Does giving voters the facts on issues like the NHS change their views? Up to a pointby Bobby Duffy / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
In the run-up to the general election, surveys of British opinion have been showing a “perception gap” over public services—a divergence between the personal experience people report and their views of the trend in the quality of services generally. While they are likely to be satisfied with their local school or hospital, they regard the education system and the NHS as a whole more negatively.
This may be partly because of optimism—people (and companies) regularly expect their own economic prospects to be better than those for the country as a whole. But there is evidence to suggest that people have more negative views about broader social change than is justified by the facts. This may, in turn, be a function of the “bad news” bias of news values, at a time when more people depend exclusively on the news media for political information and are less likely to use other sources—such as trade unions, political parties or churches.
There is an identifiable correlation between on the one hand the amount and accuracy of the information available to people on political issues, and on the other their opinions about those issues. A recent example was the debate on student tuition fees last year, when surveys showed that those who were most familiar with the detail of the proposal were more likely to support it. Of those aware that there were no up-front fees, that interest rates on loans were very low and that students from poor families would not miss out, a large majority supported the scheme, compared with only three in ten overall.
However, successive polls by Mori in the run-up to last year’s referendum on an elected regional assembly in the northeast illustrate an opposite relationship between information and opinion. In February 2003, 59 per cent of residents said they supported the idea. By the summer of 2004, this had dropped to 39 per cent. By October those in favour had fallen to 29 per cent. And the actual poll in November showed only 22 per cent support. All along, opposition was strongest among those who claimed to be well informed on the issue—and that group could only have grown as the campaign and the publicity developed. The government is hoping that momentum in the referendum on the European constitution will go the other way, given that more knowledgeable people are at the moment more likely to…