James Frayne: Strikes and Ministers. Have they taken back control only to lose all control – and be cast out by voters?

21 Jun

The polls are deceptively clear on the strikes. The massive differences between Conservative and Labour voters suggest both parties should take a tough line on either side of the debate.

However, the backdrop of a deteriorating economy makes the reality more complex. At a time when everyone is struggling, apparently “rich politicians” have to tread very carefully in turning down pay rises and in condemning strike action.

So while there’s a way for the Conservatives to maintain public support on this, it’s not as easy as it looks.

Let’s start by looking at where the polls are – and, specifically, at the major differences between different parties’ voters.

In early June, YouGov asked whether people supported or opposed rail unions striking over pay and conditions. Conservative voters opposed the strikes by 74 per cent to 14 per cent, while Labour voters supported the strikes by 59 per cent to 27 per cent.

I doubt this has changed much in the last couple of weeks; certainly, it’s hard to imagine Conservative voters becoming more sympathetic to strikers’ demands.

Looking at the polls on strikes more generally, it seems public opinion is set hard by political fundamentals. Conservative and Labour voters disagree wildly on attitudes to strikes.

Asked whether rail unions should ever be allowed to strike, YouGov’s June tracker showed Labour voters supported the right to strike by 74 per cent to 17 per cent, but Conservative voters opposed the same right by 53 per cent to 37 per cent.

And, even more broadly, asked whether it’s too easy for unions to be able to strike, 44 per cdent of Conservatives said it’s too easy, with 31 per cent saying the balance is about right; and 37 per cent of Labour voters said it was too hard to strike, with 33 per cent saying the balance was about right.

The same political gaps emerge on other questions regarding strikes. Conservative and Labour voters disagree about whether teachers should be allowed to strike, as well as about whether firefightersdoctorscivil servantsnursesair traffic controllers, and police officers should be able to strike.

So it would be easy to think that the Conservatives should stay implacably hostile to strikes and strikers and use the strikes as a dividing line with Labour. Certainly, that’s a possibility if the RMT and other unions continue to take a belligerent approach.

But there are undoubtedly risks for the Conservatives in all this.  Two stand out above all. 

First, and most importantly, the deteriorating economy means people everywhere are getting poorer. In the past, it was relatively easy to dismiss some workers’ claims for higher wages; now, with food and fuel prices rising and energy bills set to soar again, the reality is life is genuinely becoming harder.

This is obvious at one level, but it can get lost in the aggressive rhetoric of some union leaders. This time, strikers have a point: the Conservatives need to keep this reality in mind.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that the wider public will support strikers’ demands; they will recognise the dangers of an inflationary spiral; they will also dismiss the idea that public sector workers are owed special treatment post-Covid. However, they won’t condemn people at least for asking, and will tolerate some industrial action (although there are, of course, limits).

Second, if more strikes break out, it’s possible the political chaos that appears to have gripped this Government will makes it look as though they’ve lost control of the country. It seems likely that this is what some union leaders are planning on.

It is a high-risk game for all; the public will react very badly if it looks like strikes are essentially political, but the Conservatives won’t want to appear unable to govern.

What does all this mean for the them? Above all, they need to make it clear they understand everyone is suffering financially and that times are tough – but that economic policy will be applied universally, consistently and fairly. They should certainly argue that strikes are wrong, but, unless and until many more strikes break out, their tone should be reasonable and non-condemnatory.

The chances are that some union leaders will over-reach, and stray from a reasonable financial case to a broader political case. It’s almost certain that some striking activists will take such an approach

At that point, the Conservatives would be justified in taking a more hostile tone, but they absolutely will not get to it soon. The public is almost always entirely reasonable: most will oppose the strikes but sympathise with the strikers; they will be angry if it looks like the strikes are essentially about getting Boris Johnson out (even if that sympathise with that outcome too).

The post James Frayne: Strikes and Ministers. Have they taken back control only to lose all control – and be cast out by voters? first appeared on Conservative Home.

James Frayne: For the party to survive, the next leader must win the Midlands and the North. Can anyone?

7 Jun

Are prospective leadership candidates attractive to working-class provincial voters? This is a crucial question: the modern base of the Party lies in the English Midlands and North. The next leader must demonstrate they can carry most of those Boris Johnson brought over. We need a provincial candidate.

Answering this big question means considering how and why he brought working-class voters over in the first place. Five things stand out.

Leadership. Boris Johnson surged after prorogation; this proved he could lead. Working-class frustration and exasperation built in the latter days of Theresa May’s leadership as progress on Brexit stalled. It was reasonably common to hear people say we needed someone like Trump at that time “who would at least get stuff done”. These voters were desperate for someone to show some steel. Boris Johnson’s legal row – regardless of its merits – showed he’d do whatever it took to honour the referendum result. In those early days, he was seen as a strong leader who delivered. The landslide win followed.

Change. Jeremy Corbyn over-performed in 2017 because he was viewed as a radical “change” candidate. For many (and not a few!) this was all that mattered. At this point, people hadn’t beamed in on the rather frightening stuff he’d said and done in the past, which ultimately destroyed his 2019 campaign. The Conservatives underestimated this change sentiment and came close to losing power totally. After prorogation, Johnson owned change because he showed he was a different sort of politician. While he was always unusual, it was his ability to deliver that really marked him out as unusual; this perfectly met the spirit of the time.

Charisma. There’s no doubt Boris Johnson’s appeal to working-class voters was helped by his unique charisma – and indeed his enormous name recognition. True, his charisma has worn off in time (and his character now irritates), but there was a time his presence on the campaign trail was electrifying. This all allowed him to land messages – in some cases complex ones – other politicians couldn’t pull off.

Issues. Unfashionable as it is to assert in politics, issues count. Boris Johnson was completely in tune with working-class voters on Brexit. But there were other issues where he was completely aligned: more money for the NHS; recruiting more police; and immigration reform. Whether these priorities reflected his own beliefs or the results of polls and focus groups is irrelevant. On the big calls, he was aligned with provincial England.

Levelling-up. Working-class voters didn’t hear the levelling-up message for a long time and even now the agenda has passed many by. Furthermore, there’s scepticism it’ll ever work. But it’s really important: it has given provincial working-class voters a sense the Party cares about them somehow. Until very recently, working-class voters talked exclusively about the Conservatives as a party for the posh, Southern rich. That still comes out but at least now there is a sense from many the Conservatives are trying to improve their lives. While the levelling-up programme hasn’t been implemented (or communicated) perfectly, Boris Johnson has been its primary political sponsor.

It’s not 2019 anymore; the context has changed and Boris Johnson can’t mobilise provincial working-class voters like he once could. He is too damaged and so is the Party. As such, it’s not credible simply to ask whether prospective leadership candidates could match his 2019 efforts. However, any candidate with ambitions to retain working-class voters will need to offer something nearly as attractive, even if they do it in a different way. So, are there any candidates for whom this is viable?

At this point in time, you’d have to say that nobody offers a similar package. Rishi Sunak is unquestionably in the strongest position. While he has been damaged by recent stories, he is seen to have played a leadership role in the pandemic and he naturally embodies a sense of change. However, he has never appeared to be particularly keen on the levelling-up agenda (as defined by No 10), and has yet to declare his hand on many issues close to working-class voters’ hearts. It still feels like he’d take the Party back to the Cameron era.

We will no doubt start to see candidates from outside the Cabinet declaring their hand in the coming days. Those within the Cabinet will be doing so more subtly: giving great media performances “in defence” of the PM which are in reality designed to show off their political skills. We should watch them all closely, with provincial voters in mind. Most of them will stay within the classic Tory comfort zone, droning on about “One Nation”. We should be keeping a close eye on those that try to do something a bit different and who try to articulate an authentic provincial approach. If they can’t attract working-class voters, they should be discounted

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James Frayne: The Conservatives should not overplay the conflict between the Red and Blue Walls

24 May

Political communication is about choice. Universal appeals dilute messages absolutely, making it impossible to say anything clear, distinctive or memorable. Given the Conservatives’ primary electoral audience should be provincial working-class voters, other voters are less of a priority. It is unquestionably difficult to appeal to working-class provincial voters as well as younger, metropolitan voters in the big cities (although not impossible).

However, it is eminently possible – and desirable – to appeal both to the provincial working-class and affluent, mostly Southern, middle-class voters.

Some issues and themes are disproportionately important for provincial working-class voters: high streets; welfare reform to make work pay; and border control, for example. Some are more vital for the Southern middle-class, such as housing supply; public transport; and childcare. Obviously, it is more complex than this in practice, but the point is clear. Nevertheless, there are unquestionably issues and themes that appeal to both. Five stand out.

Economic stability. At present, rising living costs are top of most people’s concerns. However, what really unites the provincial working-class and Southern middle-class is the need for economic stability, which is somewhat different. Yes, inflation is part of the story, but so too are stable mortgage rates, steady growth, jobs, and pensions – which all rely on macroeconomic stability (and a steadily rising stock market).

While provincial working-class and Southern middle-class lives are different, they are only so by degree: both have mortgages to pay; jobs to hold down; home improvements to finance; cars to maintain; and so on. While the Government are right to think about how to throw the kitchen sink at rising living costs, they should focus too on maintaining a stable, growing economy – and there’s a political narrative here they need to construct. The Conservatives did this particularly well in 2015 and it must remain a priority.

Law and order. In recent months, as fears over rising living costs have grown, law and order has dropped down the polls. But it retains its position in the focus groups – particularly in larger towns and cities. It is not so much that people are worried about being victims of the most serious crimes, but that they are instead fed up with anti-social behaviour and low-level disorder.

Not all of this is visible, in the sense they don’t always fear crime they witness in real time; for many, it’s about the aftermath: newly-sprayed graffiti; vandalised memorials and historic buildings; remains of drug use strewn about parks and playgrounds; and so on. Across the country, regardless of the affluence of the place, there is a sense that streets and shared spaces don’t always belong to the decent majority. They appear to be, in practice, controlled by those who don’t care about order.

Healthcare. Voters across the country from different backgrounds talk about healthcare very differently but share an obsession with it. Provincial working-class voters are more likely to say they can access healthcare when they need it, but to express deep fear about the prospect of losing it. Middle-class Southern voters are more likely to say they struggle to access it, as well as expressing concern about it getting even more difficult.

While it is true to say people think the NHS is wasteful and needs “reform” (whatever that means), they need constant reassurance it isn’t going anywhere and that the Government will do everything possible to prevent it getting worse.

The environment. A few weeks ago, I wrote how the environment united working-class and middle-class voters. Many disagreed with this, arguing it merely reflected a lack of knowledge about net zero. Of course it partly reflects a lack of knowledge – but so what? On what issues of public policy – the NHS included – are voters truly knowledgeable? Hardly any. This isn’t a criticism; it just reflects ordinary voters don’t follow the ins and outs of policy development.

Fundamentally, this inattentiveness isn’t going to change. The public will not become policy wonks overnight. No matter: people across the country are united by concern for the environment – mostly on their kids’ and grandkids’ behalf – and a desire to reduce climate change. At this point, they have settled upon support for net zero as the route to achieve these goals, although another public policy strategy might take its place before too long. Either way, the environment, broadly conceived, is an issue that unites people across the country.

Patriotism. For the vast majority of working-class voters, Brexit wasn’t about patriotic affirmation, but instead about border control and better access to better public services. Similarly, the Southern middle class who opted for Remain didn’t do so out of a belief patriotism was a grubby force. In fact, quiet patriotism unites the two groups. It’s not about flag-waving and assertive patriotism, but firm belief that England is a great country with a great past, present and future.

What does this mean? Partly it means defending the country’s history against the excesses of wokery. But it also requires talking positively about the fundamentals of the country and optimistically about its future. This has always been a great strength of Boris Johnson; whether he’s the right man to do this now is another question. Nevertheless, whoever leads the party into the next election has got to keep this in mind.

Many people who profess concern for the so-called “Blue Wall” are in fact mostly concerned with metropolitan voters in inner-London and the big cities. But, for the most part, typical middle-class Southern voters have little in common with metropolitan voters. These are voters who care about tax levels, their ability to drive around, their pension pots. They’re not so different from provincial working-class voters. These voters’ lives are only different by degree. The Conservatives should be confident in crafting a governing approach and a campaign narrative that appeals for both groups.

James Frayne: Despite Starmer’s woes, Johnson is likely beyond the point of no return with voters

10 May

It’s not clear senior Conservatives wanted a provincial base but after two rounds of local elections that’s what they’ve got. While affluent metropolitan and Southern voters peeled off to the Lib Dems, Midlands and Northern working-class voters stayed loyal.

Two important questions follow: how loyal is this working-class base and how should Conservatives maintain it? These will determine how long the party stays in power.

In truth, it doesn’t feel terribly loyal at this point. I’ve overseen dozens of groups across provincial England in the last few months – and ran groups for The Sunday Telegraph last weekend – and the erosion of the foundations of Conservative support amongst working class voters has been rapid.

A year ago, despite irritation with the specifics of Covid management, the Government’s fundamentals were strong: the vaccine roll-out was popular and so was furlough; Brexit delivery was at the forefront of people’s minds; and Labour were seen as irrelevant.

Ask these same voters for positives today and, as I found last week in Wakefield, only the vaccine roll-out is voluntarily mentioned. The Brexit divided has totally diminished and while furlough is by no means a negative, people believe costs and taxes are rising as we’re forced to reckon with debts incurred.

And, of course, these rising costs – while not directly blamed on Government – are coming to dominate everyone’s minds. People are bored witless about endless media stories about parties, but terrible damage has been wrought on the Government’s reputation for competence (once strong) and trustworthiness (always shaky).

What hasn’t really changed in this time is working-class attitudes to Labour. Wakefield’s Conservative voters (recent converts from Labour) saw Starmer as weak and unprincipled. This is commonly heard. And this wasn’t even vaguely about alleged partying; by mid-week, last week, these allegations hadn’t really cut through. Their thoughts reflected a sense (fairly or not) that he offered little on Covid other than opportunistic criticism, and that he hadn’t, and couldn’t, show leadership.

If Starmer is fined and resigns, massive pressure will be heaped on Boris Johnson; the PM will look like a “wrong-un” compared to a principled Labour leadership. If Starmer isn’t fined and stays, it’s possible working-class voters will look at him differently, but my sense is they’ll just think he behaved badly anyway and got away with it. It will take more to change working-class opinion.

However, change is possible and Conservatives ought to take the prospect more seriously. For all his problems with these voters, Starmer is intelligent, he’s acted bravely with internal political decisions (totally lost on most voters) and is trying to get the party to talk about mainstream issues like tax and crime. Even a few eye-catching policies on these areas – and levelling-up, which they bizarrely continue to ignore – and it’s a different world potentially.

What can the Conservatives do to shore up their provincial support? In short, reboot levelling-up and return to the policies that secured them support in the first place.

In classic political style, we have heard little from the Government on levelling-up since the White Paper. The Prime Minister spent a lot of time in the North in the local election campaign, but we’ve heard little about the Government’s plans.

Yes, implementation will ultimately deliver votes, but currently prospective Conservative voters know nothing of their party’s ambitions – and if they don’t know about their plans, the Government risks not reaping the benefits. The Government shouldn’t discount the possibility that credit from successful implementation goes to others: councils; local businesses; local charities; and so on.

Elsewhere, I have a bad feeling about the ultimate workability of border control policies. However, in addition, the Government should be looking at policies on anti-social behaviour, welfare reform (particularly contributory welfare), justice (particularly sentencing) and healthcare. It goes without saying that they ought to be exploring every possible option to keep costs down.

In February, I wrote here that “Johnson is still viable with the public if he is constantly compared to Starmer as the alternative. Starmer has a lead, but Johnson’s negatives aren’t as serious when a choice between the two is forced.”

Since then, Johnson’s relative position has declined and he has probably passed the point of no return with too many voters. However, the fundamental point remains: Johnson v Starmer is at least a competition; it’s just that another Conservative leader might do a lot better.

James Frayne: Working class voters support Net Zero – and campaigns suggesting the contrary are misconceived.

26 Apr

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

You may well be familiar will the following argument: the Conservatives’ working-class, Leave-voting core is incandescent with rage about green taxes and charges, and want the Net Zero target scrapped. If the Government doesn’t respond, these voters will peel off to a new UKIP.

While there’s a superficial plausibility to all this, it’s completely contradicted by polling. If anything, the politicians who should be most scared of populist arguments are right-leaning, green-sceptics. For working-class Conservative voters have slowly swung behind green policies in recent times and find hostility to them strange at best, irritating at worst.

The environment has surged as an issue amongst all voter groups in the last few years. While it’s unquestionably an issue which motivates left-leaning voters and young professionals more, the environment is now at least a tier two issue for everyone – including working-class Leave voters. Yes, they care more about other issues, but they do care about the environment.

I’ve just helped complete a new research project for Onward, informing a new report addressing directly whether working-class Leave Conservatives want the party to pivot away from Net Zero – and whether a rise in the cost of living has made them hostile to the Government’s green agenda. You can read the full tables here but in this project we found the following:

– Working-class Conservatives, who are overwhelmingly Leave voters (I’ll call them “New Conservatives” for brevity) put the environment fifth in their list of national priorities, about level with crime;

– New Conservatives place the environment joint second with the NHS and housing from a list of issues facing their children and grandchildren;

– They support the Net Zero target by 53 percent -14 percent (with the rest unsure), compared to the national average of 60 percent -10 percent.

Elsewhere, we probed the electoral impact of a party committing to dump the Net Zero target. Hypothetical questions need to be placed in their proper context: they can’t be seen as predictions, but rather signifiers for people’s current attitudes. Here we found 36 percent of New Conservatives would be less likely to vote for a party who junked the target, compared to 12 percent who would be more likely to support such a party (with the rest unsure or unmoved).

When those New Conservatives who were considering voting Conservative at a future election were asked directly whether they would support the Conservatives if they junked the target, a fifth said they definitely or probably wouldn’t vote for the party. Not massive, but certainly significant.

Why have so many right-wing politicians and commentators overstated working-class opposition to environmental policies? There are two reasons.

Firstly, because they have conflated working-class interest in other issues with a lack of interest in the environment. Just because working-class voters are primarily worried about issues like the cost of living crisis or the NHS doesn’t mean they’re ambivalent about the environment. On the contrary, as we have seen, they care a great deal. In any focus groups I run on the issue, the environment always comes up and working-class voters invariably say it’s an issue they care deeply about as they fear for their children’s and grandchildren’s future. This has been true for three years, at least.

Secondly, their underestimation of working-class interest means they assume any associated costs must be deeply resented. But ordinary voters have been clobbered by a range of very serious tax rises for many years now – taxes which completely dwarf green taxes and levies. NICs have risen, council tax has risen, and more people have been dragged into higher tax bands. In addition, energy bills have rocketed. In this context, green taxes and levies appear insignificant.

Crucially, the poll shows voters remain committed to the environment generally – and to Net Zero specifically – even as fears about rising living costs grow. When I did similar polling around the time of the financial crisis, this wasn’t the case; at that time, the environment – which had surged briefly as an issue – faded away as economic concerns grew. Such has been the growth in concern about environmental issues, that isn’t now happening.

For those that work in this policy area, perhaps the most interesting data is found at the end of the poll. We tested a range of different “populist” messages designed to move voters for or against Net Zero and environmental policies. These included messages which hammered Net Zero for raising living costs, or cast doubt on the seriousness of the situation, or, conversely, which accused politicians of dragging their feet on the issue or failing to agree sufficient action. They were all harder-edged, emotional messages.

Amongst working-class, Conservative 2019 supporters, as with other voter segments, those messages which pressed for faster action and criticised politicians for failure played better. About half of New Conservatives agreed with the argument which criticised associated costs, and suggested the UK would have little impact when other countries were doing nothing. However, an outright majority (65 percent) agreed with the argument pushing the benefits of Net Zero to the UK; the same was true for an argument which used typically anti-politics messaging in support of action on the climate.

The original fieldwork for the research took place in February. Since then, living costs have risen further and the war in Ukraine has at least raised the prospect of a surge of fear about energy security. We therefore ran an additional top-up poll to see whether opinion had moved. Generally speaking, it has moved very little; if anything, people have become more positive towards green energy alternatives because they want energy generated onshore and using sustainable methods.

 It seems likely we will soon see another leadership contest. Candidates will come under pressure to soften or junk the Net Zero target. Politicians and commentators will assure them this will secure instant popularity. Regardless of the merits or otherwise from a policy perspective, purely electorally it would be counter-productive. Working-class voters – even those from the Conservatives’ Leave-voting core – simply don’t want to go down this route. No, they’re not now green voters, let alone prospective activists. However, working-class voters will ask: when there’s so much waste, and when other taxes are so high, why would you axe a policy which might actually do some good?

James Frayne: Sunak’s wealth doesn’t matter for working-class voters. His tax rises do.

12 Apr

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

English working-class voters are the Conservatives’ electoral base. They are also a group struggling badly as living costs rise. With this in mind, what do working-class voters think about class, wealth, and posh politicians?

Specifically, we should ask what they will make of coverage surrounding Rishi Sunak’s tax status and residency. Here are some thoughts from many years talking to working-class voters across England. 

1. English working-class identity is real. Class has dropped off politicians’ radar, with attention shifting to cultural identities. But class defines how vast numbers of people think about themselves, their communities and life choices.

Indeed, such is its hold, working-class identity remains strong even as wealth has spread and traditional working-class professions have changed. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what they will make of a rich Chancellor in times like these, and reasonable to ask how they will react to coverage.  

2. They respect hard-work – and therefore aspiration and deserved success. The clue is in the name: those identifying as working-class respect hard work. In doing so, they respect aspiration and success. Relatively few working-class voters share the Conservative vision of social mobility, happy as they are with their lot (economically and socially).

But they respect, for example, those who make big sacrifices to build businesses, to send their children to private schools, and so on. There is no English equivalent of the American Dream; but the English working-class aren’t hostile to those that work hard to achieve their own success or status. 

3. Unfairness drives them mad. Their respect for hard work reflects their obsession with fairness. It’s fair those that work hard succeed. Conversely, it’s unfair those that don’t want to work hard (as opposed to those who genuinely can’t) get support. It’s fair that people who can afford it are taxed more; but it’s unfair those who work hard are taxed disproportionately more. Measuring fairness is an inexact science, but it’s strongly felt. 

4. They don’t understand the rich. The English working-class have little understanding of the lives of the very rich, and particularly those whose wealth derives from finance. They don’t know who they are, what they do, where they live, where they eat, or where their kids go to school. This is crucial to understand.

After the financial crisis and the cuts that followed, much more working-class anger was directed at welfare recipients – rightly-or-wrongly perceived to be undeserving – rather than, say, “bankers”. Why? It was because seemingly claiming welfare wrongly were in their communities, while those that were primarily responsible existed only in theory and couldn’t be easily imagined. 

5. They support the royal family and accept the primary aspects of an aristocratic culture. While the English working-class admire those that achieve success by working hard, they remain supportive of the monarchy. But also accepting of the primary aspects of our aristocratic and ancient culture (the position of old public schools and universities, and so on) as being uniquely English and part of our historic legacy.

With this in mind, most working-class voters are perfectly comfortable with Etonian Prime Ministers and all the other posh politicians and bureaucrats they see on TV. They are not deferential to the English posh, but they are not hostile at all either. 

6. Their patriotism isn’t ethnically or racially defined or derived. A final brief note: while self-consciously very patriotic, and while committed to border control, the English working-class are proudly anti-racist and supportive of a multi-racial society. They actively welcome migrants from other countries who work hard – and particularly so if they build businesses and create jobs. 

What does all this mean for Rishi Sunak? 

Rishi Sunak’s wealth – and his family’s and in-laws’ wealth – is utterly irrelevant to working-class voters. His “poshness” (Winchester, essentially) is irrelevant too. Working-class voters won’t care in the slightest that he has a number of nice houses, or that he wears bespoke suits and expensive trainers. It won’t be possible to make the English working-class hate his success, to envy it or to denigrate it.

He is seen as a successful businessman, with a successful wife from a successful family. What’s to dislike? Even as the cost of living rises, they won’t care, because they will view his wealth as having been earned. 

What, though, of his and his wife’s tax affairs and the status of their nationality or residency? As businesspeople who have lived and worked abroad and (at least in his wife’s case) who have close family ties abroad. To the extent that people understand any of it, they will at least likely appreciate their personal affairs are going to be complicated. That doesn’t mean they’ll ignore it all, but it undoubtedly blunts the anger that some commentators seem convinced is there. 

It seems all of this will come out in Lord Geidt’s investigation, but Sunak’s taxes would have to look catastrophically bad for this to make people genuinely angry with him, as opposed to making them shake their heads and say “they’re all the same”. In all of this, the only thing that matters is whether it looks like he created rules – or effectively used insider / expert knowledge derived from his political position – to enrich his family.

It’s only at this point that the houses, clothes, trainers and all the rest would make much difference. But, again, despite the innuendo, there’s no evidence for this and, again, it seems extremely unlikely. 

As ever, commentators are focusing far too much on process, not issues. Rishi Sunak is extremely vulnerable amongst working-class Conservatives because their taxes are going up as costs rise and because he hasn’t sufficiently squeezed unnecessary spending and tackled waste. He is also vulnerable because he doesn’t have enough to say about their towns and the levelling-up agenda.

While he is therefore vulnerable to the allegation that he doesn’t understand working-class struggles, he is no more vulnerable than any other professional politician. In short, the danger to Rishi Sunak comes from working-class people’s taxes rather than his own. 

James Frayne: The Spring Statement. Has it made voters think that Sunak is “just another Tory”?

29 Mar

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

This last week, the media have given Rishi Sunak a kicking, and the public have followed their lead. This always happens post-financial statements, as the public rely heavily on the expert opinion they see in media coverage. 

Reflecting this, the polls following the Spring Statement have been generally negative. YouGov showed that Sunak’s ratings fell ten points between before and after the Spring Statement. Elsewhere, there are suggestions people generally don’t think the measures announced will have much impact on their lives. 

This is crucial: for some time, the polls have been showing the public believe we are entering a cost of living crisis, where rising bills and prices will put them under severe pressure. The polls have been flashing warning lights since at least the autumn. Voters don’t have much confidence that the Government can ultimately help, and don’t believe the Spring Statement was very helpful either. 

Polling from Ipsos-Mori helps clarify this. In a poll published just before the Spring Statement, nearly half of voters doubted the Government’s policies would improve the state of the economy and 60 per cent doubted they would help improve public services in the long-term. 

Comparing the Conservatives and Labour, the public are divided evenly between Johnson and Sunak or Starmer and Reeves as to who would do a better job managing the economy. The Conservatives are more trusted on growing the economy, while Labour are more trusted on the cost of living – but the numbers don’t fall decisively in any direction on any comparative question – though Ipsos-Mori have much higher ratings for Sunak. 

While YouGov’s ratings for Rishi Sunak’s look very bad, it can be said that Spring Statement didn’t make any fundamental difference to the numbers. There was certainly no re-set and the Government’s numbers continue to slowly decline (slower post-invasion), even if they look better when direct comparisons with Labour are made. The public seem resigned to their fate for the next year or two. 

What are the political implications of this? Above all, that public recognition of the scale of the crisis both limits prospective medium-term damage to the Government and their attractiveness too. Understanding the scale of our economic problems is going to limit the public’s anger with the Government. When they can see a Russian invasion and global inflationary pressures, they won’t blame politicians as quickly or simply as they might. 

However, if the public don’t think Sunak or the Conservatives can make much difference, then it might make a Labour vote seem less risky. In the pandemic, the Government’s economic polling numbers went up because they were seen to be in control and certainly a more attractive option than Labour. This no longer appears to be the case. For the first time, Rishi Sunak is increasingly being viewed as “just another Tory”, and seeing his polling numbers decline with the rest of his party’s. 

Only a “kitchen sink” strategy would make much difference – chucking everything at the problem. Sunak has seemingly partially accepted this. The Spring Statement went for breadth, not depth; he made lots of small-ish announcements designed to show the Government was doing its best on a range of issues. The problem for him is that the public don’t believe the Government has lifted the kitchen sink, let alone thrown it. 

While the Chancellor is clearly right to manage public expectations, it’s hard not to think again about the issue that I raised in the autumn: the need to focus on waste. I wrote at the time: “So why look at Government waste now? Fundamentally, because it’s vital – in the context of a high tax economy and squeezed living standards – that voters see the Government go through a process of actively considering and cutting unnecessary spending wherever they can before retaining high taxes or considering new ones.” I still find it baffling the Treasury hasn’t pursued this. We should expect Labour to try to own it in the next few months.  

In the pandemic, normal political business was suspended. The truth is, it still is. It is perfectly possible that we will see further significant financial measures announced soon; the Government doesn’t always have to wait for its major formal moments to announce new policy. Sunak can therefore be expected to do more at some point. The Government ought to be working on a kitchen sink strategy, with waste central. Without it, they will not turn things around. 

James Frayne: The Ukraine Crisis. Has it saved Johnson’s bacon?

15 Mar

Two weeks ago, polls showed the British public favoured tough sanctions on Russia. Indeed, they favoured tougher sanctions than the government was then implementing. But they also opposed direct involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. They expected the war to affect them personally and for life to become more difficult. There was also no discernible impact on electoral politics. How has opinion moved since then?

YouGov’s excellent conflict polling shows people appear more resigned to the war affecting their own lives. Very large majorities think energy and food prices will rise and a majority thinks taxes will rise too. Shockingly, a significant minority – 21% – even believes a nuclear attack is likely (although the gender gap here is remarkable, with women thinking an atomic strike is much more probable). Separately, consumer confidence is dropping and there is evidence the public are becoming unhappy and anxious.

It’s hard to say but attitudes on sanctions seem to be hardening. By 67% to 10%, people don’t believe Western countries are doing enough – via sanctions, supplying weapons, and other means – to stop Russia winning the war. Admittedly, this is a slightly different question than “do you support sanctions?”, but there nonetheless remains scepticism about anything that might drag NATO countries into direct confrontation with Russia. By 39% to 28%, people oppose trying to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, with the rest unsure.

Presumably, as people have watched horrifying pictures of refugees fleeing their homes, threatened by death or injury as they do, the number of British people agreeing we should set up a scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees has risen. Whereas it was 63% a fortnight ago, it is 75% now. Similarly, the number of refugees people think Britain should accept has risen. Two weeks ago, just 15% said we should settle a few hundreds of thousands (with most saying we should accept fewer): it has now reached 25%.

Unsurprisingly, and of a piece with practically every recent poll, Ipsos-Mori have the public divided on how the Government has handled the crisis. 36% say the Government has done a good job, compared to 26% who say it has done badly (with 31% saying neither). There are similar numbers for Boris Johnson’s handling of the crisis.

As trivial as this might seem against the enormity of the tragedy in Ukraine, this does provide an opportunity to deal with the distasteful question of the war’s impact on electoral politics. Nobody said analysing public opinion was glamorous.

Practically all the polls were heading in the wrong direction for the Government a few weeks ago. Although the picture is complex and changing, the bottom line appears to be that the crisis has halted the slide in the Government’s and the PM’s ratings.

Caveated by the fact it is too early to say whether this is a meaningful trend, we can see the following: Government approval ratings and the PM’s ratings are no longer falling. Alongside this, the gap between Johnson and Starmer on who would make the best PM and the gap between the Conservatives and Labour on headline voting intention has been narrowing (although the last poll showed a minor increase in Labour’s lead, which might be a blip).

On the publication of new polling, Ipsos-Mori made a similar point, pointing out Boris Johnson’s personal ratings have risen to “pre partygate levels”, along with his scores on various personality traits. Compared to February, Johnson achieves increases across being ‘good in a crisis’ (+4pts), a ‘strong leader’ (+4pts), a ‘capable leader’ (+5pts), putting country first (+6pts), paying attention to detail (+4pts) and being a ‘Prime Minister I am proud of’ (+4 pts).” (Interestingly, Redfield & Wilton show the opposite).

What can we conclude from all this? Three things stand out.

Firstly, on the crisis specifically, the public are settling into a firm position of: sanctions yes, direct conflict no. The fact there were such high numbers saying “don’t know” on the issue of the no-fly zone might imply an increasing understanding of the dangers of escalating our military presence. Two weeks ago, while people were cautious about direct involvement, they appeared to have no real sense of the limits of what the Russians might tolerate. After Putin’s effective nuclear threat, people are much more cautious about poking the bear.

Secondly, politically-speaking, the Government and the PM are thought to be handling this well. It’s not credible to imagine the crisis would turn politics on its head; the discontent expressed in the Government’s and the PM’s ratings this winter was so dramatic that a full recovery was never going to happen. The fact the ratings slide has stopped implies significant public approval.

Whether this trend continues is hard to say. Currently, it seems likely that they will have closed the gap for the medium-term. As I have said previously, while I doubt the PM can turn things round, there is a path.

Thirdly, on issues, the public might no longer so intensely blame the Government for a decline in living standards. We’re miles away from being able to say for sure, but as the public are saying very clearly that they expect energy and food costs to rise, and given their support for sanctions, it’s possible they will conclude that global events and trends are to blame – and not the Government.

Had the crisis not happened, the Government would not unreasonably have argued rising costs were a global phenomenon post-Covid. But it’s hard to imagine this would have cut through. This conflict will now make people listen to this point more carefully. We’ll see where this goes, but, if the view that the squeeze is unavoidable takes hold, it will massively strengthen the Government’s hand. Incidentally, it will also do Rishi Sunak’s personal ambitions no harm.

James Frayne: Can Johnson survive as Prime Minister? Here’s what the polls tell us.

15 Feb

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

In June 2019, I analysed Boris Johnson’s polling numbers in detail in this column. You can read it here.

Given we regularly hear Johnson is irrevocably damaged amongst voters, it is helpful to repeat the exercise. So, what do the polls show? With the voters, is it all over?

Should he resign?

Starting with the most current question: should the PM resign? In the middle of January, YouGov showed by 64 per cent to 20 per cent people thought Johnson should resign. Only the scale of this result is important; like favourability, this is a question which invites partisanship and prime ministers are often in negative territory.

YouGov ran this question from his earliest days as PM, showing more people wanted him to remain as PM until the summer of 2021, when the numbers changed and where they have stayed ever since. Those identifying as Conservative changed their mind – saying he should resign – in January; working-class voters changed their mind in November.

A useful reality check, however: not everyone thinks he’s doing a bad job. In January, YouGov published a poll of party members showing they thought he should stay by 59-34; by 61-38 members said he was doing a good job as PM.

Performance as PM

On the straight question about performance: on January 13, YouGov showed people thought Johnson was doing badly rather than well as PM by 73-22. (Again, only the scale of the result is important.) He slipped into negative territory with those identifying as Conservative in December and in January he was in negative territory by 50-46.

At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed people were dissatisfied rather than satisfied at Johnson’s performance by 70-24. In early February, Deltapoll showed the public thought Johnson was doing badly by 68-29.

Johnson v Starmer

Although it’s all relative, Johnson’s numbers look better when he is compared directly with Keir Starmer. Deltapoll had Johnson and Starmer effectively tied on who would make the best PM at the start of this month (36-35 in favour of Starmer).

Other polls show a larger Starmer lead. Currently, YouGov’s tracker shows more people say Starmer would make a better PM than Johnson by 35-25 (the numbers saying “don’t know” are very high). Ipsos-Mori’s “Political Monitor” at the end of January put Starmer ahead on who would make the most capable PM by 49-31.

The nature of these results suggest Starmer’s lead reflects the deterioration in Johnson’s position, rather than people coming round to Starmer: Johnson had a consistent lead for a long period, until November 2021 when things started to go badly for Johnson and Starmer’s own favourability ratings are also in negative territory (in January, he was viewed unfavourably by 52-33; Deltapoll has a negative rating for Starmer but it’s smaller).

Ipsos-Mori’s recent February “UK Political Pulse” research compared Johnson and Starmer on a range of attributes, asking whether particular attributes “applied” to either. Johnson scored positively on “he has a lot of personality”, and negatively on everything else – particularly on honesty, attention to detail, whether he is in touch with ordinary people, and whether puts the needs of the country first. Starmer scored positively on “understands the problems facing Britain”, on capability, and whether he puts the needs of the country first.

Johnson v Sunak

YouGov’s members’ poll in January revealed that 46 per cent of members think Rishi Sunak would make a better PM than Johnson, compared to 16 per cent who think he would be worse and 30 per cent who think he would be much the same.

Arguably this is encouraging for Johnson: 46 per cent think Sunak would be better, while 46 per cent think Sunak would be the same or worse. For Liz Truss, the figures were 39/ 22/ 27 per cent respectively.

Ipsos Mori’s UK Political Pulse also compared Johnson to Sunak on a list of possible attributes. Sunak outperformed Johnson almost across the board (Johnson scored positively on personality, unlike Sunak). Sunak performed particularly positively on attention to detail, understands the problems facing Britain and good in a crisis. He performed badly on “in touch with ordinary people” and polled disappointingly on strength and capability.

The same Deltapoll results that gave Johnson a negative rating on job performance of -39 gave Sunak a positive rating of +21. It appears that a close link with Sunak drags Johnson up: Deltapoll had a particularly interesting question on whether people thought Johnson & Sunak or Starmer & Rachel Reeves would be better for the economy; it was essentially a dead heat, with people choosing Johnson and Sunak by 39-38.

Johnson v his predecessors

A number of pollsters have looked at Johnson’s ratings compared to previously unpopular prime ministers. At the end of January, Ipsos-Mori showed his ratings on satisfaction as PM were now -46, which, they wrote, roughly matched Theresa May’s negative ratings, but were not as bad as John Major’s in August 1994 (-59). They are similar to Tony Blair at his least popular and to Gordon Brown’s in 2008/09.

Competence, decisiveness, strength

YouGov have been running a tracker on perceptions of his competence since he became PM. His numbers began climbing from walking into No 10 and after prorogation and his December 2019 election win climbed into positive territory for the first time – ie more people viewed him as competent than incompetent (43-41).

His competence numbers peaked in the early days of the pandemic (55-31), but headed back into negative territory in June 2020. They have been there ever since, although perceptions of incompetence grew sharply last summer and the last figures, for the end of December, showed the public viewed him as incompetent by 64-22. YouGov’s tracker on “decisivenessshows a similar pattern: his positive numbers climbed sharply in the early days and he sustained positive figures in the early days on the pandemic.

They then fell and sharply deteriorated from the autumn of 2020. As of the end of December they stood as 71-16 negative-positive. And the “strength” tracker is also similar, although perceptions of strength held up longer. As of December they stood at 59-23 weak-strong.

Likeability, trustworthiness

YouGov’s tracker on “likeabilityhas generally had Johnson in positive territory and his numbers were pretty consistent. In December 2021, he hit negative territory for the first time since his early days (51-36 dislikeable-likeable). YouGov’s tracker on “trustworthinesshas always had him in negative territory, but in December this reached 69-15.

What can we conclude from all this?

First, that Johnson is still viable with the public if he is constantly compared to Starmer as the alternative. Starmer has a lead, but Johnson’s negatives aren’t as serious when a choice between the two is forced.

Second, that a close association to Sunak will drag him up by essentially having Sunak fill in his gaps. Against the backdrop of a weak economy, forcing a choice between Johnson and Sunak and Starmer and Reeves looks fruitful.

However, it’s hard to know whether the benefits of such an approach could last. Not only would this effectively launch Starmer and Reeves amongst many voters – who might be reassured at what they see (they’re clearly getting their act together and articulating increasingly sensible positions) – but it might also further raise Sunak’s profile and make people (particularly Conservatives) ask whether it might be better if the Chancellor was the one in No 10.

Two other conclusions come to mind. Third, that, as a PM about to enter a set of serious crises (Russia, most obviously), Johnson has the ability to boost his numbers on competence, decisiveness and strength.

Fourth, if there’s one thing the PM is good at, it’s making people like him; this is his superpower.

In summary, while it’s difficult to say he’s not finished with the public, and while there is at least one big event that could just end it all overnight, there is at least a pathway for his near-term survival.

James Frayne: If Conservatives are serious about levelling-up, here’s what they need to focus on

1 Feb

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

The Conservatives should aspire to be a national party for those who work hard, but its future powerbase should lie in provincial Britain. With the publication of the Levelling-Up White Paper this week we’ll get a sense for whether this is a viable ambition.

Since Michael Gove and Neil O’Brien took over levelling-up strategy – with a new Department under their management – the Government has been asking the right questions and saying the right things. The white paper will reflect this.

We need to be realistic about its contents. While there’ll surely be new policy announcements, white papers are essentially strategy documents and it’s likely to feel such. The backdrop to the launch is a weak economy and massive accumulated debt; we therefore obviously won’t see huge sums of new money. That’s not terminal: what matters more is how Government money is diverted to this strategy from other places.

The pre-briefing has been encouraging: the Government is said to be encouraging greater devolution, shifting more Government jobs outside London, and rebalancing spending on culture across the country. It’s hard to imagine there won’t be new policies on high streets, crime and anti-social behaviour and skills and retraining; these are the public’s priorities. We’ll know tomorrow.

However, those of us that believe in a provincial pivot will be asking a more fundamental question: does it look like levelling-up is going to be the admirable work of one small Government Department, or does it look like levelling-up will define the Government’s economic and social policies for the next decade? While we’ll certainly get a sense for the answer tomorrow, we’ll only know for sure later in the year.

We’ll judge the Government on both style and substance. Thinking about style first, if a provincial pivot is going to happen, we should expect the language of levelling-up to begin to dominate the way Conservatives talk about the economy – most obviously in future Budgets. To date, there have been mixed signals. In some ways, the party has gone backwards in recent years; when Nick Timothy was in No 10, with the Government’s talk of an industrial strategy, it felt like the provincial economy was in the mainstream of Government thinking. We need the same again now.

Similarly, as the Government talks about levelling-up as if its integral to economic policy, we should hopefully hear less about the extremes of provincial economic failure. To be clear, there are parts of the country – particularly in the post-industrial North – which certainly need economic and social help. But these areas need special attention; they should not define the Government’s overall economic and social mission. Levelling-up should be about Derby as much as it should be about Redcar.

Thinking about substance, beyond what the Government announces in the white paper, if the Conservatives are serious about levelling-up, two policy streams come immediately to mind, which I have written about here briefly before.

First, radical devolution – not just local control over spending decisions, but over tax-raising and, crucially, tax-cutting powers. From the pre-briefing, it seems devolution will be a big part of the white paper; while it seems unlikely that they will recommend what we might call “American-style federalism”, we should hope there are signs this is the direction of travel.

Second, substantially, a new focus on HE and FE. Too many Conservatives pointlessly trash HE, arguing that too many young people go to university and that there are too many courses. Too often, this doesn’t sound like a policy position, just pointless moaning. If we’re going to successfully level-up the country, we need an expansion of both HE and FE so that there are more high-qualified people ready to work in areas where the economy is weak. Dominic Cummings was briefly all over this at No 10; it needs renewed attention.

The publication of the white paper ought to be the beginning of a process, not the end; it should mark the start of a provincial pivot in earnest. With the party’s track record, it’s hard not to worry: the party has a tendency to think that a few announcements mean that a policy stream is “done” – and on to the next thing. You can imagine that levelling-up slowly loses steam, with the Department wrapped-up into another. It’s vital that this doesn’t happen.