How to win elections on the environment


Various polling houses have data on which of the parties are seen to be best for various issues – including the environment. The wording of the questions they use vary a little so the answers aren’t totally comparable across polls, but there are a couple of themes that come out consistently. For the examples below, I will use data from ICM’s August ’09 poll for the Guardian, as it’s the most recent that I’m aware of (I could have used others, like YouGov’s March ’09 data to come to the same conclusions).

The first point that stands out is that none of the three major parties are seen to be worse on the environment than the others: the Tories are best according to 19%, Labour are on 17%, the Lib Dems 16%, and Another Party 18%(1).

Secondly, and of course connected to the first point, of the issues covered by ICM the environment is the issue that is least ‘owned’ by a single party. Compared with the Tories leading on the environment with 19%, other issues are dominated by one party with much higher scores – for example, the Tories dominate Law and Order with 34%, and Labour wins Health Services with 31% (see graph below).

Which party is best on issues

So why might the parties be relatively close together, with no-one dominating? One answer is that it’s not an issue that has historically been at the heart of any of the major parties’ narratives. Sure, the Tories have Burkean traditions of trusteeship of the natural world, and Labour members were central to the formation of the CND (though Labour’s relationship with the global, as opposed to local, environment has been ambivalent, typical of the conflict between the party’s working class and Fabian traditions). And a stronger case still could probably be made for the Lib Dems, who have been talking the most about the environment for the longest.

But when elections came around, the environment has not to date been high on the agenda of any party, so it’s not surprising that these aspects of the parties’ histories and inter-election chatter have been missed by most people.

On top of this is the unusual role played by the Green Party. For few of the other issues covered by ICM is there a well-known party whose identity is centred on addressing the issue. Europe may be the only other issue where we might expect a similar effect via UKIP. However, my suspicion is that UKIP polarises those who think Europe is important, in a way that the Greens tend not to for those who think that the environment is important.

So among those who pay a lot of attention to Europe, UKIP win a relatively small level of agreement, compared with the Greens, who win more support among those who pay a lot of attention to the environment. Combine this with the major parties historically putting far more electoral emphasis on Europe than on the environment (remember Hague’s 2001 campaign?), and the Greens appear to hold more territory here than UKIP do on Europe.

To me this says there’s an opportunity for any of the main parties to take this on as a central issue in their election platform. The polls show that the environment isn’t one of the top day-to-day issues on most people’s minds. But it’s a safe guess both that it’s the top issue for some people now, and that it will become over the next few years a bigger issue for more people. Any party that can position themselves as the strongest on the environment now, while the field is relatively uncompetitive, will be in a better position to benefit if and when it becomes more of an election issue.

(1) Interestingly for us quant geeks, asking the fourth option as ‘Other’ (as in the YouGov polls) instead of ‘Another Party’ yields scores that are about a third lower. Presumably the words ‘Another Party’ is more likely to prompt respondents to remember a specific other party, in this case the Greens, or perhaps Plaid/the SNP.


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