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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
A few weeks ago, I looked at public attitudes to the police. Given events in Clapham at the weekend – where the police forcibly broke up the vigil to mark the death of local resident Sarah Everard – I thought it was worth returning to.
Priti Patel has already demanded a full explanation, and quite a few people are calling for Cressida Dick to go. What effect will all this have on the reputation of the police amongst the broader English population? (Clearly, restrictions are in place on reporting/analysing this case, so there’s a lot that can’t be said here).
In judging this overall question, we must ask the following.
Firstly, will the public view police action through the prism of Covid control, as the police claim? Secondly, more importantly and fundamentally, will they consider the vigil to have been about something other than the appalling and tragic death of a young woman? Will they think this event was saying something important about women’s safety and women in society – and therefore that the police were effectively operating in a hostile manner, on the wrong side of a moral issue?
On the first, early polling suggests the public are split. YouGov released a snap poll yesterday showing the public very narrowly thought the vigil should not have been allowed to have gone ahead, by 43-40 percent, with the rest unsure. A second question asked whether vigils and protests should be allowed to go ahead more generally; here, the public were tougher: by 59-26, people said such events should not go ahead. (Obviously, very different questions to whether the vigil should have been broken up).
The different results to quite similar questions are important; they show both that the public are still largely in a “safety first” mentality, but that this case has shocked them so much that many viewed this vigil as a special case. Further polling will reveal the truth, but my sense is that most people will think therefore that, once people had gathered peacefully, the police should have let it continue, and their actions in forcibly breaking it up were insensitive and crass.
(I would also think that most would agree that a sensible, socially-distanced vigil could have been managed).
In judging the handling to have been crass, there is an additional complication for the police. This is that people know very well that the police have let other demonstrations go on without mass arrests or aggressive dispersal. People have seen these events with their own eyes on the media and social media; they have seen the police do nothing at times when the R-rate was much higher and on issues which rightly or wrongly agitated the bulk of the population less.
While the police are obviously in a difficult position in choosing what they allow to go ahead and what they clamp down on, there is more than enough to go on to suggest that they are inconsistent in how they operate.
In short, despite narrow opposition to the event going ahead, I can’t see how most people won’t think that the police ultimately made a mistake; the Covid defence won’t wash.
What then of the more fundamental and complex questions: whether people will think Everard’s death said something very fundamental about our society which should have been marked by the vigil, and which the police should have respected. Were the police – indeed, are the police – on the wrong side of a moral issue? These will really be the questions that really determine whether this will have any serious long-term effect on the reputation of police nationally.
Before answering this, we should look briefly at the YouGov polling again; the results don’t tell us everything, but they’re interesting. Here, we see a significant but not massive difference between men and women on the question as to whether the vigil should have gone ahead: women thought it should go ahead by 42-39 percent; men thought it should not go ahead by 47-38.
On the second question, as to whether vigils and marches generally should go ahead, men and women oppose them equally – by 60-25 and 59-26 respectively. On a third question, about whether Cressida Dick should resign, men and women were basically united in opposition – by 51-26 and 43-20 respectively.
It’s early days and time will tell; however, my sense at this point is that most people – men and women – will mainly view Everard’s death as a once-in-a-generation tragedy: an event that we will be talking about for many decades to come. It will likely provoke a debate about good and evil and the state of our society generally. And in time it will likely provoke extensive concerns about sentencing and punishment.
I don’t think – at this point – that most people will think of it as marking the start of a debate on how society treats women; I suspect her death will be so utterly shocking that it will be in a category on its own. It is possible, of course, that a debate about the treatment of women does begin; but it will begin because this is what political leaders are talking about, rather than necessarily because of what people think. (Allegations about inappropriate behaviour from the police after her death, which are just emerging, might change this).
As such, at this point I would think that the police will not be seen by most people as being on the wrong side of a great moral question.
What does all this mean for public opinion and the police? As I pointed out last time, despite what many media outlets imply, the police are very popular in England and Wales; people think they have handled Covid well and more generally they think they’re “on our side”. While they’re vulnerable to allegations of insensitivity and inconsistency at Clapham, they will not be viewed as displaying the wrong values.
But, as is often the case with these sorts of events, while their reputation will survive this mistake, it will begin to make many people keep an eye on their future behaviour in such a way that, “next time”, they won’t have the benefit of the doubt. After all, as I discussed last time, the polling shows that many people are questioning their priorities and judgement; they aren’t too far away from a more serious slip in public support.