Voters really dislike inappropriate language – but they hate politicians more

A new YouGov poll makes uncomfortable reading for Anne Marie-Morris and Jared O'Mara.

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How much does the public really care about inappropriate language? That’s the question that Philip Cowley asked Lisa Nandy after she said that Jared O’Mara’s language was “unacceptable” for a Labour MP at Queen Mary University’s Mile End Institute.

Now YouGov have polled voters on what they make of the use of inappropriate language, and the results are fascinating.

The headline news is that Nandy was right: large majorities of voters regard the use of off-colour language as unacceptable conduct on the part of an MP.

Large majorities of voters regard all of O’Mara’s forum posting as inappropriate. More than half – 54 per cent – believe that his use of the homophobic slur “fudgepackers” means he ought to resign, while the least severe of his utterances, according to the public at least, was that fat people don’t deserve respect unless they have a medical condition, which just 32 per cent believe should have led to his resignation as an MP, though 77 of voters agree that the remarks are inappropriate. (The remainder are satisfied with a simple apology.)

Voters are even less keen on Anne Marie-Morris’ use of the phrase “nigger in the woodpile”, with 57 per cent believing that an MP making these remarks ought to resign. They also take a dim view of Clive Lewis instructing a man to “get on your knees, bitch”, with 58 per cent of respondents saying they believe the remark is resignation-worthy. (This finding in particular surprised me, as YouGov took care to make it clear that the remark was said as a joke at a public meeting.)

There is no particular generational divide, though 25-40-somethings are on the whole more likely to regard these remarks as inappropriate but not resignation-worthy than either 18-25s or the over 40s. There is one exception: Just 40 per cent of the over-60s regard the use of the phrase “nigger in the woodpile” as so inappropriate as to be a sacking offence, while majorities of all other ages do. However, the over-60s still regard the remark as inappropriate by a heavy margin.

In all these instances, voters were asked to comment on this behaviour in the abstract. Then YouGov revealed the political identity of the MPs in question – and, surprisingly, the results remained broadly unchanged. There are very small partisan effects if you reveal that a Labour MP said this or a Conservative MP said that, but on the whole, the large majorities remain unchanged. What is more noticeable is that people are more sympathetic to any named or more specifically-identified politician than they are to one in the abstract. (In my favourite finding, 73 per cent of Labour voters believe that an MP using the n-word should have to quit their job, while 67 and 47 per cent of Liberal Democrat and Conservative voters agree. If you ask whether a Conservative MP should resign, those numbers drop to 66 per cent among Labour voters and 39 per cent among Conservative ones. Only the Liberal Democrat reaction remains unchanged within the margin of error at 45 per cent.)

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that the average voter, young or old, is far less accepting of inappropriate language than we might be given to expect from the conversations of pundits. But it also tells us that while people dislike politicians in the abstract they are more sympathetic to them in the specific – which may mean that the consequences of this more severe scandal over harassment are not as destructive to the parties themselves as we might think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman, the EI Political Commentator of the Year, and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.