On Public Opinion And Policy


One of the principle arguments of Blairites in the Labour Party seems to be that it is the job of the Party to align itself with public opinion. If ‘public opinion’ is in favour of renewing Trident then the Labour Party should be. If ‘public opinion’ is in favour of halting immigration then the Labour Party should be.

It’s funny though, how the argument only gets used when it suits the Blairites. If you point out that 65-28% of the public want to bring back hanging suddenly it all goes quite and very few will argue that If ‘public opinion’ is in favour of bringing back hanging then the Labour Party should be.

Most of those using this argument would also acknowledge that adopting a ‘populist’ strategy of chasing public opinion on EVERYTHING would be doomed to failure.

For a start ‘public opinion’ is notoriously difficult to gauge until the point of a formal ballot. Polls are indicators but they are notoriously unreliable. So most rhetoric around ‘what the public want’ is merely self-serving supposition and is only adopted when people think it will serve their argument.

Secondly, the ‘public’ are often forming their ‘opinions’ based on limited information, partisan media coverage and out and out misinformation and if the ‘public’ were fully informed they may, and frequently do, change their ‘opinion’. In the 1950’s almost everyone was ‘disgusted’ by homosexuality. Public opinion was overwhelmingly homophobic. Today it is not. And this is largely because activists fought to change ‘public opinion’. They succeeded. Were they wrong to do so?

Thirdly, ALL of us have to recognise that at some time and on some issues our political convictions and beliefs will NOT coincide with public opinion and that in those circumstances our own conscience has to guide our actions. Should a socialist in Nazi Germany have been guided by anti-semitic public opinion?

Thus I would suggest that to keep appealing to ‘public opinion’ does not advance almost any argument and rather exposes the proposer to the accusation that they are unprincipled populists who would adopt ANY policy if it coincided with public opinion.

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