Does anyone outside Westminster care about the Leveson Inquiry?

The Leveson Inquiry is increasingly being talked about as a Westminster soap opera, of no interest to the bulk of the country who have better things to do with their time than read (or write) political blogs.

And so Labour’s continued efforts to keep the news focus on Jeremy Hunt have frustrated those who think the party is missing much more valuable opportunities to attack the government on the economy. The former Labour general secretary, Peter Watt, argued that for the vast majority it’s “a hugely embarrassing waste of time and money”.

But public opinion data suggest a more mixed response to Leveson.

Starting with the evidence for the Peter Watt view, it’s clear that neither phone hacking nor more recent revelations from Leveson have ever been the most pressing issue for many people.

In August ’11, after the Milly Dowler story broke, MORI found that only 1% put phone hacking in their list of most important issues facing the country, and revelations about the relationship between the government and News Corp haven’t registered in the index at all. At the end of last year, only 4% said that phone hacking and the Leveson inquiry was the most important news event of 2011.

So the numbers suggest that despite repeated news coverage of the story, the public refuse to see it as a top issue. From this it could be argued that if politicians want to stop being out of touch they need to start talking about something that the country is really worried about.

And yet, I increasingly think it’s more complicated than that. Though not many people think phone hacking and Leveson is one of the biggest issues facing the country, it’s doesn’t seem to be an irrelevance either.

Exhibit A is Google’s search volume index. A comparison of searches for “economy” and “recession” with “phone hacking” and “Leveson” since June ’11 shows that it isn’t the case that the economy has always been of more interest than phone hacking and Leveson. “Leveson” and “phone hacking” have often been searched more than “recession”, and in three one-week periods were searched more than “economy”.

But just because people are interested doesn’t in itself mean that it’s bad for the government. We saw a couple of months ago that more people think that Hunt should resign than said the same for previous ministers who’ve been in trouble, but perhaps this was the product of a general anti-government and anti-politics mood rather than to do with anger about the Leveson findings.

Yet the results of a MORI poll from May hint that the public haven’t been ignoring Leveson. A question on trust shows that Jeremy Hunt is far less trusted than the party leaders (the negative scores for everyone reinforce the conclusions of Hopi Sen’s excellently named post, Dear politicians, You suck. Yours, the electorate):

While I can’t find a directly comparable question from before this year, a YouGov poll last July suggested that other frontbench Tory ministers were seen to be doing at least as well as Clegg – so the difference between Hunt and the leaders in the latest poll doesn’t look to be down to his being less well known.

Adding this together, we can conclude that Leveson has indeed been of interest beyond Westminster, and that people have heard enough to decide that they don’t trust the Culture Secretary.

But this doesn’t tell us whether Leveson has hit overall views of the Tories: for this we just don’t have evidence either way. The revelations about the Cameron-Brooks relationship might in principle have driven the recent fall in numbers who think the Tories have succeeded in leaving their past behind – but the timing also points to the importance of the Budget in affecting that.

So is it sensible for Labour to keep pushing the Leveson story, rather than trying to turn every debate into one about the economy?

The economy’s easily the most important issue for most people and there’s no shortage of work for Labour still to do to win the argument. More people blame Labour for the cuts than blame the Coalition. And while the Tories have lost ground in how they’re rated on economic competence, Labour haven’t moved in the last year.

Of course it’s not the case that Labour always have to make a choice between pushing Leveson or focusing on the economy. Sometimes it’s possible to do both – though not always.

Given that the economy will surely be the most important issue throughout this Parliament and the election campaign, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government were lucky that Leveson took some attention away from the news of the double dip.

But the claim that Leveson is only of interest to Westminster geeks is too strong, and the government are still being damaged by the Inquiry revelations. Labour’s continued efforts to keep it in the news aren’t as crazy as some suggest.

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