Monday, September 22, 2008

Representative democracy – and that means you do exactly what we say

I’ve often thought that when people say they want politicians to ‘listen’, they actually mean that they want politicians to obey. A new poll from Ipsos MORI bears my suspicion out. It asked:

People have different views about this country and about Prime Ministers. For each of these pairs of statements, please tell me which one comes closest to your ideal:
  • I would prefer a Prime Minister who mainly trusts his own judgement and experience to make decisions
  • I would prefer a Prime Minister who mainly acts on the views and opinions of the general public to make decisions

The result: 32% wanted a PM to make his own mind up, 64% wanted a weathervane.

The demographic breakdown offers a few more details:

  • Men favour the weathervane by 56 to 40, women by 71 to 25.
  • 18-34-year-olds favour a weathervane by 76 to 20, 35-54s by 62 to 34, those 55+ by 56 to 40.
  • ABC1s favour a weathervane by 56 to 39, C2DEs by 73 to 23.
  • Tabloid readers favour a weathervane by 74 to 23, but broadsheet readers favour an independent decision-maker by 50 to 46.

Now, of course, this question may well have been understood by the respondents in the context of an unpopular PM whom many of them find deeply unresponsive, but I doubt that accounts for very much of the result. Unfortunately, Ipsos MORI doesn’t give a breakdown of answers to this question by voting intention.

Another thought is that there’s a difference between politicians’ doing what I say and their doing what the public says – but I also suspect that most people think that their own views are pretty widely held. Certainly all those who argue that ‘the party can regain popularity only by adopting my own favourite policies’ must think this; and that letters-page standby ‘Am I alone in thinking…’ is always rhetorical.

A hint of evidence on this comes from another recent poll, by Populus, which asked voters to place themselves on a political scale from 1 (very left-wing) to 10 (very right-wing). All of 52% gave themselves a 5, and another 14% 4 or 6. There must be a world of disagreement within that 52%, but people tend to think of themselves as being in the middle ground – presumably in much the same place as most others. Sadly, while Populus did ask people to place the main parties and their leaders on this same scale, there was no question on where ‘the average voter’ or ‘the typical voter’ or ‘most people’ would be placed. But do you doubt the answer’s mostly going to be 5 as well?

But regardless of this, I’d expect a very strong correlation between thinking one’s own views are in the majority and wanting government to follow public opinion.

Those politicians who chase polls will, of course, take heart from this and redouble their efforts. Those who make up their own minds regardless of popularity will, bless them, ignore this – but they’ll be fighting a strong populist tide.


Liam Murray said...

As always with polls you need a forensic eye on the question - and in this case it strikes me as very loaded.

The contrast is between "judgement" & "experience" versus acting mainly "on the views and opinions of the general public" - the alarming thing being that despite being loaded 'against' weathervanes as you call them they still win out!

How about these alternatives:

"I would prefer a Prime Minister with deep-rooted ideological conviction, little time for alternative viewpoints and an unbending conviction that they're right or...

I would prefer a Prime Minister cogniscant of his or her own limitations, ready to learn from others and keen to understand genuine public concern rather than suggest it's misplaced."

I've said many times before Brown is clearly Cameron's intellectual better but that counts for little. Labour-leaning friends think I'm being provocative when I say this but Brown reminds me very much of Thatcher in her hey-dey - utterly unable to countenance any dissent or disagreement, haughty and deeply partisan.

The public don't want their politicians to be deeply antagonistic towards each other (even if bloggers do). Blair never hated the Tories (his dad was one) and consequently he understood how to beat them. Cameron doesn't hate Labour either which explains his public appeal - the negative angle is wooly, centrist managerialism and the positive one is pragmatic common sense. Either way the public warm to it.

Tom Freeman said...

You have a fair point there (although I think a truly derogatory version of the second option, as counterpart to yours of the first, would have to say something about ‘following opinion polls’ or ‘courting popularity’).

My impression of Cameron is that while he may not hate Blairism (whatever he takes that to mean), he does hold most of the rest of the Labour party in pretty deep contempt – although he’s astutely calm about it.

And you’re right – being too intellectual can be a barrier being a good political leader. Intellectuals may be endlessly curious about ideas or they may be ingeniously entrenched in their own theoretical systems – both of which relate to common criticisms of Brown (dithering/dogmatic). On the other hand, those towards the other end of the spectrum may well also be stubbornly rigid (or, conversely, flighty).

A good PM has to be able to bend when faced with good counterarguments, but also able to stand their ground when faced with merely popular ones.

Chris said...

But isn't it interesting that the very next question shows a vast majority in favour of a prime minister who is 'better qualified than me in terms of background and experience'? If you interpret the previous question as about obeying the public, then wouldn't that contradict it and show that they could not fully get their arms around the question? I mean, what's the point of wanting your intellectual superior to be in power if you also don't want him mainly trusting his own judgement and experience?

Personally I think the wording is too vague to draw conclusions like this - it would be better with a series of concrete examples. People are likely to hear it as 'I would like a prime minister who a) ignores me b) listens to me'. Or, for those voting for a), 'I would like a prime minister who a) ignores the Sun b) is Murdoch's bitch', because sometimes people do think that they're currently in the minority and have a number of people to blame for that that does not include themselves. It's also easier to think of individual examples where politicians screwed up on their own than screwed up by following polls, the same way it's easier to find fault in someone else than write your own blog.

(And what does 'mainly' mean anyway? That lumps people who think politicians should be our thralls with people who think the balance should be 50.1% to 49.9% in favour of the public's will, as if you can break it down that way in the first place.)

Paul E. said...

"....this question may well have been understood by the respondents in the context of an unpopular PM whom many of them find deeply unresponsive, but I doubt that accounts for very much of the result."

I think that it may be more pertinent than you think. Not only in terms of Brown's perceived unpopularity, but in terms of the turbulence of the times.

I'd like to see that research reframed and done again at another time before I'd draw too strong a conclusion from it.