Can a survey really be so bad by accident?

When I was alerted to the fact that the public administration and constitutional affairs committee (PACAC) of the House of Commons had produced a survey asking members of the public about priorities for a constitution, democracy and rights commission, I sought it out. Like many, I think there are serious flaws in our democratic processes and would like my views to be taken into account. Even for someone with low expectations, however, what I found was disappointing. If a first-year student taking a minor option in survey design had produced something half as bad, they would have been rightly called out for lack of preparation and serious effort.

For a start the survey is pretty flimsy. Out of seven questions, only one is about the substantive issue; the rest ask for demographic details.

The one question that really matters is confusing. Asking about the priorities for a commission, the survey produces a list of statements and asks: “From the options below, rank them based on what you think the priority should be. With 1 being the biggest priority and 5 not being a current priority.” Ignoring the faulty grammar, it is not at all clear whether you are being invited to identify the top five issues in order, or to judge each issue on the one-to-five scale provided.

There is no opportunity to add issues to the list, nor to explain what it is about any particular issue that makes it a priority for you. It is not possible for the respondent to explain how they are interpreting the question.

Most importantly, several of the questions are extremely leading. For example, “Ensuring a ‘proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government’ by updating the Human Rights Act” implies that the current balance is improper and that the Human Rights Act impedes vital national security and effective government. This is, to say the least, a strongly contested view. How is someone who wants to strengthen human rights expected to respond to such a question?

Another statement that you are invited to rank is simply: “The ability of our security services to defend us against terrorism and organised crime.” Anyone who has not been closely following politics might reasonably be baffled by the inclusion of such a statement in a survey ostensibly about constitutional reform.

Finally, the survey was launched on the 21 October with a closing date of 2 November! If the survey is intended as a serious attempt at public consultation, a window of less than two weeks for responses is laughable. Far from PACAC’s stated aim of “restoring public trust in UK political institutions and the ways that democracy operates”, it signals a lack of serious interest in voters’ opinions.

It is a good rule of thumb in politics that what looks like a conspiracy is usually better explained as a cock-up; and given the track record of this government, incompetence is normally a credible explanation. But could it really be this bad by accident? One suspects not. Lying behind a number of the opaque or misleading questions are obvious elements of the anti-democratic agenda of this most cynical of administrations.

What lies behind the innocent-looking option stated simply as “judicial review”? Those paying attention will suspect that this refers to proposals to limit the capacity of judges to rule on whether government actions are lawful. What is behind the statement about our security services? Those following politics closely will be aware of a current bill seeking to limit legal action against members of the armed forces for instances of alleged abuse; but also limiting the ability of service personnel to bring claims of negligence when given inadequate equipment. Similarly, the “relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts” likely obscures the declared intention to stop the courts preventing government acting illegally, as they did when Johnson prorogued parliament for no good reason.

It is very hard to overcome the suspicion that the survey was designed in order to allow ministers to claim public support for whatever line of action they have already determined.

Do look at the survey. Do complete it in a way that can’t be distorted. But, most of all, stand ready to refute any dubious claims made on the basis of such a disingenuous exercise.