This article previously appeared in the Property Chronicle March 2023.
Some political opinions seem to come up again and again, while other viewpoints are scarcely heard. Political science uses the name "Overton window" to describe the orthodox limits on public discussion and policy-making.
These limits on discussion, in theory, should coincide with popular opinion. But do these limits match the public's real views?
To test whether they do, Electoral Calculus and pollster Find Out Now ran a poll for the Property Chronicle on around 20 "heterodox" questions. People were invited to agree or disagree with some statements which we thought lay at the edges or outside the range of questions usually discussed in public.
Not surprisingly, the public disagreed with several heterodox statements. But there were others where opinion was more balanced, and several where the heterodox statement enjoyed either a plurality or majority support.
The bar chart shows the results of the poll over the twenty questions, sorted by the net difference between those agreeing and disagreeing. The top three questions had more than 50% support of all those who answered each question, including those who were neutral or didn't know.
The most popular heterodox opinion is that euthanasia should be legalised. This is very popular with the public with 63% agreeing against 13% who disagree. But this issue is seldom discussed.
Second is the belief that house prices should be lower, with 56% agreeing and 13% against. Politicians have often tended to see high property prices as a good thing, but the public clearly thinks the housing bubble has gone too far and needs to be deflated.
Thirdly, there is majority support for the statement that global net zero carbon is unachievable by 2050. Whilst a few public voices have said this, they are relatively uncommon. Even Google, when you search for "net zero unachievable by 2050", will suggest you meant 'achievable' instead. But the public do mean 'unachievable', despite the lack of public debate on what would be an alternative feasible plan to tackle man-made climate change.
The next half-dozen questions all have a plurality of support for the heterodox opinion, in that more people agree than disagree. From the left, there was support for re-nationalising the railways and utility companies. From the right, there was support for cutting taxes and spending together. On social issues, the public would like cannabis legalised as well as the death penalty restored. They feel that transgender women and biological women should sometimes be treated differently. There was also support for electing the members of the House of Lords.
Intriguingly, more people agree than disagree that Covid had its origins in a Chinese lab. While there has been increasing circumstantial evidence to support this as a credible possibility, very few policymakers have discussed it or taken action to improve global standards of laboratory bio-security in response. Since Covid cost the world economy around USD 12 trillion, it could be worth a look to reduce the chance of a similar reoccurrence.
To try to make the results of the poll accurate, we used a somewhat innovative methodology. One of the less well-kept secrets of polling is that you can nudge the result by artful choice of question. In particular, people tend to agree more than they disagree. To allow for this we asked each question in two ways to two different groups: one where people were asked about the heterodox statement (for example "euthanasia should be made legal") while the 'opposite' question about the corresponding orthodox statement ("euthanasia should remain illegal") was asked to a different set of people. The overall 'agree' figure represents the average of those agreeing to the heterodox statement and those disagreeing with the orthodox statement. And vice versa for 'disagree'.
There were a further three statements where public opinion was fairly evenly split between the heterodox and orthodox positions: "British society is very racist", "Britain needs a revolution in society", and "Capitalism should be abolished". These views reflect a neo-Marxist tendency among 25%-30% of the public. Politicians of both left and right should perhaps take these opinions more seriously, either to oppose or support them.
We also asked people if they thought it likely that western countries and China would go to war in the next few years. Some commentators have suggested that we now live in such a 'prewar' period, but they are ahead of the public. A majority of people did not know, 28% disagreed and only 19% agreed.
Finally, there are many questions where the orthodox opinion has a strong hold. There was a very clear majority for mending rather than ending the NHS, despite its well-publicised difficulties. But this may not make NHS reform any easier for governments.
There was also a big majority for keeping abortion legal, suggesting that US-style divisions on this issue are unlikely here. Most people also want to keep the monarchy, even after the Sussexes' revelations. And, despite scepticism about the 2050 net-zero target, a majority worry that man-made climate change will be catastrophic for the planet.
There was also a plurality against the heterodox statements that we should send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine; that polygamy is better for society; and that interest rates should be higher.
The overall takeaway message for politicians is to cleave to orthodoxy where it is popular, but to look out for opportunities to take some unorthodox positions where those are also popular with the public.
For those on the right, their challenges are to gently deflate house prices, cut taxes and spending, and to boost support for capitalism as a whole. For those on the left, there are opportunities for social liberalisation, but also challenges to govern the NHS and utility companies as the public want.
And for both parties, the two big-ticket items are Covid and carbon net zero. The global economy needs action to protect it from another similar Covid outbreak, and also a realistic plan to combat and mitigate man-made climate change. On these big issues, the public is ahead of the media and policymakers.
Find Out Now interviewed GB adults online from 25 January to 15 February 2023. A separate sample size of around 2,000 was used for each question, randomly split between the heterodox and orthodox statements. The samples were weighted to be nationally representative by gender, age, social grade and voting history. Both Electoral Calculus and Find Out Now are members of the British Polling Council and abide by its rules.
Data tables (Excel spreadsheet).