James Frayne is Director of communications agency Public First and author of Meet the People, a guide to moving public opinion. The focus of this column is Theresa May’s conservatism for “ordinary working people”.
Amid the reshuffle reaction and ongoing speculation, the Government made a decision that has been causing a stir online: Theresa May’s abandonment of plans for a vote on the repeal of the ban on fox hunting. In doing so, she cited major public opposition to any repeal. What’s the evidence on voter attitudes? There isn’t actually much data available, and polls in the public domain tend to scratch the surface and offer few detailed crossbreaks. That said, the polls available to us are so clear that we can still draw some firm conclusions. There are three things to consider.
Hunting doesn’t register on the public radar. While no pollsters regularly ask whether hunting is an issue people care about, Ipsos-MORI’s regular trackers of voters’ priorities ask about animal welfare and countryside issues. If active opposition or support for a ban was hugely important for significant parts of the electorate, these options would register this – but none do. Furthermore, in 20 years of attending and moderating focus groups on an array of issues, I can’t remember a single person volunteering any comment about fox hunting without prompting. This emphatically doesn’t mean the public don’t have views on the issue, but that overall it’s an irrelevant issue compared to things like healthcare.
Opposition varies but is universal. The most recent poll I can find on hunting was commissioned a few months ago by the League Against Cruel Sports. The poll registers massive support for the ban staying in place (by 85 per cent to 13 per cent). The fact it was commissioned by a campaign group is not a problem per se, and the high numbers against repeal in this poll are largely mirrored in other polls. Two polls from 2015 – ComRes for the Victoria Derbyshire programme, and an additional poll by YouGov – showed massive public opposition to the ban being lifted. ComRes showed people opposed fox hunting being made legal again by 74 per cent to 20 per cent, and YouGov showed people support the ban by 51 per cent to 33 per cent. And opposition to repeal was found in every group.
It’s strongest amongst groups Conservatives have longstanding problems with. While opposition to repeal is universal, it is very strong amongst the following groups: women; the youngest voters; working class voters; Scottish voters; and Londoners. All of these are groups where the Conservative Party has longstanding problems but where, in some case, the Party has been making gains (Scottish and working-class voters), or where problems are arising (young people, women, Londoners). I understand the Party’s own research also suggests a repeal of the ban is very broadly unpopular.
What does all this mean? For supporters of repeal, their only credible argument has been that it wouldn’t actively damage the Conservative brand or cost the Party votes. On the face of it, the quantitative data doesn’t suggest this would definitely happen. However, reality check, it would send the weirdest message to the electorate about what the Conservative Government thought was important. A vote would dominate news for at least days and would crowd out discussions about things people care about (above all, healthcare). It would look like the Party had taken leave of its senses. It would force the PM into an interview justifying Parliamentary time for hunting and not healthcare and the delivery of an orderly Brexit. This could only be very bad for the Party’s reputation.
Also, while the polls suggest hunting is seen as an irrelevance compared to other issues, if it was put on the Parliamentary agenda, and therefore the media agenda, it would be considered as an important issue by the electorate for a short period. (It would have been awarded “important” status by the Government.) If that happened, it’s hard not to conclude that the abysmal ratings that hunting has with the public as a whole, and with key electoral audiences specifically, would drag the Party’s ratings down. It would be unpopular in itself, but it would also decimate the Government’s attempts to display compassion – which is vital in making progress on policy issues like healthcare, education and welfare reform.
In summary, politically speaking, the Prime Minister was right to drop the issue. It should never have been in the manifesto in the first place and, again politically speaking, shouldn’t make a return anytime soon.