The death penalty is normally cited as the classic example of disconnect between politicians and the people they represent, one where a majority of MPs consistently oppose the death penalty and a majority of the public consistently support it. This is pretty much true (whether it is a good or bad thing is an entirely different matter!)

Support for the death penalty has fallen over the decades – it used to be over 70%, these days roughly half of the population support the death penalty for “standard” murder – indeed there was a YouGov poll in 2006 that showed marginally less than half of people in support of it, the first time it had occured. More recently, a YouGov poll in September 2010 found 51% supported the death penalty for murder, 37% opposed. A MORI poll in July 2010 found 51% supported the death penalty for adult murder. An Angus Reid poll in 2008 found people supported the death penalty for murder by 50% to 40%.

Support for the death penalty is higher for specific crimes, such as murder of a police officer, murder of a child or multiple murders. The MORI poll in July 2010 asked people which of a list of crimes they thought should have the death penalty – 62% supported it for child murder (and 70% supported in at least some circumstances). A YouGov poll in November 2010 found 74% of people supported the death penalty for murder in some circumstances, though only 16% supported it for all murders.

If we go all the way back to 2003, a YouGov poll asked people if they supported the death penalty in various circumstances of murder. 57% supported it for murder , 62% for murder of a police officer, 67% for the murder of a child, 69% for a serial killer (note that the figures may be slightly higher than more recent polling because of the timing of the poll, conducted just after the Soham murder trial – 63% would have hanged Huntley).

So, generally speaking about half of people support the death penalty for murder, with slightly more than that typically supporting it for particularly circumstances of murder, such as that of children or police officers. Support for the death penalty tends to be strongest amongst Conservative voters, but Labour supporters also tend to be more likely than not to support it (Liberal Democrats tend to oppose). There is a strong class divide – middle class respondents are much less likely to support the death penalty than working class respondents.

Looking at the other end of the comparison, what about MPs? Historically the House of Commons voted on the death penalty rather a lot, up until the 1990s there was usually one vote per Parliament on whether the death penalty should be restored. Over time, these were defeated by solid majorities.

In 1994 the last attempt to reintroduce the death penalty was rejected by 403 to 159. The death penalty for the murder of a police officer was rejected by 383 to 186. Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs voted solidly against, while Conservative MPs were split (a typical pattern on death penalty votes) – 122 voted against, 148 in favour. If there is a similar pattern amongst current MPs (Labour and Lib Dem MPs solidly against, Conservative MPs split pretty evenly) then a large majority of MPs will oppose the death penalty.

UPDATE: Tonight’s YouGov/Sunday Times poll has voting intention of CON 35%, LAB 44%, LDEM 10%, so still very much in line with the Labour lead of 8 points or so YouGov have been showing.

166 Responses to “Public opinion on the death penalty”

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  1. Nick Poole
    “Is the collection and use of census material a breach of the data protection act?”

    When say ‘use’ what and by whom do you mean?

    As far as I’m aware there is no way of extricating individual information, but I maybe wrong.

    Good Morning.
    Private Washington’s tragedy has been on my mind; a working class boy sent by the Coalition Government, headed by LG and BL to fight an undeclared urban and rural guerilla war against a movement which had a majority in the 1918 Election.

    His ‘death penalty’ and Barry’s seem futile, given that their bosses were negotiating the Treaty at the time.

  3. To return to the topic of the death penalty … for badgers. I find this interesting because it raises two questions I have no idea of the answer to.

    The first question is a public opinion one. Anthony referred to the ‘salience’ of an issue in the previous thread – the idea that a policy may be apparently very (un)popular, but still not have any effect on voting because it has a low salience. It’s just not important enough to people to alter their political behaviour. But it strikes me that there are two complications to this.

    Firstly such an issue may affect the ‘mood music’, either more widely as a matter of general competence or in more specific areas. In this case it could contribute to impressions that the government doesn’t care about wildlife or farming or scientific evidence.

    Secondly and possibly more importantly, while the vast majority of voters may be unmoved, with some issues for a small minority it may matter an awful lot. This is a good example because there are such groups on both sides of the argument: animal activists and farmers. Within such groups such an issue could actually alter votes completely. Has any work been done on the effect such ‘minority’ issues can have on voting?

    The other question is … well how? How are badgers supposed to give cattle TB. I know it’s meant to passed on by breath, but we’re talking quite a disparity in size here and not much reason for interaction. I mean I thought badgers ate worms not cows. Are there really bacteria-laden inter-species trysts in the wee small hours? Does Autumn Watch know? Are there pictures? (Presumably Rule 34 will take care of that)

    I know that farmers seem to feel that something isn’t really dealt with unless they kill something (I suppose we should be grateful they’re still not sacrificing virgins to the Corn God) but it does seem more plausible that Bovine TB is spread by bovids and badgers catch it from them. But science is often counter-intuitive, so maybe there’s evidence that it really goes the other way.

    By the way we sometimes have outbreaks of Bovine TB in the Isle of Man (though usually the Island is kept free by cattle culling. We don’t have badgers.

  4. @Roger M – not all farmers support the badger cull as some of them understand the science.

    Badgers act as a reservoir for BTB, but as they don’t move that far they are not a significant vector to spread it. However, once BTB is in an area it will be hard to eradicate it if badgers are infected.

    Previous research demonstrated that badger culling tended to help eradicate BTB in the central cull zone, but that is also encouraged further spread of BTB as once you destabilise an established badger population it encourages greater population movements between areas. Culling therefore helped spread BTB.

    Unfortunately, as with foot and mouth, the real culprit is the movement of farm animals – this is how new areas are being infected. Some farmers know this and are extremely cautious about who they buy stock from and where, and apply rigorous isolation of newly aquired stock. However, most are completely ignorant of the issues and just expect the taxpayer to deal with any animal hygiene issues that arise out of their own behaviour.

  5. Alec

    Thanks for that. It’s just that I can’t really find much concrete proof of how the badgers pass it on to cattle – if they do that often. Even the King Report says “it is not possible to be certain about the route of transmission between badgers and cattle”. It suggests urine as a possibility, especially in confined spaces, but it all seems a bit far-fetched to me.

  6. Roger Mexico

  7. Roger Mexico.


    So, is the sugegstion that the cattel eat the gras on which the badgers have urinated? I assume the TB bacterium is therefore present and alive in the urine. So, how does ingestion lead to infection of the cows’ lungs?

    It all sounds dubious.

  8. Mike N

    Many animals carry TB, not just Badgers and the UK is not unique in having a problem. My take on it is that that the cattle should have immunisation jabs, as you can’t keep killing off wildlife just because some have TB.

    This is just one article found online.

    “Many developed countries have reduced or eliminated TB from their cattle population; however significant pockets of infection remain in wildlife in Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States and New Zealand.

    Although cattle are considered to be the true hosts of M. bovis, the disease has been reported in many other domesticated and non-domesticated animals.

    Isolations have been made from buffaloes, bison, sheep, goats, equines, camels, pigs, wild boars, deer, antelopes, dogs, cats, foxes, mink, badgers, ferrets, rats, primates, llamas, kudus, elands, tapirs, elks, elephants, sitatungas, oryxes, addaxes, rhinoceroses, possums, ground squirrels, otters, seals, hares, moles, raccoons, coyotes and several predatory felines including lions, tigers, leopards and lynx.”

  9. On the Data Protection Act: yes, it can include paper records but only when they are very highly organised, or else for entry to/extracted from an electronic system. On the DPA and the Census, this may be of interest:

  10. R Huckle

    I think you’re probably right about cattle vaccination being the solution, but there seems to be this strange thing in British farming against it (see also Foot and Mouth) Maybe they’re worried their cows will get autism.

    I believe molecular studies have shown that Bovine TB is derived from human TB rather than the other way and presumably them passed on to al the other animals. The first badger with TB was only found in 1971.

  11. @ SoCaL

    To be honest, I dread being called for jury service in a case where the accused could be facing a prison sentence. It is a huge responsibility.

    In your scenario, I would have acquitted due to insufficient evidence but I wouldn’t have been certain that he was innocent. It would’ve worried me for the rest of my life. But I’m certain I’d have voted to acquit.

  12. To revert back to the headline topic, Mike Smithson had an interesting post yesterday suggesting that non-internet users are more likely to be in favour of capital punishment than frequent users by about 15 points.

    Now a lot of this may be explained by demographic differences (say older people being both less online and more pro-hanging) but it does make you wonder if on some issues internet-only polling could be unrepresentative.

    Of course the same may be true of phone polls which use land lines only, when so many people now only have mobiles. But that’s a different story.

  13. Roger – I’d expect it to be almost all down to demographics – internet users as a whole will be younger and more affluent, but internet polls are weighted to take account of that. Hence, if you compared the online people with the offline people in a telephone poll, you’d get different answers because the online people would be younger and more affluent.

    If, on the other hand, you compared a sample of online people that had been weighted to have the correct proportions of age, gender, social class, etc with a sample of offline people what had been weighted to have identical proportions of age, gender, social class, etc then you should get pretty much identical results.

    To go back to the start of the story – online Angus Reid and YouGov polls found support for the death penalty for murder at 50-51%, the face-to-face MORI poll found support for the death penalty at 51%.

  14. Socal Liberal

    The confession ws tainted and othewise there was no corroboration, which is something we scots look for.

  15. Capital Punishment for Muder of
    Anyone under 18 years
    Anyone over 60 Years
    Multiple Murders
    Any Security or Police Personel
    Any act of Terrorism involving Deaths or attempted Deaths


  16. I`m not in favour of the Death Sentence or Capital Punishment or whatever you want to call it. Too many people have been executed in error. Once dead they can not be brought back and it`s not good saying sorry. But I do believe a LIfe Sentence should be just that LIFE.
    Then if any new evidence is uncovered, it can be used to open the case and maybe prove the innocence of the convicted, but you can bring back an innocent person who has been hung. and is DEAD.

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