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‘Greener than thou?’ Party Supporters and the Environment in Britain - Dr Ben Clements, University of Leicester

 

Dr Ben Clements is Lecturer in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester. His areas of research include public opinion towards the EU and foreign policy issues; public opinion on environmental issues; the impact of religion on political behaviour and social attitudes in Britain; and religious issues in British politics. He has a monograph forthcoming with Palgrave, entitled Religion and Public Opinion in Britain: Change and Continuity. His recently-published research on public opinion towards environmental issues in Britain includes:

‘Political Party Supporters' Attitudes towards and Involvement with green Issues in Britain’, Politics, (2014) doi: 10.1111/1467-9256.12046.

‘Research Note: Exploring public opinion on the issue of climate change in Britain’, British Politics, (2012), 7(2): 183-202.


Introduction

The mainstream political parties in Britain have devoted more attention to the environment in recent years, as issues such as climate change have assumed greater prominence on the policy agenda. 

Viewed as a typical valence or competence issue, albeit not one playing a prominent role in general election campaigns or at the forefront of many voters’ concerns, David Cameron's repositioning of the Conservative Party may have allowed them to more credibly compete with the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties on this issue. 

Shortly after the coalition government had been formed in May 2010, Prime Minister Cameron said he wanted it to become ‘the greenest government ever. However, the coalition’s time in office has seen recurrent tensions and reported ministerial clashes on green issues, with the Liberal Democrats generally seen as articulating and standing up for green causes, while the Conservative Party has been accused of diluting its green credentials. 

The tensions over environment issues are all the greater because recent years have seen difficult economic times which can make green concerns seem a much lower priority compared to the ‘bread-and-butter’ issues of growth, jobs, living standards and public services.

Given this wider political context, this article investigates the attitudes of party supporters on green issues. Can we discern any clear patterns in these attitudes? We examine two areas.

  • First, the general engagement of party supporters with green issues, in terms of their environmental activism and attitudes.

  • Second, the opinions of party supporters on more specific issues which have emerged – or perhaps re-emerged - causing tensions within and beyond the coalition government.                          

Environmental activism and attitudes

TABLE 1 uses attitude data from the British Social Attitudes surveys

Using data from the 2010 survey, which asked a detailed set of questions on environmental issues, we can compare both activism and attitudes for five groups classified on the basis of whether they support a particular party or not: Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, other party, or none. 

First, looking at different types of activism shown in the first section of TABLE 1, we can see that, with the exception of being a member of a group, Liberal Democrat supporters are more likely to report having signed a petition, given money to a group and been on a protest march or similar. 

Across groups we can see that being a member of a group or participating in a protest are the least common activities, with lending one’s name to a petition being the most frequently-reported activity (ranging from 14% for supporters of minor parties to 31% for Lib Dem supporters)

Is the greater engagement of Lib Dem supporters in their levels of activism also reflected in their having greener attitudes towards the environment? First of all, we can compare party supporters’ willingness to incur financial costs in order to help protect the environment. Results for these questions are shown in the second section of TABLE 1. These relate to higher prices, higher taxes and cuts in living standards, with the proportions willing to accept these costs reported for the five different groups. 

A clear pattern emerges: across all three questions, Liberal Democrat supporters are more likely to accept the price of environmental protection, particularly in relation to living standards. Even so, there is never majority acceptance for incurring these costs, which peaks at 35% amongst Lib Dems for the acceptance of higher prices. Of course, views on these sorts of ‘trade-off’ questions can be influenced by wider economic conditions and individuals’ personal circumstances. In economic good times, public willingness to incur the costs of environmental protection may well be greater.                                                       

TABLE 1: Environmental activism and attitudes by political party supported

 

CON(%)

LAB(%)

LIBDEM (%)

OTHER(%)

NONE (%)

Environmental activism

Member of a group

6

5

7

3

6

Signed a petition

20

20

31

14

20

Given money to a group

15

17

29

12

11

Taken part in a protest/demonstration

1

1

7

5

5

To protect the environment

Very or fairly willing to pay higher prices

27

25

35

23

23

Very or fairly willing to pay higher taxes

20

24

32

18

17

Very or fairly willing to accept cuts in living standards

20

19

31

21

18

General attitudes

Very concerned about environmental issues

17

28

32

18

18

Many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated - agree

52

30

23

31

43

Too difficult for someone like me to do much about the environment - agree

29

30

19

34

39

I do right for the environment even if it costs more money - agree

40

34

48

40

33

No point doing what I can for environment unless others do the same - agree

52

41

36

38

44

We worry too much about future of environment and not enough about prices – agree

47

44

29

41

55

All we do in modern life harms the environment – agree

47

50

59

43

64

We worry too much about human progress harming the environment – agree

39

37

24

32

41

Britain needs economic growth to protect the environment - agree

57

46

42

35

36

Source: British Social Attitudes 2010 survey.

The final section in TABLE 1 shows the responses of party supporters to a series of questions probing general views on the environment. Some of these questions are clearly worded in a pro-environmental direction, other less so, and in all cases the proportion agreeing with the statement posed is shown. What are the main observations can be made about the attitudes of party supporters? 

First, it is obvious that Lib Dem and Labour supporters are more likely to report high levels of concern about green issues: 32% and 28%, respectively, say this compared to 17% of Conservatives. 

Secondly, Liberal Democrats appear less likely to adopt a somewhat fatalistic stance on the environment, being less likely to agree that it is too difficult for themselves to do something about the environment and that there is no point doing what they can if others don’t do the same.

Third, Liberal Democrat supporters are least likely to agree that we worry too much about environmental problems and not enough about prices, and this is also the case in relation to worrying too much about human progress harming the environment. Similarly, they are least likely to support the view that many claims about environmental threats are exaggerated.  So while Liberal Democrat supporters appear to have the greenest credentials based on their responses to several of the questions, Conservative supporters seem less environmentally-friendly in some of their views. They are, for example, most likely to think that environmental threats are exaggerated. Moreover, Conservative supporters are most likely to think that that growth is needed in order to protect the environment (57% compared to 46% and 42%, respectively, for Labour and Lib Dem supporters). In other respects, though, their attitudes are broadly similar to those expressed by Labour supporters.

Party supporters: Current environmental policy debates

What about those policy issues which have been fraught areas of debate and disagreement within the coalition government? We look here at four issues: climate change, fracking, wind power and nuclear energy. Another area where we might expect differences of view are on the issue of climate change, given that scepticism – about its causes and consequences and the necessary policy response from government - seems to be a stance more likely to be found amongst pockets of the Conservative Party and within parties further to the right within the party spectrum – UKIP and the BNP.

Climate change

Attitudes towards climate change have increasingly been the subject of polling in recent years, and TABLE 2 presents data from several surveys undertaken by YouGov, focusing on a question asking about the cause of global warming. TABLE 2 shows the proportions of party supporters who take a view at odds with the mainstream scientific consensus, thinking that either (a) the world is warming but this is not due to human activity or (b) do not think it is getting warmer at all. We can see that Conservative supporters are more likely to side with either of these statements compared to Labour or Lib Dem supporters, but, interestingly, their scepticism is generally exceeded by that of UKIP supporters (and by wide margins in most of the surveys). A survey of UKIP councillors conducted by the ComRes and the BBC in July 2013 found that 81% thought that climate change either was not happening or human activity was mainly not responsible. Across polls Liberal Democrat supporters are the least likely to think these statements are true, with Labour supporters tending to be close to the views of Lib Dems in the most recent polls.

TABLE 2: Attitudes towards climate change by political party supported

Per cent saying either ‘The world is becoming warmer but not because of human activity’ or ‘The world is not becoming warmer’

 

21-22  June

2012

26-27 March

2013

1-2 April

2013

20-21 June

2013

19-20  September 

2013

CON (%)

47

47

41

47

44

LAB (%)

31

40

25

29

19

LIB DEM (%)

 19

29

18

25

13

UKIP (%)

-

75

59

61

46

Source: YouGov.

Fracking

Climate change has had a much higher national policy profile for some years now, but an issue which has emerged under the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition has been that of shale gas fracking, which has engendered opposition nationally amongst environmental campaign groups and within affected local areas, where there have been organised protests. This is also an area where polling evidence sheds light on the views of party supporters. Data are shown in TABLE 3, which reports the proportions within each party group in support of fracking. Conservative supporters are more positive towards fracking, with Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters less in favour. The limited data shown here indicate that Conservative support has firmed up over time (from around two-fifths to about three-fifths being in favour). UKIP supporters occupy a position fairly close to that of Conservative supporters, showing majority support for fracking.  

This pattern was also been found in a survey of MPs undertaken by Populus in June-July 2013. Conservative MPs were much more likely than Labour MPs to think that the government should encourage fracking. The former were also more supportive than the latter of fracking taking place in their constituency. The greater support amongst Conservatives is not just evident on a national level. A local survey of attitudes towards fracking, undertaken by Populus in early 2013 in Tatton in Cheshire, also found that those who said they had voted Conservative at the 2010 general election were more likely to support fracking in their area than were Labour or Lib Dem voters or those who did not vote. 


TABLE 3: Attitudes towards fracking by political party supported

(various questions, per cent supportive)

 

YouGov

18-19 October  2012

YouGov

6-7 December 2012

ICM

9-11 August 2013

YouGov

1-2  August 2013

YouGov

19-20 December 2013

CON (%)

42

44

58

61

65

LAB (%)

31

31

41

29

37

LIB DEM (%)

37

29

49

45

40

UKIP (%)

-

-

54

61

56

OTHER (%)

-

-

45

-

-

Source: YouGov and ICM.

Nuclear energy and wind power

The issue of nuclear energy - specifically, the building of new nuclear power stations to replace Britain’s ageing infrastructure - has also been a thorny issue for the coalition. 

Of course, nuclear energy has been a long-running issue in British politics, divisive both party-politically and in wider society. We can use polling data to assess views on nuclear power as well as wind-farms, both energy sources which are thought to be important for generating future energy needs.

TABLE 4 shows (a) the proportions supporting greater use of wind power and nuclear power and (b) the proportions supporting government expenditure on these forms of energy generation. Looking first at attitudes towards wind power, we can see that Conservatives are consistently less in favour compared to Labour and Lib Dem supporters, and this difference is evident across both forms of question wording. Second, Conservative supporters are generally more supportive of nuclear power than are Labour or Lib Dem supporters, and this is evident across multiple opinion polls. In the one poll where separate data are available for UKIP supporters, they are very close to Conservative supporters in their views on wind-farms but are somewhat less supportive of nuclear power.

TABLE 4: Attitudes towards wind power and nuclear power by political party supported

Per cent saying ‘more than present’ (2011-12) or ‘The government is right to spend money encouraging this form of energy’ (2013)

 

24-25 November 2011

17-18 May 2012

18-19 October  2012

22-23 November 2012

7-8 February 2013

1-2 August 2013

24-25 October 2013

Wind farms / wind power

CON (%)

43

44

49

38

48

52

42

LAB (%)

62

61

64

60

64

72

62

LIB DEM (%)

79

69

67

59

78

79

72

UKIP (%)

-

-

-

-

-

51

Nuclear power stations / nuclear energy

CON (%)

48

56

57

54

60

64

72

LAB (%)

33

27

36

34

31

41

42

LIB DEM (%)

31

41

33

35

33

60

48

UKIP (%)

-

-

-

-

-

56

54

Source: YouGov.

Summary

As befits their party’s longer-term reputation on green issues, Lib Dem supporters generally show higher levels of activism, greater concern on environmental issues and appear more willing to accept the costs of environmental protection and to think that personal effort is worthwhile. Labour and Lib Dem supporters’ views are often similar, although it is clear that the former are less inclined to accept the economic costs of environmental protection.

On some issues, Conservative and UKIP supporters tend to hold broadly similar viewpoints, such as greater scepticism about climate change, although this tends to go against the greener image cultivated under Cameron’s leadership. Given the point made earlier about the relative lack of importance of environmental issues at recent general elections, it is perhaps doubtful if the Conservative Party can win over centrist voters solely on the basis of its reputation on environmental issues, particularly given the tensions which have arisen within the coalition government and the frequent claims from the media and opposition parties about the diluting of the party’s green credentials.

Further reading

Carter N. (2014), ‘The politics of climate change in the UK’, WIREs Climate Change, doi: 10.1002/wcc.274

Connelly, J. (2011), ‘Vote Blue, Go Green, What's a Bit of Yellow in Between?’, in S. Lee and M. Beech (eds), The Cameron-Clegg Government: Coalition Politics in an Age of Austerity. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Taylor, E. (2012) ‘Environment. Concern about climate change: a paler shade of green?’ in A. Park, E. Clery and M. Philips, eds, British Social Attitudes 28. London: Sage.


 

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