Coffee House

Should the Public Affairs Act 1975 be repealed?

18 April 2013

9 per cent of Brits say the Public Affairs Act 1975 should be repealed, and 9 per cent say it shouldn’t, according to a new poll by YouGov.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 The first group were simply asked whether it should be repealed or not. The second were told that ‘Some Conservative politicians have called for the Act to be repealed’, and the third were told the same about Labour politicians.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?


UK Public Affairs Act

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.)

US Public Affairs Act

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?

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  • The_Missing_Think

    The test isn’t at all impartial, if it was changed to the, ‘Expenses and
    Accountability in public office Act’ to be repealed, it would be get a
    slightly different reaction.

    More so again, if it was the ‘BBC Licensee Fee lock ’em up Act’, or the ‘Super Human Rights for Violent Terrorist Scum Act’, the ‘my team, right or wrong’ vote fodder robots, would have their mental defenses breached by the strength of the in-built clue.

    Though admittedly, the unshakable faith of the Shrine of the Cloth Cap extremists, are beyond salvage.

  • Robin Tudge

    Let’s repeal the Coalition. That’d be pretty broadly popular.

    • Tom Tom

      We should follow Italy where Belgium led the way……it is no longer possible to have national consensus so power should devolve into principalities and whitehall should become a small Administrative Annex to a Confederation of Independent Regions

  • Dogsnob

    This would be something to get worked-up about, were it not for the fact that a massive and increasing proportion of the public do not ally themselves with any mainstream party.
    Just as we have come to regard all banks as the enemy, so too is the widespread understanding that all mainstream political parties have not one jot of interest in us.

  • Roger Hudson

    I have never found any party on the whole spectrum that agrees with all my views, all have some things I like and things I don’t, I used to vote on either the candidate alone or I applied the least-worst test. The current MP crop is full of the sheep-like partisans.

  • Theodoxia

    Isn’t it a general principle that the removal of any act from the statute book is likely to lead to more good than harm?

    • Davidh

      Sure. I believe you’re right.

      And what’s interesting is that Conservatives in The UK, when there was no political party attached to the position, were far more likely to disagree with repealing the act than agree. So you’ve got more Conservatives of the “law and order” brigade who seem to assume that any law is probably good, than you have on the libertarian side who would think first of individual freedom and assume that any law is likely bad. Labour supporters in The UK were just slightly more likely to repeal an unknown law than support it.

      This is completely opposite to The US, where far more GOP supporters agreed with repealing the unknown law, without a political party attached, and slightly more Democrats disagreed.

      So the home of the free in The US is on the right, and in The UK is on the left…

    • Gareth

      That would imply that all laws should be repealed. Do you really want anarchy?

      • Theodoxia

        It would imply no such thing, of course, merely that we have too many laws and that life could well be improved by having fewer, better laws. But in any case, tongue was very slightly in cheek.

        • Gareth

          I’m all for simplification of the law. I just can’t think of that many of the protections that it offers that I’d want to give up.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            I can think of many laws I’d like to dump, and entire bodies of law that need to go, but that still doesn’t prove the generic point that all law is best outlawed.

            • Gareth

              In this, as in all things, context is king.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      No, that’s not a general principle.

  • martin_lowe

    This explains the right-wing loonies who believe in a climate change conspiracy theory – they saw the early commentators on global warming, saw beards and sandals and thought to themselves “I hate beards and sandals; I must therefore take up a contrary position”.

    Then worked backwards to make the facts fit the conclusion.

    The only rational way forward is to judge each case on its merits – even those of a diametrically opposite group – on the basis that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

    • Russell

      i think the evidence is that the loonies with beards and sandals were the people who altered the facts to fit their conclusion.

    • itdoesntaddup

      Your vision of St Margaret with a beard and sandals doesn’t quite gel. You might recall she made a speech about it at the UN.

      The conspiracy has to been to hijack the issue for a particular political agenda, while ignoring the realities of the science and the wider world. That of course explains the left wing loonies: they don’t really care for the planet.

    • HookesLaw

      The facts the science when it is given an airing is what shows climate change to be a fraud. the very fact that AGM is not being examined on its merits lies at the heart of the problem.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        …a fraud which Call Me Dave and the other leftist nutters is hysterically in support of.

        • HookesLaw

          Cameron is not a leftist nutter – although you are a rightist one.

          The problem the govt have is its own chief scientific advisor spouts this rubbish. All govts, full stop, are trapped by the scientific hysteria and conspiracy

        • James Strong

          Really sonny, describing Cameron as a leftist nutter is taking language and political terminology beyond breaking point.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Sorry, sonny, but only leftist nutters shriek hysterically in support of the global warmingist kookiness. That would include Call Me Dave, as we know.

    • Jebediah

      Or perhaps the growing amount of disconfirming evidence should give you pause. Clearly the predictions of ten years out made in 2000 were wrong. How wrong? It got colder, about as wrong as it could get. But you ask us to believe the latest predictions are right now?

  • Smithersjones2013

    What would the country be without its ‘Blue Donkeys’ and ‘Red Zombies’? Probably a whole lot better off.

    • Russell


  • Jebediah

    People use the party they support as a mental shortcut or rule of thumb. It’s not entirely irrational in that the party you support is more likely to think like you than not.
    Of course it can result in no thinking at all, dumb policies and parties taking their support for granted. In certain northern constituencies Labour would win if they put a spatula up against the Conservatives, the same holds true in the south for Conservative constituencies up against Labour. It’s not a healthy position.

    • HookesLaw

      Its impossible to support everything that a broad based party proposes. So its not surprising that a party gets a certain level of for want of a better word ‘unthinking’ support. The other side of the coin is that of broad opposition to what another party has to offer.
      To what extent do people vote for something and to what extent do they vote against something?

  • telemachus

    Personally I thought the Public Affairs Act was a good start towards an egalitatian society and was sad that the defeat in 1979 did not allow it to be rolled out in full

    I suspect that there is little chance that Eric Pickles and Theresa May will adopt the unopened protocols
    However it will go forward in June 2015

    • Andy

      Pity you’ve not been rolled out. I would love to drive the steam roller, but I think I might have a fight on my hands for that honour.

      • telemachus

        Come fight with me for the future

        • Andy

          I have always fought Fascists.

          • alexsandr

            if we run over telemachus with a steam roller can we then use him as a frisbee?

            • Nicholas chuzzlewit

              No because it would always fly to the left.

              • telemachus

                Contrary son
                Straight down the middle

    • HookesLaw

      You are confusing it with the Public Information Reform Act of 1976.

  • itdoesntaddup

    This proves that people trust pollsters as a source of news. Now try repeating the poll based on BBC programming that promotes a particular view.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    You’re mixing apples and oranges here, describing a data set wrapped around party preference in the UK, and one wrapped around a particular political personality in the US. In fact, it’s not apples and oranges, it’s nectarines and fillet angle welds.

    This is why you must have professionals providing data collection, collation and analysis, as mentioned the other day. Improperly educated and experienced people cannot provide the same level of output that qualified professionals can, it’s that simple. You’ll always wind up with inferior or useless output, as this.

    And yes, modern cattle drive polling methods will always have +/-20% who don’t have a clue about that which is being polled. I’m amused that you’re here acknowledging your surprise at suddenly discovering this long known phenomenon. Unfortunately, you buried that lead. You might want to update that post, as it’ll give folks a useful understanding as to modern polling’s limitations.

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