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Political Leadership

Voters want political leadership on climate change

21 February 2024

In early 2024, Labour announced a reduction in its green investment commitments if it were to win power. Voters want consistency on climate change, whichever party is in power.

Following repeated political attacks, worsening economic conditions, reports of internal disagreements, and endless lobby briefings, Labour announced during the first week of February, 2024, that their pledge to spend £28 billion a year on green investment had been reduced to just under £24 billion (across the entire parliamentary term). It’s important to take stock of the public mood, and what voters will make of the shift in policy.

How much do the numbers matter?

There’s good reason to think the public was never wedded – or opposed – to the £28 billion figure: big, abstract numbers like this are not how voters think about the green transition. But reducing the financial commitment has meant lowering the ambition of universally popular policies like home insulation. In that very real sense (damper, colder homes), it matters – and so do the ‘optics’. Flip-flopping on climate leadership is unlikely to win Labour any votes, just as Rishi Sunak’s announcements of delays to some net zero policies last year didn’t increase support for the Conservatives.

Voters want consistency on climate change, whichever party is in power.

Leadership and U-turns

Beyond the question of how many billions will be invested, the public and businesses want and expect political leadership on climate change. The government is viewed by the public as being ‘out of touch’ when delaying and rolling back on net zero policies, and the word most commonly selected by the public to describe politicians (of any party) watering down net zero commitments is ‘untrustworthy’.

YouGov polling, conducted just after the Labour announcement, shows that 44% of the public thinks the Labour party is not taking climate change seriously, compared to 29% who do. Separate YouGov polling from this week shows that 41% of Labour voters see government U-turns as ‘a bad sign’.

Why do voters support green policies? 

Polling data shows clearly and consistently that people are worried about climate change, and voters and MPs across the political spectrum support the principle and the ambition of cutting the UK’s carbon emissions by 2050.

The wide range of climate impacts people expect the country to experience in the next ten years include rising bills and costs – so a programme of investment that stimulates growth and reduces spiralling energy costs from insecure gas imports is likely to be a vote winner. And message testing shows that voters are not easily persuaded to drop their support for green spending by the argument that net zero will ‘cost the government billions we could be spending on other more pressing areas’.

Green policies have to be (and feel) fair 

When it comes to the UK’s net zero targets and specific green policies like ramping up home insulation (one of the immediate victims of the downgraded investment figure), there is wide support across political divides. But the path to net zero has to be (and feel) fair. Green measures (like insulation) can save households money – but also have an upfront cost unless they’re subsidised in a fair way. Many people are willing to make changes in their own lives to help tackle climate change – from cutting down household energy to making dietary changes. Strikingly, even some of those on the lowest incomes say they would take on extra costs to tackle climate change.

But the top 1% of earners in the UK are responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions in a single year as the bottom 10%, so household changes made by those with the highest carbon footprints have a dramatically bigger impact – and this group is much more able to bear the costs of the transition.

Climate Barometer data shows that the public feel the fossil fuel industry and energy companies should pay the majority of the costs when it comes to reaching net zero. And in research with working class voters, more than half agreed that it is important to combat climate change but “people like me should not be paying the cost of policies to reduce global carbon emissions”. 

So perhaps the missing piece of the puzzle for voters on the financing of green policies is the question of ‘who pays’ and how this kind of investment will create the conditions for a truly fair, green transition – something a focus on the headline investment figure could too easily obscure.

The latest from the Political Leadership timeline:

Policy Insight 8th April 2024

Green Alliance policy tracker: March 2024 update

The Green Alliance Net Zero policy tracker has monitored government policies since 2020. The March 2024 update compares progress against the emissions pathways set out in the Net Zero Strategy, last updated in 2023. The report concludes that across the whole economy, and for many individual sectors, there is a continued lack of progress on decarbonisation, and adds that ‘strong leadership is missing across the political spectrum’.

Beyond the material threat to decarbonisation this lack of leadership poses, Climate Barometer tracker data is clear that voters want and expect leadership on climate change.

Its absence therefore also undermines policies which require buy-in and acquiescence from the public, including the transition from gas boilers to electrified heat pumps.

Opinion Insight 21st February 2024

ECIU polling: more voters had heard about Labour’s green investment ‘U-turn’ than the policy itself

In the wake of Labour’s announcement that their green investment pledge would be scaled back, the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) commissioned snap polling from Opinium.

Only 14% of people reported being ‘very aware’ of Labour’s (previously) proposed £28 billion a year investment plans. This is worth noting, as a significant amount of debate within green policy circles has focused on this specific number (but most of the public wasn’t aware of it in the first place).

Roughly double the number of people (26%) said they were ‘very aware’ of the decision to reduce the £28 billion pledge, though, suggesting that for a significant number of people, the intense media debate around whether or not Labour would ‘U-turn’ would have been the first time they had encountered the policy.

Read our analysis taking stock of what the policy shift from Labour is likely to have meant to voters here.

Opinion Insight 8th February 2024

YouGov polling: Labour voters see government U-turns as a bad sign

YouGov tracker polling from February 2024 shows the British public have a mixed response to governments announcing policy U-turns, with roughly even numbers overall saying it’s ‘a good sign – showing they are willing to listen and change their minds when people complain or situations change’ (36%), and saying it’s ‘a bad sign – showing they are incompetent, weak, or have not thought their policies through properly in advance’ (34%).

There are differences between voters though: Conservatives are more likely to look favourably upon government U-turns, with 51% seeing U-turns as a good thing. Those intending to vote Labour tend to lean the other way, with 41% opposing them.

In the context of the Labour Party’s announcement it will drop its prior commitment to spending £28 billion a year on green investment, Labour voters are unlikely to support it if they view it as a U-turn.

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