One of the most important things in understanding public opinion on politics is quite how little attention most people pay to it. I constantly see comments in here asking what effect a news event will have on voting intention. Most of the time the answer is none. This is should be evident from looking at the polls, which have had a steady Labour lead of 10 points or so for months, despite lots of “things” happening. The reasons are that firstly people aren’t watching anyway – most people don’t read broadsheet newspapers or pay much attention to the news, secondly, those that do normally interpret events and stories through their pre-existing political preferences, so they are more likely to re-inforce their existing views than change them.

If you are reading this website in the first place, you are probably a bit of a political anorak. At the very least you are interested in politics. Most people are not, and no matter how little attention you think people pay to political events, you are probably still *vastly* overestimating it. To illustrate it, think of something you care absolutely nothing for – celebrity magazines perhaps, soap operas you don’t watch, US baseball, whatever doesn’t float your boat. Do you know what the big story was in that field last week, how has it changed your opinion of the big players in that field, do you even know who the big players are? That’s most normal people’s attitude to what happened at PMQs this week.

The lack of public interest and awareness of what is going on in politics first really struck me looking at some Populus polling Lord Ashcroft did for his book “Smell the Coffee” back in 2005. It is easy to ask people if they have heard about a story, but it is not the best way – they may not want to look stupid, they may misremember having heard about the story*, the act of prompting people about the story may make people remember it when they’ve forgotten it and so on.

What Lord Ashcroft and Populus did was each day, between January 2005 and election day, ask 250 people if they recalled anything the Conservative party had done or said that week. There was no prompting, it was just what people recalled. Most of them noticed noting at all – sometimes up to 90% of people had noticed nothing (recall, this was just before an election was interest was at its height). The biggest score of anything was Michael Howard pledging to cut immigration, which peaked with 30% of people noticing it straight after Howard’s announcement. The key Conservative election pledges on things like cleaner hospitals, cutting taxes, more police were normally recalled by well under 5% of people. Never forget how little of politics gets through.

Anyway, seven years later and we have another bit of polling from Lord Ashcroft on a similar vein. He’s asked people to list what political news stories they have heard over the last few weeks, again unprompted. The most recalled, by far, is Andrew Mitchell and plebgate, which was recalled by 33% of people, followed by George Osborne not paying for a first class ticket which 13% of people recalled and 8% who recalled stories about the Scottish independence referendum. 7% recalled cuts to child benefit, 6% recalled the story about MPs “swapping flats” to claim more expenses. 5% recalled the increase in GDP figures and the row about prisoners voting, everything else was below 5%.

The second half of Ashcroft’s poll gave people a prompted list of stories and asked if they had heard of them, and also how important they were. The proportions of people claiming to have heard of a story were higher, but “plebgate” still came top (many of the other differences were timing related – in the unprompted question people cleared tended to give stories from the previous couple of days, when the prompted question included things from weeks or months back). People did tend to rate the solid policy stories as more important than the “political soap opera” stories, but the “soap opera” stories were more widely recalled.

What it shows, especially the unprompted question, is that people are more likely to pay attention to and remember the rather trivial but human stories that they think are unimportant than stories about policies and proposals. People may say they think it is comparatively unimportant that Mitchell called a policeman a pleb… but a third of people recalled it unprompted. Try getting a third of people to recall a party’s tax or economic policy unprompted. One might be seen as petty and one might be seen as important, but if people are only aware of the petty one is it going to inform their view of the party.

That’s different, however, from saying they necessarily make an impact. As I said at the start of this post, the reason most events don’t have any impact on voting intention or other trackers isn’t just that they aren’t noticed, it is also that people view them through the prism of their existing political views. So if a Labour MP does something awful, Conservative supporters will probably think it is disgusting and corrupt and must taint the whole of the Labour party… but they weren’t supporting Labour anyway. Labour supporters will probably tend to take a more charitable view, it was an understandable mistake, just one rogue MP and there are bad apples in all parties, the leadership acted strongly to punish them, etc (and of course, it works the other way round if a Conservative MP does something awful).

Even if they do have an effect, it is probably so subtle it is impossible to measure. No one is, in three years time, going to think “Well, the Conservatives have done well in government, I think David Cameron is the better leader, but one of their MP was a bit rude to a policeman three years ago so I’m voting Labour”. However, they might well think “the Conservatives are out of touch with ordinary people and look down on those less wealthy, they aren’t the party for me, I’m voting Labour”. Some of that view could have been contributed to, or reinforced by, a Conservative MP allegedly calling a policeman a pleb. Could we ever prove or disprove this through an opinion poll, not really, no. If we had polls tracking whether people thought the Conservatives were in touch or not from before and after the event we could infer it – but it is tricky to isolate an event, and most changes cannot be distinguished from margin of error variation.

In short, as I’ve said here before, there are three ways of understanding public opinion and its impact on people’s views. The first is crude support or opposition – do people approve or disapprove, like or dislike something. Very easy and straightforward to measure – they don’t like politicians swearing at policemen. The second is salience – is is important to them compared to other issues? Are they even away of it? This is trickier to measure, but in this case we know a significant proportion of people were aware of the Andrew Mitchell story, but also that most didn’t think it was that important. Thirdly, what impact does it have on their wider perception of the party – does it make them think the Conservatives are more out of touch, just reinforce existing views, or neither? We really can’t tell, and its not something that polling can easily tell us.

(*on people misremembering stories that they haven’t actually heard about, the Ashcroft poll today included two fake stories. 14% of people said they had heard at least something about Labour MP Audrey Cockburn using union funds to decorate her flat. Given neither she nor her flat exist, those 14% of people are wrong)

310 Responses to “On whether political trivia matters”

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  1. @ RiN

    :-) You already know tons about it!

    The first is what I call ‘a blinding flash of the obvious’: The population of the UK has grown. So the supply of money (or debt which is just another type of money) has to grow with the population; some believe it can just whiz around faster (?)*. If neither of those things happen, everybody, on average, has to have less money.

    If money supply is X & population is Y where X is fixed & Y is growing, then X/Y has to = less. So X has to grow with Y or the population as a whole has to be poorer. It’s simple maths. And maths made QE necessary. You can’t argue against the maths.

    Folks can argue that it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen; that war, famine, disease etc. should’ve been allowed to cull the population; that the UK should have capped the baby boom after the wars, instead of encouraging the population growth; that there should have been no immigration & that shortages of workers should’ve been dealt with by sending all these booming nippers into factories & up chimneys thereby reducing the UK economy to 3rd world status. But we, as country, didn’t want that :-) so we are where we are!

    Y has changed & there’s nothing palatable which can be done about it now, politically speaking. X was being left to the banks to deal with but that didn’t work out – for a variety of reasons – so the government has stepped in to do the job itself.

    * Re whizzing around faster, IMO this can only compensate for very short-term, business-cycle type changes in the economy not for medium to long-term changes.

    And, as I said at the beginning, this is just the 1st reason why the QE was necessary! Everybody is probably bored already :-)

  2. CL1945
    As a possibly OT aside, I think ‘Abide with me’ should achieve a rallentando on the last verse but not a crescendo.

    Perhaps RC culture ‘does it different ‘?

  3. Amber, very good.

    Of course a long way to explain ‘musical chairs’.
    The money supply in this case is the number of chairs actually increasing but not as fast as the number of players taking part. Something like that. :-)

  4. @ Billy Bob

    “Btw, about the Blixseth party that really was celebrity trash gossip, I shouldn’t have mentioned it, But the Young Turks did consider it newsworthy at the time because Blixseth was a donor, and there were some questions about bank loans/property deals. As far as I am aware, the Ruiz campaign did not stoop so low as to dredge it up, but apparently it was a tabloid “scandal” of some kind back in January 2011 and might have stuck in some voter’s minds (therefore it does qualify as politics and may be of some interest)”

    I think their campaign was very smart not to run on it. It would have been totally trashy and unbecoming of the campaign. Few would have cared. My mom was reading a newspaper article about the race and she looks up and says “how much work has she had done?”

    Now the land deal is a bit different. It seems to me that politicians often get involved in these weird property deals. I think you get a mix of politicians who have no idea what they’re doing who want to make some extra cash with fawning investors who think it’s really cool to invest in a project with someone who’s powerful. My dad was telling me about this potential deal that he was seeing that one of the Romney sons was doing and how certain people he knew were excited about it on that reason alone. I roll my eyes at that.

    Although I am curious about something. Who owns a 75 million dollar estate in Rancho Mirage? That seems way out of place for Rancho Mirage.

    “I wasn’t really too pessimistic this time (except at the last moment about Ruiz), however, I have woken up too many times to the prospect of four years of a Nixon, a Reagan (x2) or a Bush (x3) in the White House not to have a certain amout of dread on election night.”

    I wasn’t pessimistic but I wasn’t overly confident. It wasn’t like last time where I was totally confident and everyone else around me was scared (and didn’t really believe me….even on election night when Ohio was called for Obama). I didn’t go through my typical highs and lows over the election as I usually do. By last moment, do you mean when the results first started coming in? I saw those first results trickle in with him only down by 500 votes or so and I knew he had won.

    I felt it would have been heartbreaking had he lost by a few thousand or a few hundred votes. But when those first precincts started coming in, I knew he’d likely won. And actually, when all is said and done, it looks like he will have done better than Julia Brownley, Scott Peters, and Ami Bera performed. Looks like Jeff Denham held on and won reelection against Jose Hernandez (a similar candidate to Ruiz). Denham had the advantage of having tough political skills and running in a more red district.

  5. @ Howard

    The money supply in this case is the number of chairs actually increasing but not as fast as the number of players taking part. Something like that.
    An excellent analogy. :-)

    The UK needed 100 more chairs; the banks decided to supply 50 tables instead. The government is now having to take the 50 tables, break them down into their component parts, & rebuild them as 100 chairs.

  6. To continue with Howard’s analogy, what I find so odd about Colin’s position is this:

    The banks have already created the 50 imaginary tables. The Treasury – via the BoE – has already turned those tables into 100 real chairs. i.e. The bad debts are no longer the same thing as they were. Real assets have been created to compensate for imaginary ones!

    Colin expects the UK population to say: The banks have had the benefit of 50 imaginary tables; the UK population have paid for the imaginary tables to be converted into real chairs. The government will, at some point, gather in those 100 real chairs & burn them.

    At what point will the UK population agree to their government doing something like that?

    I think Colin’s point of view is that the government has simply taken the imaginary tables & stacked them in an imaginary corner of the BoE. That isn’t what has happened. The Treasury has turned those imaginary tables into real chairs* which the population are now sitting on. So, to remove the chairs the government must wait until the population shrinks. But, even if the population begins to shrink, how will the government take a chair & burn it?

    Let’s go with the obvious, an inheritance tax. A person has gone, a chair is no longer required; we, the government, will take a chair (or part thereof) from each person who dies, & burn it. At what point will the blue team ever allow this inheritance tax to happen?

    So, let’s go with reversing the way in which the problem initially manifested itself rather than why it happened. The government will take back real chairs from the banks (given the banks created the imaginary tables, in the 1st place). A super-tax is proposed for the banks, until such time as the chairs are gathered in. What happens next? The banks go postal along the lines of: Previous bankers were allowed to create imaginary tables, now you are making us pay for that with real chairs! You will make us uncompetetive, collapse the banking system, promote moral hazard (you allowed the previous incumbent bankers to behave badly but we are having to pay!).

    We are hearing that already & there’s little doubt that the howls of offended bankers will only increase as time puts greater distance between the banks & their historical bad acts. Does anybody think the blue team will impose that banking super-tax?

    And here’s the thing, before I am accused of being partisan. The red team would ideologically be able to propose either the inheritance tax or the banking tax. But, having gathered in the real chairs from the banks or the dead, what is the likelihood of the red team destroying them? OMG, we could invest all these chairs in a program to provide chairs for people who have ‘lost’ theirs to the folks who’ve ended up with two (deserve 2, earned 2, created 2 themselves by entreneurial whatsit, is how the blue team would put it).

    * Of course the logic jump which Colin appears to be wilfully refusing to acknowledge is that the imaginary tables have been changed into real chairs by the power of government. There is no i.o.u. for 50 imaginary tables. The i.o.u. is for 100 real chairs. And the 100 real chairs which were made from the 50 imaginary tables are now indistinguishable from all the other real chairs.

    It is a piece of cake to get people to accept real chairs in exchange for imaginary tables! Politically speaking, it is a heck of a lot harder (nigh impossible?) to get them to accept imaginary tables in exchange for real chairs.

  7. @SoCalLiberal – “By last moment, do you mean…”

    It was the (six?) Police associations all turning out en masse to express concerns about the business of the reading of the letter in 1997 – I would have thought they had more clout than the lone ex-FBI guy who had been flown in to do a hatchet job.
    The interview I saw where Ruiz was questioned about these developments was the first time I have seen him flustered during the campaign. I was genuinely thinking Bono Mack had scored there.

    @Amber Star

    Not boring, I think what you are doing is practicing the fine art of haute vulgarisation – only better and more succinctly than the haute vulgarisers are wont to do – this is, I’m finally begining to understand QE. :)

  8. Amber

    The bit you miss out are the international dimensions to the financial crash. Some of the banks who held gilts were foreign and some of the QE money probably left the country. How much of the £375bn QE stayed within the UK ? I suspect it was less than half. The BOE would not have only selected UK banks to work with on QE. Even if they did, most UK banks are global companies, so will have used some of the money outside of the UK.

    In regard to supply of money, it is also the case that Sterling is traded, as are all currencies. If there is more Sterling in the system, then of course this does affect its value internationally. Sterling has reduced in value in comparison with many currencies over the last 5 years. This could well affect the returns earned by UK pension funds who invest abroad. QE will have had some affect on the value of Sterling.

    Perhaps if you have the time, you can broaden your tables and chairs explanation to take into account the international dimension. As the years go by the UK will find it increasing more expensive to buy commodities abroad because of increasing wealth of other countries ( including BRIC) and their growing populations. All countries increase money supply as time goes on, but QE was an increased injection, which several major economies have also done. Some of this will reflect the massive growth in wealth of BRIC and emerging economies.

  9. 1951 General Election
    A myth has grown up around the 1951 General Election. On the face of it Labour got more votes (almost 231,000) than the Conservatives but fewer seats. However 4 seats in N.Ireland with electorates of around 287,000 were not contested at all, as they were heavily Unionist seats. The chances are that Labour would still have had a majority of the national votes, but of course no one can prove how the high the turnout would have been in these seats (traditionally very high) and how many votes the Unionists would have taken.

  10. @Amber

    All this talk of chairs and tables is making me hungry. Please stop it. Not home yet ;)

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