James Frayne: Perhaps the Conservatives should simply revert to being southern and posh

10 Nov

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

In my twenties, I took a serious interest in US politics and campaigns, naively coming to think of the UK and US as culturally similar. It’s an easy mistake: a shared history; mutual respect for each other’s institutions; similar attitudes to the free market, individual rights and the rule of law; overlapping tastes in popular culture.

But it’s a mistake nonetheless. When I lived and worked in Washington DC and New York City for a couple of years – theoretically culturally familiar places – I came to realise how utterly foreign the US is. While I love the US and believe they’re our closest ally, I’m culturally European. I’m now firmly of the view those people seeking to apply political and electoral lessons from the US to the UK are usually wasting their time.

As Nick Timothy pointed out yesterday in the Daily Telegraph, the idea that Boris Johnson’s conservatism is damaged by Donald Trump’s defeat is ludicrous – the two are cut from different cloth, despite persistent but silly commentary linking “Brexit and Trump”.

So I stress: those looking to learn lessons from the US are mostly wasting their time. But one important consideration does arise for British Conservatives.

This is the electoral danger of letting down the new working class voters who have flocked to Trump’s GOP and the Conservative Party respectively.

In the US, these voters are often called Reagan Democrats or sometimes Springsteen Democrats; in the UK, we tend to call them the “traditional working class”; either way, they’re the working class of industrial and post industrial areas. While their similarities stretch only so far, given the differing nature of British and American labour markets and industrial history, the theme of working class disappointment is relevant.

We shouldn’t over-simplify: there were many reasons why Trump won in 2016; aggressive cultural conservatism was only one of them. But Trump partly carried so-called “rust-belt” states by promising to bring back long-lost manufacturing jobs and heavy industry. In short, he pledged to bring back dignity to hard-up places. The fact that this hasn’t happened – despite a surge in the national economy – dented his re-election chances.

A reality check: it doesn’t appear that Joe Biden truly surged amongst working class voters, nor did Trump collapse. But they do appear to have shifted markedly away from him. Given his narrow lead amongst the working class – and indeed his narrow lead in rust-belt states, full stop – this shift was enough to cause serious electoral problems.

British Conservatives face a similar problem. No, they didn’t make the same sorts of promises to the traditional working class in 2019; they didn’t promise the equivalent of, say, bringing back coal and steel to the North of England.

But while “getting Brexit done” was the most important part of their campaign last December, “levelling up” has become the party’s central public narrative (Covid aside) ever since; it runs through almost all of their policy communications. Their promises to the working class are far less outlandish than Trump’s, but they’re arguably more defined by their promises because they’ve talked of little else.

Trump’s winning coalition was large, but it was shallow, because of its reliance on new voters with no history of voting Republican. The same is true here. The Conservatives’ 80 seat majority looks massive, but it’s also precarious because again it’s built on new voters with few loyalties.

While working class people will cut the Conservatives slack because of Covid, they’ll soon be asking what progress the Government has made for them. They will certainly not accept the opposite of “levelling up” – the further decline of their towns and cities (which is already happening).

Just like those long-term Democrats who asked whether shifting their votes to their historical economic and moral opponents was worth it after all, so those traditional working class Labour voters from the Midlands, North and the Coast will pose the same sort of question. They’ll ask whether the Conservatives were all talk. And as I’ve written before, Keir Starmer is a very different proposition for the working class than Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s reported today that Rishi Sunak has promised Northern MPs more resources and more attention in the post-Covid period, largely, apparently, in the form of new infrastructure spending. This is welcome. (Though what about other areas – not least the Midlands and the coast?)

But time isn’t on their side, and the task is huge. Unless they can offer meaningful social and economic progress in such places as Walsall, Wolverhampton, Derby, Rotherham and Oldham, they will be out. Yes, they’ll be able to blame Covid-19 – but so what?

In fact, such little progress is being made, with time rapidly running out, it will soon be time to consider whether the Conservatives should junk their presumed working class strategy and focus once again on the affluent South. And it’s possible that the party should indeed take the easy route, follow its heart, and go back to being Southern and posh; yes, I’m serious.

Where should the Conservatives focus? Infrastructure matters. Ultimately, however, improving the economy outside the prosperous South East will require radically improving education and skills at all levels – seeking to build new businesses and industries from this new base of skilled workers. But you’re talking of two or three Parliaments to see the fruits of any such decisions made now. The Conservatives don’t have that luxury.

Rapid progress will depend on being able to show town centres – and specifically high streets – have improved. This doesn’t just mean defending commerce; it means making town centres safer and more attractive and, crucially, fostering local pride. The Party should be throwing itself into this task. A useful immediate start to focus minds: use all those screens in the Cabinet Office to display figures from a Towns Dashboard.

James Frayne: Expect people to prepare for minor civil disobedience at Christmas

27 Oct

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

How much do the public care about Christmas? Will they be prepared to endure a minimal so-called “Digital Christmas” in the name of keeping the R-rate down?

Of course, everything depends about the perceived state of the country in mid-December. But let’s try to think about where we’re heading, where we might be at that point, and then about what the public might accept.

Let’s deal with the obvious first: those things that might make the public more willing to accept a Digital Christmas.

  • Concerns for the NHS will rise during the winter. Just as people know the NHS always struggles in the winter, so they’ll also know significant numbers of Coronavirus cases would be a terrible additional burden. While there appears to have been a large increase in hospital admissions during these early days of a second spike, it isn’t clear that hospitals are much more burdened than they otherwise would be (I suspect for complex reasons). Nonetheless, people will be alert to any change; and, clearly, if there is a serious surge in admissions and visible shortages of beds and care, with large numbers of deaths, people will think very differently about things, Christmas or not.
  • Optimism about a 2021 vaccine will be visible. I’m unclear at this point what the prospects of an effective vaccine will do to public opinion in the Christmas period. At one level, it might encourage people to play it safe for one last time before better times in the new year. (“If we can all make one last sacrifice…”) But it could also make people think their behaviour doesn’t matter so much, because help is on the way. I think they’ll certainly take a devil may care attitude if it appears that, contrary to the hype, a vaccine looks like it’s still many, many months away and if coverage is likely to be minimal. Politicians have wisely played down the idea of a game-changing vaccine for this reason
  • Public opinion is currently changing rapidly; people are becoming less willing to accept the rules as they are. At the moment, only a significant minority want looser rules and guidelines, the majority want things as they are; but the direction of travel is clear. A surge in serious cases and / or deaths would change things and make people more cautious, but a general uptick along the lines we’ve seen recently, or an uptick that mirrors seasonal admissions, would likely see demands for looser restrictions grow.

Let’s now look at those things that might make the public more hostile to a Digital Christmas.

  • Exasperation with the rules/guidelines will likely be much higher. We’ve known for some time people are struggling to understand the various rules and guidelines which are complex and change regularly.  (Unforgivably, Government Ministers themselves have struggled to remember what they are). But exasperation will turn to anger as we approach Christmas if the prospect of a Digital Christmas looks real. At this point, people won’t be irritated because the rules are complex; rather, they’ll be angry the rules seem inconsistent, bordering on stupid, as we’ve seen in Wales. They’ll ask, why, for example, people can still visit pubs, but can’t enjoy a single day with their closest relatives – some of whom might be on their own. There will be endless comparisons: why can we do this but not this?
  • Minor rule-breaking will increase. There are signs that this is on the rise, and that more people are becoming comfortable with risk. Forget the illegal raves and other illicit gatherings: I’m referring to regular minor rule-breaking – people not isolating for 14 days when they’ve come into contact with those that have tested positive; more people foregoing masks in supermarkets; people visiting others’ houses when they shouldn’t; and so on. This is surely likely to increase significantly in the coming weeks; more people seem to be thinking they’ll probably be OK if they break the rules in a minimal way (a massive change from the spring). The Government is alive to this; it’s been suggested the 14-day quarantine figure might be reduced. But the seal has been broken; rule breaking, however minor, is going to become common and by Christmas will likely be the norm.
  • Fears for the economy – and the high street in particular – will rise. Concerns for the economy is going to keep going up as Government support slowly tapers off and unemployment and business bankruptcies tick up. Because it’s so visible, the high street plays a disproportionately important role in the public mind; it’s a signifier for the health of the economy more generally. Given the health of the high street will be on people’s minds into Christmas – as it always is – public concern for the economy will be heightened.
  • Knowledge about the cause of infections will be higher. Partly because we simply know more about the Coronavirus and its effects – which the media is now passing on in more detail and more regularly – the public are going to increasingly question Government and scientific advice. They’re going to become more discerning judges of public policy. In the face-off between Greater Manchester and the Government, and in the criticisms of Government policy levelled by the hospitality industry, we are seeing more people ask questions about the causes of infections and the nature of their rise. In such a climate, people are more likely to question the basis for Government decisions on Christmas.

What does all this mean?

It’s hard to say at this point. As I’ve written a few times recently on this site, my strong sense at this point is that public opinion is moving against harsh measures because of a perception that –

(a) we always go back to square one whenever we loosen measures, so what’s the point?

and

(b) because concerns about the economy are finally starting to catch up with the reality of the grave economic situation.

My sense is that, for the reasons stated above, unless there’s a really very serious surge in deaths, and unless hospitals are demonstrably seriously more burdened than they would otherwise be (and not simply under the usual seasonal strain), then people will be extremely angry about the prospect of a Digital Christmas.

In turn, I would expect people to prepare for widespread minor civil disobedience; by that I don’t mean people having 20 people around for Christmas, but that many, many people will plan to invite guests from outside their bubble, and prepare to breach the rule of six for a few hours.

I’ve seen it said that people would accept a minimal Christmas if it appeared to be part of a consistent, national policy of restrictions.

I disagree with this view one hundred per cent; the point is, outside of a total national lockdown of the sort we saw in the Spring, it will never look like rules are being applied consistently and with good judgement. If people are already claiming that it’s ridiculous you can, say, go on a political demonstration but you can’t visit your elderly relatives, think how angry they’ll be around Christmas. (Incidentally, if any politicians did appear to breach their own rules in this period, it really would hit the fan).

You occasionally see people sneering about the public obsession with Christmas: it’s only one day; we’re not really a religious country; it’s not relevant to other faiths and those with none; and so on.

Of course Christmas isn’t primarily a religious festival for most; but it’s a day when people take time out to meet family members they might not otherwise see; and when many people try to include those that otherwise live lonely lives in something joyful.

The English aren’t naturally “big family” people: we have tight nuclear families, not the extended families you see in parts of Europe and Asia. Christmas is the exception. The Government should do everything possible to make sure people can enjoy something that feels vaguely festive. Or, yes, they’ll pay a price. Just watch Labour do everything they can to have their Christmas Cake and eat it on this issue.

James Frayne: Coastal towns – next for the Conservatives after the Red Wall seats. And essential for a shore-to-shore majority.

13 Oct

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

The Conservatives risk taking their 80 seat majority for granted; doubly so, with their domination of provincial England and Wales. There’s a sense that Labour has been devastated in their own backyard – with no way back in the near-term.

But England and Wales aren’t in the bag and the Conservatives’ hold over the working class is precarious. The pivot to it is in name only; it can be made real, but only with serious action.

Jeremy Corbyn was a clown, but Keir Starmer isn’t. The English working class came to despise Corbyn, but don’t despise Starmer and never will. He’s an entirely familiar English politician: a bit awkward and dull; a bit professional posh.

But so what? That’s most people in politics. Working class people would vote for him without hesitation. He’s basically competent; he’s not afraid to say he’s patriotic; he stands against the excesses of the lunatic fringe in his Parliamentary Party; he looks the part.

The Conservatives urgently need to narrow Starmer’s path to No 10. How should they go about this?

This column has long focused on the need to appeal to voters in the the Midlands and North. This has been the main battleground for the last two or three elections; but there are signs Conservative ambition should be extended on a large scale geographically.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that English and Welsh coastal areas should become a priority in the same way the Midlands and North have been. In this way, the Conservatives should seek to establish a mainstream majority from coast to coast.

Over the last couple of years I’ve been conducting more and more research in coastal areas – mostly in the form of focus groups, but via quantitative research too – and have been increasingly struck by the cultural, economic and, ultimately, political similarities between them in different areas.

It’s also become clear that cities like, say, Portsmouth, have a lot in common with, say, Derby. And places like, say, Great Yarmouth have a lot in common with, say, Rochdale. The smaller towns are strikingly similar.

New quantitative research that Public First has conducted as part of our work for the UK Major Ports Group – the representative body for the country’s largest port operators – confirms me in this view. It should be perfectly possible for the Conservatives to create a message that resonates equally for the working class in coastal and inland areas.

Indeed, this should be a strategic priority for the Conservatives for the rest of this Parliament. You can read the full tables of the coastal poll here and the accompanying England and Wales nationally representative poll here.

(I should say at this point that UKMPG is entirely apolitical; this reflects my reading of a poll I’ve done for them; Labour-leaning colleagues are writing their own analyses from a Labour perspective).

Coastal towns have their own particular challenges, of course, and residents favour policies specific to coastal areas. For example, coastal residents favour awarding coastal areas “special category” status in the same way that some rural areas have been awarded something similar; they also favour improving transport links between coastal areas and the rest of the country.

The Government will need to address these particular issues. But the more you look at the data and the more you listen to coastal town residents in focus groups, the more similarities there appear to be people in with less affluent towns in the English and Welsh heartlands.

Most obviously, there are huge concerns about the economic and social decline of their towns. In coastal areas, as in less affluent Northern and Midlands towns, not only do very many people think their local areas have got worse, but they’re also pessimistic for the future.  They are particularly concerned about the state of their local high streets and how small businesses have suffered (made worse, of course, by the Covid-19 emergency and the downturn that’s followed).

As in the Midlands and North, coastal town residents are desperate for policies that focus on regeneration. Many believe their children would be better off moving away to pursue better opportunities elsewhere. In towns on the coast and inland, you hear this mix of local civic pride with a belief that things are getting worse all the time (especially in the West Midlands).

For voters in coastal towns and in the heartlands, the Conservatives’ manifesto focus on improving life in provincial Britain was the right one; it obviously chimed in towns across the country.

So politically and culturally speaking, there are reasons why the Conservatives should consider coastal voters to be potential long-term Conservatives. Coastal town residents are more likely than the national average to be eurosceptic, and seem more conventionally patriotic than the average.

But, as we’ve seen in Labour’s former working class areas, they’re hardly classically Conservative. For example, they’re keen on raising taxes on the highest earners and on increasing benefit provision (the latter, likely a reflection of the downturn).

They also associate the Conservatives, as many do, with being primarily for “the rich”. In short, coastal town residents are superficially Conservative, but many are now peeling off to the “don’t know” line when asked about their voting intention, which is only a step away from taking a good look at Labour.

More worryingly, when we probed voters’ values, coastal residents, as well as those across the rest of England and Wales, said the values they held most dear were family, fairness, hard work and decency; but they were much more likely to associate Labour with these values than the Conservatives.

Over the next several months, I will be returning regularly to this theme: the need to create a mainstream English and Welsh majority from coast to coast. The research I’ve been doing is an interesting first step; it requires more analysis and more thought.

However, my strong sense is this:

  • Politicians are wrong to consider coastal areas as being radically different from the rest of the country, and indeed too different to help through conventional politics.
  • While coastal areas require some specific attention, their problems are similar to those in the Midlands and North etc.
  • The heart of the policy response should focus on civic regeneration, small business growth and new technologies;
  • As with the rest of the country, there are major differences between the cities and the towns on the coast.  And, bringing it all together –
  • The Conservatives should seek to create a unified offer which ties together mainstream England and Wales.

With Brexit finally coming to a conclusion one way or the other, and with new trade deals emerging, it’s likely that British port towns and cities are going to start receiving greater political attention.

We’re going to suddenly remember that we’re an island which demands an industrial strategy to match a new trade strategy. As this all takes place, the Conservatives should begin to prioritise the voters of these coastal areas in the way they’ve prioritised those in the Midlands and North.

James Frayne: Covid-10. Seven action points for Ministers – as pressure rises on the Government

29 Sep

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

The Government always knew that keeping public opinion onside during the early days of a second spike would be hard.

These are times when public finances are under pressure, lockdown fatigue is setting in (particularly amongst the young), but when dangers to public health are still high. Ministers face criticism from all corners, whatever decisions it takes. Some of the popular media’s websites channel criticism towards the Government from entirely different directions on the same day. So what should Ministers do to keep public opinion onside?

I never write about clients’ work, unless expressly agreed and declared. My thoughts here are entirely derived from my own recent reading of the public mood. In any case, not only has it been a relative age since I ran groups for Government, but my agency has decided not to pursue opportunities for future work with the Cabinet Office. As those that understand qualitative research know, the work, while interesting, is ultimately extremely low-margin, all-consuming and a distraction from commercial work.

1. Forget the polls.

First things first – the Government needs to junk almost all the polling. Public opinion is in a state of total unreality and has been for many months. All the polls show the public back strict lockdown measures – just as they always have.

But voters are on morphine supplied by Ministers in the form of vast furlough payments and emergency support to businesses, tenants and the rest. As such, the public has no sense at all of the real state of the economy – and therefore no sense whatever of the trade-offs the Government is making between public health and public finances.

People will always favour tighter restrictions when they think there’s little direct risk to them. As it stands, few think their taxes will rise, their personal debt will increase or that their jobs are at risk. For most people, risk lies with others.

Ministers have created a vicious cycle of opinion: they’re artificially pumping up support for tight restrictions, then reading the polls telling them the public want tight restrictions, then further extending support. If the Government is going to help the country ultimately get back to normal, it’s going to have to break this cycle. Stop reading the polls for a bit.

2. Start being honest about risk and public choice.

While the nature of the conversation will necessarily be brutal and uncomfortable, the Government must start talking about the balanced risks of ongoing restrictions. It has to: the chances of the cavalry arriving with millions of vaccine shots before the money runs out look slim. It seems likely, at some point, that we’ll have to find a way to live with risk.

If Ministers don’t prepare the ground now, they’ll find the public in a state of hostile shock when all of a sudden the Government removes financial support. As part of this process, they’ve also got to start encouraging the public to start managing their own risk.

So far, only Rishi Sunak has been prepared to deliver, in flashes, this message. He should be unleashed to start telling the public some fundamental truths about the need to protect the economy, and in turn our public services and living standards. The public aren’t daft and they’ll come to accept this. But it’s a message that is going to take time to filter through; it needs to be delivered now.

3. Don’t misunderstand the character of the English.

There’s only one value the English hold dearer than fairness, and that’s family. While they want ludicrous violations of lockdown rules punished in the name of fairness, they’ll also do whatever it takes to protect their families and they believe utterly in the sanctity of the private home.

The Government has been dicing with political death in recent times. They’ve appeared to encourage snitching on other families, which will come back to haunt them in calmer times; they’ve left themselves open to putting, say, attending demos ahead of visiting relatives; and they will have made lifetime enemies of middle class parents of students in recent weeks.

Ministers should remember who the English are: law-abiding; fair-minded; (nuclear) family-focused; and ultimately liberal. Pushing them into civil disobedience to protect their families will end catastrophically badly. (And, whatever you do, don’t mess with the English Christmas).

4. Promote politicians, downgrade scientists.

PR Advice 101 is always the same: wheel out the independent experts that the public trust, and play down the role of politicians. And so we’ve seen nothing but Government scientists for months.

There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, it has implied that the scientists are ultimately in control of the situation and that there are simple, empirical decisions which can and must be made. This isn’t true, and has given the public a false sense of security.

Secondly, most of the scientists are poor communicators. The media love the idea of the boring, trusted scientist that the public all love. But this isn’t reality. The scientists aren’t professional communicators and putting them in positions of public influence in this way is a mistake. The Government needs to show some balls and downgrade the scientists’ role as communicators, and take responsibility for what are essentially political decisions.

5. Use Rishi Sunak more, use businesspeople more.

Strategically speaking, communicating on the economy is now the most important comms challenge – because of the need to prepare people for balanced risk. People know as much as they ever will about the health risks and the need to socially distance, wash hands etc.

So there’s little gain now in having the scientists keep talking about the health risks. They won’t help keep the public onside if a million people join the dole queues. Instead, the Government needs to promote business voices who can both explain the rationale for Government action, and who can explain risk and reward in ways others can’t.

Ultimately, since we’re all going to need to get back out there and manage risk at some point, we need businesspeople to explain in necessarily lurid terms the dangers of not doing so. We need to hear even more from Rishi Sunak and ideally a panel of businesspeople to amplify his warnings.

6. Drop the technical language.

This is such an obvious point, I’m reluctant to make it. However, one of the problems that has arisen from the public role of the scientists is the casual use of pointlessly technical language that ordinary people can’t possibly understand.

The use of the “R rate” in public communications is merely the most obvious example. Of course, when used enough, they take on the meaning they’re supposed to have. But as part of the shift to promote political voices, there’s got to be an onus on using the simplest language.

7. Internationalise the response.

One of the weird things about the global pandemic is that each country seems to be grappling with its  own specific outbreak; it’s as if we all have our own national pandemics. It will be far easier to keep the public onside if politicians are seen to be actively talking and learning from one another.

And, no, this isn’t a Brexit thing; this seems true around the world. The public will be more open to change if they can see we are cooperating with the other countries and learning lessons from them.

Over the summer, all we heard was the possibility of tit-for-tat quarantine restrictions imposed on different countries’ tourists, as if this was all a zero sum game; this wasn’t given the attention it warranted: it was a real low point in the crisis. The Government would do well to work publicly with other governments at this point.

James Frayne: Do voters care about breaking international law, and if so, how much?

15 Sep

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

How much of an electoral risk is the Government taking by threatening to break international law? There hasn’t, to my knowledge, been much published polling on the issue and I haven’t seen any qual either. I’m not sure how revealing any opinion research would be at this point, anyway. Not only is the issue highly complex, but the Government hasn’t communicated a settled position on its intentions – and, in turn, the issue has not been played out properly in the media or in Parliament.

The public have only seen complex snippets. It’s therefore extremely unlikely the Government’s threat to break international law will have had much of an impact on public opinion at all so far. This isn’t to say the issue isn’t important or won’t have an impact in time. But it’s much more useful to consider how opinion might change and what might change it. How might we anticipate this change? Six questions come to mind.

Will this just split down Leave-Remain lines? As we know from the 2019 election, most people are bored to death by never-ending negotiations to leave. As we also know, almost everything on the Brexit process splits down Leave-Remain lines. There’s almost no crossover, where Leavers take the side of Remainers on an issue and vice versa. The well has been poisoned; you just have to take the occasional peek at Twitter and see otherwise normal people spewing bile at each other over Brexit.

ConservativeHome has taken an unusual position here: it’s associated with Leave but has encouraged MPs to vote against the Government. How common will ConservativeHome’s position be? This is the crucial question. Until significant numbers of Leavers (particularly Conservative Leavers) come out and join ConservativeHome, it seems most likely that Leavers will tacitly back the Government. Public opinion would shift if more Leavers follow the Editor’s advice.

Will this just look like Brexit chaos? The entire Brexit negotiation process has been a massive fiasco. From the morning after the referendum, government on this has been a shambles. One of the reasons so many people wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ was because they wanted the chaos to go away. I wonder therefore whether many will just write this off as being just another cock-up. Government opponents will need to explain why this is a special case. At present, they haven’t yet been able to do this effectively, although the arrival of more senior Conservative politicians into the fray might change things somewhat.

Can the public ever be made to care about international law? International law is complex, of course. But my sense is that it can’t be simplified in the way those hostile to the Government’s threat are seeking to do. People like Blair and Major are talking about how Britain’s moral standing will be adversely affected and so on. While a reasonable point, there are two reasons this won’t work.

Firstly, because, Brexit partisans aside, and rightly or wrongly, most people still consider Britain to be a moral actor in the world; this alone won’t undermine that. Secondly, more importantly, because many believe other countries break international law all the time. That said, opinion would surely change if and when the public are confronted with the prospect of another country unilaterally changing a treaty they had agreed with us. (It’s also worth adding the straight reality that Tony Blair is hardly the best advocate for international law.)

What is the reputation of the law more generally? My very strong sense is that the English public have also lost respect for ‘the law’ more generally. They believe  the law no longer reflects natural justice and, that word again, fairness. Respect for the law has been slowly eroding for many years now, but it has been eroding very quickly in recent years. Increasingly, people have not only heard stories about pathetically weak sentencing, but they’ve also heard, in their eyes, perfectly reasonable Government policy decisions being unpicked by the courts.

The Establishment Left has claimed this shift in opinion amounts to a swing against an independent judiciary and the beginnings of a march towards a more political legal system. It’s nothing so thought-through; rather, people think the law no longer reflects right and wrong and therefore the accusation levelled at Britain – as being a law breaker – simply doesn’t have the same power that it once might have done

What do the public think about the EU’s behaviour during negotiations? It would be an exaggeration to say the mass of the public have followed Brexit negotiations closely. But, to the extent they have, my sense is that they think the EU has behaved with hostility towards Britain.

Varadkar, Barnier and Juncker seemed to revel in Britain’s difficulties during negotiations. The pro-EU British media liked to praise these politicians for this, on the basis they were teaching about the reality of its new position. But it was always going to be pointlessly destructive because it stored up English resentment that, when the time came, the Government would be able to tap into – as it now might well do.

Will the public cut slack to the Government over Northern Ireland? It’s important to consider the merits of the Government’s stated case – or, rather, what the public will think of these merits.

At one level, the Government has a very strong argument: it’s perfectly reasonable to argue Northern Ireland, as much part of the UK as England, should not be treated differently. The problem, of course, is that the Government initially said it should be treated differently and that it had secured a winning agreement.

Will the public rally behind Northern Ireland if the Government makes a case that the agreement is having unintended consequences, or will they think Northern Ireland isn’t worth the bother? There’s no question that unionist sentiment has faded in recent times; not because of a surge in English nationalism, but because of a sense that Scotland, particularly, wants to go its own way. The UK doesn’t seem the country it did even 10 years ago. Will English Leavers think the Government should therefore dig in in the way it seems to be planning?

What does all this mean? My sense is that, on current trajectory, the Government’s opponents will not be able to make this an issue the public care about (Covid obviously towers above everything at the moment) in time. The only way this will change is if Conservative Leavers are mobilised en masse – and if perceived historical allies start to question this behaviour too, mostly from the US, but also Canada and Australia. As it stands, it’s mostly been anti-Brexit voices who have made the running on this issue, which, as I note above, makes it look like just another day in BrexitLand.

James Frayne: Big tax rises would make Tory campaigning impossible – in Red Wall seats as well as traditionally blue ones

1 Sep

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

In my last column, I suggested that the best hope for the Conservatives in building an effective campaign infrastructure in newly-won Northern and Midlands seats was by developing a new business-led coalition in these places.

Many of these towns and small cities have no activist networks of any description, and new voters come from families that openly despised the Tories a generation ago. Practically the only truly culturally Conservative people here – in the North East, the far North West and South Yorkshire – are businesspeople. Businesspeople are relatively large in number and are trusted by their local communities; they would be a perfect launchpad for a new Conservative Party.

It’s early days, of course, and details are yet to emerge, but news of a major assault on British businesses via higher taxes would make such a campaign totally impossible to run. It would be a massive set back to Conservative plans to become a regional party.

If reports are to be believed, amongst other things, the Treasury is considering significantly raising Corporation Tax, as well as Capital Gains Tax (CGT) and taxes on pension payments.

“Corporation Tax” is badly named; it’s a tax on pretty much any significant business, not on “corporations” – but, while larger businesses have both the resources and the endless budget lines to be able to minimise profit and keep corporation tax bills down, SMEs just have to lump it.

And increases in CGT and pension payments will put fear into small businesses, because they ultimately allow business owners to take a lower income now in the hope and expectation of being able to enjoy pay-offs in the future – with their currently lower income supporting their ability to employ others.

All of this would be a bad idea politically at the best of times. But doing it now, just when businesses have been struggling very badly, would be unbelievably risky. It’s not just high street retailers that have bit badly hit; vast numbers of firms have been hit either directly by the logistical difficulties of running a business while social distancing is required, or by a collapse in the confidence of their customers, or both.

New, higher taxes would make it harder for businesses to earn a living, and they would also make redundancies more likely and the scrapping of recruitment plans much more likely. Many businesses will be looking to develop a decent financial cushion over the next year or two – with at least six months’ operating costs in the bank – having been scarred by how close they came during lockdown to oblivion.

They would not be able to generate such a cushion with higher taxes on their profits. (Some businesses are also complaining that this comes on top of Brexit – something else that they would sooner not manage).

Aren’t these businesspeople effectively locked-in to the Conservative Party? Where would businesses go to vote? It’s true to say there are many, many businesspeople across the Midlands and North that would be very unlikely to vote Labour – on the basis the Conservatives would pretty much always be better for them.

But we’re not talking about simply securing their votes for future elections; we’re talking about trying to energise businesses so that they became local recruiters, fundraisers and campaigners for the Party in places where there are no activists. They simply won’t do this if the Conservatives turn them over. Again, if the businesspeople of Rotherham, Doncaster, Barrow, Workington, Bishop Auckland and so on aren’t going to create a new Conservative campaign network, who on earth is going to do it?

While major tax rises on business would make the growth of new regional Conservative Party much more difficult, I strongly doubt it would retain any medium-term popularity with the public either. Public opinion polls always lag behind business polls – and these are showing extreme concern about the state of the economy.

The public would catch up when reality bit and growth slowed and redundancies rose; at that point, the public would see that raising taxes on employers doesn’t help anyone. So where should the Treasury look? There are already suggestions they are being strongly encouraged to look at spending cuts first; only when they have exhausted what’s reasonable morally, economically and politically should they turn towards tax rises.

James Frayne: Our national political conversation is unrepresentative. Metro London is heard loud and clear. The provinces, scarcely at all.

18 Aug

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

“The problem is this Government is so divisive”. I’ve heard this explanation a few times recently for the scale of hostile media attention and the ferocity of opposition online.

In one way, it’s an odd claim. The Government does, after all, command an 80-seat majority – and completely dominates the English political scene. How does such a demonstrably popular Government get criticised so widely for being divisive? Why does it matter? And what can it do to portray the reality of its popular support?

Let’s deal with the blindingly obvious first. This Government is driving through Brexit; changing immigration laws; and governing while Scottish independence is becoming more popular. The country was divided on Brexit on referendum day – and nothing has changed. Many Remainers’ anger is still raw and their hatred for the Prime Minister and other high profile Leavers drives an ongoing emotional reaction to everything this Government does. It’s hard to see that changing any time soon.

Immigration should be a different issue; but while a clear majority of the country wants immigration reduced, it’s by far the most controversial issue in the public domain and provokes huge sensitivities. As for Scotland, it’s fair to say a privately educated Southern Englishman is hardly the perfect Prime Minister but, honestly ,what can be done about this? (Some will raise “competence” as a reason for division – on Coronavirus and exams etc – but I don’t think that’s a primary driver).

Yet there’s more to it than just the fact the Government has strong views on two contentious issues, while ultimately overseeing a further surge in support for the SNP.

One of the biggest problems is the fundamental lack of interest in politics amongst the Conservatives’ new core vote. The vast majority of the working class and lower middle class of provincial England are completely uninterested in politics. They’re not active in the parties; they don’t talk about politics in daily life; they don’t write to local or national newspapers; most importantly, they’re not politically active online.

In short, their views are almost never heard outside of elections, when they then dictate who goes into Downing Street. It therefore feels like the national political conversation – and by extension the reality of the national opinion – is dominated by noisy, politically-obsessed middle class activists.

The seeming lack of political importance of those in provincial England is exacerbated by the antipathy that many middle class Remainers have for them. As I’ve written before, it’s lucky that working class and lower middle class people don’t hear most of the political conversation as it shields them from this widespread contempt. Their portrayal is of poorly-educated, parochial English nationalists who do boring and precarious work. They’re portrayed as relics of an earlier age whose views will die out shortly, as they themselves die. There’s a clear sense that these voters don’t have moral authority and don’t matter.

And this takes us to another related point, which I’ll make only in passing despite its importance, simce others have made this point for years: all the main media outlets, and the vast majority of commentators, live in London and its cultural and physical satellites or in the country’s biggest cities. Those that choose and edit news output know very little about the towns and small cities of England or the people that live there. There is now no truly authentic provincial English media outlet.

Why does it matter if the Conservative Party is treated as the equivalent of an unelected dictatorship, particularly if the quiet mass of the public keeps voting for them? It matters for three related reasons.

Because it all infects media coverage and, even now, this matters over time. If everyone talks about this Government as being essentially illegitimate, it will affect public opinion more broadly (more on economic than cultural issues, I think).

Because it freaks out weak-minded backbenchers who spend too long on social media and who publicly panic about the Government’s reputation.

And because it makes the Government second-guess its own relative popularity and therefore its likelihood of getting big things done.

Ministers need to think about how to get on the front foot again – how to show the extent of its public support in order to boost its own moral standing and its ability to get things done. It needs to harness its provincial popularity – showing that these voters’ views are moderate, mainstream and strongly felt (all of which are true). How should it go about this? Each would be worth many blogs alone, but here are brief suggestions.

First, return at the earliest opportunity to improving the “liveability” of provincial towns. It’s impossible to criticise the Government for a loss of focus;  Coronavirus changed everything very early in their new term. But they need to return to this soon. It’s not just about improving the economic prospects of these places; it’s also about making them nicer places to live. This means not just boosting town centres, but also working with local councils to improve public spaces, and reintroducing the festivals and events that have often withered and died. (This sounds like a small thing, but it’s huge for people). This will not only demonstrate to the country the provincial priorities of the Government, but it will also show these voters’ primary concern – not nationalism and all the rest, but enjoying a decent quality of family life.

Second, relatively easy to do, find a way to give a voice to the best of the new MPs. The Party has to demonstrate a different face and accent to show that it now represents new places and new people. They don’t all have to be promoted into Government; there are plenty of roles they can play – from being placed on task forces and policy research teams, to being given CCHQ roles. The Party should be reminding everyone through its spokespeople that it represents a new, mainstream majority.

Third, much more complicated to achieve and which I’ve written about before, seek to mobilise third parties from provincial England into policy debate. The Conservatives won many of these seats without any meaningful infrastructure in place. But they have to find a way to show they have support from outside standard political networks. Local businesses provide by far the easiest route to achieve this, but there are other networks too: non-state-funded voluntary organisations and charities; local societies; and so on.

Fourthly, continue to shift Government functions to outside central London.

Fifthly, not only continue to hold Cabinet meetings in provincial cities, but seek to make most policy announcements in these places too. This should demonstrate that the Government is making announcements from places where it commands support. The Party has become very accomplished at the visuals for such events and it has learned much from the referendum campaign. They should be able to do this relatively easily.

The Conservatives should become a primarily provincial party as they were in the past. That truly does not mean some sort of UKIP-lite party or something that looks and feels like a European populist party. Voters in these places are on the whole much, much more moderate than those in the big cities. While there are fewer people who are what you might call “modern liberals”, there are also far fewer who have extreme views. The party needs to show once and for all that the big cities have no monopoly on decency.

James Frayne: Public support for the Government appears to have dropped – but not when it comes to individual policies

4 Aug

The conventional wisdom on the polling is the Government is fast losing public support on its handling of the Coronavirus crisis – and therefore that the Government is handling the crisis badly in reality.

While it’s true that the polls have moved against the Government from the early days of the crisis when approval ratings were sky high, the story isn’t as simple as the public turning against the Government.

Interestingly, on individual policy announcements, for example the Northern lockdown, public support remains high. The public back the Government on specifics, but not in the round. So what’s happening?

Let’s begin by looking at the polling on general Government popularity measures. The picture is clear: the public has become less sympathetic over time.

  • ConservativeHome’s newly released panel survey showed the PM’s popularity has slipped for the third month in a row.
  • YouGov’s tracker on perceptions of the Government’s handling of the crisis has shown a steady decline since the Spring.
  • Opinium’s tracker shows the same, with their most recent figures showing a net disapproval rating of -15. They also show a relatively narrow lead over Labour in the voting intention tracker.
  • A new study by Ipsos-Mori and KCL revealed an array of metrics showing public concern about the way the pandemic has been handled.

But now let’s look at the data on individual policies.

  • People appear to very strongly support the Government banning separate households meeting indoors in those parts of the country where the infection rate has risen.
  • People appear to strongly support the Government’s announcement that those with Coronavirus symptoms should now self-quarantine for 10 days rather than seven.
  • The majority of the public appears to be unsympathetic to those British people that went to Spain and got caught out by the demand to self-quarantine on their return – a decision for which the Government received enormous criticism.
  • People also appear to support restaurants having to show calorie counts on their menus – a suggestion the Government was said to be considering as part of No 10’s new focus on obesity. (I actually think this would drop like a stone when faced with a counter argument on burdensome regulations during a pandemic, but that’s another conversation).
  • The polls show the public support the requirement to wear masks in supermarkets and they want the supermarkets themselves to be tougher on compliance, presumably by refusing entry to those without masks or refusing service at the till.
  • The use of face masks has surged dramatically more generally.

What accounts for these stark differences, where the Government is losing support but where the public actually back its main policy announcements? There are a number of reasons why this might be the case.

First, it’s possible the public actually still favour extremely tough measures overall – much tougher than the Government is prepared to take. It’s possible they still favour what amounts to a near full-lockdown and, therefore, the support they give to specific policies is almost given in exasperation – as if to say: “of course they should do this, why haven’t they done so before?”

I think this is very likely the case among older and more affluent people, where the mix of fear and an ability to work from home and maintain their living standards means they take a very safety first approach. It might still be the case for many others.

As I’ve written before, the Government’s reputation has also ultimately been perversely damaged by the huge success of the furlough scheme. The fact that it worked smoothly and held up most people’s earnings meant it acted like morphine; it made people think the pandemic was almost exclusively a health crisis, not an economic one.

It made many think that the lockdown was a perfectly acceptable way to spend several weeks – not something that was crippling the economy. As such, many people believed, and still do, that the lockdown should keep going indefinitely. Were they exposed to job losses and higher taxes, they’d likely change their minds on this quickly.

In summary, it’s possible the Government is being punished for opening up the country too early.

Second, it’s possible that the little minorities of people who oppose Government action on, say, increasing the quarantine, actually all mount up to a majority overall, which brings down Government support.

So, a significant minority in the North of England might be angry about the new lockdown there, while a significant minority of holidaymakers might be angry about the new quarantine demands, and so on. In the end, the angry and annoyed on one issue accumulate to a large number. It’s as if everyone’s annoyed, but for different reasons. There’s also clearly just generally a virus fatigue: “when will it ever end?”

Third, we have to look at the role of Government communications. The Government has been accused of giving out mixed messages in recent weeks – most recently, encouraging people to go to restaurants while also telling people to stay apart and wear masks, or encouraging people to go to restaurants while telling them to eat healthily.

The Government’s view appears to be that they need a degree of ambiguity – yes, to encourage people to return to some form of normality, while always reminding them to take care because the virus hasn’t gone away. I have sympathy with this because the medium-term future is so uncertain and because the Government is balancing outrageously complex and high-stakes issues.

In truth, no one really knows what’s going to happen. However, the fact remains that their messages and stated priorities can look contradictory – and this in turn can make them look disorganised, which in turn can eat into their reputation for competence.

Fourth, it looks like party politics is returning to the public mind slowly. The gaps between Conservative and Labour voters on questions of competence and general handling reveal huge differences in opinion.

In short, Labour voters think the Government has done a bad job, even if they give support to specific policy ideas, while Conservative voters are cutting the Government slack. If Starmer starts drawing a greater contrast between Conservative and Labour policies – most obviously over economic recovery policies – we should expect these differences to become starker.

Where will the polls go? It’s hard to say. If there’s another serious spike in cases and another health emergency develops, it’s possible that people will again rally behind the Government for doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances.

But I suspect, in reality, now people have become accustomed to the habits and language of the pandemic, and now Labour has a basically competent leader, that the Government’s approval ratings will return to where you’d expect a Government that has been in power for a long time to be – with a divided country and a very large number of disgruntled voters.

James Frayne: Churchill – and why the conservative movement would win a culture war. But it would be unpleasant and divisive.

21 Jul

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

The battle over the legacy of Winston Churchill shows in miniature what a big chunk of a future British culture war will look like. It will be one which the conservative movement wins decisively because of mass public support.  But the fighting and winning of the battle will be unpleasant and divisive. So we should hope a serious culture war never comes to pass.

Left-wing activists could spend hundreds of millions on campaigns to attack Churchill over many years, but would make no dent in public support for him. Without doubt, his resolute opposition to Nazism and his brilliant war leadership saved Britain from a successful invasion and shaped the global effort to defeat Hitler. The respect that the British public have had for Churchill since at least mid-way through the war is completely ingrained.

Footage of his funeral, at which working class dock workers lined the Thames to pay their respects is extraordinary to watch. What’s true then is true now. All these years on from his death, serious and sympathetic Churchill books are published; he’s depicted heroically in film; queues still form to see where he lived and worked.

There are many things to dislike about Churchill; his record as a politician pre-war was patchy at best, with some catastrophic errors of governance. More relevant to this debate, as Andrew Roberts has pointed out, his views on other countries and races were unpleasant for the time and therefore breathtakingly unpleasant now. And he wasn’t universally loved by the British public, either during the war or after it. On the contrary, many post-war Northern families (some of mine, included) were brought up with terrible stories about Churchill’s failures.

But the mass of the public sees Churchill overwhelmingly through the prism of the Second World War and the moral, political and military leadership he provided in the country’s darkest hour. It’s not that they share the same cultural views as Churchill – indeed, most would be horrified by them – but that they have chosen to honour him for his massive achievement in war time. Trying to make the public revile Churchill is like trying to make them feel bad for Britain fighting the Second World War at all; it has no point.

And this is the issue: it’s a pointless battle which the conservative movement (I can’t think of a better term) will win decisively, but in doing so risk opening up old and new wounds between different groups. Because, in doing so, Churchill’s record and views must inevitably be put into context – how could they not be? – and ultimately deemed to matter less on balance than his role as war leader and national saviour.

In turn, those that revile Churchill will be able to claim that most people don’t care about his views, and therefore that Britain is an unenlightened, intolerant country. On this narrow point, this will not be true – people will simply not be able to view him as anything other than a war leader – but there’s a logic to this position.

What’s true of the battle over Churchill will be true too of many other cultural battles too. The public will likely come to support the removal of those historical figures linked with atrocities abroad, but it’s hard to see how they could come to see Sur Francis Drake as anything other than the man who saved England from the Armada. The public will strongly support further efforts to make sure the police better reflects and better serves minority groups, but they will not support anything that looks like “defunding” the police, or which sees them pull back from making streets safer.

Voters will support a balanced narrative about Britain’s past in our schools, but they will want children to mostly feel pride in our past. (Such is public reverence for Churchill that a problem for those campaigning for social and cultural change, is that more palatable changes that the public understand and are happy to get behind, end up being obscured by a debate around Churchill, which they most certainly will not get behind.)

The mass of the public will demand that politicians stand firm on these issues – and will give these politicians strong support as they do so. And as these debates are played out, left-wing campaigns will accuse politicians of fostering intolerance and many in the public of “falling for it” – because, as with Churchill, people will expect politicians to put things in a wider context.

In the public mind: yes, Drake was one of those responsible for the aggressive expansion of England, but he saved England from a successful invasion; yes, the police should be more diverse, but they do a good job in difficult circumstances and limited cash; yes, Britain has done things for which it should be ashamed, but it has also been a force for good.

As all this is played out, as with Churchill, the conservative movement will win these battles, but division will emerge.

Emphatically, this is not to say that campaigns shouldn’t demand social or cultural change. Nor is to say that the public are hostile to such change. As we’ve seen consistently in the last few decades, campaigns have fostered and secured public support behind a range of morally just causes. Rather, it is to say that some harder-left campaigns are seeking battle with the mass of the public on areas where they won’t ever shift, and where the only outcome is victory for the conservative movement, but with division following in its wake. What would ultimately deliver electoral advantage to the Conservative Party would be damaging to the country.

Jeremy Corbyn went full throttle for culture war and it blew up in his face. Those that care about building a more united country, regardless of their party allegiance, should hope that Jeir Starmer steers the Labour Party back to mainstream values – with a focus on practically solving cultural and social problems (as well as economic ones). It’ll make for a more competitive electoral environment, but surely a happier place.