by UnHerd
Tuesday, 1
June 2021

Proof at last: Politicos don’t know what they’re talking about

New evidence for what may have seemed obvious for some time
by UnHerd
Whose party is it anyway? Credit: Getty

Spend any time on Twitter and you may come to suspect that some of the most politically engaged individuals have the least idea what they’re talking about. 

Listen to the Question Time audience or a radio show phone-in and you may reach a similar conclusion. 

Well, now there’s proof. A new paper in a forthcoming issue of Electoral Studies presents hard evidence that a high level of attention to politics is no guarantee of accuracy. The authors, Roosmarijn de Geus and Jane Green of Nuffield College, Oxford explore the complicated relationship between knowledge and attention by asking people whether nor not they’ve heard about various new political parties, like the Brexit Party.

The ingenious bit is that some of the parties are fictitious. For instance, as well as the Brexit Party, respondents were asked about an entirely made-up organisation called the Remain Party. Yet, despite its non-existence, 37% of respondents claimed to have heard about it.

This compares to 19% recognition for the Women’s Equality Party, which does in fact exist. 

But isn’t there a straightforward explanation for these mistakes, which is that a lot of people have more than politics to bother about — and thus aren’t paying much attention? They’ll have heard others drone on about Remain — so, perhaps, when asked about a Remain Party, they simply guess that one must exist. 

But here’s the twist: increased attention to politics doesn’t necessarily improve the accuracy of people’s answers. Indeed, among the ‘low knowledge’ group of respondents, those who pay the most attention to politics are more likely to say that they’ve heard of a fictitious party than those who pay less attention. It would seem that a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. 

It could be especially dangerous for pollsters if their surveys are targeting people with high levels of political attention on the assumption that they know more about politics. This can’t be assumed at all. 

Aside from accuracy, there’s also the question as to whether the news agenda leaves a lasting impression on those who pay the most attention to it. 

For instance, a recent YouGov survey found that the Downing Street refurbishment saga only had an effect on the voting intention on the high attention group. The rest of the population didn’t seem to care. As it turned out, the sudden narrowing of opinion polls around this time didn’t last for long.

Could it be that these short-term shifts in public opinion are as frothy as the news agenda that drives them?

Join the discussion

  • No, what drives shifts in political support is perception.
    Someone who pays a lot of attention to politics is as vulnerable to perceptual shift as someone who only tunes in once every four or five years.

    The key example for me – although I know some do not accord it the weight I do – was the night of the Sheffield rally when Kinnock
    got carried away. I watched, and knew instantly that he had blown it. Millions of other people watched it and made up their minds that this man should not be Prime Minister.

    Starmer did pretty much the same thing when he took the knee.
    He doesn’t appear to know it, but there was no way back from that. His equivocation over just about everything merely underscores an already cemented perception that this man lacks the necessary integrity and conviction to lead the country.

    When the next election comes, he will lose it. it is guaranteed unless Johnson does something so terrible the sh)t finally sticks to him. And even then it will be close run, because people don’t want Starmer in charge.

    I hear you cry: but Johnson does not have integrity or conviction.

    You are right. But he has never pretended to have it. Instead he has cemented the perception that he is clever, amiable and in touch with the common man.

    It is all perception. it isn’t policy detail, unless a policy disaster rears its head (dementia tax). In fact, the dementia tax cemented a perception about May that was less than favourable: she was doing it because Corbyn was so awful she still couldn’t lose even if she was going to disinherit the children of middle class Tory voters. It looked (and was) cynical.

    Regardless of what triggers it, it is broad perception that determines whether someone is electable. Apparently inconsequential occurrences can trigger a 180 degree perceptual switch from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ (or, if more rarely, vice versa) while at the same time mountains and mountains of the most damning evidence can fail to make a dent in someone’s popularity.

  • Respondents were asked about an entirely made-up organisation called the Remain Party. Yet, despite its non-existence, 37% of respondents claimed to have heard about it.

    …the Remain Party does exist though. It was called Change UK (or the independent party, or Anna Soubry’s travelling circus, or whatever was considered the most attention-getting name of the week).

  • That takes me back… Anna Soubry… Wonder whatever happened to that sour faced old whiner?

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