Recent weather events have increased public concern about climate change. Until very recently there was cross-party support for measures aimed at preventing this and achieving a net-zero economy. However, following the Uxbridge by-election, where opposition to clean air policies enabled the Conservatives to hold the seat, the government has begun to row back on climate and environment policies. They think that care about the climate can be a ‘wedge’ issue to divide them from Labour in the coming election.
But how important are climate and environment in people’s voting decisions? People say they care, but it is well known that when it comes to actual voting, when many other factors are in play, people will often discard policies which they say they care about.
Two recent polls have explored the issue.
People think climate change is important
Both polls confirmed that people really care about the climate. Opinium’s poll found 85% of people agreeing that “Man-made climate change is a real issue”, with only 7% disagreeing. A clear majority (56%) agreed that “It is as bad as often described”, and half of respondents thought that the government is under-reacting to the issue (only 17% disagreed).
What should be done to tackle it?
But while people may agree that there is a problem, they may not be keen on specific measures to tackle it. Serious action will involve personal sacrifices. So Opinium asked about several possible options.
First, they tested how support for climate policies varied by the impact they might have on everyday life. The table shows the difference between the proportion supporting and opposing) each of four policies. Unsurprisingly, the closer the impact was to people personally, the greater the opposition. Plenty of people never fly anywhere, but everyone has personal finances.
They then looked at a broader range of climate and environment issues. Despite vociferous social media campaigns on the issue, there was overall support for low traffic neighbourhoods “outside schools” (+50), “in my local high street” (+19), and “in the street I live on” (+14).
There was a similar pattern on speed limits, where a range of options was offered. Asked about four places where new limits might apply, clearly the most popular was 20 mph, supported outside schools (by 82%), hospitals (60%), and “the street I live on” (56%), and “my local high street” (49%).
On other issues, people were again happy to support policies which involved other people acting. Asked what they would like an incoming Labour government to do, net support was over +70 for a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies; government to triple renewable power generation; and support for home insulation. They also supported, less strongly, making satnavs direct cars to main roads rather than residential streets; banning gas boilers in new houses; and Ultra Low Emission Zones. However, the government’s original plan to ban the sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 was definitely unpopular (-13).
Will people vote for the climate?
In the second survey, Greenpeace commissioned Survation to ask where climate action fits in people’s priorities when it comes to voting. Using a very large sample, and MRP methodology, they were also able to explore how these vary by Parliamentary constituency.
As in the Opinium poll, most people say they care about the climate. Sixty-nine percent say that “when it comes to how I will vote… environment and climate change policies are important”.
However, when it comes to prioritising climate over other issues, the picture changes. Asked to identify the three most important issues, the overwhelming pattern is clear. “The economy and inflation” and “health” are the top priorities: listed first or second in 580 of the 650 constituencies. Nowhere is “the environment and climate change” the top priority. Although there are 201 constituencies where it is in the top three issues (mainly third), this is behind “immigration”, which is listed as second or third choice in 342. A similar pattern is evident in the Ipsos regular monitoring survey, where climate comes only 8th among issues which concern people.
The national pattern is reflected in East Anglia. In 60 of the 61 new constituencies in the region, more than 50% of people choose health or the economy as their first priority. Climate appears in second or third place in only 13. The highest proportion choosing this are in Suffolk Coastal (49%), and Norwich South (46%), followed by South Cambridgeshire and South Suffolk (both 43%). Suffolk is, of course, one of the Green Party’s strongholds, and the Party’ co-leader Adrian Ramsay is standing for Parliament there. Norwich North is one of the few Labour seats in the region, and the MP, Clive Lewis, is also a strong advocate of green policies
So, climate policies matter, but they are not the issues which will determine most people’s voting behaviour. Unless they are seen to align with health and the economy, they will probably not make much electoral impact.
Will the environment affect voting?
It’s human nature to hope that any problem can be solved by someone else taking action, and with minimum inconvenience to us personally. We also tend to prioritise the immediate over the long term. And that is what seems to be happening here. Even if climate change may be threatening the existence of human beings on earth, most of us hope that the worst won’t happen, or not in our lifetime, or that someone else will take the pain.
The good news from these surveys is that, although conservatives think people don’t care about the climate, most people do think climate change is real and that it matters. Few people doubt it, and few want to resist policies to address it. There is modest support for some positive moves. However, on many of Opinium’s specific issues more than a quarter of people chose “neither support or oppose”, which does not suggest that they will play a large part in voting decisions. And, as so often in public policy, people are reluctant to pay for what they say they want.
So, when people go into the voting booth next year, climate issues are unlikely to influence most people either way. But no party will win by arguing that there is no problem. So, if the Conservatives want to use this issue to drive voting, they need to persuade people that positive climate policies will cost, or inconvenience them, a lot. They haven’t achieved that yet, and in the end, other things will probably matter more.