In mid-October last year, a friendly woman from the Ipsos Mori polling company knocked on my door. Ten minutes and a flurry of politely-worded, highly personal questions later, I was left with a tracking device to monitor my every movement, and the promise of a £20 Argos voucher.
Each day, I had to tick a series of boxes about what forms of transport I’d used, answer questions about my reasons for travelling, and my little tracker processed how far I had gone. Each day, I gave the same old answers that boiled down to: nothing, nowhere. I was frequently too bleary to remember the poor tracker on my pre-work morning walks, rendering my data even duller.
I needn’t have bothered. As I later found out when my tracker was collected, some new local Covid-19 travel guidance amid the interminable rule changes and tiers had voided my participation the day after the survey began. (Don’t worry, I still got my Argos Home warm white outdoor fairy lights, plus batteries.)
Yet it was still a strangely enlightening experience, even if not for the weary pollsters. Suddenly, I was on the other side of the looking glass: being surveyed for the type of poll I would likely report on. My colleague from the New Statesman’s data team Michael Goodier and I had in fact studied mobility data earlier that year to investigate how the pandemic was reshaping commerce. We discovered the (limited) movements of people like me were creating a “polo mint” effect, hollowing out city centres and reviving local high streets.
While working exclusively from home, solely communicating with colleagues doing the same, it is easy to forget your experience is not the norm – particularly amid an overarching media narrative of Zoom fails, collective banana-bread baking and tracksuit hegemony.
Yet results from surveys like the one in which I tried to participate for Ipsos Mori reveal the true picture: that the majority of people are still going into work. Only 32 per cent of working adults are working exclusively from home, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. You’d think the number would be well over half the population, given the amount of space the phenomenon has taken up in the national conversation since last March.
Sometimes, reporting on the rollercoaster of policy changes, political rows and interviewees’ personal experiences can be so overwhelming it is difficult as a journalist to work out how you personally feel about what’s going on – not as a commentator paid for their opinion, but as a human. Amid the endless Brexit votes in 2019, I remember one particularly knackered lobby correspondent telling me: “I don’t even know what I want to come out of this as a citizen anymore.”
There is a strangely refreshing feeling of solidarity in realising you are part of the story, not just trying to tell it or even commissioning your own polling – as we regularly do – to do so.
Every few weeks, I now fill in surveys on topical policy matters for Ipsos Mori and discover the nuances of public opinion as I go along.
A recent example was a series of questions about vaccine passports. While knowing the ins and outs of political divides, ethical issues and legal limitations concerning the idea, I only worked out how I actually felt about it by doing the survey.
I realised I felt much more negatively than I assumed most people of my demographic – generally sympathetic to Covid-safe measures, comfortable with vaccination – would be. My answers were almost entirely anti on the proposal. Arrogantly, I imagined myself as an intriguing anomalous dot on a graph somewhere. Yet the findings showed otherwise.
Although people are broadly supportive of the idea of vaccine passports in a general sense, there is a “much more mixed picture for things like going to a pub or restaurant”, according to Ipsos Mori’s Kelly Beaver, who talked through the results on BBC Radio 4’s World at One on 25 March.
She also highlighted a difference in opinion between age groups. Support is highest among over-55s, and lowest among those aged between 25 and 34 (my age group). I hadn’t realised that my own place in society – last to be jabbed, less likely to fall seriously ill with coronavirus – was central, perhaps unconsciously, to my entirely predictable stance.
More than half of my fellow respondents were also afraid, like me, that such a policy could lead to a more “unequal society” – something I (again, arrogantly) assumed would be a secondary concern to the immediate threat of Covid-19 among the majority of those polled.
I’ve spent years reporting on poverty and inequality, and a persistent frustration has been the lack of traction such issues receive at election time. Indeed, anti-poverty think tanks and charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation are workshopping how to “frame” these subjects in a different way that chimes more with the public.
I assumed, therefore, that an “unequal society” would be less of a preoccupation among the people polled than speeding up the process of going for a pint. I was wrong, which perhaps tells the first wisp of a story about how public priorities are shifting because of the injustices exposed by Covid-19.
Even outside the electoral cycle, public opinion is cherished by those in power – and those who seek it. During the pandemic, it has taken on holy grail status.
Finding out what people are willing to stomach, and for how long, to stop Covid-19 spreading is central to the success of the pandemic response. Indeed, one of the most high-profile Tory “cronyism” scandals has been over a six-figure deal awarded without tender or a formal contract to Public First, to carry out government messaging and public opinion research during the first lockdown.
As my colleague Ailbhe Rea revealed last year, No 10 was receiving almost daily polling data on public attitudes to the Covid response as the crisis unfolded.
The British public’s consistent support for restrictions clearly took many policymakers by surprise at first. After all, the original delay to locking down – widely regarded now as a catastrophic mistake – was justified by the UK government on the basis of behavioural science: that people would only abide by such strict rules for a few weeks, and might give up just as the virus peaked. “If you move too early,” warned the chief medical officer Chris Whitty on 12 March last year, “people get fatigued.”
It didn’t turn out that way, much to the bafflement of a people-pleasing Prime Minister who has tried repeatedly to look “popular”, forgetting public stoicism. Last November, following Boris Johnson’s plan to allow Christmas “bubbles” and mixing, 60 per cent of Britons told YouGov they wouldn’t mind spending Christmas under restrictions. Dissatisfaction with coronavirus laws has always centred on them being too loose rather than too strict.
Health professionals even appeared taken aback that there was maybe too much willingness to “stay at home” and “protect the NHS” as the government instructed, leading to a public health crisis of people dying at home rather than seeking treatment.
Now, positive public sentiment towards the rules is taken as given. As the libertarian Tory MP Steve Baker recently lamented: “The public are in favour of the government’s authoritarian measures, and the government will therefore keep giving them that authoritarianism good and hard until they change their minds.”
Voxpops on broadcast news, the New Labour-inspired obsession with focus grouping, and generally imagined biases of “the man on the Clapham omnibus” have long shaped policymaking – even if the Clapham omnibus passenger has since been replaced with a rugby league enthusiast in a flat-cap with a whippet in some ersatz “Red Wall” town.
Yet the trend towards viewing every pronouncement or proposal first through the eyes of a confected public audience – a phenomenon I have previously labelled the “Goggleboxing” of our politics – has been exposed for its flaws during the pandemic. The public can surprise you.