Labour often thinks that the media world is stacked against it – the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and so on. Against this cacophony, Labour finds it very difficult to have its voice heard. But does this matter? Well, Labour thinks it does. After all, political discussion and public policy making ought to be based on sound evidence and reasoned debate.
So it would be great, wouldn’t it, if the public’s understanding of British society matched what is going on, out there, in the real world.
A recent survey by Ipsos MORI for the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London has investigated just this. Published on July 9th it revealed how wrong the British public can be when asked questions about the make-up of the population and the scale of key social policy issues.
Here is a selection of Ipsos Mori’s findings.
Topic – Teenage pregnancy
Perception – The public thinks that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year.
Reality – Official figures suggest it is around 0.6%.
Topic – Job seekers allowance (JSA)
Perception – 29% of people think we spend more on JSA than on pensions.
Reality – We spend 15 times more on pensions than on JSA.
Topic – Benefit fraud
Perception – People estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates. The public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently.
Reality – Official estimates are that fraudulent claims amount to £0.70 per £100.
Topic – Religion
Perception – On average the public says 24% of the population of England and Wales are Muslims.
Reality – The reality is that Muslims make up just 5% of the population.
Topic – Immigration
Perception – The public thinks that 31% of the population are immigrants.
Reality – The official figures are 13%. Even estimates that attempt to account for illegal immigration suggest a figure closer to 15%.
Topic – Benefit bill
Perception – The poll provided a list of benefit cut options that would save most money. The one most frequently picked by those surveyed was the implementation of a benefit cap of £26,000.
Reality – 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.
Topic – Voting
Perception – The public underestimates the proportion of people who voted in the last general election – the average guess is 43%.
Reality -m65% of the electorate actually voted.
As Ipsos MORI remarks, ‘These misperceptions present clear issues for informed public debate and policy-making’.
We could speculate why these misperceptions occur. Is it because the right wing press has an interest in ‘selectively’ reporting public issues? Or is it because Ministers like Iain Duncan Smith misuse statistics for political reasons? Perhaps both?
Coming closer to home, over the coming months we will want to engage in informed debate with the people of Leeds North West. Ensuring that means countering widely held misperceptions, often deliberately fed for short-term political gain. We are, however, determined that the public debate will be informed.
So, unfortunately, we will also need to keep an eye on Mr Mulholhand and his PR machine which, as we have shown elsewhere, seems to be more interested in spinning than in maintaining reasoned and reasonable debate.
[A full account of the survey here. ]