Last month I wrote a post arguing that an awful lot of opinion polling is worthless. The public mood matters – and measuring it is important – but when it comes to the detail of actual government policy the public is, generally speaking, clueless.
Well, whaddyaknow, but here’s a new Ipsos-Mori survey which confirms my suspicions. The Great British Public may have many virtues and they may be able to tell you that poor Mr Clegg is a wrong ‘un but when you peak beneath the bonnet you begin to fear that newspaper comment threads may not be quite as unrepresentative of the general public as you’d like to think they must be.
For instance, Ipsos-Mori find that “on average, we think teenage pregnancy is 25 times higher than official estimates: we think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year, when official figures suggest it is around 0.6%”.
Then there’s this doozy: 29% of respondents think the government spends more on unemployment benefits – the Job Seekers’ Allowance – than on pensions. In fact, pensions cost 15 times as much (rightly so!).
It is not surprising that 26% of people think that the Department of International Development has one of the two or three largest budgets in Whitehall but it is still eye-popping to discover that “More people select this as a top item of expenditure than pensions (which cost nearly ten times as much, £74bn) and education in the UK (£51.5bn).”
Similarly and given the media’s obsession with the subject it is no great shock to discover that the public massively over-estimates the amount of benefit fraud. Even so, the public gets this wrong by several orders of magnitude, estimating that £24 in every £100 are claimed fraudulently when the official (skewed?) figure is a mere £0.70 per £100.
Nor is the public capable of using its eyes. How else to interpret the finding that “we greatly overestimate the proportion of the population who are Muslims: on average we say 24%, compared with 5% in England and Wales”?
And if you think the great national conversation about immigration sometimes borders on the hysterical you may not be surprised to discover that the British public massively over-estimates the number of immigrants who have come to live and work in this country. The average estimate hazards that 30% of the British population are black or asian (the actual figure is around 11%) and that a whopping 31% of the people living on these islands are immigrants (the true figure is around 13%).
It’s all a bit like the old Irish joke about a tourist asking for directions and being told “well you wouldn’t want to start from here”. But this is the way it is and this is our democracy. But the next time you find yourself outraged by some politician’s witless stupidity you might pause to remember the clay with which they have to work. It’s not a pretty business.
And yet, despite all that, it is worth observing that though the general public are often deluded they remain, on the whole, doggedly decent. Perhaps a quarter of the population – and on some issues more than that – hold views that might make them easy targets for flamboyant demagogues and charlatans. Despite that, the public still – just about – instinctively shies away from such excess. Extremism still has almost no hold on British public life and messy, muddled and ignorant though the public may be they still see through frauds and hucksters whether those reactionaries hail from the far-right or the far-left. That’s something worth remembering too even if we also sometimes wonder about some of our compatriots.