At the weekend, I saw a presentation of the June polling findings from the British Election Study. The BES is a collaborative academic exercise run before and at each general election. It is designed to gather some of the key raw material about the public’s opinions which will then be available to anyone who subsequently pours over the election, trying to explain why it turned out as it did.
The June results including some striking figures on the public’s reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal:
- Have you heard reports and MPs’ expenses? Yes: 95%
- Do you think the scandal proves most MPs are corrupt: 59% agree
- Despite media coverage, the scandal is not important: 87% disagree
- Scandal makes me very angry: 91%
- MPs who abused expenses system should resign immediately: 82%
Source: June YouGov BES poll
It’s fairly common for people in politics to overestimate the public’s knowledge of an issue and the degree to which it matters to them. This time round, it looks to be more like a case of underestimating. 95% recall of a political issue is astonishingly high, as is 91% saying they are “very angry” as a result.
Even though the media reporting has very quickly moved on from the question of whether MPs will resign straight away – with the press pack largely taking news that someone will stand down at the general election as reason enough to move on to the next story – the public still overwhelmingly want MPs to resign right now.
So what are the lessons for campaigners?
First, don’t underestimate the degree to which even MPs who haven’t been caught up at all in the scandal will still have to battle to avoid public disapproval.
Second, where an MP has been caught up in serious misdemeanours, there is every reason to campaign hard through the autumn demanding they resign now, rather than getting another six months or more in the job.
Third, there is likely to be a lot of mileage in campaigning for a system of recall for MPs so that in extreme cases the public can put their future to a vote ahead of a general election.
Fourth, an awful lot of energy and imagination is going to need to go in to rebuilding the public’s confidence in our political system.