My first time back on Polling Matters for a while, in time for the pilot of a TV format. As Keiran says, faces for radio.
Apologies for the brain fade in my first answer.
My first time back on Polling Matters for a while, in time for the pilot of a TV format. As Keiran says, faces for radio.
Apologies for the brain fade in my first answer.
This was originally published on the New Statesman.
The resignation of four shadow ministers – one of them on live TV – would normally prompt speculation about a leadership challenge.
But Labour’s rules seem to protect Corbyn from attempts to unseat him. Even if MPs were to force another leadership election, it’s assumed that the membership would vote him straight back in, perhaps with an even greater majority. I’m not so sure though.
Those who think Corbyn can count on members’ support point to polls of those eligible to vote in leadership elections, which seem to show deep support for the new leader. The most recent, a Times/YouGov poll in November, found that 66 per cent think he’s doing well, compared with 30 per cent of the general public who said the same.
The explanation for this support among members, it’s argued by those who are baffled about how anyone can say he’s doing well, is that many Labour members prefer their party to be pure than to be in power. The same poll found a 24-point lead for those who prefer Labour to put forward policies they really believe in, even if that means being unelectable.
If that’s true, it may not matter how unpopular Corbyn is with the public. In fact, the worse Labour’s poll score becomes, the more popular he might become with some members who take the opprobrium as evidence that they finally have a ‘real’ Labour leader.
But this wrongly treats Corbyn voters as an undifferentiated block, when the reality is that many aren’t indifferent to his struggles.
I recently came across a fun question buried* in Pew’s annual global poll. For several years the poll started with a question asking respondents whether they were having a typical day, a particularly good day or a particularly bad day.
Since they ran the poll in so many countries and asked this question for a few years it gives us a nice insight into cultural differences. Nigerians, it seems, usually have good days, while people in Jordan and Egypt are the most likely to be having a bad day – and even there just as many say they’re having a good day.
As a species, it seems, we tend to have good days (or at least to say we do).
Tomorrow is three months since Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party.
Shortly after he took over I produced a chart showing how Labour’s poll score has changed over the first year of previous leaders (data from Mark Pack’s brilliant collection of all post-war voting-intent polls).
I found broadly three categories: for some leaders (Kinnock, Smith, Blair) the score increased sharply in the first three months, then slowly decreased over the next nine months; for some leaders (Gaitskell, Wilson, Miliband) the score increased a little then stayed flat for the rest of the year; and for a couple of unfortunates (Callaghan, Foot), the score fell in the first three months then continued to fall for the rest of the year (Brown was an exception in that his score rose quickly at first then fell faster over his second three months than any previous leader’s).
I also noted that every Labour leader who started with support below 40% immediately increased it by several points.
I’ve now updated the chart to show the polls three months into Corbyn’s leadership:
Some years ago I managed a few research projects that used in-depth interviews with businesspeople in various countries. In most places, our interviewers would quickly get the respondents talking, giving me dozens of pages of transcripts to work through.
But when the interviews were in China, we’d get monosyllables. However carefully we set up the questions to invite considered responses, and however much the interviewers probed, the answers were usually of just of one word; occasionally a terse sentence. After a while I began to think it was impossible to do in-depth interviews in China, at least with the approach we were trying.
I mention this because two recent climate change polls have got me wondering again about research in China, and whether the results are reliable.
After a bit of digging, which I describe in this article, I’m increasingly uncertain about the reliability of poll findings from China – specifically here polls on climate change – though I can’t go as far as to say they’re definitely wrong.
The two recent polls both showed the proportion of Chinese people saying they think climate change is a very serious problem. According to YouGov’s poll the figure is 52%, while Pew put it at just 18%.
The latter of these generated headlines about a lack of worry about climate change in China – which of course fits with a sceptic/denier narrative that richer countries shouldn’t cut emissions because China isn’t doing anything. But having looked at the polls, I’m not sure such headlines are warranted.
At first glance, it seems like at least one of these polls must be wrong. The question wording is similar, they were conducted around the same time, yet the results are way beyond the margin of error.
In fact, there may be an easy explanation here: the YouGov poll is of their panellists and was weighted to be representative of the adult online population, while the Pew poll purports to be randomly sampled and nationally representative.
Actually, if YouGov’s panel was typical of the Chinese online population, the online/face-to-face split still couldn’t explain all the difference. Apparently, nearly half of the Chinese population is now online; even if we were to make the heroic assumption that none of the offline population thought climate change is a very serious problem, we’d still end up with nearly 26% saying it was very serious from YouGov’s numbers – again, beyond the Pew margin of error.
We might instead put this down to YouGov’s panel being unrepresentative of the Chinese population in general: perhaps they’re people who are more engaged with the news or international affairs than the average person.
Except, there’s another problem.
The Pew poll is not only out of line with YouGov’s survey, it’s also different from the result Pew found last time it asked the same question: the proportion saying it’s a very serious problem has more than halved:
This seems pretty weird to me. I’m not aware of such a large shift in attitudes towards climate change over five years in any country, including in the UK and US following the UEA email hoax six years ago.
For comparison, here’s a graphic I keep to hand showing the stability of UK opinion on the climate over that period.
I can think of a few possible explanations for the difference in the Pew results.
The first is that there truly has been a large shift in attitudes to climate change in China. At the moment I have no way of proving this either way, but a shift of this magnitude would be unusual and should have some explanation. I can’t think of any such explanation, though there may well be something that, in my ignorance of Chinese debates, I’m unaware of.
A second possibility is that there isn’t a true public opinion about climate change in China. This would fit with John Zaller’s view that public opinion mostly doesn’t exist: people only have ‘opinions’ on many issues (perhaps not on all issues, though) when they’re asked to express their view, for example by a pollster. At that point, they sample from the, perhaps contradictory, opinions they’ve previously heard and accepted. This is a recipe for volatility: people’s opinion one day may not be the same the next, and they’re easily swayed by what they hear from elites.
This would perhaps explain the volatility from 2007-2009 as well as the change from 2010-2015, but it doesn’t feel seem it can be the full picture. It’s not clear why China’s population would show such volatility while those in other countries would have more stable views. Perhaps climate change is talked about much less often in China than it is in other places, so people have less opportunity to form fixed opinion there. Again, I don’t know enough about Chinese debates to settle this, but given that Chinese respondents seem to say ‘don’t know’ to climate questions less often than people in other countries, I’m not convinced. It’s also not like most people in the UK or US hear or talk about climate change very often, anyway.
A third option is that Pew got super unlucky with their sample. With a perfectly sampled poll, one in twenty will produce a result that’s outside the margin of error, relative to the true value of public opinion (if such a thing exists). Through no fault of the samplers, Pew might have just happened to pick the people who really aren’t worried about climate change. This is possible – and maybe China has such diversity of opinion between areas that the sampling approach is more prone to this kind of bad luck – but they’d have to have been supremely unlucky for this to explain the size of the gap (unless particularly factors in the structure of Chinese opinion make it more likely).
This leaves a fourth option – changes in sampling – which I’ll discuss in more detail.
It’s a strange time for UK climate policy. One week the Foreign Secretary argues that strong action to cut emissions is the conservative thing to do. The next, the Energy and Climate Secretary announces that the UK will close its coal plants, but proposes replacing them with gas while doing little to prevent us missing both our 2020 renewable energy targets and the 4th carbon budget in the mid-‘20s.
It seems the government is content to reaffirm its commitment to our climate targets, without offering policies to achieve them. If that’s the case, what’s the political calculation behind it? Is there a political benefit to the government in going slower on climate change – or might there be a cost to it in doing so?
My conclusions are pessimistic. It may be that the rational response to public views about the climate – for a government that isn’t strongly motivated to act on it for other reasons, like its own convictions, or pressure from backbenchers or industry – is to be perceived to be tackling it, without going so far as to impose significant costs on the public or any groups sufficiently influential to cause them problems.
First, I should be clear that climate denial isn’t important here. For this debate you can largely ignore the often-asked questions about whether people think climate change is real and caused by human activity, which appear to show that a significant proportion (just under half, depending on the question) doubt that we’re responsible for climate change. Those polls reflect politics and identity, more than they do policy preferences.
I can say that because polls consistently find overwhelming support for the principle of limiting our emissions – including from many people who claim to think climate change is a natural phenomenon. For example, a Carbon Brief/Opinium 2013 poll found more than 3 in 4 support the UK working with other countries to cut emissions. That includes a majority of those who say climate change is mostly natural (as well as a quarter of those who said it’s not happening at all).
So there’s clearly widespread public support for the government’s overarching goal of cutting emissions.
But it’s a low-salience issue. A large majority might, when prompted by a poll, say they want the government to cut emissions, but few people care deeply. Consistently, only around one in five people seem to be really worried about climate change. For example, another Carbon Brief/Opinium poll found 19% saying they want the government to prioritise tackling climate change over promoting economic growth.
This has created an incentive for the government to pursue half-hearted climate policies.
The positive side of this is that it could be much worse. A small group of people – perhaps 15% at most, depending where you draw the line – oppose any attempt to cut emissions. But if the government did what these people want, for example by repealing the Climate Change Act, it would almost certainly alienate the much larger proportion who normally don’t think about the issue but still want it dealt with.
The image below shows what I mean by this.
I’ve arranged a few of the UK’s existing climate policies in rough order of the level of public opposition they face, from left (less opposition) to right (more opposition). Some policies are opposed by nearly nobody, like better home insulation and incentives for cleaner cars*. Others face more widespread opposition: mostly those that impose visible costs.
Government climate policy seems to be aimed at appealing to the majority of people, in the centre and right of the chart, who want it to deal with climate change, rather than at those who resist nearly all such measures.
That’s the good news. The bad news comes when we wonder why the government doesn’t go further with its climate policies.
There’s certainly a strong case for it to do more. The UK is currently off course for the 2020 renewable energy target, it’s looking like the 4th carbon budget in the mid-‘20s will be a struggle, and we’re about to get a 5th carbon budget that will presumably set another target we’re heading towards missing.
There’s plenty the government could do to correct this if it had the inclination. A higher cap for the Levy Control Framework (or better still, a more progressive alternative) could stimulate investment in renewable power; much more effort on clean heating could begin to wean us off gas boilers; and decent incentives and infrastructure for electric vehicles could greatly increase their uptake.
The trouble is, all of these would put more costs on the public, either through energy bills or some other mechanism**. Then there’s aviation, which has to be reined in if we’re to fulfil the Climate Change Act: ultimately meaning people will have to take fewer flights than they want at current prices.
But, despite an overwhelming majority of people saying the government should tackle climate change, there doesn’t look to be much appetite to accept costs like higher energy bills and less international travel.
I’ve extended the image to the right to reflect this. For example, a ComRes poll this weekend found only 23% saying they’d be prepared to pay more for energy bills to reduce climate change. This is further to the right than the measures we saw previously.
Now we see that government policy doesn’t only cut out the people who oppose all climate policy; it also excludes the views of those who want stronger measures than we currently have. Policies are mostly aimed at the people in the middle – still the majority – who say they want measures to cut emissions, but aren’t prepared to accept more costs to achieve them.
It’s not hard to see the attraction for the government. Pursuing the policies in the middle allows it to say it’s acting on climate change, thus inoculating itself against the attack that it’s undermining our future. This keeps climate change as a low-salience issue. Most people don’t care enough to wade through the arguments about whether it’s doing enough. Meanwhile, if it adopted the policies on either the left or the right of the scale it would presumably alienate some of those in the middle.
But our current policies are nevertheless insufficient to meet the tough climate targets we face over the next decade. Achieving those would require the government to spend political capital arguing that we need measures (those at the right of the scale) that currently don’t have much support.
The make-up of the group on the right, who’d support higher costs for climate policies, is interesting. Among those who say they’d pay higher energy bills to tackle climate change, the Tories aren’t doing badly: they’re winning about as many of these people as they are of the whole population. So, the Tory brand doesn’t seem to be toxic to people who support higher-cost climate policies. That might suggest there could be a political gain for the Tories in going further with such policies: if they’ve already won some of this group, it’s possible they could win some of the 28% of Labour supporters or 35% of Lib Dem supporters who say the same.
But, the age and social grade splits show how this is a bit more complex. Support for such policies is particularly strong among the young (37% of 18-24 vs 19% of 65+) and social grades AB (29%) rather than C2 (19%) or DE (16%). On the one hand, there may be AB Labour voters who will be alienated by Corbyn and winnable for the Tories. But on the other, the Tories are clearly determined to retain their support among pensioners; and the damage tax credits cuts could do to their support among harder-up working families may well discourage the Tories from doing anything to further alienate those voters.
Adopting stronger climate policies could boost the Tory reputation as being modern and having a plan for the next 10 to 20 years: this might help them win younger, more affluent Labour/Lib Dem voters. But set against this is the damage that such policies might do to their support among less-well-off working voters. Since the latter group are often a key swing demographic in marginal seats, such concerns might explain why climate policies seem to be slanted in their favour.
Clearly this is an enormous challenge for those of us who want the UK to adopt policies that give a good chance of meeting our climate targets. To overcome this, the political cost of adopting such policies needs to be reduced (eg by devising them so the burden falls more on those who can most afford it) or the cost of not taking them needs to be increased (eg by getting better at showing why decent climate policies are needed).
Few politicians want to say that we’re going to have to accept restrictions, especially when it’s for a goal that not very many people are exercised about (unlike, say, security from terrorism). The government has so far shown little sign of taking this on, preferring instead to remain within a comfort zone where it’s mostly safe from being attacked for doing too little on the climate. Unless either the government develops a zeal for cutting emissions, or there’s a public shift towards wanting tougher climate policies, it’s not clear where the pressure will come from for this to change.
* The placing of the policies here is partly based on my own estimates. There are some numbers behind them, for example, the goal of signing international climate deals has a net support of +45pts and the carbon floor price has a net support of -11pts. But responses to questions about these policies depend very much on question wording and I haven’t seen any polls that test all of them in a comparable way. For example, I’ve put the “home improvements” policy on the left, but it moves rapidly to the right when it’s described in terms of the cost added to energy bills. The precise order doesn’t matter that much for the point I’m making.
** If we assume higher carbon prices, consistent with the Climate Change Act, in the ‘20s and ‘30s, a UK energy supply without more renewables would in fact be more expensive than otherwise – but this is still too obscure a point to be taken seriously in media coverage and public opinion.
This was originally published on LabourList.
After tax credits, energy and climate policy are now the Tories’ greatest vulnerability and should be a top Labour priority. But while the shadow team have been attacking the Government, their criticisms haven’t yet damaged the Tories, allowing them to get away with policies that are killing jobs and unnecessarily increasing bills.
On energy, there’s an opportunity for Labour to label the Tories’ current approach as incompetent, with recent decisions appearing to be contradictory. One minute, the Government is cutting subsidies for solar and wind: both clean and popular sources of power. The next, it’s signing a deal for a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point that commits to generating electricity for decades at eye-watering costs.
This allows Labour to argue that the government’s decisions are directly making life worse for people across the country. The unexpected slashing of support for solar has already cost over 1000 jobs and the industry claims up to 27,000 are at risk as a result of government policy.
At the same time, the nuclear deal is expected to add over £1bn a year to households’ energy bills: the equivalent of around £40 per household, every year, for 35 years. While we need new power sources, few outside the government argue this is the best-value way of providing it.
Put these together and you’ve got a neat criticism of Government policy. We’re losing skilled manual jobs in what should a growth industry, while also putting an unnecessary cost on already-stretched families. Both fit with the tax credits frame that the government is undermining work and adding to the burden on poorer families.
The combination of the two is important, as it allows Labour to show it’s not just looking for government subsidies to protect jobs and promote growth, but that it also expects public money to be spent well and not wasted on overpriced vanity projects.
To her credit, Lisa Nandy has been attacking the government on this and Labour is developing policies for community energy production. But it’s been left to her and the rest of the shadow Energy and Climate Change team to take on the Tories about these issues and they haven’t had much attention from those not already interested in the area.
Labour could do more damage if the leadership gave this a higher priority. This is an opportunity to either force a change in policy or do lasting damage to the Tories’ reputation: the Hinkley Point contract could be seen as their Millennium Dome, but for now it’s not getting enough attention.
Similarly, Labour can force a change in the Government’s climate policy.
The new chair of the fracking industry body has annoyed a lot of people today by apparently saying women oppose shale gas extraction because they’re driven by instinct, not facts.
In the Times (£) interview (also quoted here), Professor Averil Macdonald said “women have not been persuaded by the facts [about fracking, and] more facts are not going to make a difference… They know that they don’t know and they don’t understand… we have got to understand the gut reaction… women are always concerned about threats to their family more than men. We are naturally protective of our children.”
It’s ok if you want to take a few seconds to smash everything.
Back with me? Right, let’s look at the facts.
First, are women less supportive of fracking? It certainly seems so. The latest YouGov/Nottingham poll finds 58% of men in favour, compared with 32% of women. The DECC tracking poll (the one I think is too expensive) finds a similar split*, and a YouGov/Sunday Times poll shows an even bigger gap.
So, the first part does look to be true: women are more likely to oppose fracking.
Secondly, are women less likely to be persuaded of the facts about fracking?
Since the facts about shale – like whether it causes earthquakes, contaminates drinking water, will cut energy bills or reduce our emissions – are disputed, it’s hard to say whether women accept the ‘facts’.
What Professor Macdonald presumably means is that women tend not to be persuaded by what she considers to be facts, ie that fracking is safe and generally a Good Thing.
If that was all, her comments perhaps wouldn’t be that controversial: she’d be saying women don’t support fracking because they disagree with the industry’s arguments. But that wouldn’t be very interesting and she’s, understandably, had a go at explaining why. Hence the claim, “they also know that they don’t know and they don’t understand”, so they go on gut instinct.
This, we can partly test. The Notts poll provides a bit of evidence for it: 85% of men correctly identify the process of ‘fracking’ as producing ‘shale gas’, compared with 65% of women.
This tells us only a little. At best, it shows that men are more likely to be aware of the terms relating to shale gas: it doesn’t say anything about their understanding or acceptance of the ‘facts’ relating to it.
What’s more, other polls show that men are more likely to claim to know things they don’t. When Carbon Brief tested recall of climate stories last year they included some made-up stories as a benchmark. For the most ‘recalled’ of those fake stories, men were a third more likely than women to say they’d heard it: about the same proportion as the difference in the shale question. So, some of the apparent evidence for men knowing more about shale could be to do with women being less willing to guess when they’re not confident. This can’t explain all the gender gap though, as you’d expect many of the winging-it men to get the wrong answer about shale gas.
But, this notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to go along with Professor Macdonald so far: women are less likely to support fracking and seem less confident than men in their knowledge about it.
That’s not enough though. Macdonald suggests a causal link: she argues women don’t support fracking because they know that they don’t know much about it, and so they go with their feminine instincts to protect their families and oppose such things.
There are a couple of problems with this (leaving aside the massive claim that women care more about their families than men do. Show me evidence or don’t make such big claims.)
“Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing the world today… It is in our national interest to act and ensure others act with us”
David Cameron is the only party leader who signed that pledge in February still in his job, but both Clegg and Miliband’s successors have echoed the sentiment and there’s apparent cross-party consensus that climate change is a serious problem that requires action.
But while that consensus is a great advance on what came before and produced the Climate Change Act, it masks the reality that political commitment to climate change is weaker than it now needs to be.
For a politician or commentator, saying you want strong action on climate change has become a form of virtue signalling: showing off your supposed commitment to tackling a future, widely-recognised and scientifically-backed worldwide threat that will most hit the poorest and future generations (who generally aren’t your electorate) – all without needing to make any difficult decisions.
You might think I’m having a pop at the government here, and in part I am. Despite Cameron’s February pledge and the election manifesto, which supported the Climate Change Act, the first few months of this government have produced a string of cuts and reversals that look set to undermine efforts to reduce emissions. At the same time, the government has maintained an official commitment to meeting our climate targets.
That’s become well known and a target of campaigners’ anger. But what worries me just as much is the less obvious loss of seriousness about climate change among the kind of people who had previously been its strong allies.
This has become clear with the approaching decision on airport expansion. As I’ve argued, expanding our airport capacity would mean either hugely ramping up ticket prices to cut demand and meet our climate targets or keeping prices constant and failing to meet our targets. Since it would be obviously stupid to build a huge new runway and then direct policy to make sure that new capacity isn’t used, it’s pretty much inevitable that building the runway would mean we don’t achieve our targets.
This is the first really hard climate change decision a UK government has ever had to make – and it’s exposing the thinness of many people’s supposed commitment to tackling the problem.
If it weren’t for the climate problem, I would be tempted to back the runway. It’s true there are some other good arguments against expansion, like whether we really need more capacity, and the effect on local air and noise pollution (so maybe build at Gatwick instead). But clever people say it would produce jobs, make the UK more competitive and bring affordable holidays in reach of more low-income people.
But, we do have that climate problem and I haven’t seen anyone offer a serious way of reconciling expansion and our targets. The Davies Commission’s proposal obviously wouldn’t work, so in reality expansion means giving up a serious expectation that we will meet our target (you might hope for a technological breakthrough, but bear in mind the Davies Commission already relies on this with its implausible ticket-hiking plan, so you would need an even bigger deus ex machina and no serious analyst is predicting this).
And yet, many people who signal their climate virtue also support airport expansion.
A quick search of comments by Labour MPs produces the following:
This was originally published on Labour List.
It’s now clear that Labour will oppose Heathrow expansion. Not only did Jeremy Corbyn say during the leadership campaign that he’d vote against it, but his Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is a vocal opponent.
Many Labour modernisers will be alarmed by this stance. In the eyes of many, one of the top reasons for defeat in May was that the party wasn’t trusted with the economy. To win again, Labour must show it won’t undermine growth.
So during the campaign, the leadership candidates most focused on winning votes from the centre presented themselves as able to regain economic credibility. When the Davies Commission recommended expanding Heathrow, Liz Kendall immediately responded by calling for a decision to build the new runway, which quickly became Party policy.
The political calculation was obvious. While the Tories were split and dithering, supporting Heathrow expansion would allow Labour to outflank them as the party of job creation.
The modernisers presumably considered arguments against expansion, particularly from residents who would be hit by worse air pollution and noise. This seems to be Corbyn’s main objection to it. But it’s understandable that candidates aspiring to lead the country prioritised what they saw as a national benefit over a local cost.
What their calculation may not have taken into account – understandably as it was glossed over in the Davies Report and barely featured in the coverage – was whether expansion can be reconciled with the UK’s climate change targets. This is where what may seem like good politics turns out to be not only bad policy but also bad politics.
The UK is committed under the Climate Change Act to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. So far we’ve done a reasonable job: we’re broadly on course and last year emissions fell by 6%.
Plans for meeting the 2050 target are already generous to aviation. While emissions from the rest of the economy are due to be cut by 85% on 1990 levels, aviation’s emissions are allowed to grow by around 120%. All that emissions growth was already used from 1990 to 2005, but the plans allow for an additional increase in passenger numbers of 60%: a leniency that assumes overall aviation emissions can be kept constant as emissions per passenger are reduced with future technological fixes. This expansion will likely be overwhelmingly for leisure travel: business travel represents less than a sixth of international travel in UK airports and has been falling in both relative and absolute terms.
But, unless aviation growth is limited, we will miss even this generous target. According to the Department for Transport, emissions will be well above their target even without airport expansion; a new Heathrow runway puts us still further off course.
When pushed, the Davies Commission offered an eye-watering solution to meet the target. They suggested reducing demand for flights by greatly increasing the price of carbon (as well as other difficult measures). Even if planes become about a third more efficient, the Commission’s case for expanding Heathrow assumes that a London-New York return ticket should cost around £325 more than now (the range of prices they suggest vary hugely, with some much higher). The Commission’s scenario is based on optimistic assumptions about future technology, so we’d need even greater, and less realistic, breakthroughs to resolve this dilemma.
So the proposal appears to be to expand Heathrow but to avoid using all of the new capacity by making flying so much more expensive it’ll again become available only to richer travellers.
This means it’s impossible to be in favour of more than two out of three of: building and fully using a new runway, keeping flights affordable for poorer travellers, and meeting our climate targets. If you agree the UK should meet those targets and that foreign holidays should be available to poorer families, the policy argument for expanding Heathrow is challenging. Expanding an airport but not using the capacity is so obviously a waste of money I can only assume the Commission doesn’t really think we should meet our climate targets.