James Frayne: Simple policies that would let Labour woo the Tories’ working-class voters

6 Jul

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

What could Labour do to make the Conservatives truly worry?

For the last few years, Conservative problems have been generated by their own side. While it doesn’t look like Labour will be relevant to most voters in the short-term, it’s worth thinking about what Labour realistically could do to exploit Conservative weaknesses.

In thinking about this, I’ve tried to be as realistic as I can. There’s no point musing on Labour calling for much longer sentences for certain crimes. Rather, I’ve thought about what they might reasonably and easily do that would make life awkward and difficult for the Conservatives with their new voting coalition.

Speak for England

While the Conservatives electorally dominate England and have for some time, they don’t self-consciously attempt to speak for England – and indeed worry giving English MPs more power over English laws would undermine the Union.

This creates an opportunity for Labour that would suit their current predicament well. Their strange activist base finds patriotism horrifying, so they can’t give a voice to any form of English patriotism, however benign. And their desire to make a comeback in Scotland means they must ensure they don’t look like they’re turning their back on voters there.

But they could, for example, call for an English Parliament as part of a constitutional settlement for the UK that was much more devolved – a UK Federation.

In an excellent Telegraph column yesterday, this was Nick Timothy’s advice to the Government. He’s right, and it’s a solution that suits Labour perfectly. It will give them the opportunity to offer a voice to the English, while doing the same for the Scottish too. Labour can turn to the work of their former MP John Denham, who has been making the case for England for some time, to do this practically. It would make the Conservatives look like they had taken England massively for granted.

Support the security forces

The Labour grassroots’ allergy to simple patriotism and their pacifism means they’re uncomfortable with many traditional institutions, such as the Armed Forces. Activists’ alignment with the BLM movement also means they’re sceptical of the police. In turn, this makes working class voters worry about Labour would be like in Government.

But there might be a way through this, allowing them to back both traditional institutions, while appearing to be sensible on security. This is by focusing on the welfare of servicemen and women and police officers – something which the public care deeply about.

Not so long ago, that would have been around ensuring the Armed Forces had enough protective equipment. Now, it might be in more publicly worrying about the mental health of those in the services and their post-service material welfare. It might also be about something as simple as a pay increase for police officers, who have endured a long and difficult pandemic on the front line.

Tackle social care

Labour are already on to this, with Rachel Reeves saying at the weekend that this was a top priority. It’s not hard to see why: not only does social care spontaneously come up in focus groups all the time, but the Conservatives have demonstrably struggled with this issue for some time. Voters still remembering the Conservatives’ 2017 manifesto pledge on this.

If Labour can come up with a system where care costs are paid for by general taxation (spread across multiple revenue streams no doubt) and show that people will not have to sell their homes in their lifetimes, they will be in a strong position. This is where the historic strength of their brand will kick in: they are simply strongly trusted by voters on the NHS and care generally.

Be on the side of the working class on net zero

The more the issue of the environment has risen up the list of voters’ priorities, the less Labour has led the debate on it. It’s extraordinary how this has happened. But there is a massive gap for Labour in the debate: to develop a green policy platform that explicitly protects working class voters.

At the moment, politicians are spending a lot of time thinking about policies that would have a big bang impact on emissions, but little time thinking about how less affluent voters will adjust or cope. If Labour took this on, they could show they were getting into the weeds of policy development, while also showing they truly cared about the lives of working class voters who have deserted them in recent times.

It would give them the opportunity to question Conservative credentials here. The Conservatives are hugely vulnerable on this.

Encourage the role of local universities in the local economy

The public can be persuaded that English universities helped get us out of the pandemic, via Oxford’s development of a vaccine most obviously, and in turn that their innovative research is crucial to the future of the country (particularly outside the EU). People can also be persuaded that their local university is a massive, crucial local employer that needs encouragement and protection.

Whether this is fair or not, in recent times the Conservatives’ attitude to higher education and to universities has looked ambivalent. Labour could take up the cause of universities more formally and link this directly to the levelling up agenda – showing how, under their leadership, universities could spearhead local research and innovation.

This isn’t a classic retail policy, but it’s easy to see how they could develop a narrative around genuine local economic development that went further than, say, moving public sector jobs to the North and directing foreign direct investment to particular areas.

These ideas clearly aren’t Labour’s most potent political policies; they have many more popular ones that would move the public. It would clearly be more popular to pour even more money into the NHS, say, than call for an English Parliament. And it would be more popular to call for the nationalisation of certain utilities than support HE.

Rather, they’re intended to highlight how relatively simple policies would allow them to create political narratives that would be attractive to working class and lower middle class swing voters – putting the Conservatives in a difficult position. Such a platform would show that Labour understands the values or working class and lower middle class voters, as well as the pressures of their daily lives.

James Frayne: Why businesses act woke and what to do about it

22 Jun

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Those that lean right find can’t understand why businesses decide to pull advertising from mainstream news outlets such as GB News or the Daily Mail – nor why they seem so prone to trash conservative attitudes online.

Right-leaning voters wonder why businesses treat ordinary right-leaning people like dangerous lunatics, when many of their own customers must be aligned to such views.

And why they are so easily pressured from outside – particularly by manifestly ideological campaigns who exist to pursue political ends? As someone who spends most of my time in the commercial world, here are a few thoughts to try to bring some sense to these fundamental questions.

1. Marketing teams control firms’ reputations, not the board (and not public affairs teams). The single most important thing for right-leaning outsiders to understand is this: boards don’t control most of a firm’s political comment, even on the most sensitive cultural issues – indeed, particularly not on the most sensitive issues.

While they might reluctantly exert control when it hits the fan, boards generally stay out of politics, preferring to let marketing teams control political comment. Boards devolve in this way because they’re persuaded that political / cultural issues fall under “corporate purpose” or “brand positioning”; they are further persuaded marketing teams know best how to engage with the public, particularly online.

Public Affairs’ teams have a decisive say on day-to-day political or Parliamentary issues – where issues are discussed within a formal framework – but less so on those sensitive cultural conversations that might not have a clear beginning or end (such as identity, the environment, and so on).

2. Most marketing teams aren’t political and don’t know their customers’ politics. Problems for boards arise because marketing teams don’t come from a political background. While recruitment between political campaigns and corporate public affairs teams (who are usually very politically sophisticated) is common, it’s unheard of between political campaigns and marketing teams.

Most marketing teams know little of Governments’ departmental agenda, and very little about how complex political / cultural issues are likely to develop. The prospect of mistakes are therefore high.

Take Net Zero as an example: many businesses have thrown themselves into an outrageously fraught and complex debate with next to no understanding of how the issue is going to play out politically (many, many businesses are going to come a cropper on this issue in the next decade). Many marketing teams know little about their customers’ approach to politics either. They usually know everything about their customers’ finances, lifestyle and shopping habits but their research rarely extends into political values or ideology. Again, this means mistakes can happen.

3. Businesses mistake social media for public opinion. In politics, it’s become a cliche to note that social media opinion isn’t public opinion; in the corporate world, this isn’t even near to becoming a cliche; people treat the two are one and the same.

This means when businesses are exposed to political comment online, they assume it’s an accurate reflection of where their customers and the wider public stand.

This ought to be corrected by reading opinion research but, because most marketing teams aren’t across political numbers, they can’t discern between a fringe campaign and a national movement.

4. Most corporate executives lean left culturally. Most businesspeople aren’t personally very political; this is true of people on boards, as well as in the marketing teams. To the extent they are, as middle class graduates who tend to live or work in and around big cities, they tend to be “liberal” in the American sense of the term.

While most executives wouldn’t seek out a row with conservatives in their business life, their liberal leaning means they’re more likely to think culturally very left-wing opinion as ordinary, mainstream opinion. This again means that their compass can be unreliable when judging external commentary on outlets like GB News, or on various sensitive political and cultural issues.

5. Boards almost always want to avoid combat. During the very early days of the EU referendum campaign, under Dominic Cummings’ encouragement, Vote Leave was eye-wateringly aggressive – to the point of near-embarrassment – towards the CBI. Why? Because Cummings judged that the CBI was ultimately frightened of combat and it was worth Vote Leave looking a bit daft if the CBI got the message they should stay quiet-ish.

Similarly, most leading businesspeople want to avoid combat; they want to sell goods, make money and take a decent salary; they don’t want rows or political attention.

Usually, therefore, if / when boards do actually sign off a political decision that might be driven by the marketing team, they will do so for a quiet life – judging that such a path is the one of least resistance. This is why pushbacks often lead to U-turns – because businesses conclude that their chosen path wasn’t the quiet one at all. It means that pressure works.

6. Businesses aren’t generally enemies of the right, they’re just dysfunctional like everyone else. The hostile commentary on supposedly woke businesses is therefore mostly overdone.

Of course, some businesses generally have gone woke and are led so from the top. Most, however, bump up against the right because of structural and cultural failings internally.

They take anti-conservative positions because they aren’t able to think politics through properly. This is encouraging; it means there is usually a pathway for the centre-right to have a more constructive relationship.

7. Harsh counter-attacks work – but primarily from the mainstream. As we saw this week, harsh counter-attacks in the media and on social media make a big difference quickly. Many businesses correct course when exposed to reputational risk from the other side.

But while assertive online campaign movements to challenge hard-left boycott campaigns can be useful, right-leaning people should not rely on such movements to secure serious long-term change. What makes businesses reverse course is not being attacked from the right, or merely the fact of negative coverage in the media and online.

Rather, it’s being exposed to allegations – by people who are manifestly mainstream and powerful – of being outside the mainstream or being hostile to it. They hate to be considered on the ideological fringes. As such, by far the most persuasive and powerful course corrections are set via criticism from Government Ministers, MPs and activists and others from the “established order”. Aggressive third party campaigns can’t match this power.

8. Conservative MPs must lead the campaign on corporate wokedom. What does all this mean? Ultimately, that Conservative MPs should come together to challenge corporate wokedom where it appears.

They should not necessarily campaign via the official party – and ideally they should do so in conjunction with other MPs and mainstream voices – but they should do so in an organised fashion.

To businesspeople, while Conservative MPs aren’t their cup of tea, they know Conservative MPs manifestly speak for the English majority; they have the stamp of respectability by being elected officials; they are treated seriously and with some respect by the media; and they have reach and influence. Conservative MPs are the only ones that can really, consistently make businesses think.

James Frayne: What voters and parents think about last week’s Covid education row

8 Jun

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The Government has pledged over £3 billion to help pupils recover from their disrupted education, including £1.4 billion announced last week. But this wasn’t enough for the Education Recovery Commissioner Sir Kevan Collins who resigned claiming far more was needed.

Some others have said the same. How will this affect the Government politically? What do parents want? What do voters want? How will this row play out in public?

My agency Public First has just conducted an opinion research project into all this for the Centre for Policy Studies. The research comprised a poll of parents and another of the general public, as well as a series of focus groups of parents across the country. In the research, we found the following:

  • Parents definitely are worried about their children’s academic progress: 48 per cent of parents overall said they worried their children had fallen behind, with working class parents particularly concerned (54 per cent of parents from a C2 background expressed this concern). In the focus groups, while parents were often likely to raise concerns about their children’s mental health/ happiness first, they tended to dwell more on academic issues.
  • Given a range of options – offering parents the chance to air concerns about both the both the academic and social effects the pandemic had had on their children – parents were much more concerned about the academic effects. 62 per cent of parents said their child had fallen behind in maths (the top answer). While “social skills” came joint second with science subjects, academic concerns were higher across this question than social concerns.
    44 per cent of parents said they worried their children’s prospects have been negatively affected.
  • Most parents thought it would take up to two years for their children to catch up. The focus groups revealed parents with less money and lower education levels were less confident about their roles in helping their children catch up.
  • Asked who is to “blame” for children falling behind, most parents blame “the pandemic” rather than the Government. (This is in line with attitudes towards the pandemic generally and has been since last March).
  • In focus groups, while parents were sympathetic to the idea that the least-affluent children should receive particular support in a catch-up period, they were hostile to the idea their own children should receive no support; parents wanted a general national catch-up plan.
  • Given a range of policy options the Government might take to help children catch up, free hours with a private tutor is the most popular; interestingly, longer school holidays to give children more fun in the summer was opposed by parents and the public.
  • Given a range of policy areas the public might accept higher personal taxes to fund, helping schools help children catch up was the most popular option.

You can read the full tables here.

What does all this mean politically? We need to consider two points to help us evaluate this properly. First, most opinion research suggests the public are primarily concerned about the economy and the NHS; education is at least somewhat less important to most people. There is a danger in very focused, sector-based polling that you obsess about what’s directly in front of you; we need to be clear that education is important – vitally so to many parents – but it’s not jobs and hospitals.

Second, the public are fearful about the future state of the economy and currently oppose tax rises, preferring to see the Government rely on borrowing.

Collins’ resignation amid demands for many billions more in funding therefore shouldn’t immediately cause the Government massive political problems with most of the public. However, it has unquestionably raised the medium-term political stakes for the Government. The resignation has ensured that a light will be shone on every aspect of the Government’s planning and execution of the catch-up programme. In other words, there will be no hiding place for the Government; it has to deliver.

Just because education doesn’t worry most people in a pandemic as much as the economy and healthcare, it doesn’t mean it’s not a vitally important policy area. We know that it is viewed as vital – and we also know from our research that the public are very clear how and why their children have fallen behind and where they’d like to see the Government focus their attention during catch-up. The public ultimately want the Government to help children recover academically – in the most serious subjects. This could not have been clearer.

The Government has clearly decided it hasn’t got the money for a longer school day – or at least, that it wouldn’t deliver the benefits that it would cost; against those other spending pressures like the NHS it is probably right. Everything therefore hinges now on the effective delivery – and probably significant expansion – of a proper tutoring programme. And the Government needs to start getting some credit for it; when we did focus groups, only one person even knew tutoring was happening and no one knew the Government was pouring billions into making it happen. It should be shouting about this from the rooftops, and make sure that parents know what their child is entitled to.

James Frayne: The Government has the chance to sell an optimistic, ambitious narrative for Britain

25 May

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The mass of the public don’t debate philosophical questions like “what sort of a country are we going to be post-Brexit?” They consume the comment pages of the media and the dinner tables of the political class, but that’s about it.

This doesn’t mean such questions aren’t politically or electorally important; the answers to these questions are ultimately heard by ordinary people across the country as they come to shape the overall climate in which all political issues are discussed.

Immediately after the referendum, the prevailing mood in politics and the media was that the vote to leave the EU was an act of massive economic, social, and cultural self-harm. The leave vote was presented as a populist, backward-looking, narrow-minded backlash led by those that had been “left behind”.

Even committed eurosceptics were losing their nerve a couple of years after the vote; this view would would likely have become an orthodox political view had Theresa May not been replaced by Boris Johnson, who immediately set about correcting this false impression. We have come a long way in a short space of time.

So, what is the answer to the question: what sort of country we’re going to be?

These narratives are built ultimately on a small number of significant events – which are ultimately stitched together into a coherent story which makes sense retrospectively and which helps chart a course for the years ahead. We won’t and can’t know which will dominate for a while and there are many positive and negative options that might form. It’s certainly possible that further relative decline will follow.

However, we should consider this: there is an emerging case that Britain – or, more accurately, an English-led union – could become an internationalist, confident, fast-moving and innovative medium-sized power. Let’s look a series of significant events.

  • Firstly, there was the vote to leave the EU. No, this emphatically wasn’t a self-conscious pivot by leave voters towards a Global Britain; it was more narrowly focused on border control and public service protection; but it was nonetheless arguably the act of a confident public, not one that was apathetic or frightened.
  • Secondly, in some ways more remarkably, there was the vote, via the 2019 election, to see the job through and get Brexit done. As I note above, given the prevailing climate in the media and politics, it was staggering the polls didn’t move further against Brexit in this timeframe.
  • Thirdly, there was the decision to go our own way on a national vaccination strategy amid vast external criticism. Again, this took courage and the results have been stunning.
  • Fourthly, there was the decision to offer Hong Kong residents a pathway to live and work in the UK – with the tacit support of the public. This has unsurprisingly been underplayed by most of the media and the activist class on social media but it’s of huge significance.
  • Fifthly, it appears the Government is going to set aside the opposition of the NFU and offer Australia a superb trade deal. The Government might put free trade ahead of sectoral concern. (We’ll see where this ends).

Yes, I’ve ignored a lot; the above is cherry-picked deliberately and I don’t make great claims for national renewal here. My point is narrower: there are a number of different directions the country might go in – and many competing narratives that describe our trajectory and help the country go in a particular direction. But one of these potential narratives is towards this confident, risk-taking, international country.

If the Government wasn’t bogged down in Covid recovery, we might have seen various politicians (the PM included) make such a case. There have been flashes of it visible here and there in the last year or so.

But this all takes us to Scotland.

It is becoming increasingly clear the future of the union between England and Scotland is at least at serious risk. It’s not just the polling numbers; election after election has entrenched the SNP in power. While it’s possible Scottish voters draw a distinction between who they want to govern Scotland and the broader issue of whether they want to be in the UK, let’s be honest: it doesn’t look good. It’s hard to be a single, unified country when nearly a half of one part of it seems desperate to leave.

But what does this risk-taking, confident English-led union tell itself about the future of the union? That we’ll be finished if Scotland votes to leave? That it’ll be a historic catastrophe? That Johnson or whoever the unlucky Prime Minister happens to be at the break-up is the modern equivalent of Lord North?

The English don’t want to hear – and will be annoyed by – the idea that it’ll be the end of the world if we don’t have a union with Scotland. And we surely can’t tell the rest of the world that our entire future depends on what Scotland chooses.

The Government faces a conundrum. On the one hand, it needs to speak on behalf of Britain and make the case we will be stronger/better together. On the other hand, given the possibility the union will break, and given English ambivalence, it needs to ensure that, the day after a Scottish leave vote, the clear trajectory is “up”. We cannot have a repeat of Johnson and Michael Gove’s post-Brexit press conference, which felt like the start of a (dry) wake.

It’s too early to say what this means but the fundamental point is this: the Conservative Party and the country would benefit from the development of an optimistic, modern, inclusive narrative that acted as a catalyst for a national strategy.

Given the precarious nature of the union, this narrative has to be able to withstand a Scottish exit, given its possibility – but it should not in and of itself encourage that exit. Perhaps this will emerge from the provincial arm of the Party.

The centre ground. What it means. And what it doesn’t.

11 May

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The concept of the centre ground has been discussed widely in politics in recent weeks. In a recent columnon this site, the Editor suggested this column was – as the name he gave it – “Far from Notting Hill” and close to the centre of English politics.

It’s true that over the last decade, mostly on this site, I have been encouraging the Conservatives to embrace a provincial conservatism for the working class and lower middle class – the people who primarily determine the centre ground of politics in England. With my new centrist hat on, here are some thoughts on what the centre ground really means, who occupies it, and how to keep hold of it.

1. To have any meaning, the centre ground has to mean the centre of where popular opinion is.

In politics and the media, the “centre ground” usually denotes the patch between the right and left of the spectrum – a “moderate” approach to thinking about politics and an emphasis on technocratic solutions (usually devised and implemented through multilateral institutions like the EU). It shouldn’t need stating, but clearly does, that the “spectrum” as we think about it has zero resonance with the public, who find our ideological consistency baffling.

It should also not need starting that the number of people who share this “centrist” approach are common in the media, but tiny in number across the country. It varies, but self-defined centrists tend to believe in, say, EU membership, a market-based approach to public service reform, continued large-scale immigration, policies that encourage big business growth and active intervention abroad diplomatically and militarily. It’s hard to think of a less popular political platform; such a platform is on the absolute fringes of public opinion. As such, to say the people in this space are in the centre ground is clearly meaningless if not ridiculous.

2. The centre ground changes all the time.

Public opinion is dynamic and changes all the time; in turn, the centre ground itself changes all the time. While some big issues have been in the centre ground for many years – most obviously the British obsession with the NHS – other things come and go all the time.

For example, anti-EU sentiment wasn’t common two decades ago, but was made mainstream by Nigel Farage and David Cameron; environmental concern was also a niche concern two decades ago but has become at least a high tier-two concern for the public overall – and a tier one concern for the under-40s. While it is therefore possible to say what the centre ground looks like now, we don’t know what it’ll look like in 5 years.

 3. The centre ground is very large.

While self-defined centrists are not in the centre ground, that’s not because the centre ground is small. On the contrary, it’s very large – it’s just that they are so out of touch with ordinary people, they don’t make it in. It’s perfectly possible to be a middle class, Labour-voting, urban, Remain voting, NHS executive who opposes private sector involvement in public services (and indeed who favours the nationalisation of the utilities) and be in the centre ground.

Each of these views is popular, and together they are reasonably common too. And just as it’s wrong to think of self-defined centrists as being in the centre ground, so it’s wrong to think the centre ground is made up exclusively of small-c conservative, working class, provincial Brexiteers who want the Government to be tough on crime. It does not necessarily follow that only those that win elections are in the centre ground. Michael Howard was in the centre ground in 2005 and Gordon Brown was in 2010.

 4. Starmer and the centre ground.

Starmer began in the centre ground and naturally occupies it (as do his staff). Yes, it was hard to get cut-through during the pandemic, but he demonstrated basic competence and gave a reasonable critique of the Government’s performance during the pandemic. In recent times though, encouraged by the media and by the anti-Government partisans still enraged by Brexit, he pivoted to “sleaze” – mostly focused on the Prime Minister’s supposed dodgy financing of a flat redecoration.

The problems with this approach were obvious: (a) his own politicians are accused of worse; (b) most people think politicians are the same dodgy lot; (c) the Prime Minister isn’t accused of mis-using taxpayers’ money; and (d) the whole business is complex. So a few polls show people cared about it; but people always say they “care” about “Inside Westminster” stories when asked, and claim to follow them closely; in truth, it was obvious that none of this was ever going to connect.

 5. The wider Labour Party are a million miles away from the centre.

Just as the so-called centrists are miles away from the centre, so is the modern Labour Party. Starmer is in the centre ground, but the party isn’t, because it’s dominated by the hard left – whose weird preoccupations are the ones heard by the electorate.

It’s often said most people don’t care about politics; this isn’t strictly true: most people do care about it, they just don’t care about Westminster politics ,and they certainly don’t care about the preoccupations of the modern Labour Party. Most British people couldn’t place Palestine on a map and I suspect most couldn’t spell it.

 6. Blair drifted further and further away from the centre, and Blairites are no longer in it.

Blairites often talk about their success in the centre ground of British politics, rightly pointing out their electoral successes. While it’s true to say that Tony Blair entered Downing Street in touch with the public, he left it racing to the fringes.

Watch interviews with Blair before the 97 election and you’d hear endless talk of jobs, growth and public services – exactly what people cared about. In his latter period, it was all Europe, the Middle East, re-making the world etc. Of course, some of this was forced upon him post 9/11, but the truth is that the Labour Party had drifted away from the public not long after the beginning of Blair’s second term.

7. The Conservatives can own the centre by delivering for working people.

The Conservatives have cleaned up in working class constituencies by delivering Brexit, cutting immigration and implementing an Australian-style points system and pumping more money into the police and NHS – and promising to improve life in towns. The working class is the party’s new base and the Government should pay disproportionate attention to these communities in Government and into the next election.

However, in the context of Covid-recovery, and aided by the Labour Party, the Conservatives can own the centre ground for the vast majority of the country by focusing on jobs, living standards and public services. While it will be hard for them to create a broad platform that speaks to metropolitan inner London, Manchester and Bristol, they absolutely can and should develop a platform that speaks to people from Sevenoaks to Hartlepool; their problems are different in scale, but they’re fundamentally the same problems, and they hold the same values.

8. Going after the urban young will take the Conservatives away from the centre ground.

Let’s be honest: many in the “consultancy class” in the Conservative movement are uncomfortable being in the same party as those that delivered them a landslide. They would sooner their voters were those that they personally socialise with and / or consider virtuous.

In short, they would like to pivot to the urban young in the big cities – to the “centrists” who are tiny in number. The environment is not a niche concern now, but most of the cultural issues that concern the urban young really are. The Conservatives must, at all costs, resist a shift to this group of people.

James Frayne: Ministers must put levelling up at the heart of the football review

27 Apr

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

As recently as the 90s, people from Stoke could spot each other on holiday abroad because in restaurants they’d be the odd ones turning their dinner plates over to see if they were made in their hometown.

No longer and never again. Now they only spot each other if their kids are wearing Stoke City shirts on the beach or if they’re too enthusiastically singing Delilah on the karaoke machine.

Football is the the defining external characteristic of the town. Take Stoke City away and there’d be little left to unite people in the city. And what’s true of Stoke is true of a vast number of other small cities and towns: Wolverhampton, Rotherham, Portsmouth, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Darlington, Preston. The list goes on and on – and not just in the Football League, but way, way down into the pyramid of non-league clubs.

True, not everyone likes football in these places and even the biggest games attract a relatively small percentage of local residents. Football is our national game but it’s not universally loved.

But the question is this: which other institutions can challenge the football clubs for the role they play in their local communities? Not just in giving people pride in their own towns, but practical support too in the form of effective community outreach? A hundred years ago, maybe the churches did this; fifty years ago, maybe it was the big employers (to be fair, Stoke residents talk with reverence about Denise Coates’ contribution to the city) but most of these are long gone.

And with high streets in decline, big markets a distant memory, and annual festivals and events dwindling, the role these clubs play as institutions is even more stark.

With these clubs’ roles in mind, I think it is reasonable for the Government to take a more active role in protecting and promoting British football – and why they were right to offer to help shoot down plans for a European Super League and in turn right to commission a review on the future of football, led by Tracey Crouch.  I can see why libertarians – who I normally align with – think football is a private business of no interest to politicians. But if politicians consider it reasonable to talk about the future of the high street and town centres, there’s no reason why they can’t talk about the future of football clubs.

An important aside: it is also true that many of the small cities and towns I refer to above now have Conservative political representation – or where it’s possible they will have in the future. While there’s no question voters in these towns primarily voted Conservative to “get Brexit done”, they also put trust in the Conservatives to make their towns better. Football could and should be an integral part of “levelling-up” agenda.

Politicians engaging in conversations about football can be cringe-worthy. Older readers will remember with horror the Fast Show’s Roger Nouveau, who I have made a passing reference to here in the past. While Crouch is a proper fan who will handle the review with sensitivity, on reading the Government’s Terms of Reference for its review I worry there might be some classic Nouveau moments in store. As it stands, the Government sees its role as potentially commenting on things like changes to club badges or how clubs engage with fans in a structured way. Played badly, these could feature on YouTube clips for a generation.

Do politicians really have anything to say about whether badges should be designed differently? Surely not.

But potential Nouveau-isms aside, I’m more worried about the fact the review isn’t sufficiently framed as a levelling-up review. Nominally, it’s a review on the future of football governance; but the Terms of Reference make clear it’s more than this, as the reference to commenting on things like badges shows. And if it’s going to be more than this, then they should broaden this out so it takes a proper look at the role of clubs in local communities – and, crucially, how Government can help them enhance their role.

Again, it makes sense for politicians to talk about issues such as financial sustainability, they should unquestionably have a view on how clubs can better support local people practically. The Government’s review should be a companion piece to their various levelling up reviews and funds. It should ultimately sit within Neil O’Brien’s (growing) orbit.

What would this help from Government involve? Different clubs’ needs will vary massively, depending on their own size and wealth – and indeed on the size of the wealth of the towns and cities in which they sit.

Broadly speaking, the bigger Championship clubs have well-funded and well-structured community trusts, and outreach is widespread and effective. Smaller clubs’ outreach and effectiveness differ wildly. Some of the bigger clubs might just need things like planning permission to extend their training facilities to offer more opportunities for local kids to play, regardless of their ability. Smaller, less wealthy clubs might need basic funding to provide, say, support for their mental health outreach to young men.

Non-league clubs might need more fundamental funding for an all-weather pitch and floodlights so they can expand the number of kids’ teams they can run. Non-league clubs might also need lighter regulations to allow them to create social clubs that basically act as cheap pubs (this is a growing phenomenon).

Help will vary, but the point is this: from the biggest Championship clubs, down to the smallest non-league clubs at the bottom of the pyramid, football clubs are quietly delivering sporting opportunities, charitable services and raw passion and pride to local people. There is a massive network of clubs and fans already in place.

Rather than trying to create new institutions and dozens of new schemes and funds, the Government should put these clubs at the heart of their levelling up agenda – nd the the football review should be the place to begin this in earnest. The Terms of Reference should be amended to allow them to do this.

James Frayne: The scale of the unpopularity of Council Tax is staggering

19 Apr

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

Several years ago, before the surge of political and public interest in the environment, I struggled to explain to a visiting American political consultant why the Conservatives didn’t ‘go for’ the then-Labour Government on motoring taxes and charges. He couldn’t understand why, when so many people were being whacked by high fuel tax, car tax, parking charges, and all the rest, the Conservatives barely campaigned on it. Such is the clarity that outsiders sometimes bring. I couldn’t do any better than say, “they just don’t”.

I would similarly struggle to explain why the Conservatives don’t do more on Council Tax. My agency recently ran a comprehensive poll for the TaxPayers’ Alliance on Council tax – the most detailed recent poll on this subject I’m aware of. The scale of the unpopularity of the tax is staggering. In my mind, I can see some of you rolling your eyes: “of course it’s unpopular, who knew?!” What was interesting about this poll was that we looked not just at the top lines on Council Tax, but we also looked at Council Tax in relation to other taxes and also in the context of people’s views on local government more generally. From the standpoint of this poll, if anything, opposition to Council Tax looks more serious and more embedded.

In our poll, we found the following:

  • By 61 per cent to 15 per cent, people said they would oppose an above-inflation Council Tax increase this year; by 74 per cent to 16 per cent, people think Council Tax should be frozen or cut;
  • The Conservatives’ new base – the working class – are particularly hostile: by 64 per cent to 16 per cent, C2 voters said they opposed an above-inflation Council Tax increase, with DEs opposing it by 65 per cent to eight per cent; ABs opposed it by a much narrower margin of 51 per cent to 25 per cent; by 81-12, C2s favour a freeze or cut, compared to 74-11 for DEs and 68-23 for AB;
  • Thinking about the issues people will vote on in the council elections, Council Tax levels are third overall, sitting just below people’s perceptions of their local council’s general competence (36 per cent) and how much money they waste (32 per cent), which, of course, are related.

More interesting are the figures on Council Tax compared to other taxes:

  • Given a list of taxes that could go up in this Parliament – if the public had no choice but to accept such rises – just ten per cent of people said they thought Council Tax should rise. This compares to 29 per cent for Inheritance Tax, 27 per cent for Stamp Duty, 23 per cent for Income Tax, and 22 per cent for National Insurance Contributions and Vehicle Excise Duty;
  • In a series of questions about the relative fairness of a series of taxes, only the TV licence fee was viewed as less fair. 40 per cent of people said Council Tax was unfair, compared to 54 per cent saying that of the TV licence fee, 38 per cent Inheritance Tax, 34 per cent fuel tax, 25 per cent VAT, 24 per cent Income Tax, 21 per cent Vehicle Excise Duty, 18 per cent Capital Gains Tax, 17 per cent VAT, and 15 per cent Corporation Tax.

Council Tax is hugely visible given the way it’s levied and communicated. It constantly rises without apparently sufficient justification – people don’t think they see enough for it.

So, why don’t the Conservatives do more on Council Tax? To be fair, as the flare up over the prospect of replacing Council Tax with a property tax showed recently, many of the alternatives look worse. And there’s clearly no public agreement on what alternatives might work better. The TPA poll showed:

  • Given a list of options that might be introduced to replace Council Tax, the top pick was an increase in Income Tax (backed by 26 per cent), followed by “none of the above” (24 per cent) and then charging for the use of leisure facilities (15 per cent). There were relatively few differences between social groups or political affiliation. In other words, the public are split on alternatives;
  • Asked whether people support a new property tax being brought in to replace Council Tax, around 30 per cent each supported and opposed it;
  • Thinking more narrowly about alternatives to raising Council Tax, unsurprisingly people overwhelmingly prefer alternatives to new taxes or charges. The most popular options councils should take to keep Council Tax down were: limiting senior staff salaries (59 per cent); more actively pursuing debt collection (51 per cent); and merging teams between councils to improve efficiencies (39 per cent). While the figures were a little lower in terms of people’s views on the actual impact of these measures on keeping Council Tax down (a question we asked separately), they still chose them in this order;
  • Incidentally, asked about the number of exemptions, a third of people (32 per cent) said there should be no Council Tax exemptions and that everyone should pay something; 24 per cent said they should be kept the same and 12 per cent said they should be increased;

While it’s unquestionably complex, the Conservatives should think about the implications of what would happen if Labour got serious on this issue. Yes, they’re a bit late to all this, but Labour finally seem to have realised the power of Council Tax as a political weapon; they’ve begun attacking the Conservatives on the issue. Conservative activists might think this is a bit rich, but the public generally don’t mind political opportunism of this sort; generally, they will take what they can get from whatever political parties are standing at a given moment. The Conservatives should look to head off this potential problem and find a way to replace Council Tax, or at least find a structural, long-term alternative to endless rises.

James Frayne: What the polls tell us about the health of the Monarchy

13 Apr

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has inevitably sparked a wave of interest in what the monarchy means to Britain. His death marks the beginning of the end of the second Elizabethan era and attention will soon be paid to what the Queen’s death in turn will mean for the future of the monarchy. Where does the monarchy sit in the minds of the British people and how might this change over time? Will the monarchy be fighting for its survival after the Queen dies? I have been through all the recent polling on the monarchy to try to answer these questions.

1) Support for the monarchy is very broad

Let’s deal with top line results first. On the basic popularity questions – in fact on every way you ask them – the British public supports the monarchy by a large margin.

YouGov’s tracker asks whether the monarchy is good or bad for Britain; the last result showed by 55 per cent to 11 per cent people say it’s good (with 27 per cent saying neither good nor bad). Savanta ComRes asked whether people agreed the monarchy was good for Britain; by 61 per cent to 15 per cent people agreed (with 18 per cent saying they neither agreed nor disagreed).

Ipsos-Mori recently asked whether it would be good or bad for Britain’s future if the monarchy was abolished; by 41 per cent to 19 per cent, people said it would be bad (with 31 per cent saying it would make no difference). Perhaps more interesting from a policy perspective, another YouGov poll asked whether Britain should continue to have a monarchy or replace it with an elected head of state; people chose the monarchy by 63 per cent to 25 per cent.

The Queen enjoys even higher levels of popularity: a separate YouGov tracker shows 79 per cent of the public think she has done a good job during her time on the throne.

Despite the large numbers of people who are either disinterested or unsure about the monarchy – figures which are surprisingly high for such a high-profile issue – support for the monarchy is very broad; it would take a catastrophic reversal of fortune for it to change significantly any time soon.

2) The Harry and Meghan affair hasn’t made much difference – yet

It’s hard to imagine worse coverage for the Royal Family in the last few months; the Oprah interview was, in PR terms, a total train wreck. However, despite all the shocking coverage in the media and online, the Harry and Meghan affair doesn’t seem to have changed public support much either way. Ipsos-Mori’s question on whether Britain’s future would be better with or without the monarchy was asked just before and just after the Oprah interview and there was only a very mild shift against the monarchy.

It is, of course, early days, and it’s possible the impact will take longer to be felt, but it certainly hasn’t been any sort of game changing event yet. In fact, the biggest shifts in the polls have been associated with Prince Harry’s personal reputation, which has dropped significantly; he has fallen a long way quickly; in 2018, a YouGov survey put him as the most popular Royal – above even the Queen. (It will be interesting to see how he handles any public appearances this week).

3) Younger people are again different

Drill into the numbers in more detail and of course the popularity of the monarchy doesn’t look so universal. As is becoming increasingly common, the biggest gaps are visible on age. In all of the polls I refer to above, the numbers change dramatically when you look at the tabs on age.

For example, the Savanta ComRes poll shows that 18-24s agree the monarchy is good for Britain only relatively narrowly, by 48 per cent to 37 per cent. More worryingly, in the YouGov question as to whether we should have a monarchy or an elected head of state, while the over-65’s believe we should have a monarchy by 77 per cent to 17 per cent, 18-24s support an elected head of state by 42 per cent to 37 per cent.

Unsurprisingly, the Harry and Meghan affair has been viewed differently by different age groups; young people are generally still positive towards the couple. Such were the allegations made by Harry and Meghan – on issues that we know the young care particularly passionately about – we don’t know whether all this will have a longer-lasting impact on the monarchy.

The great question is, of course, whether young people will, as it were, “grow out” of republicanism; their consistency across a range of cultural issues, and the intensity of feeling on cultural issues, suggests probably not – but this doesn’t mean the next generation will be the same.

4) Scotland lags behind

Only narrowly – by 41 per cent to 32 per cent – do Scots agree the monarchy is a good thing; the English agree by 63 per cent to 13 per cent and the Welsh by basically the same margin. As with the tabs on young people, this is also no surprise; the independence movement is completely entrenched in Scottish politics and the monarchy is seen by many in Scotland as an integral part of the Union, which of course it is.

The SNP has been careful on the monarchy, trying to avoid opening up an additional campaign front; after all, there will be some that would favour an independent Scotland with a shared head of state, but it’s clear that at least a significant minority of Scots view the Royal Family as a fundamentally English institution.

5) There’s a right-left split

Activists are always a bit odd; yes, that includes all of us that write for and read this website; we’re more likely to be ideological, to take an usually keen interest in politics and to have views on issues most people would find irrelevant or obscure.

But many of Labour’s activists are currently way out of the mainstream on an array of issues, with the monarchy being right up there. A YouGov poll of members in 2019 showed that 62 per cent of Labour members believe Britain should become a republic; the numbers for Scottish members were even higher (but the sample on Scottish members was tiny, so not robust).

I don’t have available corresponding figures for Conservative members, but the split between Conservative and Labour voters on a standard question as to whether we should keep the monarchy or have an elected head of state was 85 per cent to 10 per cent and 48 per cent to 40 per cent respectively – in favour of the monarchy.

Sir Keir Starmer has always been positive about the Royal Family (I have no idea of his personal views) and knows he needs to retain this line; but it’ll be interesting, given his grassroots, whether he feels pressure to say something like after the Queen’s death we should reform/slim down the monarchy, cutting off less popular minor royals. This would have at least some traction with the public.

6) King Charles looks set to inherit a less popular monarchy

The numbers on Prince Charles are at best mixed; YouGov’s tracker on whether he’d make a good king show the public are divided – with a third saying yes, a third no, and third unsure. On a straight question on ratings he’s currently viewed favourably by 49 per cent to 42 per cent (this dropped significantly in March; we need to keep an eye on this as it feels implausible that he’d fall so much, while others were pretty static).

Asked whether they’d prefer to see Prince Charles become king after the Queen’s death or Prince William, a poll in the autumn showed people would narrowly choose Prince William; Savanta ComRes’ more recent poll showed a significantly larger margin for William.

Will his low numbers damage the monarchy as an institution? That’s hard to say, but it requires working out what the numbers are telling us. While many on the right have been irritated by Charles’ pet political projects, the numbers don’t suggest that this irritates the public at large – probably because they don’t hear them. In fact, most people think it’s reasonable for him to speak out on issues that he worries about.

It’s more likely that he suffers from three things: (a) the fact he isn’t the Queen; (b) he’s not great on TV; (c) the legacy of his bitter divorce from Diana. In other words, I think the public are making a relative rather than an absolute judgement.

What does all this mean for the future of the monarchy? We should assume the Queen’s death or, more accurately, the coronation of King Charles will see support for the monarchy fall somewhat. This is inevitable; the Queen is so popular that any replacement will struggle – and Charles is starting from a low base.

But it’s hard to imagine this will lead to a serious, popular campaign for the end of the monarchy. Not only are the monarchy’s numbers as an institution sound, but let’s be honest: the public hate politicians so much, the idea that they’d like to see, say, an elected Labour or Conservative politician as head of state is mad (for realistically, this is who we’d get). For the foreseeable future, this will be a devastating counter-narrative.

The question is: will the monarchy’s numbers drop to such an extent that this doomsday argument needs to be made? Will we get to the point that we need to say: be careful what you wish for?

On this, I do indeed worry that this is where we might end up. Why? Because I fear the Royal Family is losing touch with the people who really support it: the English working class and lower middle class. It wouldn’t be one of my columns – would it – without this pivot to these voters? (Sorry.)

But look back at the polls I cite above and look at the tabs on SEG: time and again, you see C1/C2s and non-professionals giving the monarchy the greatest levels of support. These are the sorts of people who raise their love for the monarchy spontaneously and unprompted in focus groups; they’re the people who talk about day trips to London to “do all the Royal stuff”; they’re the people that attend the great public events and love them entirely at face value.

Perhaps because the popular press no longer sustains the massive levels of interest in the Royal Family that was evident even a decade ago (Harry and Meghan’s recent attacks aside), the Royal Family as an institution just don’t seem to have their finger on the English pulse like they used to. Simply put: the Daily Mail doesn’t force them to think of ordinary people as they once did.

And I fear Charles particularly lacks this insight; his concerns about the environment, modern architecture etc are all important but they’re inevitably niche issues for this audience; his public support for the military is a different matter, of course. He will need to learn about what it is these people really care about. (I could be wrong, but I suspect Camilla and her family are the best people to show him.)

In short, the monarchy will ultimately be safe in King Charles’ hands – but I suspect he’ll have to work hard to make it so.

James Frayne: Four lessons for industry and government from monstering of AstraZeneca

30 Mar

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

In Andrew Roberts’ great biography of Winston Churchill, he tells an unflattering story of how Churchill unfairly criticised the behaviour of Shell Oil when he was First Sea Lord, before the First World War.

As Roberts tells it, Churchill had made the sound decision to shift the Royal Navy onto oil and away from coal; this would make British ships faster and more efficient. Doing so, however, required vast amounts of oil, which the Royal Navy secured via a huge deal with Shell.

In announcing the deal to Parliament, Churchill said it was a great deal other than the cost – which he implied had been too high and therefore that Shell had ripped off the taxpayer. The Chairman of Shell asked Churchill to make the details of the arrangement public, but Churchill refused.

In 1966, it was finally revealed that Shell made almost no money from the arrangement and had even offered to put a Royal Navy commander on the board of the company. In hindsight, it was an extraordinary attack on a company that had offered the British Government help.

Fast forward a hundred years and here we are with another part-British company – Astra Zeneca – being smashed apart by politicians for doing something more altruistic than Shell did – providing vast numbers of injections to Covid-hit countries across the world at cost. Politicians and officials in the US and Europe have lined up to criticise the company’s methodology and the drug’s safety whilst also effectively (and wrongly) accusing it of unethical behaviour in the form of stockpiling, failing to meet contractual arrangements, and so on.

The British Government hasn’t been the one attacking AZ this time, but nonetheless, as with Shell, politicians are attacking a company that has been doing the right thing. (Disclosure: Public First does occasional work for the University of Oxford, but has not worked on the vaccine project, nor have we ever worked with AZ ). Little wonder AZ are publicly musing whether they made a mistake in offering all this at cost.

What have we learned from the AZ affair? Four big lessons stand out.

1. There are massive risks of working with any Government – and this Government in particular

Any business that works with Government puts itself in the firing line: more people hear about them; the media takes a closer interest; opponents of the Government start criticising them. Businesses that work with Governments aren’t choosing to work with apolitical “states” and masses of neutral civil servants, but with political entities who have political supporters and political opponents – and this Government has more than its fair share of opponents.

As I’ve written before, much of the British media likes to think of most European countries being led by entirely rational, reasonable, great statesmen and women – driven only by vision and altruism and utterly uninterested in politics. But just as Leo Varadkar’s hostility to Britain during Brexit negotiations was in part driven by an electoral need to attract “soft” Sinn Fein voters, so Macron’s hostility to AZ is partly driven by embarrassment at French and general European failure to get their act together on vaccination, while Britain steamed ahead.

What was Macron – who faces his own election again soon – going to say? “Sorry everyone, I have personally messed up and Britain, who I always criticised, has made impeccable decisions”? Clearly not: there were obvious short-term political reasons why AZ would come under fire. You choose to work with Government, you pay a price.

2) British companies might face particular vulnerability in this new world

The fact AZ is part-British caused the company big political problems. While the idea of actual anti-British hostility is way overdone, the reality of Brexit made the failure of the European vaccination programme more problematic politically for some European leaders. In other words, it’s just hard luck on AZ that the political stars were lined up against them; there was little they could do.

But this is unlikely to be a one-off; while Covid raised the stakes, it’s nonetheless reasonable to assume that British companies are going to become more vulnerable politically and commercially in the coming years. Has Britain been in the EU, other European leaders would not have trashed it; outside the EU, it’s a different story. Our closest ally – the United States – is eye-wateringly aggressive in promoting and protecting its leading businesses (like Boeing); the EU is equally combative.

Outside the EU, for all the benefits that brings, there’s no question our businesses will lack the same protection that membership of a bigger block will bring.

3) The British Government will have to become more assertive on behalf of British companies

While there’s a limit to what the British Government can do to promote and protect British firms, it is going to have to start becoming much more assertive. At the moment, the Government helps to promote British trade by, for example, making introductions to foreign companies and foreign states; it also promotes Britain as a destination to invest in. This is all useful and the marketing teams at the Cabinet Office and the Department for International Trade have done a decent job over the last decade.

But the Government isn’t set up to engage in PR combat on behalf of British firms; in other words, to help defend firms in the media (and indeed on social media). While the Government can plan neat marketing campaigns to invest in Global Britain, they’re just not geared up to, say, engage in close combat with the New York Times, which is an entirely different model of communications.

The Government needs to explore the creation of a team within BEIS, the DIT or the Cabinet Office to help British businesses out when they’re unfairly attacked. While it’s not for them to promote one firm over another or to act as a business’ press office, the reality is that only Governments can make the news and command attention at certain times.

What could AZ really do when attacked by the President of France? At best, have a paragraph of context dumped on the end of a story. There’s no reason why the British Government can’t or shouldn’t be more assertive in helping British companies in the media – at least amongst top-tier titles like the NYT.

4) ‘Purpose’ is overplayed as a concept in corporate communications

For those of you that work in and around public affairs and corporate communications, you’ll know the recent obsession with firms demonstrating so-called “purpose”; this is where firms project their values to the outside world to show their decency. It’s a good idea in principle, although, as I’ve bored those of you in public affairs to death with for a decade, demonstrating purpose has to reflect the realities of public opinion, not the opinion of a company’s own marketing team.

In many ways, AZ had the perfect model to show “purpose”; in the end, though, it wasn’t enough. This is because “purpose” soon becomes “politics”.

I have no special knowledge of AZ or what happened, so I make a broader point not directed at them: you can only engage in this sort of work if you are ready for political combat. Again, AZ aside, there are many, many firms that are dipping their toe into the most controversial policy issues without even basic thought or preparation about how such policy conversations might play out.

AZ’s experience should make all businesses preparing to engage in seemingly innocuous policy conversations – or ones where there seem only to be upsides – think again.

James Frayne: How will the aftermath of Clapham Common affect the public standing of the police?

16 Mar

James Frayne is Director of Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion.

A few weeks ago, I looked at public attitudes to the police. Given events in Clapham at the weekend – where the police forcibly broke up the vigil to mark the death of local resident Sarah Everard – I thought it was worth returning to.

Priti Patel has already demanded a full explanation, and quite a few people are calling for Cressida Dick to go. What effect will all this have on the reputation of the police amongst the broader English population? (Clearly, restrictions are in place on reporting/analysing this case, so there’s a lot that can’t be said here).

In judging this overall question, we must ask the following.

Firstly, will the public view police action through the prism of Covid control, as the police claim? Secondly, more importantly and fundamentally, will they consider the vigil to have been about something other than the appalling and tragic death of a young woman? Will they think this event was saying something important about women’s safety and women in society – and therefore that the police were effectively operating in a hostile manner, on the wrong side of a moral issue?

On the first, early polling suggests the public are split. YouGov released a snap poll yesterday showing the public very narrowly thought the vigil should not have been allowed to have gone ahead, by 43-40 percent, with the rest unsure. A second question asked whether vigils and protests should be allowed to go ahead more generally; here, the public were tougher: by 59-26, people said such events should not go ahead. (Obviously, very different questions to whether the vigil should have been broken up).

The different results to quite similar questions are important; they show both that the public are still largely in a “safety first” mentality, but that this case has shocked them so much that many viewed this vigil as a special case. Further polling will reveal the truth, but my sense is that most people will think therefore that, once people had gathered peacefully, the police should have let it continue, and their actions in forcibly breaking it up were insensitive and crass.

(I would also think that most would agree that a sensible, socially-distanced vigil could have been managed).

In judging the handling to have been crass, there is an additional complication for the police. This is that people know very well that the police have let other demonstrations go on without mass arrests or aggressive dispersal. People have seen these events with their own eyes on the media and social media; they have seen the police do nothing at times when the R-rate was much higher and on issues which rightly or wrongly agitated the bulk of the population less.

While the police are obviously in a difficult position in choosing what they allow to go ahead and what they clamp down on, there is more than enough to go on to suggest that they are inconsistent in how they operate.

In short, despite narrow opposition to the event going ahead, I can’t see how most people won’t think that the police ultimately made a mistake; the Covid defence won’t wash.

What then of the more fundamental and complex questions: whether people will think Everard’s death said something very fundamental about our society which should have been marked by the vigil, and which the police should have respected. Were the police – indeed, are the police – on the wrong side of a moral issue? These will really be the questions that really determine whether this will have any serious long-term effect on the reputation of police nationally.

Before answering this, we should look briefly at the YouGov polling again; the results don’t tell us everything, but they’re interesting. Here, we see a significant but not massive difference between men and women on the question as to whether the vigil should have gone ahead: women thought it should go ahead by 42-39 percent; men thought it should not go ahead by 47-38.

On the second question, as to whether vigils and marches generally should go ahead, men and women oppose them equally – by 60-25 and 59-26 respectively. On a third question, about whether Cressida Dick should resign, men and women were basically united in opposition – by 51-26 and 43-20 respectively.

It’s early days and time will tell; however, my sense at this point is that most people – men and women – will mainly view Everard’s death as a once-in-a-generation tragedy: an event that we will be talking about for many decades to come. It will likely provoke a debate about good and evil and the state of our society generally. And in time it will likely provoke extensive concerns about sentencing and punishment.

I don’t think – at this point – that most people will think of it as marking the start of a debate on how society treats women; I suspect her death will be so utterly shocking that it will be in a category on its own. It is possible, of course, that a debate about the treatment of women does begin; but it will begin because this is what political leaders are talking about, rather than necessarily because of what people think. (Allegations about inappropriate behaviour from the police after her death, which are just emerging, might change this).

As such, at this point I would think that the police will not be seen by most people as being on the wrong side of a great moral question.

What does all this mean for public opinion and the police? As I pointed out last time, despite what many media outlets imply, the police are very popular in England and Wales; people think they have handled Covid well and more generally they think they’re “on our side”. While they’re vulnerable to allegations of insensitivity and inconsistency at Clapham, they will not be viewed as displaying the wrong values.

But, as is often the case with these sorts of events, while their reputation will survive this mistake, it will begin to make many people keep an eye on their future behaviour in such a way that, “next time”, they won’t have the benefit of the doubt. After all, as I discussed last time, the polling shows that many people are questioning their priorities and judgement; they aren’t too far away from a more serious slip in public support.