Richard North, 29/10/2014  

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An intriguing piece in the Mail highlights an Ipsos Mori poll which compares public perception with reality. And of each of a number of high profile issues, from teen pregnancies to jobs and immigration, the poll shows public perception is at odds with reality.

Details are on the poll website and also given a treatment in the Independent, which has the British people being "ignorant" about "almost everything". Two comparisons stand out: the proportion of immigrants is put at 24 percent, when the reality is 13 percent, and the proportion of Muslims is put at 21 percent, when the real figure is five percent.

Interestingly, we are not alone in this. Says Ipsos Mori, diplomatically, the rest of the world is just as wrong. Across the 14 countries where the poll was conducted, the public thought immigration was over twice the actual level. The average guess was that 24 percent of the population was born abroad, when the actual figure is 11 percent.

That overall figure includes some massive overestimates: the US public thinks 32 percent of the population are immigrants when the actual is 13 percent. In Italy the public think 30 percent are immigrants when it's actually seven percent. In Belgium the public think it's 29 percent, when it's actually ten percent.

What is not discussed so far, though, is the political implications of this survey. It would be interesting, for instance, to carry out the same poll amongst MPs and then compare the differences. Possibly, there would a significant difference in relative perceptions, which could account for the charge that politicians are "out of touch".

Certainly, if perceptions are markedly different, and representatives are closer to the reality than their voters, this would mean that the antagonism towards the "political class" is being fuelled by ignorance.

In this scenario, the greater the ignorance, the more strident the antagonism, which may explain the "shouty, ranty" behaviour of UKIP supporters (or "kiptoids", as some are suggesting they should be called).

In writing history, one of the greater difficulties in assessing the reactions of key characters is not so much trying to work out what they knew, but in understanding what they didn't know.

Maybe we're dealing with the same phenomenon here, in that MPs and others have vastly under-estimated the ignorance – and thus the distortion in the perception – of the British public. After all, if they are unaware that the public sees a problem as twice as serious as it actually is, then their responses are going to be seen to be inadequate.

From this, though, devolves an interesting quandary. Should policy-makers seek to educate voters – and thereby correct their perceptions – or respond to public perception, even though it is wrong? And, if they don't do the latter, how do they avoid the charge that they are ignoring public opinion?


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