Thursday, 25 April 2013

Peter Kellner can't keep quiet

For reasons that now escape me, I went to a Fabian Society event at the 2009 Labour Party conference (it was in Brighton, where I was then living—I can think of no other excuse). It was there that I picked up a free copy of Fabian Review which featured an article warning about "the danger that the Conservatives might win" the forthcoming election (see left). Nothing unusual about that in a socialist magazine, but I was slightly surprised to see that it was written by Peter Kellner, president of the opinion polling company YouGov and the BBC's go-to man for election analysis. I knew that Kellner was a bit of a lefty, but I didn't realise he was such an active Labour supporter.

YouGov are the pollsters of choice for ASH on whose board Kellner also happens to sit. He chaired the editorial board for ASH's 2008 'Beyond Smoking Kills' report, for which YouGov provided survey data (which, by the way, found that plain packaging was the least popular of the twelve proposals put forward) and he is in the habit of writing open letters to politicians calling for neo-prohibitionist legislation.

Today, he has sent an e-mail from his YouGov account making a final plea for plain packaging (a shorter version of which is published at the Huffington Post). He gives four lame reasons why ministers should embrace 'standardised packaging', starting with the claim that "it would be popular" based on a YouGov poll—tellingly, he does not mention the public consultation.

Reason number two is that it "would be cheap"—questionable, but so what anyway? I can think of dozens of stupid laws that would be cheap.

Reason number three is that "there is a real prospect that, over time and in conjunction with other reforms, fewer teenagers would take up smoking"—faint praise indeed; even a trustee of ASH can't bring himself to go beyond vague aspirations and even these require "other reforms" to go alongside it.

Reason number four is that "this is the least disruptive" of the recent neo-prohibitionist policies because, for example, "it does not force smokers to change their habits in pubs or office"—again this is questionable, but even if it were true it would be irrelevant.  

Kellner then gives what he mischievously calls the case against the legislation, namely:

1. The tobacco industry doesn’t like it.

And that’s about it.

How very droll. Except that there is a host of reasons given by politicians, policeman, libertarians, customs officers, brand experts, packaging companies and intellectual property lawyers which Kellner neglects to mention. The irony is that "the tobacco industry doesn't like it" is actually the number one reason why the tobacco control lobby wants to introduce plain packs. The policy passes what these puerile idiots call "the scream test"—ie. if the industry protests, it must be worth doing. They know—and occasionally admit—that the industry's real concern is that they will sell fewer premium brands, not that they will sell fewer cigarettes in general, but annoying the industry is more important to them than reducing the smoking rate.

Kellner is obviously entitled to his opinion, but there is something rather undignified about the president of a polling organisation making a last ditch effort to rally the troops. I thought that in Brighton in 2009 and I think it still.


Xopher said...

"but there is something rather undignified about the president of a polling organisation making a last ditch effort to rally the troops."

But isn't that exactly what he/ASH/Doh did when the Smoking ban was being voted on? Their figures were used when ONS figures were available but not published.
Let's not forget the other major influence on YouGov polls, his wife who must have a considerable influence on YouGov surveys making them a disgraceful example of bias.

Karl Fasbracke said...

I am beginning to believe that this "the tobacco industry doesn't like it" is more of an agreement than a controversy.

As long as tobacco constrol suggests useless measures, all the tobbacco industry has to do is to "not like it" to divert all attention to useless measures.

It would be far more dangerous for the tobacco industry if tobacco control suggested measuses which actually have an effect.