Leading Article: Knowledge can change minds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE idea behind 'deliberative polling', the exercise in which this newspaper and Granada Television have been involved, is beautifully simple. It is best expressed as a question: do people change their views on a specific topic if given a chance to become better informed about it?

The 300 citizens invited to Manchester to discuss crime and punishment for a strenuous weekend were, in every significant statistical respect, a microcosm of this country's population. They were asked to fill in a detailed questionnaire about their opinions well before setting off. After exposure to the often conflicting views of experts, politicians and each other, they answered the same questions once again.

It is the first time such an exercise has been carried out, not just in this country but anywhere. As we report today, analysis of the two sets of responses shows clearly that yes, heavy exposure to a wide range of information and opinion does produce a shift in views. The first set of answers was largely in tune with current Conservative policy, memorably summarised in the slogan proclaimed at the last Conservative Party conference by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard: 'Prison works'.

The weekend's experiences led to a much more nuanced view of what may have earlier seemed like relatively simple questions. The second batch of answers revealed a noticeable shift away from many Tory policies, with their emphasis on locking offenders up, heavy policing and reducing the right to silence. The biggest single shift came on the effectiveness of prison sentences in cutting crime. By the end of the second day, the proportion believing that sending more people to prison was an effective way of cutting crime fell from 57 to 38 per cent. Support for the right to silence under questioning also grew strikingly as participants came to understand the issue more clearly.

At the same time, faith in such populist solutions as Neighbourhood Watch schemes and putting more bobbies on the beat declined.

From all the evidence collected in Manchester, it seems clear that a deliberative poll is very different from a normal opinion poll. The first is a participatory exercise that encourages people to question their prejudices and long-held convictions - an experience that can be as confusing as it is stimulating, but one that leads to considered judgements. The second represents a snapshot of views often based on passive exposure to soundbite politics and the simplifications of much media coverage.

If the results of a deliberative polling exercise can be successfully transmitted to a wider public by newspapers and television, the potential contribution to a better informed democracy is great.

One of the strongest impressions left by the Manchester experiment was of the strong sense of alienation from the political process felt by most people. If deliberative polling can help bridge that gulf, it is in the interests of all that it should be encouraged.