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Westlake Legal Group > Far from Notting Hill

James Frayne: Why the Conservatives must go negative on Corbyn

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

Should the Conservatives go negative on Corbyn at the next election? After all, a reasonable argument goes, the Party went hard against Corbyn last time and it made no difference; arguably, it was even counter-productive. Why would it be different now? In my view, they’d be mad not to make him a defining feature of their campaign. There are five reasons why.
Firstly, and most importantly, Corbyn’s reputation is in a totally different place to 2017. While it’s true his initial ratings were poor and then surged during the campaign in 2017, it’s highly unlikely the same would happen again. Then, he was essentially an unknown entity and he was introduced to the public amid combat with a desperately poor Conservative candidate. He quickly emerged as a plucky fighter against the apparently unstoppable May-led Conservative Government.

In 2019, people know much more about him and they dislike what they see. Even left-leaning voters have tired of him – believing he can’t hold the Government to account. The Party needs to remind people they’re choosing between specific prime ministerial candidates and specific potential governments. In doing so, there’s less of a risk of creating a unifying force around Corbyn. That doesn’t mean trying to turn the election into a quasi-presidential race – as Boris Johnson is hardly a unifying candidate – but it does mean that the party should be running a contrast campaign with “Corbyn’s Labour”.

Secondly, relatedly, he’s incredibly unpopular with working class swing voters. I’m not entirely sure why, but around a year ago Corbyn’s ratings went off a cliff. They’d been sliding slowly but surely since 2017, but something really changed a year ago. Perhaps it was related to antisemitism, perhaps also to exasperation with the lack of progress on Brexit. As I wrote last time, I’m nervous the Conservatives haven’t done enough to secure the votes of the Midlands and Northern working class (and I’m more nervous having spent much of the week in inner-city Nottingham and Derby). But with Corbyn leading the Labour Party – and the Conservatives making him the only face of the Party – they stand a much better chance of converting these voters.

Thirdly, the Party must ensure he plays the role of a useful prop in their anti-establishment / anti-politics campaign. Last time around, the Conservatives failed to portray the new PM as a change candidate and they paid a heavy price. The public still want change. While the Conservatives can demonstrate change through issues to a degree (tougher crime policies etc), they also need to use the relative character strengths of Boris Johnson against Jeremy Corbyn. In short, people think Boris Johnson is a different sort of politician – someone who’s prepared to smash the system up to deliver change. (Time will tell how much slack the public will cut him for his missed deadline; I think a little).

On the other hand, increasingly Corbyn is looking like “just another politician” who talks in riddles, who doesn’t stand for anything and who you can’t trust. As such, the Conservatives need to endlessly contrast what amounts to “change versus more of the same”. This amounts to a total reversal on 2017 when Corbyn was the anti-politics candidate.

Fourthly, Corbyn is one of the only politicians the public knows, other than Diane Abbott. A very small number of people know about John McDonnell but the rest are unknown. The Conservatives have to focus on Corbyn just to secure traction. There’s no way they can start introducing new politicians to the public at this late stage. Furthermore, the fact remains that Labour’s reputation generally far, far outperforms that of Corbyn. It would make no sense to focus on the Labour Party when the public – including working class swing voters – hold Labour in ultimately pretty high regard.

Fifthly, and finally, the Labour Party will surely be trying to diversify their spokespeople in the next campaign. They’re not stupid; they know they need to promote other voices when Corbyn’s ratings are so poor. In doing so, in using the likes of Angela Rayner and even John McDonnell (who performs well in the media even if his views, were they known, would make many voters queasy) they’re likely to perform better. In turn, the Conservatives will need to stop them doing this and to ensure the public keep picturing Corbyn’s face when they think of Labour.

In short, while there’s a case both that the Conservatives just run a campaign focused entirely on issues (“get Brexit done with us”) or that they sign some positive campaigning pledge, these are outweighed by the need to make this election all about Corbyn.


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Iain Dale: Johnson is in a position to win an election – and may not get another chance to do so for quite some time

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

As I write this on Thursday afternoon, Boris Johnson has announced he will put a motion to Parliament for a general election to be called for December 12th. This would be the first December election since 1923, which produced a hung Parliament. Gulp.

If this is to be a Brexit election, the Conservative strategists need to devise a campaign which cannot be thrown off balance by Labour doing what they did in 2017, and campaign on anything other than Brexit. Admittedly, Theresa May gave them ample excuse to do that.

We keep hearing that the Prime Minister’s advisers were divided on the question of when to hold an election. The traditional Conservatives, led by Sir Eddie Lister, wanted to fight it after Brexit has been delivered whereas the Vote Leave gang, under Dominic Cummings want to make it a People v Parliament election – which by definition is rendered rather pointless if we have already left the EU during any extension which the EU grants.

The Lister argument is not persuasive to many people for the simple reason that no one ever thanks a government for what it has done, no matter how successful it is. They want to know what you’re going to do next.

Winston Churchill found out this political truth the hard way in July 1945. Attlee stormed to victory. I have little doubt that the Tories are currently in a good place to win an immediate election. That opportunity may not arise again for some time.

I have little doubt that many Labour MPs will vote against an election on the basis that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Jeremy Corbyn is in a very difficult position, since he keeps saying how much he wants an election, and would definitely vote for one once an extension to Article 50 is granted – which is presumably will be today (Friday).

The only possible reason he could surely give for not agreeing to an election is that a No Deal Brexit can’t be ruled out in December 2020, at the end of the Transition Period. I can’t believe that will wash with anyone apart from diehard Remainers.

– – – – – – – – – –

What is a true conservative? And note the small ‘c’. On this week’s Delingpod you’ll find a 75 minute chat between James Delingpole and myself in which he accuses me of not being a proper conservative and being a bit ‘squishy’. I am apparently not ‘sound’ enough on the key issues that matter to ‘proper’ conservatives, apparently.

Who knew? I don’t really like labels, and while I self-identify as a conservative, I also hold a lot of liberal views. I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. You can be a fiscal conservative at the same time as being a social liberal.

– – – – – – – – – –

I really should know better. On Tuesday night, I was on a Newsnight panel which included the rather impressive Liam Thorp, political editor of the Liverpool Echo. Emily Maitlis threw him a question about Boris Johnson, and he immediately launched into a little spiel about how the city of Liverpool expects him to apologise for what he published (but didn’t write) about Liverpool 15 years ago.

I interjected. “He already has done; how many apologies would you like him to make?” Liam retorted that since he was now Prime Minister he should apologise again, this time from the Dispatch Box. I’m not sure the camera caught my eye-roll. Anyway, I thought little more of it until my Twitter timeline started to fill up with Outraged of Croxteth calling me all the names under the sun.

Calm down, calm down, I thought, channelling my inner Harry Enfield. (Bugger, I’ve done it again, haven’t I?). The next morning someone alerted me to a follow-up article Liam had written for his newspaper, which carried the headline…

“LBC radio host’s Newsnight jibe at Liverpool over Boris apology call – Iain Dale suggested the Prime Minister doesn’t need to say sorry, but here’s why we say he’s wrong”

Liam publicised it by tweeting: “No offence to Iain – but his comments about Boris Johnson and Liverpool show he doesn’t understand the hurt caused to this fine city.

And all because of one, brief interjection. Bloody hell, he came to a lot of conclusions based on that, didn’t he? I then rather stupidly responded: “Nothing Boris Johnson could ever say would satisfy you. He didn’t even write the editorial, yet you think he should wear sackcloth and ashes 15 years on. You’d do better to write about how a Labour council has consistently failed Liverpool. That’s the real scandal.”

I’ve experienced the wrath of the scouser on a couple of other occasions, so I don’t know why I should be surprised by the reaction. Yesterday morning I even get an email from the Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson wanting to debate the whole issue on my radio show.

I politely declined, given what I knew would be the inevitable response. I have absolutely nothing against Liverpool as a city, or indeed its people. But I have the right to express the view that the Adelphi Hotel, when I stayed in it in 2011 was one of the worst hotels I have ever stayed in. I have a right to say that I like Glasgow as a city better than  Liverpool.

People can disagree with me, but no one is going to shut me up. And, no, I don’t believe Johnson owes Liverpool a repeated apology. There are plenty in the queue for one ahead of Liverpool, I suspect!

I also suspect that my new book The Big Book of Boris – a collection of Borisisms – might not make it into the Liverpool branch of Waterstone’s.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: Voters would welcome a Brexit deal. But it might harm and not help the Conservatives with working class voters.

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

You can’t credibly poll how people might think or feel in the future. We can’t therefore know what the public will think if Boris Johnson secures a deal that looks vaguely similar to Theresa May’s.

But there’s been enough polling to guess. It’s reasonable to assume – hardcore Remainers aside – most voters will be so relieved it’s nearly over they’ll back a deal regardless of any friendly fire from Eurosceptics or Unionists. The Conservatives’ conference slogan – ‘Get Brexit Done’ – perfectly summed up what most people think about the whole thing. It also seems reasonable to assume most people would be exasperated and angry with those standing in the way of a deal – and there’ll likely be little interest in a betrayal narrative from eurosceptic purists.

The next stage in the electoral cycle writes itself: Boris Johnson’s ratings rise as a Prime Minister that delivers on his word, and the Conservative Party’s ratings rise too; Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage look irrelevant; and the Liberal Democrats’ position as a vehicle for disaffected middle-class Remainers is threatened as the world moves on. What do the Lib Dems stand for at that point? Amid the wreckage, Johnson at some point runs a short campaign securing a workable majority, and the Party goes back to the happy days of 2015 when it looked briefly truly ascendant.

While there’s a clear political logic to all this, delivery of a deal at least raises the prospect that the Conservative Party could become a victim of its own success on Brexit with a big chunk of its coalition. What if delivering Brexit ended up costing it working class votes?

As I’ve been arguing for the last few months here, the Conservatives’ hold on working class voters is extremely precarious. Depending on which polls you look at, the Conservatives are currently on course to secure between a third and a half of the working class vote. And working class voters have been coming over to the Party slowly for the last decade.

But they have come over overwhelmingly because of Brexit and immigration – and the Conservatives’ relative position on these issues compared to Labour. Amongst working class voters, there’s no love for the Party and there’s precious little for Boris Johnson either. The Conservatives are seen as a useful vehicle for their views on Brexit and immigration – as well as taxation and welfare. There’s no cultural affinity to those they see as “posh Tories”.

The fact is that, over the last three years, the Conservatives have talked obsessively about working class voters without doing much for them. The Conservatives’ working class strategy has amounted to little more than people saying they have one. Until Johnson became Prime Minister, the only thing the Party really did in recent times for working class voters was pledge to increase NHS spending. He has transformed the Party’s approach – as yesterday’s Queen’s Speech showed. Under him, it has pledged further funds to the NHS, schools and the police, and promised to end automatic early release of prisoners and paved the way for a points-based immigration system. It has also promised new funds for towns.

This is all progress and should not be under-estimated. But imagine that Brexit was “done”, would these things be enough to keep working class voters onside? Would they actually think that, now Brexit’s done and immigration back under control, that they can return to their natural home in the Labour Party? After all, Labour will be chucking a lot more cash about even than the Conservatives.

We don’t know the answer to this, and we won’t until Brexit is resolved. My sense is that, as long as Jeremy Corbyn is leader of the Labour Party, even a halfway decent campaign on working class priorities will carry a big proportion of the working class vote.

However, my sense is also that the Party has done so little of recent practical benefit to working class voters, that Brexit and immigration done, a change anytime soon in the Labour leader to someone even vaguely moderate and competent would be a disaster for the Conservatives. The announcements that Johnson has made recently have been spot on, but they’ve come so late in the day there’s a chance they won’t filter through in time, and certainly a big chance that nothing will be felt on the ground in working class communities.

There are two implications from all this. The first is that the Party needs to view the Queen’s Speech as being the beginning of a major campaign to create a working class base that currently doesn’t exist. Similar sorts of policy announcements must follow in coming months, and obviously above all during the election campaign.

Just as the saner parts of the Labour Party are obsessing over provincial English towns (although bizarrely they’re still threatening to raise their taxes), so the Conservatives must develop the same obsession. Amongst other things, to do this they must re-form old alliances with the business community in provincial England to help them create a credible supporter base (admittedly a longer-term goal). This will likely be their starting point for the growth of a working class activist base.

The second implication is that the Party needs to look to build bridges with the middle class Remainers that have recently left the Party (or been removed from it). With the working class vote far from assured, the Party needs all the support it can get. The Party should be thinking of policies that appeal directly to middle class professionals – childcare, workplace, personal finance – that don’t risk any interference with their messages to the working class. And there should be a pathway back for MPs like David Gauke.

Time will tell, but it could be that the high watermark of the Conservatives’ attractiveness to working class voters was the autumn of 2019 – when the Party was led by a PM that would apparently do anything to deliver Brexit, amid hostile opposition from all sides. What better rallying call to the working class than to say “vote Conservative and get Brexit done”? The Party needs to do a lot more for working class voters – and very fast – so it can say “vote Conservative because we got Brexit done”.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

James Frayne: An election is coming. Here are the messages – beyond Brexit – that the Conservatives need to win it.

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

Let’s assume an election soon. While the Conservatives are surely finished if they don’t go into the campaign as the clear choice for Brexit voters, this won’t be enough to secure a majority. The next election will not be a re-run of the referendum: people will be make their final decision on a broad range of issues. It’ll fundamentally be like any other election.

Last time around, the Conservatives slipped up badly with prospective voters. This has been endlessly discussed but three mistakes still stand out: firstly, they made no effort to own the “change” narrative even though public demands for change must have been clearly audible in their focus groups; secondly, they angered vast numbers of people by suggesting those that had lived a careful and modest life – owning a house with savings – should be punished with massive social care costs; and, thirdly, the threat to raise people’s taxes was mad. Brexit aside, there was comparatively little to attract working class and lower middle class swing voters – which explains the party’s patchy performance amongst them.

Politics is so volatile it’s hard to predict where the Conservatives’ relative strengths and weaknesses will be in a week, let alone two months. As I write, the weakness of Corbyn’s Labour and the lack of a powerful and credible anti-Brexit party means the prospects for the Conservatives look good. However, the Party still has vulnerabilities it must address fast. I won’t dwell on the obvious – like the NHS (and the text on that bus) – and instead look at those areas that haven’t received the political attention they deserve. And I’ll look at vulnerabilities amongst the working class and lower middle class of provincial England – who the Party needs to turn out in massive numbers and where this column has always focused.

Everyday life in England’s towns. In focus groups I’ve moderated in recent times, I’ve been struck by how people across provincial England are in despair about the state and prospects of their towns and suburbs. We’re a country that enjoys self-deprecation about our own backyards. But pessimism has intensified recently. People have come to terms with industrial decline as time has passed, but bad memories are returning now they’re witnessing the rapid decline of their town centres – as shops, pubs and services close, as anti-social behaviour and crime increase, as aggressive begging comes to small towns from cities, as visible drug use rises, and as more and more kids leave school and college with few local career prospects.

The Conservatives recently pledged new funds to support British high streets. This shows they’re hearing something. But they need to be careful not to misread or underplay what’s really being said. People don’t look at their town centres and just think: “we need more shops”; in fact, many people think high street shops are a rip-off, open at stupidly inconvenient times, and have a tiny range of interesting or useful goods. Rather, above all, the residents of these towns want to feel like they live in a proper community. They want safe and clean streets, integrated populations, free and cheap leisure facilities and parks, buzzing high streets and nice, affordable local pubs. The question the Conservatives need to answer is not “how do you save the high street?”, but “how do you improve everyday life in provincial towns?” It’s a completely different question. (And the Party’s approach to crime should be framed partly through improving communities, not just, say, dealing with serious violence).

People know the answer does not lie in simply throwing huge amounts of cash at these places. But, in the absence of ideas, the Conservatives are highly vulnerable to a Labour offer of vast new spending on things like public transport, libraries, parks, leisure centres, social housing, homeless shelters, drug rehabilitation programmes, community integration programmes, youth clubs, CCTV, policing and security guards and so on. The Conservatives need to think about the challenges of living happily in these towns, not narrowly around simply more shops or more police.

The party of the rich. When the audiences we’re thinking about here are asked about the Conservatives, one thing always comes up: “they’re the party of the rich, while Labour are the party of the working class”. This perception has been widespread for years, and the recent defection of working class voters from Labour to the Conservatives has barely changed this fact. Boris Johnson’s only mis-step in his leadership campaign was to give disproportionate attention to tax paid by higher earners and he is lucky this was barely noticed by the electorate. The Conservatives need to ensure they do everything possible to avoid looking like they’re a party of the rich, for the rich. (Incidentally, it doesn’t matter necessarily that Boris Johnson is rich and posh).

What does this mean in practice? A few obvious ones, which they surely won’t get wrong: target tax cuts on working class and lower middle class voters and don’t talk about helping higher earners; don’t ever talk about the benefits of private education; and ensure there are enough spokespeople from ordinary backgrounds.

But there are some less obvious ones, too: don’t focus economic and social policies purely on the poorest, which sends the message to working class and lower middle class audiences that they in turn must be rich; be careful about how you talk about aspiration, which can seem you’re saying their lives are substandard; and carve out some specific tax cuts directly targeted on the lives of working class and lower middle class voters (tax is really rising up the public’s list of priorities, incidentally, which I will write about in more detail here soon).

Education for all. (I should point out that my agency Public First has worked for many clients in the education world. Here, our work for Pearson and Universities UK is relevant.) The Conservatives’ reputation as the party of the rich is usually undeserved, but there are times, because relatively few of their senior team come from ordinary backgrounds, where they unintentionally make it look like they live on another planet. Two issues stand out, one specific and one general.

Firstly, in an act of breath-taking political stupidity, the Department for Education is consulting on the de-funding of the best known and respected vocational qualification, the BTEC. To be clear, this would mean telling the vast numbers of young people currently studying for BTECs that their courses are essentially worthless and introducing a new system that would make many of their chosen careers impossible. (James Kirkup of the Social Market Foundation wrote about this for the Spectator recently). Secondly, more generally, the Party still gives off the sense that it considers the expansion of universities to have been a mistake and that most students of newer universities are wasting their time.

The Conservatives should certainly be promoting academic excellence and indeed elite education where appropriate. In fact, I believe they should do this far more explicitly than they ever have done. But this does not mean they should not be promoting education for all – high quality education for those with differing interests and with different levels of academic ability. They should be on the side of educational progress and achievement full stop. Working class and lower middle class audiences will not mind if the Government promotes elite education for those that will thrive in such institutions (they have no hostility to these people) but they will mind if it looks like the Party wilfully opposes or misunderstands those institutions and courses that enable them to improve their children’s lives. (Personally, I would have focused on this way more than on things like teachers’ pay, which never comes up amongst ordinary voters).

Rewarding hard work. Over the last decade, and particularly under George Osborne’s time as Chancellor, the Conservatives began to establish a lead over Labour as the party that rewarded hard work. In focus groups I’ve run in the last few years, working class and lower middle class voters have consistently fumed at Labour’s excessively generous attitude to welfare and talked positively about Conservative welfare reforms (yes, including Universal Credit). Such is the strength of feeling on this issue, the Conservatives emphatically must not consider their lead secure and their reforms effectively banked with the public. And they must not confuse media criticism of UC with public opposition; the two are different. They must look at how to double down on their recent progress and take this further. The most obvious place to look is at introducing a much greater contributory element to the welfare state (another declaration of interest: Public First is working for the Centre for Policy Studies on creating such a system).

Ownership of the change narrative. Last time around, it seems likely that the Conservatives underplayed the change narrative because Theresa May was a new Prime Minister that theoretically embodied change. That wasn’t enough and it won’t be enough for the Conservatives this time around. Boris Johnson is seen as a different sort of politician and his early start has sent shockwaves through the political system. But, again, it’s vital that the Conservatives keep up the pace. Johnson has been around now on the frontline of British politics for over a decade and the Conservatives have been in power for nearly a decade. Many of their most visible politicians have also been around a long time. As a Government and Party, they look comparatively new but not absolutely so. They should be rolling out new faces consistently in coming weeks. Their general rhetoric – and how they package both fights and positive announcements – should focus on how they’re changing the political system as we know it. Before I bored everyone to death about the importance of lower middle class and working class voters, I used to bore people about the need to harness anti-politics as a force for change. Now is the time to do this in earnest.

In very difficult circumstances over the last few weeks, Johnson’s Government has not put a foot wrong politically. His team know the path to political and electoral success is extremely narrow, though, and it will be hard to deliver. In the next few weeks they’ll need to raise their game even further.

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James Frayne: The new Prime Minister won’t triumph on Leave votes alone. Here’s how he can win some Remain supporters over.

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

It’s not impossible that the Conservatives will need to fight both a general election and a referendum in the next year. It was therefore vital that the Party picked a candidate with a record of successful campaigning – and who believes in the Brexit cause. Jeremy Hunt ran a decent campaign and deserves a serious job, but Party members have chosen the right candidate.

While I’ve been making the case for Boris Johnson’s appointment on these pages for two years, his arrival in Number Ten complicates the Conservatives’ electoral strategy – and the Party must be considering how best to adapt it. They should be exploring full, Clinton-style triangulation.

I stress “explore” because the truth is, we don’t have a clue about where public opinion is at the moment. It would be an understatement to say the polls are a mess. We only know a few things: that the public remains completely divided on Brexit; that the broad Conservative base (activists plus regular voters) has fractured since the Government missed its own self-imposed Brexit deadlines; that there is a risk this broad base will remain fractured if the Government doesn’t deliver Brexit “on time” (although this timetable is probably more flexible than people have said), and that, until recently, the Party has been polling strongly amongst working class and lower middle class Leave voters in the Midlands and North – more so than amongst Remain voters in large cities and across the South.

Everything else is clouded in doubt. As Johnson arrives with his Eurosceptic reputation, we don’t know, for example, if the Southern and urban Remainers who have reluctantly stuck with the Conservatives will now peel off in great numbers to the Lib Dems; we don’t know if Johnson’s record will be enough to keep Midlands and Northern working class and lower middle class Leavers onside, or whether they will be watching the antics of Hammond, Gauke etc and now proclaim “they’re all the same”; we don’t know if there are particular, non-Brexit policies that will appeal to these Remainers or Leavers, and we don’t know if middle class Labour voters are getting sick of the failure of Labour to deal with anti-semitism within the Party ranks. We don’t know any of this and it is hard to say when we will. Not, presumably, until Christmas when Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for a while (itself an assumption).

But while there is great uncertainty, the Conservatives cannot just sit patiently on the sidelines and watch the action unfold before coming to a decision on their broad governing and campaigning strategy. They have to deliver Brexit  – but they also have to prepare and execute a programme that is going to be good for the country and, yes, let’s be realistic, for their own electoral prospects.

So what should they do? With the polls so messed up, all anyone can do at this point is to sketch out a governing and campaigning hypothesis on the basis of careful thought – and put it to the test.

For five years at least,  I have been advocating a strategy that focuses hard on working class and lower middle class voters in provincial England. I emphatically would not junk this approach; these voters will likely form the basis of the Conservatives broad base for the foreseeable future.

However, for positive and negative reasons, under Boris Johnson, this needs adapting. Positively speaking, these working class and lower middle class voters are, assuming that the Conservatives deliver Brexit (or are seen to die trying), temperamentally more positive towards Johnson than Theresa May.

And not just on Brexit; Johnson instinctively understands the importance of the NHS and schools, he understands public concerns about rising crime, he is unembarrassed about being English or about English history (something that has not been sufficiently explored) and he doesn’t obsess about political correctness. These voters aren’t “locked down” – far from it – but Johnson starts in a good place with them. More needs to be done to keep this voters onside, and I will be setting out some ideas on how in the coming weeks.

Negatively speaking, there’s no denying that Johnson starts in a terrible place with Remain voters full stop – and particularly those from urban, liberal-minded, middle class backgrounds. These are the people that associate – wrongly, but there we are – the Brexit cause with racism and intolerance. He is in a more difficult place than May with these voters, and it would be a disaster for the Party if vast numbers of them peeled away. Johnson needs a high-impact, high-visibility, immediate strategy for these voters – showing that he is the same person that ran London in an inclusive, centrist way.

Which brings us back to Clinton’s triangulating strategy of the mid-1990s. Back in those days, Clinton created a campaigning and governing strategy designed to appeal both to partisan Democrats and to floating voters that leaned Republican. Early Blair did the same, and this is what Johnson’s team should be considering. The Conservatives should deliver Brexit whatever happens, develop a longer-term strategy to turn the Midlands and the North blue, but also launch an assault for liberal-minded Remainers.

What might this entail? The Government is going to have to look again at increasing NHS spending – given the side of that bus, further NHS spending (with reform) is going to be hard to walk away from. It should look to develop a suite of environmental policies that incentivise good behaviour and that wrestle the issue away from the very hard left. The Government should also launch, along the lines of the GREAT campaign, a global PR campaign to encourage the best qualified workers to move to a modern, tolerant, post-Brexit Britain. And the Government should look at making it easier for new parents, at a time when they’re financially stretched, to secure loans for childcare. There will be many other alternatives, but you get the point.

The Conservatives must continue their transition towards becoming the provincial workers party, but the creative energy in the short-term should be directed South.

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James Frayne: What polling tells us about voter views of “sin taxes”

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

Boris Johnson’s suggestion that a Conservative Government led by him would review the performance of so-called “sin taxes” was widely criticised. This is unsurprising; it has become almost universally accepted within Westminster, Whitehall and the media that such taxes are morally right and work well. A column in the FT yesterday even denied such taxes were regressive, by hitting the poorest hardest. We know what the political establishment thinks, but what do voters actually think about the issue?

Let’s look at what the polls tell us. I’m always surprised there hasn’t been more research on an issue the public takes a close interest in. There are only several recent polls in the public domain, rather than dozens. Depressingly for those that are sceptical about the merits of state action, overall, the polls tell a clear story: the public as a whole favours state intervention across a wide range of sectors. Inject the idea that state intervention is needed to protect children and the polling numbers rise even higher.

An Ipsos-Mori poll last year – to mark 70 years of the NHS – showed that “adults” (in this case, those 15+), showed that people clearly support the following: banning junk food ads on TV before 9pm, limiting fast food outlets near schools, restricting the advertising of unhealthy food and drink and a tax of sugary soft drinks. There is mild support both for banning e-cigarettes in public spaces and a minimum price for alcohol.

A YouGov poll for Cancer Research from a year ago showed much the same. By 66% to 23%, people said they supported “Government passing laws to make sure supermarkets promote healthier options”, and by 73% to 18%, people said they supported “Government passing laws to make sure the food and drinks industry reduces the amount of sugar and fat in their foods”. Another YouGov poll from last year (I can’t work out the client) also showed similar levels of public support for Government action.

There are, as ever, some caveats to attach to these results. The first is that people still fundamentally think individuals are responsible for their own health. In Ipsos-Mori’s poll, when asked who had most responsibility for people staying healthy, respondents overwhelmingly said “the individual”. 97% of people said individuals had a great deal or a fair amount of responsibility for their own health, compared to 75% who said the food and drinks industry and 61% who said the Government. A Delta poll for my agency, Public First, showed that while people back a range of options to help deal with childhood obesity, they hold parents primarily responsible for the health of their children.

An additional caveat is that Ipsos-Mori’s poll showed significant class differences over the support for different policies. Boiled down, professionals from an “AB” background are much more likely to support action than those from a C2/D/E background – although less affluent voters are also likely to support state intervention too. The same is generally true of the other polls highlighted above. The FT article I note above denies these taxes are regressive, but the polls suggest less affluent people disagree (although we can’t be sure that’s why they’re more sceptical, to be fair).

On the prospect of state action, things could not be any clearer. Or could they? I write about opinion research on this site all the time and I am clearly no research sceptic. That said, top line polls don’t always tell us the full story – and there are three problems with the “meaning” deriving from the existing research, which warrants further exploration. Firstly, and most importantly, the polls don’t offer either compelling negative counter arguments, nor do they offer intelligent alternatives to state action. The polls are generally tests of positive arguments for state action – and such polls invariably drive positive responses.

Related to this, secondly, they generally don’t make people think about cost. It’s one thing to give support to abstract policy ideas that might affect others, but another for them to actively support significantly higher shopping bills. Few polls really make people think hard about cost implications.

Thirdly, most of these polls, by probing people’s straightforward reaction to a list of suggestions, don’t measure how important people think policies actually are. For example, questions that test people’s attitudes towards ad restrictions usually score highly because people don’t think they are personally susceptible to advertising, while thinking that children might be. It’s therefore easy for them to say they think ads should be restricted. But when I’ve asked people in the past to choose which policies, from a list of measures, would be most effective in dealing with a problem like obesity, restricting advertising usually falls towards the bottom.

There is a further complication to consider: the fact that there are very few public voices against state action. Free market think tanks – most obviously, the IEA under Christopher Snowdon’s excellent work – are the loudest and most persuasive voices. But, as they would readily admit, they don’t have the resources to take the battle to the public at large. Very few Conservative MPs are willing to take on this battle, and the food and drink industry can’t be bothered to make the case themselves, mostly preferring to attend pointless roundtables with Government instead of defending their position to the public. (I once attended an event where a marketing person from a food manufacturer proudly described how the Health Minister of the time had attended the launch of their newly-reformulated product, only then mentioning in passing that the product was likely to be discontinued because consumers hated it).

Together, all this means that we can’t really be sure what the public thinks about state action on unhealthy lifestyles. We only know what they think in the almost complete absence of counter arguments. As such, Boris Johnson’s review, should he ever have the time and space to deliver it, would likely be received by the public with more open-mindedness than people in Westminster, Whitehall and the media might expect.

(Full disclosure: my agency Public First has previously worked for clients in the food and drink sector and the alcohol sector.)

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James Frayne: What polling about Johnson tells us

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

Uncertainty over Brexit and the future of the main parties means the polls are volatile and unpredictable. The Conservatives and Labour are tanking while the Brexit Party and Lib Dems are surging. Currently, the polls imply there are practically no Conservative-Labour swing voters and the only issue making anyone swing is Brexit. In this climate, asking voters how they might hypothetically feel with a particular PM in place, with Brexit playing out in a particular way, is imperfect, to say the least. That’s why I suggested in my last column that Conservative MPs and Members should look for different metrics in determining who might be best placed to deliver Brexit and to beat Corbyn in a General Election.

However, there has been so much high-profile polling recently, with associated news and commentary, I thought it would be useful to bring some order to it – focusing here on what the polls say about the frontrunner, Boris Johnson.

Rather than simply summarising recent polling – which, for the reasons I describe above, is partly flawed – I have taken a longer and deeper look at what the voters think about him. I have been through, to the best of my knowledge, all of the publicly available polling available on him, stretching back to the late 2000s. This longer-term view on Johnson could help those with a vote in the forthcoming set of elections with a broader picture about what sort of candidate he is and about the fundamentals of his character and potential attractiveness. I summarise the biggest lessons here.

Most recent polls show Johnson as the most popular political figure nationally.

Despite the caveats I attach to recent polling, let’s quickly trot through recent polling. First things first, Johnson is clearly the activists’ choice; he’s so far ahead that it’s hard to see how MPs could credibly keep him off the final ballot. ConservativeHome’s Members’ polling shows Johnson is the activists’ choice, and YouGov Party Members’ polling shows the same.

Recent national polls show he is also the public’s favoured choice too. This poll from YouGov at the end of May pairs various leadership candidates against Jeremy Corbyn and puts Johnson top; YouGov’s relatively new “ratings” tool also puts Johnson top (although it suggests his popularity on their measure might fade on the back of doubts about his performance as Foreign Secretary). Furthermore, polling from Lynton Crosby’s agency is said to show he is best placed to win back Conservative supporters who have recently peeled away from the Party towards Farage (although I can’t see the full tables anywhere).

While the national polling shows Johnson is the country’s first choice to replace Theresa May, he suffers from very significant opposition; in short, he’s divisive. This is overwhelmingly primarily down to his role at the forefront of the Leave campaign (on which, more below). This recent poll from YouGov shows more people think he will be a good Prime Minister than other candidates, but more think he will be a worse Prime Minister than other candidates This phenomenon – of being both liked and disliked in large measures – has been true of him for a while; this poll from 2017, for example, tells a similar picture. YouGov has some recent analysis on these numbers.

There was a mini-flurry of commentary online following analysis from former Conservative MP Lord Hayward, suggesting that Johnson would struggle to appeal to the Southern middle class. However, as with Crosby’s poll, I can’t see the full analysis anywhere and have had to rely on write-ups of it.

With this in mind, I’m reluctant to be critical on something I haven’t seen. That said, I can’t make sense of some of the reported claims. For example, Hayward is said to believe that Rory Stewart and Sajid Javid are more popular choices amongst younger voters, but I can’t see how this can be true – or, rather, provable – given how low recognition ratings of these candidates will be, and therefore how tiny the crossbreaks within the poll would be that stack up claims about younger voters.

He is a victim of his campaigning success in the referendum.

As I indicate above, it was the referendum that damaged Johnson’s reputation more than anything else. Before the referendum, he was very popular across the country – and among exactly the sort of voters that MPs are obsessed about attracting again (middle class professionals, young people and Londoners, above all).

All the polling shows that his reputation went off a cliff during the referendum because these voters wanted to remain in the EU. Johnson has been, in effect, a victim of his own campaigning success. A YouGov analysis explained how his reputation took a battering as he took on a more public role in the referendum.

But the wider polling suggests the same was true of practically every senior politician engaged in the referendum – it wasn’t specific to Johnson. However, he took, and continues to take, a bigger hit because he had such a high profile; it doesn’t seem to be down to anything he did per se.

This poll shows how he – along with other senior politicians – were not trusted during the EU referendum and this poll showed that the public was split in three on the behaviour of the two campaigns: in a pre-referendum poll, just over a quarter of the population thought the Leave campaign had been more deceitful, while the same amount thought the Remain campaign had been more deceitful, and just over a third thought they were as bad as each other.

He is well placed to ensure the viability of the Conservative Party.

There is, of course, a major upside to the divisiveness resulting from his role in the referendum: the fact that one of Johnson’s first tasks is going to be getting back the votes and pledges of those Conservative voters that have turned away from the Party in recent months. And, on this, things look good: this poll shortly after the referendum shows that people thought, of all leading Conservative politicians, Johnson most wanted to get Britain out of the EU.

And this more recent poll shows people thought he was right to resign over the Chequers deal. Those that have peeled off to Farage in recent times have done so because they no longer have faith in the motives or values of the Conservative Party; they do not trust the Party to do “the right thing”.

Many in the Parliamentary Party are in denial over the scale of this problem; simply put, the Party is finished without its massive eurosceptic core. That doesn’t mean they’re the only voters that matter; it’s just a straightforward mathematical reality that they won’t get out of the low 20s without them. With Johnson, as far as it’s possible to guarantee such things, these voters come back in the short-term.

In London, he was a popular decision-taker.

Let’s now start to look at his ratings before the referendum, which is perhaps where it gets most interesting. If a year is a long time in politics, three years is an eternity. People have forgotten that Johnson was an incredibly popular Mayor of London, who polled well on practically every measure and across all groups. (In this he resembles his contemporary – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – back in 2012: an outspoken politician with a high-profile and a large conservative following, who managed to reach out across the political divide).

In one of the last major polls during his time as Mayor, in January 2016, Londoners agreed that he was doing a good job by 58 per cent -29 per cent. Women agreed by 59 per cent -26 per cent; 18-24 year olds agreed by 49 per cent-17 per cent; Lib Dem voters agreed by 61 per cent-31 per cent; and professionals agreed by 58 per cent -29 per cent. These are favourability ratings that most politicians would kill for and this ensured two election victories, of course, where the ultimate popularity tests took place.

A YouGov summary from 2013 – entitled “London Loves Boris” – emphasised his ability then to reach across party lines. And a further YouGov summary at the very end of his Mayoralty showed that his reputation wasn’t perfect, but very solid in difficult circumstances.

One of the negatives surrounding Johnson that has regularly come up in the polling down the years are question marks as to his ability to take on high office – with people apparently concerned he can’t run anything important. While this has always been a feature in the polling, like with all the negatives surrounding him, it grew after the referendum (his negatives went up on everything as Remain voters were stung).

But all the London polling shows his campaign team ought to be pointing to the fact that, unlike many other competitors, he has been a genuinely executive politician who was seen to run a highly demanding, highly diverse city well. They have not played this up to anything like the extent they should. Incidentally, this Ipsos-MORI poll in 2014 showed that the public thought that Johnson’s plans to become an MP after ending his Mayoral term made it more likely the Conservatives would win the next election (in 2015).

He hasn’t been seen as a typical politician.

Clearly one of the reasons Johnson was as popular across London as he was, and as nationally popular as he was, was because he hasn’t been seen as a typical politician. This is clear from poll after poll down the years. In 2014, Johnson was by far the highest choice of British people to want to have a drink with – a commonly asked question in US politics to probe candidates’ electability.

A 2011 poll on political charisma showed that no other high-profile politician could get near him. 46 per cent of the British public said he had a great deal or a fair amount of charisma, compared to 38 per cent saying the same of David Cameron, 11 per cent saying the same of Ed Miliband and 18 per cent saying the same of Nick Clegg. He got smashed up by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton on this measure, but there’s no disgrace in that.

In 2012, he was the politician that British people said had the biggest impression on them. In a more detailed poll in 2012, YouGov found that he scored higher than David Cameron and the other leading politicians of the time on charisma, sticking to what he believes in, strength, being in touch with ordinary people, honesty, natural leadership, decisiveness and being good in a crisis (markers of being viewed differently from classic “Westminster politicians”).  

He was once the candidate of young people.

And just as people seem to have forgotten Johnson’s one-time massive popularity with Londoners, so they have forgotten he was once the candidate of the young. In a 2015 YouGov poll, he was the most popular suggested Conservative leader amongst 18-24 year olds; in a 2014 youth poll, Johnson came only a little below Miliband in a question as to who would do the best job running the country (he was tied with David Cameron). In a 2013 poll, he was by far the most popular choice for young voters.

His supposed gaffes weren’t electoral mistakes.

There’s no denying his role as Foreign Secretary played out badly, although it was a non-job as the PM was running Brexit negotiations (badly) with David Davis and others at DExEU. A few of his off-the-cuff comments – some not meant for public consumption – heightened previous suggestions of his lack of seriousness. Two YouGov polls in 2017 revealed the extent of this problem (even amongst Conservatives). But some have been pushing a narrative that he has been seen as “gaffe-prone”, for apparent mistakes on things like the proposed Garden Bridge and his suggestions that the Met use water cannons on rioters in the future. It is possible that these issues now feature in the public mind as negatives (perhaps reflecting conventional wisdom in Westminster) but at the time the public largely backed him. Originally, Londoners massively backed the idea of the Garden Bridge, by 69 per cent -22 per cent (of course, under closer inspection that would have changed); and by 68 per cent-18 per cent, British people said they supported the use of water cannons during riots (with the rest of the country being even more enthused than Londoners); and for what it’s worth, by 69 per cent – 26 per cent, British people said they would not pay to see him being “blasted by a water cannon”. Furthermore, most people (53 per cent – 40 per cent) in a 2018 ComRes poll said that the Conservative Party should not discipline him over his comments on the burka (although that is clearly not the same as supporting his comments, which were clearly a mistake).

What does all this mean in practice?

MPs and activists should be asking themselves a big question: what is it that made Johnson popular across Britain in the first place? While the polls still strongly suggest that Johnson would be the best chance the Conservatives have got electorally, there’s no denying he carries negatives with him post-referendum. But an important point for MPs and activists to consider is this: his popularity emphatically wasn’t down to the fact that he was a hard right, traditional Tory. He wasn’t: London would never have supported him had this been the case. Rather, he was primarily popular because of his character. He was seen as charismatic, entertaining and honest politician – someone different from the rest. To Londoners, he was also competent – and this should allay concerns that he isn’t up to the job of basic management. On the basis of the polling, it would be making a huge leap to suggest that those that recently turned away from him – younger, urban professionals – are gone for ever given it wasn’t primarily issues that attracted them.

Finally, those with a vote should consider his character in relation to his campaigning skills. Crucially, and this really matters, he is one of the very, very few politicians in recent political history that has the capability to do things that completely command the attention of the media and the electorate – through his own media work, his campaigning or through high-stakes interviews. Tony Blair had this massively and David Cameron had this occasionally (although he was terrible when exposed to hostile public opinion). MPs and activists would do well to remember the 2017 General Election and what it felt like when the polls were narrowing and it was clear that Theresa May simply could not change the dynamic of the race because her campaigning skills were so poor. The Party felt powerless.  You certainly wouldn’t get this with Johnson.

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These Tory leadership candidates haven’t grasped the scale of the collapse of confidence in their party

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

Can Theresa May now secure public support for a deal, or will the public now reject anything that comes out from Number 10? Have the Conservatives effectively reached a point where their reputation for trust and competence is so weak they can’t now sell anything at all to the electorate at large? And, by that, I don’t mean to ask whether Theresa May’s Government is irreparably damaged, but whether the Conservative Party’s brand is now damaged beyond repair – and that they’re heading for Opposition, regardless of who leads them.

Let’s look at we know. Understandably, there haven’t been many new polls on the relative attractiveness of the Prime Minister’s deal versus other options. The last public poll I can find was from the middle of last month from YouGov, showing that her proposed deal played much less well, on this divided subject, than either “no deal” or a second referendum. A more recent ConservativeHome members panel suggests that Party members are now opposed to the Prime Minister’s deal – marking a significant change in the direction of travel for members (who appeared to have begun reluctantly to believe the PM’s deal was the only way to avoid a softer Brexit, or none at all).

Relatedly, we also know that the Brexit Party is surging. A recent YouGov poll on voting intention for the European elections shows the Brexit Party leading the Conservatives and Labour by 34 per cent to 16 per cent to 10 per cent. The same poll shows, for Westminster voting intention, the Conservatives neck and neck with Labour in the low mid-20s. And a new ComRes poll also shows the Conservatives and the Brexit Party tied on Westminster voting intention.

All this suggests a deal is going to be a hard sell to the public. Ordinarily, it would be important to draw a clear distinction between public attitudes and member / activist attitudes. Very often, Prime Ministers can, if they’re strong, cast aside activist sentiment and target the public as a whole.

However, the problem for the Prime Minister has is that, given so few people know or ever will know anything about the deal, most of them will only hear about it through some sort of filter. This filter will likely be a hard Eurosceptic one: even soft-Eurosceptics are going to hear about the deal through a hard-eurosceptic filter – given that hard eurosceptics are those most active online and in the media. Most people will hear that the deal is flawed and doesn’t reflect the referendum vote.

Which brings us to the question as to whether the Conservatives can now sell anything at all. Polls that probe hypothetical scenarios are of limited use. And so it is that questions about how people might feel about the Conservatives under a different leader are imperfect. But they would at least reveal whether the public had a strong preference for a new leader; at this point, however, they don’t. A ComRes poll and a DeltaPoll poll both recently suggested there wouldn’t be much uplift if Theresa May was replaced. Again, we should attach health warnings to both.

But we can’t write off the possibility that the Conservatives are now entering an existential crisis. I wrote before about David Gauke’s ludicrously breezy performance just after the Government failed to meet its stated deadline of leaving the EU by the end of March. He gave the impression that he couldn’t have cared less about delay, as if the Government had failed to cut back its spending on biscuits.

Since then, very few senior Conservatives seem to have grasped the scale of public anger and their sense of betrayal – and this includes those now positioning themselves for the leadership. Some of the performances of recent weeks have been laughable. There is now a developing crisis surrounding trust and competence. To be clear, the Conservatives look two-faced and stupid. No one has a prayer of bringing voters back to the Party if they don’t basically get on their knees and beg for forgiveness from the electorate.

Older readers will remember well how the Conservatives lost their reputation for economic competence in 1992 after Britain crashed out of the ERM – even though the economy flourished outside and for nearly five years before the next election. The Government went into the 1997 election with a great story to tell on the economy. But people simply remembered 1992, and believed that the Government was run by idiots. We all know what happened next. It’s too early to tell – but it is at least a possibility that the Party has just experienced another one of these moments. Tory MPs should be thankful their main opponent is a clown.

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James Frayne: What polling does and doesn’t tell us about voters and the environment

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

Conservative Party politicians are prone to temporary policy cause obsessions. Over the last decade or so, we’ve seen them obsess briefly about, amongst other issues: free schools, the gender pay gap, social media, childcare, foreign aid and housing. (To list them like this is not to dismiss their relevance).

The enthusiasm which they responded to Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK, their timidity in the face of Extinction Rebellion’s direct action, and their unwillingness, as Natascha Engel described in her resignation as Shale Commissioner, to seriously promote Shale Gas extraction in England, strongly suggests they’re about to become obsessed with policy development on climate change. If so, what does this mean for the Party electorally? What do the polls say about the environment as an issue?

Let’s look at how seriously people take the issue overall.

YouGov’s most recent headline tracker of the public’s top issues puts the environment reasonably low down the list, behind leaving the EU, crime, health, the economy and immigration, but above housing, education, welfare and defence. While it’s still something of a niche issue overall, many will be surprised that it is even this high and, crucially, the issue has risen slowly but consistently over the last couple of years.

A poll for “Stop Climate Chaos” in Scotland also suggested, in a not-perfect exercise, that many people have become more concerned about climate change in recent times. So it’s an issue that’s on the up. (Incidentally, only a tiny number of people had heard, in early March, about “The Green New Deal”, inspired by US environmental activists. Also, incidentally, British adults put “pollution, the environment and climate change” much lower down their list of priorities than adults in other European countries).

But, predictably, the headline numbers mask huge differences of opinion based on politics, class and age. Hanbury Strategy’s recent poll for Onward showed that 18-24 year olds put the environment third in their list of policy priorities, behind Britain leaving the EU and health; on the other hand, over 65s put the environment near the bottom of their list, just above transport and defence. The poll also showed that Conservative voters were much less likely to name the environment as a major issue.

In a separate question in the same report, voters were asked if they would prefer that society or Government focused either on economic growth or prioritising the environment. This question forces too stark a choice in people’s minds, but the gaps between groups’ answers are interesting. Overall, voters narrowly said, by 51 per cent to 49 per cent, economic growth. However, 18-24 year olds chose the environment by 62 per cent to 38 per cent, while over 65s chose the economy by 64 per cent to 36 per cent.

Conservatives chose the economy by a significant margin, while Labour voters chose the environment by a similarly clear margin. (Another incidental finding, which builds this age point out further: a YouGov poll showed that a fifth of the population believe “the threat of climate change is over-exaggerated”. While nine per cent of 18-24 year olds agree with this statement, 32 pe cent of over 55’s agree).

That such differences between ages exist will not come as a surprise to anyone, but we should be wary, on the existing evidence, of either claiming that young people are obsessed about the environment, or that older people are dismissive of it – and careful about recommending very clear actions for campaign strategy.

After all, we haven’t yet seen young people’s commitment to tackling climate change through regulation tested by an economic downturn. After the financial crisis, Ipsos-Mori’s tracker showed that public interest in the environment tailed away significantly (although to be fair, I can’t find a breakdown of younger voters’ attitudes), in much the same way we’re seeing the reputation of “big business” rebound in the aftermath of the EU referendum as voters’ minds are focused on the prospect of large employers leaving Britain. Would things change in the same way if jobs were threatened now? It’s hard to say – but some Conservatives are making a huge leap of faith that young voters have fully embraced green activism.

As for older voters, the evidence suggests that older voters might draw a distinction between different types of environmental issues – taking climate change less seriously than what you might call “the local physical environment”. For example, almost all over 65s say they would support “a law to significantly reduce plastic waste and pollution within 25 years” – a higher figure than 18-24 year olds. And a similarly high number of older people say they view tackling litter as more of a priority than they used to.

My strong impression is also that older voters are also more likely to volunteer that they are concerned about issues surrounding food safety and animal welfare and protecting areas of natural beauty – although this is an impression borne of many years moderating focus groups rather than on any hard data. In a sense, this is the environmentalism that Michael Gove has been pushing from Defra.

What does all this mean? Honestly, I don’t think there’s even nearly enough research data out there to make serious conclusions as to how the electorate will react to the Conservatives embracing the green agenda more seriously. Far more needs to be done. Most will likely support Gove’s Defra reforms. While it is certainly reasonable to suggest that younger voters care more about climate change, there are clearly dangers in jumping into this debate by accepting the terms set out by green activists – who essentially argue that we can only protect the environment by slowing growth and insisting on massive personal austerity. Such a move will irritate the bulk of electorate and likely a massive chunk of younger voters too.

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Onward, Hancock – and the delusion of leadership candidates retreating to their comfort zone

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

Reading Matt Hancock’s piece in the Sunday Times a couple of weekends ago previewing Onward’s interesting new publication, Generation Why, and watching a clip of his speech at the publication’s launch, reminded me why I gave up talking to people in politics about football nearly 20 years ago.

A weird link? Let me explain. There comes a time when, despite theoretically sharing an interest in the same subject, you have so little actual shared experience of that subject that it becomes impossible to have any sort of meaningful conversation about it. You might as well be talking to each other in a foreign language.

As a youth of 16 or 17, playing at the bottom of the non-league pyramid, my favourite place to play was Heanor Town. For those that don’t know the East Midlands, Heanor is a small town in the North of Derbyshire. The football pitch was located at the top of the slope of the cricket pitch. While badly sloped, the pitch was impeccably cut whatever the weather (usually cold or freezing), the floodlights worked, and the dressing rooms had the intense smell of deep heat. Most importantly, the locals absolutely loved football and sport in general. Heanor was a football town.

When you talked to the locals about football, they didn’t just talk about Man Utd or Derby or Forest; of course, they did talk about them, but they’d be as happy talking about the last game against Kimberley Town, or Jeff Astle’s last song on Fantasy Football, or how Notts County fans moaned all the time. In short, when talking about football there was a shared understanding that you were talking about the game as a whole. It was expected that everyone knew practically everything there was to know about the game since they were a child – about players, fans, grounds, songs, old kits and all the rest.

When I arrived in London politics, full as it was with privately educated, mostly Southern staff that hadn’t played much, that shared understanding was totally absent. While many professed a love of the game, their entire way of speaking about it was alien. They’d talk almost entirely about the top of the game over the last few years since they became interested or – increasingly and weirdly – about football statistics. Nobody knew what the Anglo-Italian Cup was, let alone the FA Vase. And because nobody had really played at school, nobody knew what it was like to get hit on the thigh with a Mitre Multiplex in January. The Fast Show’s “I love football” sketch was no longer an amusing parody, but reality. Talking about football was a bizarre and depressing experience. So I stopped.

Which takes me back to Hancock’s article and speech. In giving advice to the Conservatives in appealing to the young, he wrote: “First, we need to get our tone right. Sometimes Conservatives can sound, as Ruth Davidson succinctly put it, a bit ‘dour’. Of course, it’s our job to be the pragmatists, but nobody wants to hang out with the person always pointing out the problems, rather than the one hopeful about the solutions…” At the event, he said:  “As well as delivering better economic prospects for people, we’ve got to sound like we actually like this country. We’ve got to patriots for the Britain of now, not the Britain of 1940. And enough about being just comfortable with modern Britain, we need to champions of modern Britain.”

Just as I found it increasingly difficult to relate to most of the privately-educated, metropolitan Conservatives talking about football, hearing this, I found myself similarly thinking that I have literally nothing in common with the same sorts of people’s views on politics. It’s as if we’ve grown up in entirely different worlds. Honestly, how can anyone think that the British people are collectively optimistic, happy-go-lucky, and modernity-obsessed? How can anyone seriously think that this is the best way to engage with people? How can they imagine themselves walking into the average pub, shopping centre or call centre canteen and connecting with ordinary people with such a case? 

Ordinary people don’t want to hear about 1940 or about life before large-scale immigration; most are happy with the people they live amongst. But they also emphatically don’t want to hear politicians droning on about how great the future is going to be and how technology and 3D printing is going to change everything for the better. It’s just not how they think about the world and not how they talk about it.

Look at what most working class and lower middle class people really think about things – those that make up the bulk of electorate. They think: that the economy is, at best fine, but that they see little of the benefits of growth; that long-term careers are a relic of the past; that good pensions have gone and that a long retirement is just a dream; that home ownership is increasingly unattainable; that the cost of living is too high; that their town centres are boring; that the NHS is over-burdened and under-funded and might fail them when the time comes; that crime is rising and police numbers are falling; that their savings will get raided to pay for social care; that childcare is ruinously expensive; and they think that politicians are out of touch thieves. While this is more prevalent amongst the old in provincial England, it’s actually common everywhere.

Why get so worked up over one little speech and an article? Because it’s clear that the Conservative Party is preparing to return to its recent comfort zone – using claims of a broad appeal to the young, which would be reasonable, to justify an appeal to the tiny number of successful, highly affluent, urban voters who are basically like those at the top of the Party. It’s dressed up as daring and confrontational, but is in fact just about following a path of least-resistance in the Party, while making those that make the case feel good about themselves. If Hancock is so sure this plays well, Heanor are home to Gedling Miners Welfare on Saturday. I’m sure they’d love to hear from him.

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