise to have a second referendum, not on whether we want to leave the EU, but on whether the deal negotiated by the Conservatives – I repeat: the Conservatives – is acceptable. More-so that even amongst themselves the Conservatives, it appears there is a certain level of disagreement, to put it mildly. These are the same Conservatives who do not even have a clear parliamentary majority from which at least they could claim authority. I assume the issue has now been widely debated – for well over 2 years, compared to the referendum campaign period of about 6 weeks – and surely some facts have come to light that might influence the outcome one way or the other.

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