Last weekend saw one of the biggest ever public protests in Britain, with organisers claiming more than 700,000 people took to the streets of London to support a second Brexit referendum. The scale of this demonstration led some to describe it as “too big to ignore”.
How we assess that claim depends to a large extent on how we interpret it. If “ignore” is taken literally to mean “pay no attention”, then that would indeed be difficult. But if instead it means “not change course” then that is a possible (and seemingly likely) outcome. Neither main party supported a second referendum beforehand and that remains the case now.
This naturally begs the question of how much such protests influence policy. There have been some very large marches that did not result in policy changes. Of course, in some cases the protest isn’t even advocating any specific policy action in the first place (such as the rallies against Donald Trump’s visit to the UK).
There is also a more fundamental question – to what extent does policy correspond to what has popular support? In other words, how representative is representative democracy?
This raises two separate issues. Firstly, what is the populus and what does it support? We hear a lot about “the will of the people”. In practice, there is sometimes a clear mandate, as with some referendum results. Other times there is an unclear mandate, such as with Brexit, where there was a clear vote to leave the EU but with the specifics the subject of much debate. This could also apply to a vague commitment in a winning manifesto.
Or, as in many cases, there is no formal mandate for anything, in which case we could be talking about a number of different things.
Take last week’s march. Three-quarters of a million is clearly a huge number, and millions more would have agreed with them. But millions of others would have disagreed with them. Taking some sort of action in support of your view is clearly a stronger expression of that view than simply voting, but what if they´re just a vocal minority? In fact, the data suggests that they often are.
According to the 2017 British Election Study, 12 per cent of eligible voters had contacted an MP or councillor in the prior year. 32 per cent had signed a petition in that time. Only four per cent had taken part in a public demonstration. Only 19 per cent use Twitter.
The numbers may be large, but if they´re not representative, they don´t tell you what the public at large think. One thousand people who fit the profile of the country will tell you far more than a million who don’t. Vocal opposition to Brexit certainly exists, and evidence of a major shift in sentiment can be cherry-picked, but more balanced analyses generally reach more balanced conclusions.
Each of the above groups was likelier than average to have voted Remain. People who had taken part in a public demonstration voted Remain by 74 per cent to 15 per cent, a margin so wide that it´s statistically significant even with a small base of 83 respondents.
Even if we can agree on what the will of the people is, leaders are elected to lead, and not all governing decisions driven by public opinion. In some cases that matters and in others it may not. An important factor is how salient is the issue in the country, rather than among those writing letters or taking to the streets. This can matter when policies disproportionately affect one group (such as student fees), and many may sympathise with that group, but not necessarily feel strongly.
Another factor is whether there is a clear divide between the main parties on the issue. If there is, the effect of one party taking a difference stance, such as the Lib Dems on the Iraq war, the political effect at the 2005 election was substantial, notwithstanding the fact that Labour still won.
If there is little difference between them, as is currently the case with a second EU referendum, any effect might not be immediate, with opposition to individual policies not having an immediate effect, but a cumulative effect over time, as has arguably happened with immigration since 2004.
In any case, there is often a big difference between where policy is and public opinion. On economic issues, policy tends to be more to the right – renationalising infrastructure and making tax more progressive are both very popular. But on cultural issues, policy is usually to the left, or more accurately the socially liberal side – more Brits support reintroducing capital punishment than advancing equality for ethnic minorities or women, for example.
Research from the universities of Essex and Strathclyde provides more specific evidence of the disconnect between policy and public opinion. The analysis looked specifically at tax policy and how opinion tends to be at odds with the position of the governing party (and indeed move further against it during its time in office).
Ultimately, policy can remain out of step with public opinion for a very long time until an electorally disruptive event such as a minor party surge, a referendum, an increase in the salience of the issue, or a change in the public´s view on it.
Politicians can and do ignore public opinion, and public demonstrations in particular. They can get away with this up to a point, but there´s usually no saying when that point will come.