There's a fascinating poll up on the BBC News web site today. The related story is about the Capital Gains Tax debate, in which Alistair Darling announced that Taper Relief would be abolished - a decision he is now under great pressure to reverse.
Darling's proposal would simplify CGT, which is of course welcome, but would also raise the rate by 80% for many people, which is of course not very welcome at all.
The CBI and the Conservatives, as well as some extremely prominent individuals from the world of business, have urged Darling to abandon the change, slamming it as both poorly thought-out and dangerous both to Britain's competitiveness and to short term stability. The Federation of Small Businesses has proposed a halfway house alternative designed to protect small businesses, too. The potential for people rushing to sell their assets in British businesses before the tax hike occurrs in April means that there is a lot of pressure for the Chancellor to make a decision one way or another soon.
So faced with this complex issue, the BBC has offered the public the chance to vote on the question "Should Capital Gains Tax be reformed?"
The first problem with this is that it provides a Yes or No choice on an issue where there are any number of answers. It rather depends what you think they mean by 'reform', a word both loaded with political meaning and deeply ambiguous. What kind of reform could they be referring to?
Does voting 'Yes' mean:
1) you support Alistair Darling's original proposal to increase the rate of CGT - reforming CGT as it used to be.
2) you support getting rid of Alistair Darling's CGT proposal and going back to how it was before - reversing Darling's decision (i.e. completely the opposite of option 1).
3) you support getting rid of Alistair Darling's CGT proposal and replacing it with the Tories' suggestions.
4) you support getting rid of Alistair Darling's CGT proposal and replacing it with the FSB's idea or any one of the numerous other alternatives.
5) you believe CGT should be further reformed in any one of a myriad of ways irrespective of Darling's proposal.
The fascinating thing here is not only that the idea of boiling down a question to which there are at least five answers into a yes-or-no ever seemed a good idea, but that over 4000 people still felt able to vote one way or another. Amazingly, only 9% chose to vote "Not Sure". Nor did the others balance out equally as one might have expected due to the ambiguity of what "Yes" or "No" means. Overwhelmingly, "Yes" won, receiving 60% of the vote - double what "No" received.
Politically, and in campaign terms, this is a handy reminder of the power of the positive. People aren't stupid; they weren't being foolish voting like this. We all evolved as social animals, wanting and needing to be a productiove part of a group. Thus, faced with a question to which one's opinion could be justifiably be identified as "Yes" or "No", people overwhelmingly identified themselves as Yes supporters.
It's not a perfect rule - it is definitely possible to set a debate up as something where a gruff, Churchillian "Never" is attractive (for example in the North East Regional Assembly Referendum), whilst some people always like to be contrary - but for campaigners it is always worth bearing in mind whether opportunities exist to harness such trends.
And if you're wondering, I voted "Don't Know".