James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
At the heart of Tony Blair’s speech on Europe was the argument that voters made decisions “without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit” – that people didn’t know what they were voting for.
He raises this point partly for tactical ends: as a longstanding arch-pro-European, he wants to undermine the validity of the result. But does he have a point?
On Brexit, no. The Remain campaign mobilised the vast majority of the leading politicians of the day, huge numbers of economists and businesspeople and a host of foreign dignitaries. The former leader of the free world even flew into Britain to tell voters they should choose to stay in the EU. The public – who voted in great numbers – cannot but have heard their warnings.
However Blair raises important general questions. How informed is the electorate? Can the electorate ever become more informed? And how much does it matter? After all, there’s an argument that the right party has won most recent general elections – regardless of how “informed” the voters are.
The average voter appears to consume little news but often – regularly dipping into a paper (increasingly online), watching bulletins and relying on the modern fabric of their everyday life to keep them informed (social media, family and friends etc). This means they tend to have strong opinions on major issues that have been part of public debate for some time: the state of the economy; taxes and welfare; immigration; crime; healthcare; but relatively uninformed views on issues that are either new or of low interest and salience.
You can see this because, while polls on the biggest issues are relatively stable, polls on new and small issues change significantly depending on question wording and recent news stories. A good recent example is education reform: for years, polling was inconsistent because the policy was new, mainly of practical interest to parents and mainly of political interest to a small number of hostile campaigners.
Of course being informed is relative. A well-informed public will only know what insiders would view as very top line discussion points.
People change their views on the biggest issues slowly, and when change does happen it’s usually because something has emotionally hit them so hard – the economic downturn, an NHS crisis – that it has overridden their default view. Such events happen reasonably regularly: intelligent politicians use them as emotional appeals to shape issues the public haven’t made up their minds on yet.
This might sound depressing. It isn’t intended to be. It just reflects the reality of life: people have so much to worry about just keeping their job, looking after their family and trying to enjoy life. It’s ludicrous to morally disqualify ordinary people’s votes simply because they aren’t as ruthlessly obsessed with politics as those that work on the inside.
If voters ever hear anything in politics, it’s safe to assume they heard the two claims of the competing campaigns in 2016. They heard these warnings and on balance rejected them. Cast doubt on the legitimacy of this result and it’s hard to accept the validity of practically any British election.