Political perceptions

As I have frequently written on this blog, I read a variety of British media, left and right. I tend to avoid the tabloid press unless some other source directly links to an article that appeared in one of them, and so my daily reading includes the BBC, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, New Statesmen, the Spectator and ConservativeHome. I used to read the Times as well, but not since they’ve gone behind a paywall.

Because I don’t limit myself to media that favour one party or ideological slant, I am frequently both amused and dismayed by how each side perceives the other. For example, Guardian and New Statesmen readers (and columnists) accuse the Cameron Conservatives of being extremely right-wing, while the more right-wing posters  and bloggers on ConservativeHome often think Cameron’s far too left-wing, or people who think the Lib Dems were a left-of-centre party, when clearly their policies made them quite centrist, if not right-of-centre. It simply reinforces my belief that most people base these perceptions on their own beliefs, and too often are completely mistaken in where they themselves really are on the left-right political spectrum.

One of my favourite sites, Political Compass, has a chart mapping the political positions of UK parties in 2010. What it shows is that all three of the main parties are clearly right-of-centre in terms of economic positioning (because that is what left-right applies to – one’s economic position), with Labour being the most authoritarian of the three, and the Lib Dems the most libertarian. Further down on that same page, there is a fascinating chart showing how the parties have shifted over the years.

Now compare the Political Compass chart, which positions all three of the main parties to the right of centre, to the findings of a YouGov poll which asked people where they perceived themselves and the three main political parties to be on the political spectrum. You can read a summary of the findings on UK Polling Report, but it’s also interesting to look at the actual YouGov data (PDF). Sadly, YouGov doesn’t distinguish between economic position (Left-Right) and Authoritarian-Libertarian the way Political Compass does (which is far more accurate) so people are forced to confuse the two (as most people probably do anyway). In my opinion, Political Compass is the more accurate reflection of where the parties stand (or at least stood in the May 2010 election), and so I will use that to point out how badly people’s perceptions deviate from reality.

On page 3 of the YouGov results we find how respondents rated themselves on the left-right spectrum. Unsurprisingly, most people think they are quite centrist, after all, very few people ever want to think that the views they hold are in any way extreme. The poll found that 48% of those polled rated themselves as being between slightly left-of-centre (13%) to slightly right-of-centre (13%) with 22% simply centrist. Among those with declared voting intentions, 72% of Conservative party supporters ranked themselves between centrist (23%) to fairly right-wing (18%), with 31% being slightly right-of-centre. Sixty-six percent of Labour supporters fell into the fairly left-wing to centrist range (fairly left-wing 19%, slightly left-of-centre 26%, centre 21%); meanwhile, 67% of Lib Dem supporters viewed themselves in the slightly left-of centre (18%) to slightly right-of-centre (13%) range, with the majority (36%) identifying themselves as centrists.

So how did these respondents rate the parties? Overall, 57% of respondents rated Labour as ranging from very left-wing to slightly left-of-centre, with the slightly left-of-centre option being the most popular (27%). This range held across declared voting intentions, with 74% of Conservative supporters agreeing with that range (with 34% finding Labour fairly left-wing), as did 58% of Labour supporters (but most (39%) opined that the party is only slightly left-of-centre) and 55% of Lib Dem supporters (with 28% believing Labour to be slightly left-of-centre).

The Conservative Party is viewed by a majority of respondents (59%) as ranging from slightly right-of-centre to very right-wing, and, like for Labour, this range holds across party lines (68% for Conservatives, 65% for Labour supporters and 63% for Lib Dem supporters). Conservative supporters, however, think their party is mostly only slightly right-of-centre (48%) and only 4% think it is very right-wing, while 31% of Labour supporters think the Conservatives are very right-wing and only 8% think it is only slightly right-of centre. Lib Dem supporters are fairly evenly split when it comes to the Conservative party – 24% think it is slightly right-of-centre and 27% think it is fairly right-of-centre. Only 12% of Lib Dem supporters think the Tories are very right-wing.

As for the Lib Dems themselves, well, pretty much everyone agrees that they occupy the boring middle ground, which you’d think would be a good thing since a majority of supporters of all three parties view themselves as occupying that same boring middle ground! Overall, 48% of respondents said the Lib Dems ranged from slightly left-of-centre to slightly right-of-centre. Slightly more Conservative supporters viewed them as slightly left-of-centre (26%) while slightly more Labour supporters think the Lib Dems are slightly right-of-centre (20%), while most Lib Dems think their party is very much in the centre (33%).

So what does all this tell us? The majority of voters (at least those polled) view themselves as being centrists or very close to the centre, leaning only slightly right or left as the case may be, and this holds across declared voting intentions. Very few supporters of either the Conservatives or Labour see themselves at the extreme end of their respective ideological leaning – only 6% of declared Conservative supporters consider themselves to be very right-wing, and only 7% of Labour supporters view themselves as very left-wing. Lib Dems consider themselves extremely centrist. Supporters of a given party also see that party as being mostly quite centrist, in other words, in accordance with what they believe their own political leanings to be – 43% of Conservative supporters rank the party as being only slightly right-of-centre, while 39% of Labour supporters think their party is only slightly left-of-centre, and of course, Lib Dems see their party as mostly centrist (36%).

Perceptions of the political party leaders is also worth mentioning. Overall, 56% perceive David Cameron as being slightly to very right-wing, but most Conservative supporters think he’s only slightly right-of-centre (37%). Most Labour supporters think Cameron is very right-wing (35%) while Lib Dem supporters are rather evenly split in their opinion of Cameron as being either slightly right-of-centre (28%) or fairly right-wing (24%). Labour leader Ed Miliband is viewed by most respondents as ranging from slightly left-of-centre to very left-wing by 54% of respondents, and Conservative supporters overwhelmingly view him as fairly (34%) to very left-wing (25%). Labour supporters are mostly split between viewing their leader as slightly left-of-centre and fairly left-wing (25% support for each position), while most Lib Dem supporters think Miliband is fairly left-wing (29%). Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg gets the most interesting results, from Labour supporters at least. In general, people view Clegg, like his party, as ranging between slightly left-of-centre to slightly right-of-centre (46%), and most Tory supporters view him as slightly left-of-centre (24%) or centrist (28%). Lib Dem supporters view Clegg as mostly centrist (36%). Labour supporters, however, rank him rather evenly from centre (14%) to slightly right-of-centre (16%) to fairly right-wing (19%) to very right-wing (13%).

Given that everyone seems to be so close ideologically-speaking, with a majority of supporters from all three parties nicely in the middle or only sightly left- or right-leaning, it is truly amazing that there is such strong dislike of Conservatives among Labour supporters and vice versa. And yes, I’m being somewhat tongue in cheek here.

Obviously, how people perceive themselves colours how they view the parties they support and those they don’t. But what is clear is that most people don’t really understand where their own views actually position them on the political spectrum. It’s understandable that no one wants to think they are extremists, and if you surround yourself with people who largely reflect your own views, in real life and online, then you’re likely to think your views are quite mainstream, aka centrist. It seems rather obvious to me that most of the respondents in the YouGov poll can’t be as centrist as they all seem to think they are. If that were indeed the case, they’d all be voting for the Lib Dems.

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