British Voters Want More Defence Spending Amid Fears of Conflict With Russia and China

April 15, 2024
R&WS Research Team
Conservative Party | International Relations | Labour Party | Relations with China | Security | UK Government

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Amidst an increasingly fractured geopolitical landscape, with conflicts raging in the Middle East and Ukraine, and China a growing threat, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies, in partnership with The Daily Mail and The Telegraph, recently asked British voters a range of questions related to matters of national security, defence spending, and the state of Britain’s armed forces.

From a party-political standpoint, our key finding is that Labour is now more trusted than the Conservatives on national security and defence, a historic reversal in an area of traditional Conservative strength.

Our poll finds 34% of voters trust the Labour Party more on national security and defence, against 23% who trust the Conservatives more on the issue. 21% trust neither party, while an additional 14% trust both parties equally.

More voters also now associate the Conservative Party with decreasing spending on defence (28%) than associate the party with increasing defence spending (26%).

The same, however, is also true of the Labour Party, with 26% associating Keir Starmer’s party with decreasing defence spending, against 18% who associate it with increasing defence spending. 

When asked which party they most associate with advocating for increased spending on defence, the Conservative still hold a narrow lead over Labour (27% to 22%). 19% say they associate neither party and 16% associate both parties equally with advocating for increased defence spending.

It is worth noting that, after this poll was conducted, Labour committed to increase defence spending to 2.5% of GDP (from the current target of 2% of GDP) should it win the next election.

The 2% target, which is mandated by NATO, is one which a plurality (41%) of Britons think is about right, while 25% think it is too low and a further 10% think it is too high

However, British voters broadly believe the UK is currently spending too little on defence.

When asked about spending in a range of areas, 40% say they think the Government is spending too little on defence, against 34% who think it is spending about the right amount, and 9% who think it is spending too much.

Across the political spectrum, there is general support for increasing defence spending, even at a cost to other programmes.

53% of all voters, including 63% of 2019 Conservative and 51% of 2019 Labour voters, say they would most prefer the UK Government deciding to increase spending in the armed forces at the cost of less spending in other programmes.

Only 27% of voters would prefer the Government to decrease spending in the armed forces, to the benefit of more spending on other programmes.

Asked bluntly if they would support the Government deciding to increase spending and investment in the armed forces, at the cost of less spending on other programmes, a majority of 54% of voters would support the Government doing so, including 66% of 2019 Conservative voters and 53% of 2019 Labour voters.

Indeed, a plurality of voters (40%) also say they would support the UK Government increasing defence spending even if it ruled out tax cuts in the near future. 

A majority (55%) of 2019 Conservative voters would support that trade-off, as would 41% of 2019 Labour voters.

However, when asked if they would be any more or less likely to vote for a party that promised to increase defence spending, a plurality of 39% of voters say they’d be neither more nor less likely to do so, against 36% who say they would be more likely to vote for such a party.

2019 Conservative voters (48%) are fifteen points more likely than 2019 Labour voters (33%) to say they would be more likely to vote for a party that promises to increase defence spending.

While voters therefore support increases in defence spending, the scope to which it might increase voters’ willingness to support a party that promised greater spending is limited.

That is because defence is not a main priority area when voters think of where the UK Government needs to increase spending and investment.

The areas on which voters are most likely to say the UK Government needs to increase spending and investment are the NHS (69%), housing (34%), and education (25%). 

Of 18 spending areas listed, defence (11%) ranks only tenth in terms of the number of voters who think it needs the greatest increase in spending and investment.

As regards the current strength of the British military, voters are split.

A narrow plurality (35%) say they are satisfied with the current strength of the UK’s armed forces, against 30% who are unsatisfied. 27% are neither satisfied nor unsatisfied.

The total manpower strength of the UK’s armed forces is currently around 190,000, making it one of the largest militaries in Europe, but significantly lower than the 300,000+ active duty personnel the UK had in the 1980s and dwarfed in size by global powers like China, Russia, and the United States (all of which, of course, have far larger populations).

50% of voters believe the UK’s armed forces have recruited too few service members, while just 17% think they have recruited the right number. 12% think they have recruited too many service members.

The view that the UK’s armed forces are too small have fed a pessimism about the UK’s ability to meet potential threats.

A plurality of 42% think the UK’s armed forces are not strong enough to face any potential future challenges the UK may face, against just 35% who think that they are strong enough.

A similar number of voters also believe the UK’s armed forces are not strong enough to fight in a major war (45%), while 36% believe that they are.

With both China and Russia increasingly seen as strategic enemies of Britain and her allies, many Britons now think a direct military confrontation with both countries is likely in the coming years.

A majority (58%) think it is likely that the UK will be involved in a direct military conflict with Russia in the next five years, while 42% think it is likely the UK will be involved in a conflict with China in the same timeframe.

A plurality believe it is unlikely that the UK will be involved in a conflict with Iran (42%) in the next five years, as do majorities when it comes to both North Korea (53%) and Argentina (64%).

Between the two major strategic threats of Russia and China, a clear majority of Britons see Russia (51%), rather than China (31%), as the greater threat to the UK’s future security and prosperity.

This stands in contrast to many American voters who instead view China as a greater threat.

2019 Conservative voters are 11 points more likely to name China (40%) as the bigger threat than are 2019 Labour voters (29%), who themselves are nine points more likely to name Russia than those who voted Conservative at the last election (60% to 51%).

There is overwhelming public support for Britain’s continued membership of NATO.

71% of respondents, including majorities of 2019 Conservative (81%), Labour (72%), and Liberal Democrat (79%) voters support the United Kingdom being a member of NATO, against only 5% who oppose the UK’s membership of the alliance.

Finally, when asked if the United Kingdom should seek to be a global force for good, or should seek only to defend itself from direct threats, 46% of Britons think the UK should seek to be a global force for good, against 40% who think it should only seek to defend itself from direct threats.

Majorities of Liberal Democrat (61%) and Labour (55%) voters at the last election think the UK should seek to be a global force for good, as do a narrow plurality of 2019 Conservative voters (46%).

Taken together, our polling suggests a British electorate which would support greater defence spending, even at a cost to other programmes or foregoing tax cuts, but which also does not see defence as a priority area for greater spending.

Voters also want an expanded UK military, doubting its current ability to meet the challenge from Russia and China, who many believe the UK may soon find itself in direct military confrontation with. Voters also support Britain’s continued membership of NATO and think the UK should seek to be a global force for good.

To find out more information about this research contact our research team. Redfield & Wilton Strategies is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Follow us on Twitter

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