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The coalition government has been coming under fire from rightwing Conservative backbenchers for its pledge to introduce equal marriage for same-sex couples. So new research commissioned by Catholic Voices suggesting LGBT people are indifferent to the coalition’s proposals seems set to add fuel to the fire.

Here’s how the Daily Mail have reported the findings:

The overwhelming apathy about gay marriage was revealed in the first online poll of gay, lesbian and bisexual people on the issue.

Just over a quarter – 27 per cent – said they would get married if the law permitted it, just one percentage point more than the number who said they would take up civil partnerships, which were introduced by the Labour government.

The findings, from an online ComRes poll of 541 adults who describe themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, are a blow for the Prime Minister, who is championing gay marriage.

The Daily Telegraph also has a write-up here.

Could such counter-intuitive findings really be true? Taking a look at thefull research tables behind the reporting (PDF) is instructive.

The first point – that only 27% of gay people would marry if given the chance, used for the Daily Mail headline – comes from a question on page three of the survey.

The question in full: “I would get married to my partner if the law permitted it”, to which 27% of respondents agreed (20% said “don’t know”). The key omitted words here, of course, are “to my partner”. It’s a very different thing to say you want to marry your current partner, to saying you’d quite like the opportunity to marry at some stage.

That, of course, is an issue with the Daily Mail writeup and not the research. Other findings in the Mail and Telegraph reports appear to support the research more thoroughly. Both said fewer than four in ten people regarded gay marriage as a priority.

The question, however, asked the sample whether gay marriage was “a priority for the gay community”, rather than a priority for them personally – leading around a third of respondents to reply “don’t know”.

Another question did ask respondents to agree if it was “important to me” that marriage was extended to same-sex couples – to which half agreed. Perhaps, as the papers reported, this is indeed a surprisingly low figure.

Of course, in a 20-page survey you can pick what you choose: 47% of respondents said keeping marriage and civil partnerships separate worsened attitudes to gay people (32% disagreed). 77% rejected supporting marriage as an institution only between a man and a woman.

And almost half agreed – only 19% disagreed – with the arguably loaded statement that: “David Cameron is only trying to extend marriage to LGBT people to make his party look more compassionate rather than because of his convictions.”

More telling than how the survey is reported is whether the actual research is itself useful. Most national opinion surveys use a sample of at least 1,000 people, which generates a margin of error of about plus or minus 3% – that is to say if an opinion poll places a party’s support at 40%, that means the real figure whould be between 37% and 43%.

The Catholic Voice poll, conducted by professional pollster ComRes, had a sample of 541. As Catholic Voice themselves note, this gives it a larger margin of error – in this case, a little under 4.5%. This can make quite a difference. If a report shows 40% of people agree with a statement, and 30% disagree, this seems to be a ten-point gap. With a 4.5% margin of error, this gap can actually be anything from 1% to 19%.

There are some issues around the compositition of the sample. The 541 people surveyed includes just 55 who self-identify as lesbians (the whole sample is around 60% male). This is smaller than the group which identifies as “other” – 61 individuals. “Other” could include transgender people, those who are asexual, or any number of other self-defined sexualities. Neither we, nor the researchers, know.

Roughly equal numbers of gay and bisexual people are sampled – but ONS figures suggest the former group is around twice as large as the latter.

In all, the polling tells us less than we might hope. It’s certainly not true that it found “only a quarter [of LGBT people] would wed”, as the Mail said in its headline – and Catholic Voices said in their press release.

The other questions may shed some light on different areas – including how bothered gay people are about equal marriage – but given questions around sample error and compositition, the research should maybe be treated as indicative rather than definitive.

Categories: News

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