There exists in social psychology a well-documented phenomenon called the false-consensus effect – a natural tendency for people to think that their beliefs and values are more widely-held than they actually are. It explains, perhaps, why the data I’m about to present will shock many readers.
Last week’s once-in-a-parliament publication of the British Election Study’s (BES) 2017 random probability survey provides us with one of the most reliable barometers of public, across a wide range of topics.
Views that can be characterised as left-of-centre in an economic sense (in terms of the size and role of the state) are relatively popular. For example, 63 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed that “ordinary working people get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”, while 89 per cent thought that “putting more money into the health service” was very or fairly important.
But on other issues – the so-called “open versus closed” axis – much of the data will make far more difficult reading for progressives. Though no executions have taken place in Britain since 1964 – coincidentally the year of the first BES – 51 per cent either agreed or strongly agreed that “for some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence”.
Those backing measures to promote equality for ethnic minorities are themselves in a minority, with 56 per cent thinking that “attempts to give equal opportunities to black people and Asians in Britain” were either about right currently, or had already gone a little too far or much too far.
And although the percentage taking the view that “too many immigrants have been let into this country” had fallen by 10 points since 2015, at 62 per cent it remained a large majority, and even represented a substantial minority (38 per cent) among 2016 Remainers.
On the topical issue of gender equality, 51 per cent of people didn’t think “attempts to ensure equality for women” needed to go further, within which an increased percentage (12 per cent, up 2 points from 2015) thought that they had already gone too far or much too far.
Though question formats and wordings are always the subject of debate, this, essentially, was public opinion in Great Britain in 2017.
Because the BES prioritises accuracy over speed, its fieldwork predates the #MeToo movement. But in recent conventional polling for the BBC, 39 per cent, including 34 per cent of women, told ComRes that it had gone too far – not majorities, but nevertheless eye-catchingly strongly opposition to a movement against sexual assault and harassment. For comparison, polls have found that the percentage of women identifying as feminists ranges from a similar share of around 1 in 3, down to fewer than 1 in 10, depending on methodology and question wording.
It is worth noting how sharply these views diverge from those within liberal circles, where the consensus is instead that men, white people and non-immigrants are intrinsically privileged and that much more needs to be done to address the situation.
The illusion that liberal viewpoints on these issues are “mainstream” may be reinforced by social media, which the BES separately shows is wildly unrepresentative of the wider population – with a strong left-of-centre and socially liberal lean – and to an even greater extent than in 2015.
It is also worth reconsidering, in the light of this data, the anger and resentment expressed in focus groups and on doorsteps about such prevalent socially conservative views being painted as bigoted, extreme or niche, when they are in fact held by majorities of British adults. Indeed, resentment aside, such characterisations may also misunderstand the attitudes in question. Many will oppose racism and sexism, but feel that equality has already been achieved – a view which, however disputed it may be by liberals, is semantically not the same as opposing equality itself.
These findings have a number of implications. For those of us who write or broadcast from a neutral perspective, but who live in urban areas, are surrounded by university graduates, diverse communities and people of below median age, and who are social media users (all of which are predictors of liberal attitudes), they are an important reminder that the values of those around us are not typical. What is accepted as a strong consensus in filter bubbles may in fact be anything but, and this arguably deserves greater consideration when thinking about impartiality.
For liberals, they highlight the need to broaden support and make the case for their values, and illustrate the trap of believing a liberal majority already exists on all issues and that further progress is impeded only by vested interests. The reality is that reintroducing capital punishment is relatively popular with the public, while pro-diversity measures and high levels of immigration are not. Repeatedly pushing through societal change risks being counterproductive in the long run if it does not enjoy popular support.