It’s easy to get caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of a good march, but now the energy from yesterdays’ London climate march has subsided, now might be a good time to examine their effectiveness as a measure of public opinion.
The purpose of a march is two fold. One is to demonstrate to policy makers the level of public opinion on an issue, and the other is to and try increase awareness. Lets deal with both in tern. To identify protests of significant impact five protests were identified with the aid of google trends where the volume of search traffic in the UK for the word “protest” exceed twice the background rate since 2005.
These five protests were in turn, the fuel price protest of September 05, G8/ Make poverty History march June/July 2005, climate change protest December 2005, Petrol price protest December 2007 and the stop the Heathrow expansion protest in May/ June 2008.
So, how well do the numbers on the marches represent public opinion?
July 2005 saw one of the largest protests in recent history, with make poverty history with 225 000 people marching, yet on the fuel protests of 2007, only 10 000 people were involved. In July 2005, 7% of respondents said global poverty and inequality was a major issue (Ipsos-MORI 2005) compared with a background average for 2005 of 6.4% showing a very negligible increase. Likewise the fuel protests of December 2007 lead coincided an increase in public concern to 6% from a background of the 12 months either side of 5.4% (Ipsos-MORI 2007) although cause and effect are rather harder to untangle in that example.
When comparing these statistics with background rates and with the numbers involved in the protests, it is clear that the numbers attending do not influence or reflect public opinion.
How well do the numbers on these marches affect public interest?
In July 2005, 225 000 people marched in Edinburgh, yet 2000 people joined the Heathrow Expansion protests and the public interest as not significantly different. On the face of it this suggests that attendance numbers are not the most important factor in generating public interest. However it is important to control for number of media hours given to each.
As can be seen by the comparison of the two graphs above, the annual climate change march does coincide peaks in the numbers of people googling climate change. However, there are much greater peaks than this.
So what events cause the greatest interest in climate change?
The largest three peaks (where volume of searching for “climate change” exceeds twice background levels) were in October 2006, March 2007 and July 2007. These coincided with the publication of the Stern Review, the draft Climate Change Bill, and the summer flooding in the UK.
For those of us that marched on London yesterday, this is mixed news indeed. Collectively we will have had minimal impact on public opinion of climate change. None the less, it is foolish to separate protest marches from other drivers of public opinion. Public opinion is driven by perceived social norms and in a small way marches play their part in creating those. Besides, the impacts on policy are much harder to measure, and who know what they might be