But the week is over

A belated footnote to the ‘Czechoslovak spy’ nonsense. (You know the nonsense I mean. And if you don’t – say, if you’re reading this in 2019 or later – my advice would be not to bother looking it up. Oh, all right then (NB goes off the rails a bit towards the end).)

Some interesting polling has been conducted by YouGov and reported by Anthony Wells, suggesting that the whole thing was a bit of a waste of time:

most people pay very little attention to the day-to-day soap opera of politics. 40% of people said they had been completely unaware of the story until taking the survey, a further 31% said they had noticed it, but hadn’t really paid it any attention. That leaves less than a third who had actually taken it in. … Asked if they thought the allegations were true, the results were as you’d expect. … The only people who believed it were Conservatives. This is typical of such allegations: people view them through the prism of their existing political allegiances.  …

Finally, YouGov asked if the spy allegations and the way Jeremy Corbyn had responded to them had changed people’s opinions of Jeremy Corbyn at all. Only 8% of people said it had made them think more negatively about him (and they were mostly Tories to begin with). 6% said it made them think better of Corbyn (and they were mostly Labour voters to begin with). A hearty 64% said it made no difference at all.

Anthony also supplies the full set of figures. It’s not quite true that only Conservatives believed the allegations, but it was certainly only Tories who believed them in any numbers – 46% of the sample, vs 7% of Labour supporters, 15% of Lib Dems and (by my arithmetic) 19% of those who voted for another party, didn’t vote, didn’t remember how they last voted or preferred not to say.

The way this last group split is particularly interesting when we look at that final question: do people think worse of Corbyn as a result of the story? Again, the story is a bit more complicated than Anthony suggests. Overall, 8% of respondents thought worse of Corbyn in the wake of the story (6% thought better of him); 13% of Tories thought worse of him, 3% of Labour supporters and 6% of Lib Dems (as against 1%, 13% and 7% thinking better of him, respectively).

But thereby hangs a tale: how do you get from 13%, 3% and 6% of three subgroups to 8% overall? You could do it if the Tory subgroup was massively dominant, but obviously that wouldn’t be a good sample – and in fact YouGov’s figures show that the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem subgroups make up 34.3%, 32.8% and 6.1% of the overall sample, respectively. (Geeky speculations about sampling follow; skip if not interested.)

I don’t know how these sub-sample sizes were arrived at, but I’m speculating that they’re based on electoral shares from 2017. The figures don’t show much correspondence with the 2017 vote shares of 42.4%, 40.3% and 7.4%, but if you take the total shares of the electorate which voted for the three main parties – 29.1%, 27.6% and 5.1% – and scale them up by 19%, the figures you get are almost exactly the YouGov subgroup sizes. Add the ‘other parties’ share of 7.1%, scaled up by the same factor, and the remainder is 18.4%. The figures suggest, in other words, that the YouGov subgroups are scaled on the basis of reducing the group representing the non-voting population from the actual figure of 31.2% to 18.4%, with the shares of parties people did vote for being scaled up accordingly. This could be justified on the basis of polling both likely voters and unlikely voters, while leaving a final 12.8% – representing those who just aren’t going to vote, ever – well alone. I have no evidence to support this, but the figures make it seem plausible. Certainly the abstention rate at British general elections (measured crudely as “100% minus turnout”) has never been as low as 12.8%; the twentieth-century record is 16.1% (1950), while the lowest rate recorded with the current (post-1970) franchise is 21.2% in February 1974.

Now, 13% of 34.3% gives you 4.5% of the total sample; add the few Labour and Lib Dem supporters who thought worse of Corbyn and you get 5.9% of the total. How do you get up to 8%? Only by including the ‘don’t know’/’didn’t vote’ group – and it turns out that they split less favourably to Corbyn than any other group apart from the Tories, with 4% thinking better of him and 8% thinking worse.

This brings us back to the question of effectiveness. If you’re running a smear campaign against the leader of the Opposition, it strikes me that what supporters of the governing party think is neither here nor there. Yes, 13% of Tory supporters thought (even) worse of Corbyn at the end of the week – but really, so what? The survey did offer separate options of “Think more negatively about Jeremy Corbyn” and “Makes no difference – I had a negative opinion about Jeremy Corbyn and still do”; in a perfect world this would have addressed precisely this problem, tacitly shepherding everyone who already hated the man towards the ‘no difference’ option. However, if you were the Mail reader who’d begun the week thinking Corbyn was an overgrown student politician with some nasty friends in Ireland and the Middle East, and ended it thinking he was all of those things and a potential traitor, it’s understandable that you would think that you now felt more negatively about him.

When it comes to assessing whether the campaign worked, though, those Tories are only going to get in the way. So let’s arbitrarily reassign 10% to the ‘makes no difference’ column, representing the solid Tories, leaving only 3% who, perhaps, were wavering towards Labour and responded to the story by wavering right back. This reduces the overall percentage of those who thought worse of Corbyn to 5% – a 5% which, however, includes 8% of the ‘other/don’t know/didn’t vote’ group. Nearly half of the people negatively influenced are in this group, in fact.

And perhaps that was the real battleground for this campaign: the ‘don’t know’s and non-voters. This would also explain the simplicity of the message and the endless, bludgeoning persistence of the attempts to get it across: a campaign aimed at people who take their politics from the Mail or the Sun can be positively agile and subtle, compared to a campaign aimed at people who don’t even do that. 46% of YouGov’s sample of this group (from my arithmetic) had a settled opinion of Corbyn which wasn’t affected by this campaign; of the remainder, 4% now think better of him and 8% worse, while 42% still don’t know one way or the other. To put it another way, this campaign was aimed at the 54% of non-voters whose opinion of Corbyn is either malleable or non-existent; it reached just over a fifth of those (12% out of 54%), making 8% less likely to support Corbyn (and making the other 4% more likely – so it goes).

Whether the campaign, judged in those terms, should be seen as a success or a failure is another question; certainly that end-of-week figure of 42% of non-voters still in the ‘don’t know’ camp doesn’t suggest a campaign that ‘cut through’. Still, 8% is 8% – if the two main parties had taken another 8% and 4% of the non-voting total in 2017, it could have made a real difference; it would have taken the Tory vote share up to 43.5%, not far short of what Thatcher’s Tories achieved in 1979. My instinct is that we shall need to be on guard for similar campaigns nearer the next election – really cynical attempts to exploit mass media platforms, not to get any particular worldview across but simply to inflame and polarise an audience of people who neither know nor care about politics, and poisoning the well of public discourse as collateral damage. We’ll also need to think about ways that Labour can counter them – which is going to mean thinking about ways to reach an audience which is, by definition, quite hard to reach. If I’m right, the fact that there was never anything to this story isn’t the point; the fact that nearly everyone involved – from Corbyn himself to the Czech secret service itself – laughed it off almost immediately isn’t the point. Even the subsequent outbreaks of not saying just saying among the centrist commentariat (“perhaps Corbyn as such wasn’t a spy as such, and in fact wasn’t ever a Communist as such, but all the same…“) – even they, and all their feebleness, aren’t the point.

If I’m right, they didn’t make it for us.

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