James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.
Everything the Government does from this moment has a direct impact on their prospects for re-election. In the final year of this Parliament, there’s no chance that voters will forget mistakes, and no chance brand damage can be repaired. With this in mind, how can we judge their recent policy announcements on the environment and Net Zero?
On the day Rishi Sunak made the announcement to delay the ban on new petrol-only cars being sold, framed through the prism of environmental scepticism, we released new polling for the Onward think tank which suggested the Government was making a mistake. Not a terrible mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.
In a summary on these pages, I argued that the change would suggest that the Government couldn’t be trusted to keep its promises, that Ministers would look incompetent by not being able to hit targets, and that hardly anybody thinks environmental policies are adding to the cost of living crisis. But while we had done a huge amount of research for Onward, and were confident in our analysis, I was speculating.
We therefore decided to run a comprehensive new research exercise to look into the announcement in more detail. Part of this was conventional political polling: testing attitudes to the announcements and the perceived motives for it. And part of this was more experimental “conjoint” analysis, which places hypothetical policy announcements in random and moving groups to see whether the existence of a particular policy in a platform makes it more or less likely voters will support it.
The conventional polling was a predictable mixed bag for the Conservatives. While the public gave support to delaying the petrol-only car ban (by 47 per cent to 24 per cent), the most popular explanation for the delay was because “the Prime Minister could not deliver the target”. And nearly a third said they thought it made it less likely the Government would keep its promises on other issues.
It’s vital to understand why people said they supported the delay. It’s emphatically not because voters have become “green-sceptic”. Rather, it’s all about the practicalities: people simply think EVs are too expensive; and they think there isn’t enough charging infrastructure available.
Overall, 26 per cent of swing voters said the delay has made it more likely they will vote Conservative, while 21 per cent say it has made them less likely to vote Conservative. The most enthusiastic were those currently planning to vote Conservative: those voters that have shifted allegiance to Labour in recent months (who account for Labour’s poll surge) are more likely to say the announcement has made them less likely to shift back.
Hardly what the Government would hope for from a major announcement, made personally by the Prime Minister and bolstered by sympathetic media coverage.
We also tested attitudes to Net Zero. The Government are adamant they didn’t move the target and remain fully committed to it. It denies that the move was positioned as a Net-Zero sceptic policy. To be fair, in our poll few voters read this as a meaningful shift; I thought more people would read that a pivot was possible. The Government will say they were right; my view is they got away with it.
I say “got away with it” because, again, this poll confirms majority and bipartisan public support for the Net Zero target. There is great danger in the Government repeating its media strategy around the announcement; voters will react badly to this. (This might change in time, but that’s where we are right now, and where we’ll be into the election).
While the exercise was complex, the results of the conjoint exercise are clear in summary. Pro-environment policies such as investing in renewable energy increase the chances people will vote for a particular policy platform. Conversely, policies like delaying Net Zero and increasing drilling in the North Sea tend to have the opposite impact.
Our analysis indicates that signalling green scepticism is a big vote loser for those who support environmental policy, but does not make up for this by being a substantial vote winner among their counterparts. And, as I note above, the current risk to the Conservatives is in appearing to signal green-scepticism, whether they intend to or not.
Since we presented policies in the abstract, not tied to any specific parties, we were able to ask whether a policy platform containing anti-environmental policy like a Net Zero delay was seen to be a Conservative or Labour party platform.
We found that including this policy to delay Net Zero, regardless of what policies it was alongside, made a policy platform look more like a Conservative party platform to respondents. Not just among Labour voters, but among 2019 Conservatives as well. A delay to Net Zero is seen as on-brand for the Conservatives, and unpopular. (Maybe people are noticing a shift in tone on Net Zero, even if the car announcement wasn’t proof; it’s not really clear).
We’re maybe ten months off the formal election campaign but we’re effectively entering the campaign now. From all our research, it’s clear voters are beginning to form their final judgements on the parties.
The lesson from the last few weeks – all the media coverage and all the opinion research – is that the Conservatives should run a mile from any Net Zero scepticism. They obviously have a difficult job at the moment – they have little wriggle room to cut taxes; the cost of living remains stubbornly high; immigration is running at levels way higher than they told voters to expect a decade ago. They are looking for cheap and eye- catching policies on other issues.
The environment just isn’t the place to look. They should take another look at levelling-up.