Through the looking glass? How we misperceive modern Britain

10 July 2013

In modern-day Britain, everything is not as it seems. 

Ipsos Mori's latest survey shows that we're inclined to overestimate the rate of crime, the extent of benefit fraud and the incidence of teenage pregnancy. The results of the poll (a survey of 1,115 adults) read like an audit of Broken Britain. Except that in most cases the popular perception bears little relation to reality.

Ipsos Mori compiled a list of the top 10 areas of policy where we're likely to be in a world of our own. On average we think teen pregnancy is 25 times higher than official figures. When asked, 51% of us assume violent crime is rising, when the opposite is true. And a quarter of us estimate that immigrants make up more than 40% of the UK population, when the real figure is 13%

A nation of pessimists?

Those surveyed were more likely to be satisfied with their local public services, than with the national level equivalent. For example 25% were dissatisfied with their local NHS hospital, but 33% were dissatisfied in general - specifically, with how the service is provided nationally. Similarly, more people are dissatisfied with the police and school systems at a country-wide level. This suggests that people may not think their local experience is representative, and believe that the situation elsewhere (and, therefore, on average) is likely to be worse.

We can detect the same pattern when people report their fear of crime. When polled, 47% of people think crime in their local area is a "very big" or "fairly big" problem - exactly the same percentage as consider it "not a very big problem" or "no problem at all". But when asked about their perception of crime in Britain, 83% say that they consider it a "very big" or "fairly big" problem - a staggering leap of 36%.

The full data tables, published today, offer us more detail on the public's concerns. For instance, Labour voters were more likely to report immigration as a "very big problem" in their local area than those who voted Conservative or Lib Dem. And while 40% of Conservative voters thought that government debt had decreased in the last couple of years, only 13% of Labour voters thought that this was the case. On average, we think that unemployment is running at 22%, when it's actually close to 8%.

Why does it matter?

According to the Ispos Mori survey, a substantial proportion of the adult population believe that they're living in a country that is more dangerous and more corrupt than it actually is. This skews the political debate and means that politicans will prefer to focus on the issues of greatest public concern, even if the problem is largely one of perception. 

If the average voter is convinced that immigrants make up of a third of the population, we need to ask why this is the case. The Ipsos Mori poll was commissioned by the Royal Statistical Society, whose 'getstats' campaign aims to help the public engage with statistics.

Our political class are not free of blame when it comes to people being misinformed about public policy. Just today, press officers from the Department for Work and Pensions were asked to explain their manipulation of benefit statistics. This is not the first time government representatives have been rebuked for misusing official data. As such, it's hardly surprising that the public are confused when official information (what we might call 'the facts') is served with heavy political top-spin.

For a Parliament that has entertained a protracted debate about the level of state benefits, we should be concerned that on average we think 24% of the social security budget is siphoned off by welfare cheats when in fact it's more like 0.7%.

Meanwhile 29% of people believe that we spend more money on Job-Seekers Allowance than we do on state pensions, which is - as the Mad Hatter might say - completely topsy turvy. In fact, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, we spend 15 times as much on providing for our pensioners as we do on supporting people who are looking for work.

As we've noted previously, it's not unusual for benefit statistics to be misquoted in the Westminster loop and misunderstood in the national press. And while our politicians and our media bear some responsibility for our negative outlook on the state of modern Britain, there is the suggestion that we know things aren't as bad as all that. When it comes to our local area, we're more likely to see the glass as half-full, rather than half-empty.

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