James Blagden is Chief Data Analyst and Head of Future Politics at Onward
The race to be the next Tory leader has exposed different views about the UK’s commitment to Net Zero within the MPs and membership. While both candidates have committed to tackling climate change in some form, neither has been as forthright in their support for Net Zero as the current government.
This is driven by a latent assumption that Conservative voters don’t care about Net Zero. Is this true? With Labour currently enjoying around a 9-point lead in the polls, could ditching Net Zero be the way to rebuild the historic 2019 coalition?
A new leader will be in Downing Street by September, and they will inherit a party with a strong parliamentary majority but low public support. The medium-term political challenge is persuading wavering Conservatives to stick with the party at the next election and ex-Conservatives to once again vote Conservative.
To test the Conservative politics of Net Zero, we conducted a GB representative poll of 6,548 voters between 13-17 July with Public First. The results reinforce the extent to which support for tackling climate change is now heavily ingrained within the broader Conservative electorate and how environmentalism is essential to the Conservatives’ electoral chances.
When asked about the most important issues facing the country at this time, the cost of living is first among every group by a wide margin. 73 percent of Conservative voters put this in the top three issues. This rises to 75 percent among wavering Conservative voters and 79 percent among ex-Conservatives. Dealing with the cost of living crisis should of course be at the top of the new Prime Minister’s agenda.
But this has not led to declining salience of environmental issues. “Tackling the threat of climate change” ranks fifth among current Conservative voters, behind the cost of living, the economy, the NHS and immigration. You wouldn’t know it from the leadership debate but it ranks above crime, housing and Brexit. This is also the case for people who voted Conservative in 2019 but are currently undecided who they will back next time, as well as for wavering Conservative voters – and this relative prioritisation has not changed since we last polled this issue back in April.
Voters are clear: Concern about the environment is high and they want the Government to stick to their promises on Net Zero.
When specifically asked whether they would like to see the new Leader of the Conservative Party keep the commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050 in place, or get rid of it, 51 percent of Conservative voters want it to remain and just 34 percent want it scrapped. That’s net support of +17 percent. Wavering Conservatives and ex-Conservative voters are also strongly in favour of the new Prime Minister keeping the Net Zero target (55 percent and 48 percent in favour, respectively).
There is a clear preference for holding firm on carbon emissions. The next Leader of the Conservative Party risks alienating their supporters if they row back on their predecessor’s promise. Our poll found that a proposal to drop Net Zero would risk losing nearly a quarter of current Conservative voters.
The risk of dropping Net Zero is clear. One in four (24 percent) people who plan to vote Conservative say that they would not vote Tory in a general election in which “the Conservative Party ran with a promise to remove the UK’s target to reach Net Zero by 2050”. This rises to 32 percent of Wavering Conservatives who would find this move on the environment a step too far. And only 23 percent of ex-Conservatives say they would return to voting Tory if they promised to ditch Net Zero. Clearly the losses outweigh the gains.
We also found similar results when we asked the question in the abstract: “If a political party said they were going to get rid of the target to reach Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions, how would this impact your likelihood to vote for this party if at all?”
Balancing out the Wavering Conservatives who might abandon the party with the recent ex-Conservatives who might return, the overall losses are substantial. 19 percent of 2019 Conservatives, who now don’t know who to vote for, say that they would be more likely to vote for a party that pledged to abandon Net Zero. This represents around 1.8 million voters.
But 49 percent of Wavering Conservatives say that they would be less likely to vote for such a party, representing about 3.8 million voters. So that would imply a net loss of almost 2 million votes if the Conservatives said they would get rid of the 2050 emissions target.
Sticking with the Net Zero target is also more popular in marginal seats. Dropping the target could severely damage the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. We ran an MRP analysis to understand the political geography of Net Zero, asking voters: “Do you support or oppose the UK plan to reach Net Zero by 2050?” This shows us the relative strength of feeling within the electorate across different constituencies.
Conservative seats where support for the 2050 Net Zero target is highest also have smaller majorities. Among the top 10 percent of Conservative seats, where the support for Net Zero is highest (36 constituencies), the average Conservative majority in 2019 was 13 percent. Among the 36 Conservative seats with the lowest support for Net Zero, the average majority was 31 percent, which makes them more than twice as safe as the most pro-Net Zero Conservative seats.
But even the safest seats are still firmly in favour of the 2050 Net Zero target. Take Boston and Skegness as an example, which has a Conservative majority of 61 percent. Our data indicates that 52 percent of people support Net Zero, compared to just 17 percent who are opposed, so the net favourability is +35 percent. But in a northern marginal seat like Warrington South – which the Conservatives regained from Labour at the last election, and hold with a majority of 3 percent – we estimate that the net support for the 2050 Net Zero target is even higher at +50 percent.
Rowing back on environmental commitments risks alienating voters in key marginal seats that will be targets for other parties. It would be electorally unwise for the Conservatives to do anything less than stick to the promises they made at the last election – to deliver Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.