Good Thursday Afternoon,
It’s time to take a look at the polls! Each week, Magnified delivers insights and analysis straight to your inbox, allowing you to stay up to date on what the public thinks about the most important issues of the day. With its focus on the environment, this week’s issue takes its thematic cue from the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, set to begin next week. Keep reading for the latest updates on our weekly trackers, as well as our national and international polls. Today, we also take an in-depth look at why environmental policy, an issue on which goals and rhetoric are currently similar across the UK’s main political parties should become an area of political contestation in the future—and why it probably won’t.
This week, our research also covered:
- Dramatic change in perception of UK Gov’t Covid handling
- Britons’ assessments of Taiwan’s security situation
- Views on electric cars
Westminster Voting Intention
Conservative 39% (-1)
Labour 36% (-1)
Liberal Democrat 10% (+1)
Green 6% (+1)
Scottish National Party 4% (–)
Reform UK 4% (+1)
Other 1% (-1)
Changes +/- 18 Oct
All Net Approval Ratings
Rishi Sunak: +18% (-1)
Boris Johnson: -3% (-1)
Keir Starmer: -10% (–)
Changes +/- 18 Oct
Our latest Voting Intention poll gives the Conservatives a three-point lead over Labour, with 39% (-1) of voters saying they would vote for the Conservative Party if an election were to be held tomorrow. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s net approval rating stands at -3% (-1) in this week’s poll, while the Government’s net competency rating remains at -13% (-1).
The Prime Minister’s net approval rating and the Government’s net competency rating may not have changed significantly over the past week, but one area in which public opinion has dramatically changed is the Government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
With nearly 86% of the population aged 12 and above now having received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, nearly 80% having received two doses, and all domestic restrictions having ceased, the pandemic had begun to lose some of its political salience. Sure, issues such as a report by MPs describing the UK’s failure to do more to combat the pandemic in its early stages as one of the country’s worst public health failures or debates about mask wearing in the House of Commons still received media attention, but the pandemic had been dominating the news agenda decidedly less than in previous months.
Since last week, however, coronavirus appears to be making a political comeback amidst once again rising cases and, more importantly, hospitalisations—which is impacting voters’ perception of how the Government is dealing with the ongoing pandemic.
Just two weeks ago, 43% of Britons thought the Government was taking the right measures to address the pandemic and 37% thought it was not. Now, we record nearly half (49%) of Britons saying they do not think the Government is taking the right measures—a 12-point increase—while only a third (33%) thinks the Government is taking the right measures to address the pandemic. In July, a shift of the same nature occurred—one that correlated with a drop in Boris Johnson’s net approval into negative territory (where it has since remained).
Uncertain messaging regarding the Government’s strategy over the coming winter months may be one factor behind this latest change in public opinion. While some groups, such as the NHS Confederation and the British Medical Association, have called for some restrictions to be reintroduced, the Government has indicated that a fourth lockdown would only be used as a ‘last resort.’
Such a lockdown, while not completely off the table, would only be considered should both plan A—the Government’s preferred strategy of relying on high vaccination rates to avoid introducing new restrictions—and Plan B—involving measures such as mandatory face coverings, vaccine passports, and working from home—fail. Britons do not appear convinced. In fact, 51% think it is likely another lockdown will be imposed this winter, compared to 22% who deem this prospect unlikely.
Going forward, rising case numbers and hospitalisations and the Government’s response to this evolving dynamic will also represent another significant political test for Sajid Javid. After taking over as Health Secretary from Matt Hancock in June, the Minister’s first judgement call on lifting all remaining restrictions in England on 19 July amidst still high cases may once have seemed vindicated. With his current net approval rating standing at -2%, this evaluation is now under threat.
Charts of the Week
Britons’ Views on Organic vs. Conventional Farming and Agricultural Practices
As a matter of policy, Britons demonstrate a clear preference for organic agricultural and farming practices. A majority oppose the use of hormones and anti-biotics in livestock (51%), and pluralities oppose the use of pesticides (44%) and the genetic modification of crops (33%).
At the same time, Britons clearly find it difficult to take their preferences for agricultural and farm products that do not employ these practices into account in practice. When shopping for food, overwhelming majorities say they do not know how to distinguish between meat from animals that have or have not been fed hormones or antibiotics (76%), food that has or has not been grown with the use of pesticides (74%), and products that have or have not been genetically modified (69%).
Perhaps due to this confusion, majorities of Britons concede that they do not actively try to avoid buying meat that has been fed hormones or antibiotics (52%), food that has been grown with the use of pesticides (56%), or foods that have been genetically modified (55%). Even so, thanks to what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the ‘minority rule,’ those who do not actively avoid eating such foods can still rest easy—those who do know how to identify foods they are unwilling to eat are clearly sizable enough in number to prevent many supermarkets from stocking their shelves with such foods deemed undesirable by this minority. By default, those who are unable to actively distinguish between products will often thus end up buying the products they prefer—even if they do so unknowingly.
Our Global Data
Great Britain: Among Britons aware of what green belts around British cities are, an overwhelming 90% approve of their existence. In fact, Britons’ approval of green belts goes so far that 74% think the rules on building in green belts should remain strict to protect the environment, even if this is at the expense of building more affordable housing in British cities. Only 20% take the inverse view that building affordable houses should be prioritised over keeping the rules on building in green belts strict to protect the environment. Read more here.
Great Britain: With the safety of MPs in the spotlight, 54% of Britons say they would support the vetting of constituents seeking to meet with their Member of Parliament prior to constituency surgeries—a measure only 11% would oppose, even though a plurality of 43% also thinks that the vetting of constituents seeking to meet their MP would be abused by MPs trying to avoid unhappy constituents who merely disagree with them (without posing a security threat).
Great Britain/United States: Views on the societal impact of social media align closely on both sides of the Atlantic. 49% of Britons and 52% of Americans think social media platforms are more likely to tear societies apart, whereas 29% in Great Britain and 25% in the US think they are more likely to bring societies closer together.
United States: A plurality of Americans think the Biden Administration has performed best with regard to the coronavirus pandemic (38%), including 64% of Biden voters. Respondents select immigration (27%) as the area where the Biden Administration has performed worst, including 27% of Biden voters, with the economy (24%) a close second (20% of Biden voters).
Hire Us: If you are a business, campaign, or research organisation looking to expand your understanding of public opinion, Redfield & Wilton Strategies has the tools to help. Get in touch to find out more.
Long Exposure: In-Depth Analysis
Consensus or Competition: Why Parties’ Environmental Policies Should Become a Political Battleground and Why They Won’t
In the United Kingdom, leaders across the political spectrum recognise the need to include environmental policies in their platforms in response to increasing demand from voters. Currently, 29% of Britons say a political party’s environmental policies matter ‘a great deal’ to them when deciding whether to vote for that party, and a further 42% say these policies matter ‘a moderate amount.’ Only 11% say a party’s environmental policies do not matter to them at all. Accordingly, all parties made sure to include green policies in their 2019 manifestos—rendering the last General Election the ‘greenest’ the UK has seen to date. The election even featured the first televised election leaders’ debate on climate change, which symbolised a shift in the political importance attached to environmental issues—though Boris Johnson declined to attend.
Yet, green campaign pledges have thus far served mostly as a box-ticking exercise for politicians rather than as a real source of political dispute. No party, for instance, denies that climate change is a threat to the UK—an assessment shared by 59% of the British public. It is furthermore striking just how similar the parties’ 2019 manifestos are regarding the environment, where one can find a broad consensus on the need for the UK to virtually eliminate its greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades, for instance.
What varies only somewhat are the timelines parties set to achieve ‘net zero.’ Whereas the Conservatives decided in 2019 to stick to the 2050 target set by Theresa May, the Liberal Democrats chose 2045 with the largest reduction to take place over the next ten years, akin to Labour’s promise of achieving the ‘substantial majority of our emissions reductions by 2030.’ The Greens went a step further by promising to get all to way to ‘net zero’ by 2030. Beyond considerations of how realistic these different timelines are, the final endpoint of net zero emissions is generally not in dispute.
Supporting this point, we find that most of the public is hardly aware, if at all, of each party’s environmental platform. Those saying they know ‘nothing at all’ or just ‘a little bit’ of a party’s environmental policies are in the majority regarding the Labour Party (64%), the Liberal Democrats (76%), and even the Greens (66%). Only the Conservative Party, due to being in Government, sees a majority of members of the public saying they know ‘a moderate amount’ or a ‘great deal’ about their environmental policies (52%).
Soon enough, however, the questions of when and how the UK should get to ‘net zero’ should become contentious and politically fraught terrain. As time goes by, the Government will be forced either to act or to admit that all talk around tackling climate change has been a charade. When such a juncture approaches and debates about various approaches inevitably arise, differences among the body politic should accordingly become visible.
Above all, it is undeniable that implementing the UK’s green transformation will come with a hefty price tag. At the same time, Britons appear reluctant to dig deep into their own pockets to finance the green transformation. For instance, likely in response to recent petrol shortages and supply chain issues in Britain, a plurality (38%) of Britons now say they would oppose personally paying more in taxes to fund environmental initiatives, compared to 29% who would support doing so. From a consumer standpoint, many also appear unwilling—and perhaps financially unable—to accept increases in their living costs to help the planet, with a small, though still significant 29% of Britons saying they would be willing to pay 1.5 times the current price for food products if they were produced locally, rather than imported, for example.
Beyond its price tag, this relative unwillingness to personally pay more to fund environmental policies could be linked to doubts regarding the effectiveness of such initiatives. The Government purportedly invested £37 billion in renewable energy between 2010 and 2015 alone, and there is no shortage of new, expensive investment promises, including, to cite just one example, the 2020 Budget announcement that the Government would provide £532 million for consumer incentives for ultra-low emission vehicles. Despite these many costly measures already undertaken or now promised, a plurality of 37% still disagrees that the UK Government is doing enough to address climate change—raising the question of what measures, if any, would be enough?
There also is a global aspect to Britons’ scepticism regarding the effectiveness of environmental policies. Whereas a majority of 51% of Britons who understand the meaning of the Government’s ‘net zero’ target do not have confidence in the ability of the UK to reach this target by 2050, as many as 70% of this demographic say they do not have confidence in the ability of the world to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions by 2050. Even as a clear majority (62%) believes all countries have an equal responsibility to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, only 27% agree that the UK is doing enough to encourage other countries to address climate change.
Mirroring this lack of faith in the Government and regarding global efforts, 52% also agree that they find it hard to tell whether the practices they personally adopt to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle make any real difference. Only 14% disagree. Averting resignation among voters and proving that initiatives do make a real difference will thus be a major stumbling block, perhaps an insurmountable one.
Moreover, perceived fairness will be another critical issue. More than half (55%) of Britons think that when it comes to covering the economic costs associated with the UK Government’s efforts to protect the environment and address climate change, the costs are generally unevenly distributed across society. Parties will therefore need to respond to such perceived unfairness—and with parties likely to have differing ideas of what constitutes a ‘fair distribution’ of the costs associated with efforts to protect the environment and address climate change, political contestation should become pronounced.
Nuclear power is a prime example: While a plurality (39%) of Britons would support the Government investing in building new nuclear power plants in the United Kingdom, a nearly equal plurality would oppose the Government building new nuclear power plants in their region—suggesting that the construction of nuclear power plants is a typical “not in my backyard” issue. Simultaneously catering to these two preferences across the entire electorate is impossible, which brings with it the risk of discontent—and thereby politicisation.
For all the above reasons, we see political contestation around solutions to the UK’s environmental problems as necessary. Consensus in terms of the present rhetoric should eventually give way to dissensus in practice. When mere talk moves to action, currently hidden faultlines should become apparent, and voters should begin to pay more attention to the specifics they currently—reassured by party leaders’ perhaps symbolic performance on recognising the importance of addressing climate change—feel comfortable enough to disregard.
Recent experience with the coronavirus pandemic, however, suggests a genuine risk that the subject of climate change and debates surrounding solutions to address it will be precluded from democratic debate, on the grounds that disagreement with this or that environmental policy is in fundamental disagreement with “the science.” Analogous to the way policies intended to address climate change will, the policies developed with little political opposition in response to the coronavirus pandemic inflicted enormous and, at times, unevenly distributed costs on the general population while not always appearing effective.
In a previous issue of Magnified, we argued that scientific advice during the coronavirus pandemic often had the effect of obligating the Government to introduce certain policies, rather than, as intended, informing the Government and the public about a variety of possible policy choices. However, for any mistakes that occurred during the coronavirus pandemic, politicians, rather than the scientists advising the Government, took the brunt of the blame. Such blame, as we argued, often came with the false accusation that the politicians in charge had not followed the scientific advice given to them even when they had followed such advice—for instance, in the decision not to lockdown during the early days of the pandemic.
One may argue that, unlike climate change, the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, though also ‘an invisible enemy,’ was immediate and apparent, thereby preventing nuanced political debate around different possible solutions. Yet, a majority (66%) of the British public already agrees that the world is facing a ‘climate emergency.’ As a result, this dangerous dynamic of ceding political decision-making power to scientific advisers in times of emergency, which has proven so effective in neutralising political opposition, is likely to be repeated when it comes to climate change.
The question of how to address climate change should become a political battleground, but it appears increasingly likely that it will not be—with little accountability accorded to those who make costly mistakes.
Perspective: The R&WS Take on the News
Biden vows to defend Taiwan from Chinese military action
Financial Times | 22 October 2021
Our take: In contradiction to the United States’ long-standing policy of strategic ambiguity, President Joe Biden last week said the US had a commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese attack. The White House has since played down the comments, saying the US’ policy—which, under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, is for the US to support Taiwan’s self-defence efforts without committing itself to a formal defence alliance—had not changed. In the UK, the public sees the US as having a clear role to play in the defence of Taiwan, though views of what this means for Taiwan are ambiguous: A plurality (34%) of Britons agree that the security of Taiwan depends on the United States, but only 24% agree that the United States can be trusted to defend Taiwan. An equal proportion (24%) in fact disagrees that the US can be trusted in this regard, and 27% neither agree nor disagree—suggesting a dangerous lack of confidence among Britons in America’s commitment to defend Taiwan.
UK battery ‘gigafactory’ plans huge expansion as electric car demand soars
The Guardian | 25 October 2021
Our take: Britons appear more and more willing to consider switching from fossil fuel-powered to electric cars—more so than Europeans in France, Germany, and Italy, for example, as we detailed in a previous issue of Magnified. Currently, 9% say they are ‘very likely’ to purchase an electric car in the next three years. While 46% overall explicitly say they are unlikely to purchase an electric car in the next three years, for half (52%) of these respondents this answer is due to them being unlikely to purchase any car in the next three years. Nevertheless, the price of electric vehicles remains a major concern. Despite Government grants intended to make electric vehicles more affordable, 43% of those unlikely to purchase one over the next three years cite electric cars being too expensive as a main reason. A lack of charging stations (32%) and concerns over battery life (36%) are other common factors likely to inhibit Britons’ uptake of electric cars.
R&WS in the Media
Each week we bring you the top stories from the media that have featured our research.
Trump Will ‘Kneecap’ GOP Presidential Nominee if He Doesn’t Run, Says Ex-Republican Lawmaker
Newsweek | 24 October 2021
Boris orders over-50s to get booster jabs NOW amid Christmas lockdown fears
Daily Express | 22 October 2021
Are you a journalist needing a stat for your latest piece? We can be your resource—our polling covers hundreds of issues in multiple countries each week. If you are working on an article on a topical issue, chances are we have already asked the public about it. Get in touch and we’ll share our polling data with you!
Most Read on Our Website This Week
Building on Greenbelt Land is Still Politically Toxic, Despite the Severity of the Housing Crisis
27 October 2021 (4 min read)
Latest GB Voting Intention (25 October 2021)
25 October 2021 (5 min read)
Joe Biden Administration Approval Ratings (17 October)
21 October 2021 (3 min read)
Our Research on Social Media
Top 5 Tweets This Week
- Would the British public support or oppose personally paying more in taxes to fund environmental initiatives? (17 Oct): (see full tweet)
- What political or Government-related news stories most caught Britons’ attention in the past week? (25 Oct): (see full tweet)
- For which OTHER party could current Conservative voters see themselves voting? (21 Oct): (see full tweet)
- How often do Britons engage with political content on social media? (22 Oct): (see full tweet)
- Which party do Britons trust most in specific policy areas? (23 Oct): (see full tweet)