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James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
You may well be familiar will the following argument: the Conservatives’ working-class, Leave-voting core is incandescent with rage about green taxes and charges, and want the Net Zero target scrapped. If the Government doesn’t respond, these voters will peel off to a new UKIP.
While there’s a superficial plausibility to all this, it’s completely contradicted by polling. If anything, the politicians who should be most scared of populist arguments are right-leaning, green-sceptics. For working-class Conservative voters have slowly swung behind green policies in recent times and find hostility to them strange at best, irritating at worst.
The environment has surged as an issue amongst all voter groups in the last few years. While it’s unquestionably an issue which motivates left-leaning voters and young professionals more, the environment is now at least a tier two issue for everyone – including working-class Leave voters. Yes, they care more about other issues, but they do care about the environment.
I’ve just helped complete a new research project for Onward, informing a new report addressing directly whether working-class Leave Conservatives want the party to pivot away from Net Zero – and whether a rise in the cost of living has made them hostile to the Government’s green agenda. You can read the full tables here but in this project we found the following:
– New Conservatives place the environment joint second with the NHS and housing from a list of issues facing their children and grandchildren;
– They support the Net Zero target by 53 percent -14 percent (with the rest unsure), compared to the national average of 60 percent -10 percent.
Elsewhere, we probed the electoral impact of a party committing to dump the Net Zero target. Hypothetical questions need to be placed in their proper context: they can’t be seen as predictions, but rather signifiers for people’s current attitudes. Here we found 36 percent of New Conservatives would be less likely to vote for a party who junked the target, compared to 12 percent who would be more likely to support such a party (with the rest unsure or unmoved).
When those New Conservatives who were considering voting Conservative at a future election were asked directly whether they would support the Conservatives if they junked the target, a fifth said they definitely or probably wouldn’t vote for the party. Not massive, but certainly significant.
Why have so many right-wing politicians and commentators overstated working-class opposition to environmental policies? There are two reasons.
Firstly, because they have conflated working-class interest in other issues with a lack of interest in the environment. Just because working-class voters are primarily worried about issues like the cost of living crisis or the NHS doesn’t mean they’re ambivalent about the environment. On the contrary, as we have seen, they care a great deal. In any focus groups I run on the issue, the environment always comes up and working-class voters invariably say it’s an issue they care deeply about as they fear for their children’s and grandchildren’s future. This has been true for three years, at least.
Secondly, their underestimation of working-class interest means they assume any associated costs must be deeply resented. But ordinary voters have been clobbered by a range of very serious tax rises for many years now – taxes which completely dwarf green taxes and levies. NICs have risen, council tax has risen, and more people have been dragged into higher tax bands. In addition, energy bills have rocketed. In this context, green taxes and levies appear insignificant.
Crucially, the poll shows voters remain committed to the environment generally – and to Net Zero specifically – even as fears about rising living costs grow. When I did similar polling around the time of the financial crisis, this wasn’t the case; at that time, the environment – which had surged briefly as an issue – faded away as economic concerns grew. Such has been the growth in concern about environmental issues, that isn’t now happening.
For those that work in this policy area, perhaps the most interesting data is found at the end of the poll. We tested a range of different “populist” messages designed to move voters for or against Net Zero and environmental policies. These included messages which hammered Net Zero for raising living costs, or cast doubt on the seriousness of the situation, or, conversely, which accused politicians of dragging their feet on the issue or failing to agree sufficient action. They were all harder-edged, emotional messages.
Amongst working-class, Conservative 2019 supporters, as with other voter segments, those messages which pressed for faster action and criticised politicians for failure played better. About half of New Conservatives agreed with the argument which criticised associated costs, and suggested the UK would have little impact when other countries were doing nothing. However, an outright majority (65 percent) agreed with the argument pushing the benefits of Net Zero to the UK; the same was true for an argument which used typically anti-politics messaging in support of action on the climate.
The original fieldwork for the research took place in February. Since then, living costs have risen further and the war in Ukraine has at least raised the prospect of a surge of fear about energy security. We therefore ran an additional top-up poll to see whether opinion had moved. Generally speaking, it has moved very little; if anything, people have become more positive towards green energy alternatives because they want energy generated onshore and using sustainable methods.
It seems likely we will soon see another leadership contest. Candidates will come under pressure to soften or junk the Net Zero target. Politicians and commentators will assure them this will secure instant popularity. Regardless of the merits or otherwise from a policy perspective, purely electorally it would be counter-productive. Working-class voters – even those from the Conservatives’ Leave-voting core – simply don’t want to go down this route. No, they’re not now green voters, let alone prospective activists. However, working-class voters will ask: when there’s so much waste, and when other taxes are so high, why would you axe a policy which might actually do some good?