A senior Labour peer has accused polling companies of becoming "corrupted" by money from newspapers who want to influence the outcome of the general election in May.
Lord Foulkes, who was a Labour MP from 1979 until 2005, said polls were increasingly "being manipulated at the behest of people with money, whether they be the media or individuals, as part of the political process". He has also called for there to be a ban on the publication of opinion polls in the weeks leading up to election day.
One of Britain's leading pollsters has dismissed Foulkes' criticism of the industry as "frankly offensive" and said the idea of banning polls in the run-up to polling day was "bad for democracy".
On Wednesday Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft published a constituency survey of sixteen seats in Scotland. It suggested Labour will be annihilated in Scotland come May - with the SNP on course to snatch all but one of the seats examined.
If the result is repeated on election day, Labour's shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander and Lib Deb chief secretary to the Treasury would both be kicked out of parliament.
As election day draws closer, the number of polls commissioned by newspapers and other groups is likely to substantially increase.
On Thursday, Survation published a constituency poll that suggested Nick Clegg would lose his Sheffield Hallam seat to Labour on 7 May. The Lib Dem leader responded that the survey was "utter, utter bilge".
Foulkes, who has also served as a MSP the Scottish parliament, told The Huffington Post, in the wake of the polls: "What is clear now is the media in particular, but others as well, are demanding instant polling, determining when it should be done and how it should be done. The the academic rigour that ought to be carried out isn't being carried out."
He said polling firms were "making millions" and accused the companies of failing to employ the "academic rigour" that they used to. "The whole thing did seem to me to be effectively corrupted," Foulkes said of polling firms methodology.
And he accused Ashcroft of deliberately conducting polling in Scottish seats that had a high 'Yes' vote in the recent independence referendum, in an attempt to create an anti-Labour narrative.
"He [Ashcroft] chooses the ones that will be worse for the Labour Party. I'm not against constituency polling," Foulkes said. "But they are being carried out at the whim of one man, instead of choosing a sample of constituencies around Scotland and doing them properly in each constituency. He can determine the methodology of the poll and choose the constituencies that he thinks will help the bandwagon [against Labour]."
Labour peer Lord Foulkes is worried about opinion polling
Foulkes, who has introduced a Bill designed to create an Ofcom-style regulator for polling firms, wants there to be restrictions placed on polls being published perhaps as far out as three weeks from election day.
He said newspapers use polls to re-enforce its own agenda an "create a bandwagon" rather than provide an independent snapshot of what voters were thinking. Anti-Labour newspapers, he said, like to run "a whole series articles about Ed Miliband and how awful he is" and "how he can't eat a bacon sandwich properly".
"Having done that from Monday to Thursday they ask their polling organisation on Friday to carry out a poll which will then show that all the propaganda has had some effect. That re-enforces the view that Ed Miliband is unfit be prime minister, then they have another week of doing it again."
Foulkes said as election day drew closer, polls were "more able to be used as a tool to influence the way people are voting".
"It could be to build up a bandwagon or it could be in some cases to try and get people to switch if is very close, in other words to enable them to make a decision about tactical voting rather than which party they genuinely want to support."
Pollster and Tory peer, Lord Ashcroft
Andrew Hawkins, the chairman of polling firm ComRes, told The Huffington Post the notion that opinion polls could be banned during the election period was "ludicrous".
"The suggestion that we have somehow been 'corrupted' is frankly offensive to the many honest people working to supply well designed opinion polls of the highest quality. More importantly it is also an insult to voters to suggest that the electorate lack the intelligence to stop themselves from being influenced by a dodgy poll," he said.
"In some respects we’d like nothing more than a ban on publishing polls during a campaign – it would be fantastic for business as everyone would want to commission their own private polling. In practice, however, it is a ludicrous suggestion – not least because the internet renders it impossible to conceal from voters a poll published outside Lord Foulkes’ jurisdiction.
"It would be bad for democracy too: the electorate deserves to have as much information as possible. ComRes, like other trusted agencies, is completely transparent and we willingly open ourselves up to scrutiny by publishing all opinion poll data, including question wording, on our website as soon as our polls are published. Lord Foulkes and anyone else can judge for themselves if we are doing it right."
He added: "The suggestion by Lord Foulkes that there is a race to the bottom is simply untrue."
Foulkes decided to introduce his Regulation of Political Polling Bill after raising concerns about polling methodology at a meeting with academics. One key aspect of his Bill would be to introduce an Ofcom-style regulator for the industry. "That body would consist of representatives of the polling organisation, of the media and of political parties," he said. "It would make sure that proper processes were carried out.
"They say I am trying to control them, that I am trying to give the government some control or give political parties control over polls, that's not what I am doing. it is to prove some regulation."
The Sunday Times referendum poll sent shockwaves through the 'No' camp
Hawkins said Foulkes had got the "wrong end of the stick" and said he believed the legislation was a "thinly disguised response" to the impact of the infamous Sunday Times' Scottish independence poll shortly before the referendum that suggested 'Yes' was ahead.
"Blaming pollsters’ relationship with the media overlooks the fact that Lord Foulkes’s political colleagues made their decisions not only on newspaper polls but had access to their own private polls too. The over-reaction was simply a political misjudgment made in a febrile pre-referendum atmosphere when cooler heads were required. Decisions of that magnitude should not be made on the basis of a single poll: nobody is hiding the fact that one poll in every 20 will be outside the margin of error," Hawkins said.
"Politicians might well make fewer mistakes were opinion polls to be banned, but not even a statutory regulator can prevent poor decision making."
Ashcroft has said his in-depth constituency could lead to an increase in tactical voting as the public will have greater access to details information about how individual candidates have. "Voters who are so inclined will be able to use the snapshot of their constituency to help them decide where to place their cross," he has said.
"Voters in Sheffield Hallam, for example, will note that Labour look best placed to unseat Nick Clegg in a constituency the Lib Dems have traditionally if not, recently, very closely contested with the Tories (indeed they may well bump into Ed Miliband out canvassing)," he said.
"Conservatives in both Dudley North and Great Grimsby will see that although their party came second by less than a thousand votes last time round, UKIP now appear to offer the best chance of unseating Labour. Lib Dems considering Labour in North Cornwall will know their seat is on a knife edge and that their switch would make a Tory gain more likely. Labour voters in Thanet South who do not wish Nigel Farage to represent them in parliament will observe, however reluctantly, that to keep him out they will have to vote Conservative."
However Hawkins is more sceptical. "It is unlikely that constituency polls alone will increase tactical voting significantly. The thought that your average voter will log onto a pollster’s website to check the latest state of opinion in their constituency before deciding on their vote is nothing more than ego-stroking for our industry," he said.
"But the increased information will help party and local campaigning and I’m sure we will see more campaign literature with 'X can’t win here'."Suggest a correction