In recent days, thousands of people have gathered in towns and cities across the United Kingdom to protest. This wave of mass demonstrations was initiated by the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, but its attention has now drawn to issues of race in the UK. However, given the continued ban on mass gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic, protests have proved particularly controversial––even amongst strong supporters of the movement––and Government officials have advised against attendance.
With this in mind, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled 1,500 adults on the 11th of June and asked them a series of questions relating to their views on the protests in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. A large majority (69%) of respondents believe that ‘it is not possible’ for protestors to follow social distancing rules. An absolute majority of people in every demographic (age, geographic region, gender, 2019 General Election vote) share this view, which reflects both the Government’s current rules against attending large-scale protests and the widespread desire among respondents for people to continue following social distancing rules.
Given that over two-thirds of the public believe it is not possible to socially distance coronavirus during mass demonstrations, it is understandable then that 59% of the public come closer to the view that it is ‘not defensible for people to protest given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic’. There is a clear differentiation in opinion based on who respondents voted for in 2019: 75% of Conservative voters believe that it indefensible for protests to occur currently, in contrast to just 44% of Labour voters.
We also asked participants whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, ‘While protestors may be risking their lives due to the ongoing coronavirus, a greater number of lives would be saved in the long run if the aims of the protestors are realised.’ This sort of statement is one that has been used by some protestors to defend the dissonance of sudden mass gatherings taking place after months of people having stayed in their homes.
Overall, the result of this particular question illustrates a sharp division in public opinion: 34% agreed with the statement an 39% disagreed. This figure best captures the debate that has been occurring in the UK across the last fortnight, with protestors claiming that protesting now is necessary in order to confront what they call ‘systemic racism,’ which they claim will result in more deaths over time (or already is resulting in more deaths) than the coronavirus pandemic. Meanwhile, some opponents to protests, even likely supporters of the cause, argue that the immediate health risks are too great, and that mass gatherings risk a second wave that will increase the likelihood of escalating deaths and the UK re-entering an economy-crippling lockdown.
There is a stark difference in answers to this question based on age. 56% of 18-to-24-year-olds agree that a greater number of lives will be saved if the aims of the protestors are realised and just 14% disagree. In contrast, 54% of 65+ respondents disagree with the statement, and only 19% agree. Strong differences are also visible between those who voted for the two main parties in 2019. 54% of Conservative voters disagree with the statement, while 18% of Labour voters disagree. 26% of Conservative voters agree, yet 52% of Labour’s 2019 voters support the statement.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the UK Government have been faced with an unenviable task as protestors have taken to the streets. The right to peaceful protest has been a valued aspect of Britain’s democratic processes for centuries, yet government advisers have warned that large scale demonstrations in confined urban places risk transmission of the virus. Furthermore, while the majority of protesters and protests have been peaceful, a small minority have become involved in skirmishes with the police and statues have also been vandalised. In such a situation, Johnson has therefore attempted to highlight his understanding of the protestors’ grievances, while also criticising them for undermining the containment of the virus and occasionally violating the law.
It is perhaps unsurprising then, that a plurality (38%) of the public agreed that the Government had performed ‘neither well nor poorly,’ while 36% of the public argued he had performed ‘poorly.’ This chasm is particularly notable when analysing the responses of 2019 Conservative voters, only 21% of whom believe the Prime Minister has performed well, in contrast to 30% who are disappointed with his actions.
As a follow up, we then asked those who said the Government has performed poorly during the protests why they held this view. Here, 49% of this group of respondents said they think the Government has not cracked down hard enough, amounting to 18% of the overall sample, and including 24% of 2019 Conservative voters in our sample. Meanwhile, a significant minority (25%) of those who think the Government has responded poorly said they think so because the Government has not accommodated the protesters well enough. This 35% amounts to about 13% of the overall sample.
However, despite the mixed feelings of the UK public about the Government’s response to the protesters, our findings show that the vast majority of the public agrees with the official Government stance: it is impossible to socially distance properly while protesting. The public therefore appears to prefer people refrain from protesting so long as the spectre of the coronavirus pandemic remains.