Published:

54 comments

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

Given the Conservatives seem to have decided to make the environment one of their key campaigning themes for at least the near-term, how should they be talking to working class voters about the environment?

After all, while working class voters share similar concerns about the environment to professional voters, they care about it much less in relative terms.

In the last two years, I’ve probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue, overseeing many dozens of focus groups and a number of  very detailed landscape polls. Here are some thoughts on how best to engage working class voters.

1) Remember knowledge is extremely low

Those of us working in public policy must remember we’re having an entirely different conversation about the environment to most people. We think people know what “net zero” is because we use it all the time; on the contrary, focus groups will tell you most people haven’t heard of it; we say “Greta” and assume everyone knows who we mean; in focus groups you get blank looks.

If the Government truly is interested in speaking to working class voters, it’s going to have to accept knowledge of environmental issues is extremely low – and on the public policy debate almost non-existent. Politicians should view every announcement on the environment as being almost entirely new to most people. This demands simple policies, simply explained, from first principles.

2) Consider the environment as a capitalist issue

Perhaps the most important communications lesson is essentially psychological: keeping working class voters onside means creating a capitalist case for the environment – one with radically different policies and language from what we’ve seen before.

At present, there is considerable fear amongst working class people that going green is expensive and inconvenient. This is because the hard left has been the loudest voice in the debate; while left-wing campaigns have undoubtedly raised the salience of the issue, they have ultimately made working class people worried about change.

The best remedy is to show show environment policies are compatible with economic growth and rising living standards. Almost everything else here follows from this fundamental point. (To be fair, the Government has started to do this with a focus on jobs.)

3) Remember what people’s lives are really like

This isn’t meant to be a cheap point: London-based, upper-middle class officials and advisers lead work on environmental policy. Over time, regardless of where they came from, they end up with a warped view of what most people’s lives are like. In doing so they can make woefully unrealistic and unpopular recommendations which ordinary people can’t adapt to.

Officials and advisers must think hard about red lines for ordinary working class families: outside the big cities, almost everyone needs to drive to get to work or see family; most people spend what they earn in trying to live comfortable lives, save nothing, and therefore can’t just invest in home improvements. Most go on holiday once a year and look forward to it all year (flying is no luxury).

It doesn’t therefore make sense to begin your push on the environment with by telling working class voters they’re going to have to replace their car in nine years with a likely much more expensive model; nor to say they might need to spend vast sums on a new heating system. Better, instead, to have announced new investment in green public transport outside the cities. The Government has to accommodate the reality of people’s lives.

4) Focus on “jobs, growth, regeneration”

The Government’s recent announcements on new investment in green technologies in the regions were nicely done. Not only because it made a “capitalist case” for the environment, but because they played into working class hopes new industries might replace old ones. In focus groups, there are great hopes new technologies and new industries might bring about jobs, growth and, ultimately, regeneration. As far as possible, the Government should keep encouraging this so-called “green jobs revolution” in parts of the country which are struggling.

5) Protect the poorest

Such are people’s fears about the prospect of environmental policies hurting people’s wallets, the Government must continually lay on thick the point that green policies should not, and will not, affect the poorest. They should constantly reassure that new boilers, new heating systems, and so on would never have to be paid for by people that cannot afford it.

There is a reason, after all, why the Blair Government made such a big deal of protecting pensioners from higher fuel payments; there are large numbers of people that cannot pay a penny more each week.  And, to be clear, the “poorest” means everyone who is seriously cash strapped – a decent percentage of society.

6) Green taxes should be “alternative taxes”

One of the biggest mistakes of the green movement has been to link environmental policies in the public mind with higher taxes. People associate so-called “green taxes” with being shaken down by politicians for more money. The Government should only introduce green taxes as alternative taxes, rather than additional taxes. Their mantra should be: “let’s tax things that are bad”; not “let’s find a way to make more money”. Ideally green policies should be fiscally neutral (I accept, harder during the Covid recovery).

7) As far as possible, good behaviour should be rewarded

In research I’ve done, people respond well to the suggestion that good behaviour should be rewarded, more than bad behaviour should be punished (within reason). This means, people are keen to hear about things like council tax reductions for recycling more (a simple example, but you get the point); or businesses paying less in corporation tax if they make cuts in emissions. They prefer this to solely punitive, punishing taxes.

By the way, they don’t like the idea that businesses that work in energy-intense industries should be whacked just for doing their job; they want them to be rewarded for taking steps to become cleaner.

8) Tread carefully with the “patriotic case” for change

The public like the idea of Britain being a “world leader” in pretty much anything. Superficially, the idea that Britain can be a world leader in green policy plays well. But working class voters quickly start to ask a question: why should we damage our own industry, or raise taxes, when other more polluting countries aren’t doing the same?

To make progress, the Government has to reassure the public that everyone, across the world, is working together to reduce emissions and to help the environment.

9) Climate change isn’t the only green issue

In recent times, in the public policy world, the environment has come to mean climate change. But this isn’t where the public is. For many voters, and particularly working class voters, they’re more interested in excessive use of plastics, in the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.

As such, while the Government might conclude that cutting emissions is the most important governing priority, they should not assume necessarily that this is the best way of actually appealing to working class people.

10) Stop making it impossible to drive anywhere

At the risk of repetition, the Government has got to stop basically trying to prevent people using roads; it is driving people crazy across the country. It isn’t just about removing lanes from roads for cycle paths, it’s closing junctions, re-routing traffic, and all the rest.

This doesn’t just make life hard for people in private cars, it makes it hard for taxis and buses to move through crawling traffic. Throughout London and other big cities it isn’t physically possible to take a bus to work because the traffic is so bad – and in London, trains and tubes are hellishly busy (in normal times). The Government (and councils) risk losing public support by what looks like basic incompetence.