One of the innovations of modern day politics is the rise of the focus group. Political parties tend to frame their policies on the outcome of these. They want to go with the grain of what people think, to follow public opinion rather than frame public opinion.
Now of course if the public were diligent and did a proper search of the facts before they arrived at their conclusions this would be a wise approach to policy making. What could be better in a representative democracy for politicians to represent the views of their constituents and frame policies on that basis. Oh if only it was that simple.
Individuals spend a considerable amount of research before spending on big money items. No one would purchase a house without considerable research; indeed lawyers are hired to do that very research that’s to stop bad choices been made. It’s the same for other expensive items, cash is not parted on a whim. And it goes for other areas of life too. In choosing a school, a care home for elderly parents choice is not exercised without gathering the facts.. Why? Because there would be serious consequences to the individuals concerned if mistakes were made and the wrong choice taken. So there are real tangible benefits in trying to gather the best information.
But it’s not so with political choices. Take this week, voters are rightly annoyed at been ripped off by the energy giants in their utility bills. What’s to be done? Well, our Prime Minister has come up with the cunning little plan of gettingt rid of the green tariff, a tariff that incidentally consisted of many charges that his own government introduced. But that’s another story, as they say. So scrap or reduce green tariff, “Why not” say most bill payers. Because getting climate change policy wrong has little consequence for the individual consumer but for society as a whole and for future generations it might be a very costly mistake indeed.
Most of the public haven’t the incentive or time to research political issues in depth, and why should they, life’s to short. Most rely on bite size junks of information delivered in the main by the press.
But how reliable are these? People are getting the wrong end of the stick on many issues as was recently shown by Ipsos MORI in a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College, London.
Lets look at a case and point. This government has spent a great deal of time convincing the public that cutting down on benefits is a good thing and lets be frank the Opposition under Ed Miliband are playing catch up on this issue. So at the next general election, the parties will have policies aimed at the “benefit scroungers.” Presumably based on what focus groups are telling them.
The great British public will approve, because they estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudently than official estimates. Joe public thinks that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100.
They also think that capping benefits at £26,000 per household will save most money from a list provided (33% pick this option), over twice the level that select raising the pension age to 66 for both men and women or stopping child benefit when someone in the household earns £50k+.
In fact, capping household benefits is estimated to save £290m, compared with £5bn for raising the pension age and £1.7bn for stopping child benefit for wealthier households.
But why let the facts get in the way of a good story or even a policy. To get the public to accept cuts it’s always good to demonise the recipients as wasters. An agenda set by the right wing press, having a scapegoat makes good copy.
It’s the same for that other Daily Mail favourite – immigration. The public think that 31% of the population are immigrants, when the official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%. So the public think that there are twice as many immigrants in the country than actually are. There are similar misperceptions on ethnicity: the average estimate is that Black and Asian people make up 30% of the population, when it is actually 11% (or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups.)
What the survey suggests is that voters views in some key areas of policy are wildly inaccurate. Why so? Because these are the issues that the tabloid’s print time and time again. But that’s the nature of the beast.
It might suit some politicians to follow the tabloids agenda but surely other politicians should not play catch up. Let them fight back and start giving the public the real facts, not reinforcing prejudice. Ultimately the whole of the society is diminished if public policy is based on prejudice rather than on fact. This is what should concern the public not what kind of complaint mechanism the press has.