At times it feels as if politics has gone mainstream.
The last couple of years have delivered arguably the most important ballot of a generation, the most unusual US presidency in living memory, a snap general election complete with crowds chanting Jeremy Corbyn’s name at Glastonbury festival, and this year, a long and complex political saga without resolution.
But which stories resonated with the general public?
Populus polls 2,000 British adults each week to find out which news story, political or otherwise, the public paid most attention to.
Here we look back at which stories did — and didn’t — break through in 2018.
Public focus away from politics
In the first half of the year the public’s attention was not on politics. Cold weather in March and the royal wedding in May captured far more interest than the Windrush scandal that beset the Conservative party in between.
At its peak, Windrush combined with the resignation of Amber Rudd as home secretary was the most memorable story of the week for only 27 per cent of the public (compared with 50 per cent for the snow and 45 per cent for Harry and Meghan).
The poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal captured more attention than this on five separate occasions. In one week two thirds of respondents (68 per cent) named it as their top story, well over twice as many as Windrush. The trading of blows between parties in the Commons usually pales in comparison to events that apparently represent a threat to a sense of stability and security, particularly if they also contain an element of human interest.
Labour party antisemitism row fails to cut through
Perhaps 2018’s starkest example of a story much greater within the Westminster bubble than outside it was the Labour party antisemitism row. For weeks it was the biggest news item in British politics but it simply did not cut through on a large scale. No more than 6 per cent spontaneously identified it as the story they had paid most attention in any given week – which does not necessarily mean, of course, that the rest of the population does not care about antisemitism.
Which political stories did resonate?
Jeremy Corbyn and antisemitism were dwarfed by Brexit, which became the biggest story of the year on 72 per cent as the prime minister sought to finalise her deal with the EU in December.
This is a huge share for politics outside of an election year but it is easy to overestimate how many people were tuned in before that point. Brexit did not command more than a third of public attention in any week until September, and it was only in the past two months that it became the most recalled story for a majority.
Even then, despite the wall-to-wall coverage, around three in ten members of the public had other stories (or none at all) on their mind.
Trump attracts media and public interest
President Trump is to American politics what Brexit is to ours, at least when it comes to attracting media and public interest. He helped to make November’s midterm elections a talking point: 37 per cent of British adults said it was their top story of the week, compared with only 2 per cent for the 2014 midterms.
Controversies around the separation of migrant children from their parents, the legal trials of his inner circle, and relation-building with Kim Jong-un propelled President Trump to the top spot on three other occasions. Where respondents shared their thoughts on the president, they were overwhelmingly negative, describing him as a “liar”, a “clown”, and a “big idiot”.
The first half of 2018 reminds us that the public usually tune in to politics only at key moments. The second half reminds us that these are unusual times.
When a political story builds and builds, it can on rare occasions eclipse those that usually capture the public’s imagination, such as royal weddings, weather phenomena, and immediate threats to international stability. Brexit has reached that point. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into increased political engagement in the long run.
Populus interviewed a nationally representative sample of at least 2,000 British adults aged 18 and over each week, and asked what news story they had noticed the most. The question was open-ended and participants could name any story.