Climate change in the election and where the Lib Dems have gone wrong

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Politics on December 4th, 2019 by Leo – 1 Comment

About 10 years ago I was part of one of the most forgettable election campaigns of all time. A group of us targeted a bunch of swing constituencies aiming to get climate change on the local agenda. It wasn’t exactly a triumph.

Our efforts can definitively now be buried for good. Climate change has never been so high up the list of voters’ priorities: in the latest YouGov poll the environment is the joint third-highest issue the public say is facing the country. An Ipsos Mori question on which issues voters said would determine their vote also found climate and the environment was the fifth-top priority (in both it’s joint with the economy).

The surge in concern has opened new electoral battlegrounds but it’s not self-evident how they’re playing out. Two possible routes stand out.

Toxifying the Tories

One way climate change could play in voting decisions is for it to toxify the Tories. This is like what happened in 2017, when pro-Labour websites did a remarkably successful job of building the salience of previously obscure stories attacking the Tories on environmental issues, like their failure to pledge a ban on sales of ivory products.

But even last election there wasn’t much on climate change. In fact, the Tories have largely avoided being punished on climate change at elections. They probably have David Cameron to thank for that: his husky-hugging trip to the Arctic in 2006 and support for the Climate Change Bill meant, to casual viewers, there wasn’t much distinction between the major parties.

But since 2017 a lot of people have stopped viewing climate change just casually. The Tories can point to having strengthened the UK’s climate target, from an 80% cut to net-zero by 2050 (which means they’ve already enacted a law that’s stronger than Labour pledged in their 2017 manifesto) but there is plenty of space to criticise their record in delivering policies to meet the target, as Labour have already been doing.

Since the people most worried about climate change are more likely to be Remainers and 2017 Labour or Lib Dem voters – ie not the people Johnson is aiming for – the significance of any toxification of the Tories might be to squeeze Lib Dem votes. If the Tories look sufficiently unpalatable on climate, Labour can argue in Labour-Tory contests that a vote for the Lib Dems is too much of a risk.

Competing for climate voters

Is there any hope for the Lib Dems? Possibly, but they would need to start talking about climate change differently.

Rather than just being repelled by bad policies, voters could also be attracted to vote for parties with strong climate policies. If the voters care enough, the party with the strongest pledges should benefit – implying a race between Labour and the Lib Dems for more ambitious climate policy. This seems like the logic behind the various pledges to plant many trees to help absorb carbon.

But I’m not persuaded that this is actually happening very much. Labour and the Lib Dems might have the most ambitious climate policies they’ve ever had, but they’re not using them to fight each other. 

Looking at the Facebook ad library – which records political ads – none of the parties have spent more than a few hundred pounds on climate ads (to put that in context, the three main parties have between them spent a bit over £400k on Facebook in the last week). Same goes, as far as I can see for surrogate accounts like Labour Future. The climate debate on Channel 4 was also pretty consensual, without much effort between the parties to criticise one another’s policy.

Maybe this isn’t surprising when Labour and the Lib Dems have moved so far in so little time. They’ve perhaps caught themselves by surprise at where they are now. But it means that climate change still hasn’t become normal politics, in the way that Labour and the Lib Dems are happy to argue about Brexit, despite having pretty similar policies.

This is probably fine for Labour because it means the main distinction is with the Tories (though I’m still surprised they’re not doing more to attack the Tories on the climate). But it’s a problem for the Lib Dems. So long as the contrast is between the Tories and all the other parties, Labour can put the fear of Johnson into their want-away Remainers.

It may be too late for this election, but for the Lib Dems to benefit from the surge in concern about climate, they need to show how they would be better at halting the crisis than Labour would be. The argument the Lib Dems need is probably that only they have credible, deliverable policies that are appropriate to the challenge. Maybe also a hint that they would insist on the Tories being better on the climate in any coalition negotiations.

In short, the Lib Dems need to persuade 2017 Labour-voting Remainers (and some Lib Dems too) that, on climate change, it’s not just a question of the Tories versus the others. Until they do, the growing alarm about the climate crisis will mostly help Labour, and not them.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

Extinction Rebellion has won the first battle – now it must win the war

Posted in Climate Majority, Extinction Rebellion on October 30th, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

Extinction Rebellion seems to have cracked using protests to transform public debate. But as it starts another major rebellion this week, it might find the challenge ahead is even greater.

Extinction Rebellion’s April protests were an enormous success. Together with the BBC’s Attenborough documentary and the school climate strikes, they created a surge in public concern about the environment. The climate emergency is now established in the top five most important issues facing the UK today, at around the same level as the economy. Since the April protests, the government has legislated for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and Labour is moving towards a much more ambitious target.

This article was published on the Guardian To continue reading for free, click here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

And they’re off! General Election 2019 kicks off – Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on October 30th, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

And they’re off! General Election 2019 kicks off.

Keiran and I look at the numbers as a December 12th election is announced. Who is best placed? What is the path to victory for each party and what should we look out for in the coming weeks?

What happens now? Polling Matters

Posted in Politics, Polling Matters on September 8th, 2019 by Leo – Be the first to comment

After the most chaotic week in Westminster since the last one, Keiran and I sit down and discuss how it is all playing out in the court of public opinion and where we go from here.


Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister…what now? – Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on July 25th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Boris Johnson is the new Prime Minister…what now? – Polling Matters

On this week’s podcast, Keiran and I look back at a momentous week in British politics and discuss what comes next.


Is Boris Johnson now inevitable and is he a vote winner? – Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on June 13th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Is Boris Johnson now inevitable and is he a vote winner? – Polling Matters

Keiran Pedley and I look at the numbers and ask whether Boris Johnson is now a shoe-in to become Britain’s next Prime Minister and also whether he is the vote winner that some say he is.

Polling round-up. Euros, wacky polls, Tory leadership and Peterborough – Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on June 6th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Polling round-up. Euros, wacky polls, Tory leadership and Peterborough – Polling Matters

On this week’s Polling Matters podcast, Keiran and I take a look at the numbers on a host of recent political events.


Polls reveal surge in concern in UK about climate change

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock on May 10th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Polls reveal surge in concern in UK about climate change

Climate change has been unusually prominent in the UK media over recent weeks – and this is mirrored by a noticeable increase in climate “concern” in the polls.

From 15-25 April, climate change was high on the news agenda in response to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London, a major BBC documentary presented by Sir David Attenborough and the visit to London by the Swedish school climate protestor Greta Thunberg.

Data presented by Carbon Brief and the University of Colorado both found that the media mentioned “climate change” more in April than it did in almost any previous month.

Several research agencies have conducted opinion polls of the UK public since the protests started and have now published their results. This means we can see what effect the events of April, and the resulting media coverage, has had on public opinion.

This article was published on Carbon Brief. To continue reading for free, click here.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), shows why public opinion about climate change is important and what could overcome climate apathy.

Looking back at the Local Elections and looking ahead to the Europeans – Polling Matters

Posted in Polling Matters on May 9th, 2019 by Leo – Comments Off on Looking back at the Local Elections and looking ahead to the Europeans – Polling Matters

The Polling Matters podcast returns! Keiran and I look back at the local election results and look at what the EU election polling tells us about what is to come.


Extinction Rebellion’s protests were an unprecedented success. Three questions about what comes next.

Posted in Climate Majority, Climate Sock, Extinction Rebellion, Politics on April 28th, 2019 by Leo – 6 Comments

Past climate change protests have had little direct effect on public debate, but Extinction Rebellion protests in London seem to have directly influenced politics, the media and the public. Its success raises questions about the climate debate and what happens next with the protest movement.

Extinction Rebellion protest at Waterloo Bridge, London. Credit: Ali Johnson

I have some historical data to help understand Extinction Rebellion’s success: my master’s dissertation analysed the impact of public protests, along with extreme weather events and international climate conferences and reports, on public opinion, political debate and media coverage. I found that extreme weather sometimes influences public opinion, while UN climate conferences and IPCC reports often trigger media coverage and parliamentary debates. But climate protests generally have little direct effect on any of these. The full 2014 dissertation is here and a summary of the results is here.

Extinction Rebellion is different

But while climate protests have done less than other climate-related events to directly influence public debate, the Extinction Rebellion protests have been different.

My previous research looked at public protests from 2006-2014 and found no examples of them leading to debates in parliament. In contrast, every UN conference or report I looked at, and half of the extreme weather events, were mentioned in parliament. But the Extinction Rebellion protests led to two separate parliamentary debates – putting them alongside only 6 of the 26 climate-related events I studied to have been extensively debated.

I also found that climate protests rarely get much media coverage. Again this contrasts with UN conferences and reports, which get lots of coverage, while some extreme weather events are widely linked with climate change in the media. But again these protests were different. As Leo Hickman, editor of Carbon Brief has shown, the UK media has mentioned climate change more in April than it has at any other time in the last five years – including during the Paris climate conference.

Some of this coverage was also prompted by the BBC’s Attenborough documentary and Greta Thunberg’s visit to London, so we can’t say that the protests alone got more coverage than, say the Paris climate conference (I’m also not sure it’s fair to make a direct comparison over time as the volume of everything published each day by the UK media probably isn’t consistent). But they certainly got much more coverage than a climate protest normally does. While the graph above doesn’t look at what the coverage was, the tone has often been quite positive, with at least a large part of it engaging with the issues rather than just the disruption to London or the social background of the protesters.

My research found only one example of public concern about climate change directly increasing after a particular external event: major floods from December 2013 to February 2014 were followed by a spike in public worries.

We don’t yet know whether the protests – and the documentary and Thunberg’s visit – will influence public opinion, but it’s plausible. I can say this because there has been a rapid increase in the number of Google searches for climate change, taking it to the same level as it was at during the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen – the previous high. That said we’re still at only about half the level of interest we were at during a peak in attention to climate change in 2007 (and, interestingly, we can see a shift from the public using the term global warming to preferring climate change, over this time).

The first solid evidence about the impact on public opinion may come from YouGov’s issues tracker, which is due in the next two weeks (government BEIS data on public opinion may come before then, but fieldwork predated the protests).

Three questions about Extinction Rebellion’s success

First, what made these protests so successful? I don’t believe the same protests would have been so effective a few years ago. One factor may be that the media is now more interested in covering climate change as a threat and talking about public alarm – rather than on focusing on supposed doubts and public climate denial, which was more common a few years ago. This might be partly because the climate denial movement has run its course in the UK, as Richard Black documents in his book on the subject. It’s probably also because of the success of the IPCC’s report on the 1.5C temperature target, the development of science linking particular extreme events with climate change, and other scientific publications about the threats from climate change. This suggests that a similar model of protest could also work in other countries, where the media debate is similarly advanced.

Second, will future UK Extinction Rebellion protests work so well next time? This wasn’t Extinction Rebellion’s first protest, but it was by far the most effective. They were helped by the timing, with a quieter news period as Brexit was briefly off the agenda. But unless Extinction Rebellion make their next protests seem like something other than a re-run of this one, future media coverage might be more limited and might focus more on the inconvenience than on climate change.

Finally, does any of this matter? Media coverage, parliamentary debates and public awareness of protests don’t make carbon emissions any lower. But I think it’s useful because of what it means for the coming debate about emission cuts. To meet their Paris targets, countries like the UK have to start cutting emissions in ways that most people will notice – with things like replacing gas boilers, changing what we eat and how we move about. That will only be possible with both political leadership and public support, as I set out in my book. The way Extinction Rebellion have shifted the debate  won’t be enough on its own, but it may help.

My book, The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist), is now available.