Jonathan Jones

Should the Public Affairs Act 1975 be repealed?

Should the Public Affairs Act 1975 be repealed?
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9 per cent of Brits say the Public Affairs Act 1975 should be repealed, and 9 per cent say it shouldn't, according to a new poll by YouGov. If you're wondering 'What on Earth is the Public Affairs Act 1975?', that's probably because it doesn't exist. And yet 18 per cent were willing to offer an opinion on it (interestingly, men were twice as likely to do so than women).

This is a recreation of an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Cincinnati in the eighties, which also found that 'a substantial number of people will offer opinions on fictitious topics in the context of a survey interview'.

YouGov used the controversial (or, rather, non-existent) Act to test how attaching a party's position would alter people's opinions on it. The first group were simply asked whether it should be repealed or not. The second were told that 'Some Conservative politicians have called for the Act to be repealed', and the third were told the same about Labour politicians. And the results?

Looking at the breakdowns between supporters of different parties involves small sample sizes — and therefore big margins of error — but some clear, and expected, patterns seem to emerge. For instance, Labour voters were evenly-split between supporting (12 per cent) and opposing (11 per cent) repeal. But when Conservative support for repeal was attached, opposition among Labour voters shot up (to 24 per cent, with 10 per cent in support). And those Labour voters who were told that their party supported repeal were much more likely to follow suit, with 19 per cent of them support, 4 per cent against. You can see a similar pattern among Tory voters.

YouGov recently conducted a very similar survey in the US, with similar results. But the partisan effect is much more pronounced in the States: 39 per cent of Republicans were opposed to repeal when told Barack Obama was in favour of it. (Although they were given more concrete figures to sway their opinions — Obama and congressional Republicans, rather than generic Tory or Labour politicians.)

So the partisan mindset ('If my party's for it, so am I.'/'If the other guys are for it, I'm against it.') seems to be stronger in the US than the UK, but it exists here too. That might not be surprising, but it's worth bearing in mind when you see poll numbers on various policies. Are voters backing a policy because they like the policy, or because they like the party proposing it?