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.