One of the stranger aspects of the past eighteen months has been the opinion polls showing relentless public support for lockdowns. Whatever the array of options, voters always seem to opt for the most risk-averse/authoritarian one.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see, in this morning’s Times, a YouGov poll showing that on Freedom Day, most people don’t want it to happen. 55% of people are think it is the wrong thing to do, and only 31% of people support it.
But when you dig into the underlying data, you notice some odd things going on. You would expect that younger people, who we know from rocketing case numbers and queues outside nightclubs last night are not exactly avoiding contact with each other, would be in favour of restrictions being lifted while older people would be more cautious. Not so. In fact, the youngest cohort of 18-24 year olds are less likely than average to say they support the reopening (with only 28% in favour).
So what is going on?
The explanation, as so often, is at least partly political. The question YouGov asked begins with “The Government” and is presented as a “right or wrong” judgement — as such it is in part a measure of whether or not you endorse the Conservative Government.
Sure enough, when you look at the responses by voting intention, the only group that is in favour of the Government’s re-opening is… Tory voters! Can it really be the case that the opinion of individuals on the pandemic is so dramatically aligned with their political persuasion? Well, perhaps. But it also seems fair to suspect that it is exaggerated by the fact of answering an opinion poll and the wording of the question.
Earlier in the same survey, YouGov asked respondents who they would vote for in a general election. 55% of 18-24 year olds said Labour, while only 22% chose Conservative (the national figures are 44% Conservative, 31% Labour). This is by far the most anti-Tory, pro-Labour age group in the country.
So if you’re a 20 year old on the YouGov panel, answering a quick survey to earn 50p before heading out to get in line for a Freedom Day nightclub re-opening party, you still might not want to lend the evil Tories your support. At best, you might put your cross in the ‘don’t know’ column — which fully 19% of them chose to do, more than any other age group.
The net effect is surely an exaggeration of the apparent opposition to reopening, because the demographic groups that ought to be most in favour are also the most politically opposed to the Government. It’s left to the older, Tory voting, respondents to overcome their greater anxiety and offer their support. These effects don’t balance each other out because, as any pollster will tell you, survey respondents are generally more inclined to criticise politicians than defend them.
We know from Dominic Cummings’ leaked WhatsApp messages that Boris Johnson pays close attention to opinion polls and focus groups when making decisions about Covid. He ought to take care — public opinion is more complex than the headline finding might suggest.