Party supporters’ attitudes in Britain towards green issues

Party supporters’ attitudes in Britain towards green issues
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Recent developments in British politics have seen green issues become a settled part of the mainstream political agenda, with all major parties paying attention to and offering policy solutions for the challenges raised by climate change.

There was mainstream party support for the Climate Change Act passed by the New Labour government in 2008 and all three parties addressed the issue of climate change in their 2010 election manifestos. When elected, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition – with no lack of ambition - pledged to be the ‘greenest government ever’Public opinion data from the US has shown clear differences in view between Republicans and Democrats on this issue in recent years.

Given this wider context, what are the attitudes of Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters towards? Are Conservative supporters less likely to be ‘green-minded’ overall, even given David Cameron efforts to improve his party’s reputation on environmental concerns as part of a wider modernisation strategy, epitomised by the slogan ‘vote blue, go Green’. Moreover, there have been tensions and disagreements between and within the coalition partners over the relative emphasis on economic growth versus environmental protection and the broader shift towards a low-carbon economy. This blog post uses evidence from relevant national surveys to look at convergence and divergence in party supporters’ views on green issues. Throughout it use five categories of party support: Conservative; Labour, Liberal Democrat; other party; no party.[a]

First, we assess attitudes towards climate change over time using evidence from the British Social Attitudes surveys which have regularly gauged views on the topic of transport and climate change since 2005. TABLE 1 compares levels of concern for the effect of transport on climate change based on data from 2005 and 2011 (the most recently available survey). Interestingly, given the persistence of green issues on the wider political agenda, we can see that there has been an across-the-board decrease in concern for the impact of transport on climate change, with the largest falls for Conservative supporters and those who do not support any party. The percentage of Conservative supporters who are very or fairly concerned declined from 79.8% in 2005 to 59.0% in 2011. The decrease was smaller amongst Liberal Democrats, falling from 87.4% to 80.0%.

TABLE 1 Concern for transport and climate change: Percentage ‘very concerned’ or ‘fairly concerned’

 

2005 (%)

2011 (%)

Change: 2005-2011

Conservative

79.8

59.0

-20.8

Labour

83.0

69.9

-13.1

Liberal Democrat

87.4

80.0

-7.4

Other party

81.1

68.3

-12.8

No party

78.3

59.9

-18.4

Source: British Social Attitudes surveys. Weighted data.

Question wording:  ‘How concerned are you about … the effect of transport on climate change?’.

Next, again based on data from the BSA surveys for the same period, we can compare the proportions of party supporters who think that the current level of car use and air travel, respectively, have serious effects on climate change. The same set of categories of party supporters is used in TABLE 2.  There is a somewhat similar pattern to that evident in TABLE 1. For both questions, on car use and air travel, there have been clear decreases in the proportions of Conservative supporters who agree with either proposition (falling by 13.6% and 8.9%, respectively). The picture is more varied for the other groups: There are over time decreases for car usage for Labour and Lib Dem supporters, but the reverse is the case for views on air travel. Those who do not support any part register a tiny decrease in agreement with the first question (on car usage) but show a large increases in agreement with the second question (air travel).

TABLE 2 Impact of car use and air travel on climate change: Percentage ‘strongly agree’ or ‘agree’

 

2005 (%)

2011 (%)

Change: 2005-2011

Car use and climate change

Conservative

71.8

58.2

-13.6

Labour

81.4

70.4

-11.0

Liberal Democrat

81.1

75.5

-5.6

Other party

73.5

66.8

-6.8

No party

68.4

67.6

-0.8

Air travel and climate change

Conservative

68.1

59.2

-8.9

Labour

64.5

68.3

+3.8

Liberal Democrat

73.2

74.5

+1.3

Other party

66.1

64.4

-1.7

No party

46.1

63.9

+17.8

Source: British Social Attitudes surveys. Weighted data.

Question wordings:

‘How much do you agree or disagree that … The current level of car use has a serious effect on climate change.’

‘How much do you agree or disagree that … The current level of air travel has a serious effect on climate change.’

 The evidence from the BSA survey clearly shows that both concern for the effects of transport on climate change and perceptions of impact relating to motoring and air travel has clearly declined amongst Conservative supporters in recent years, although patterns were more differentiated for other party-political groups. What about differences in opinion on other aspects of the environment? We examine party supporters’ views towards the traditional economy-environment trade-off. These comparisons are made using an online survey undertaken for the author by YouGov in summer 2012.[b] The sample consisted of adults aged 18 and over living in Britain. The survey covered both environmental protection and climate change issues, in particular replicating some of the questions from the Gallup organisation’s longstanding polling in this area in the US.

TABLE 3 shows attitudes towards the traditional trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth. Again, there are marked differences in the views of party supporters. As we might expect, given the party’s ideological beliefs in relation to the liberalisation and de-reregulation of markets and economic activity, Conservative supporters are less likely to prioritise protection of the environment (less than a third do) compared to all other categories. A majority of Liberal Democrat supporters prioritise environmental protection, with two-fifths of Labour supporters also doing so. Again, the difference in attitudes is most marked between Conservative and Liberal Democrat supporters. What are also noteworthy are the high levels of ‘don’t know’ responses for Conservative, Labour and non-supporters, which indicates that this is a particularly tricky trade-off to make. Levels of don’t know responses are much lower for Liberal Democrat and other party supporters (which includes Green Party supporters), perhaps reflecting that the former have clearer – and long-standing - views on this dilemma. Indeed, governments are elected by voters who presumably want both to be achieved. It is reasonable to assume that support for environmental protection could have been higher if the wider economic context was more propitious.

TABLE 3 Environmental protection and economic growth

 

Con

(%)

Lab

(%)

Lib Dem

(%)

Other party (%)

No party

(%)

Environmental protection

32.5

40.3

55.4

50.6

41.4

Economic growth

18.8

18.5

21.7

9.9

37.8

Don’t know

48.6

48.6

22.8

39.5

20.7

Source: Survey of attitudes towards the environment and climate change, 2012. Weighted data.

Question wording: ‘Which one of these statements about the environment and the economy comes closer to your view?’

Next, TABLE 4 shows attitudes towards higher prices, higher taxes, reduced standard of living and slower growth in order to protect the environment, showing the proportions who say they are ‘very willing’ or ‘fairly willing’ to accept each of these measures. Across the board, Liberal Democrat supporters are most supportive of these measures (with the exception of a reduced standard of living, where minor party supporters are equally accepting) followed by minor party supporters (affected by the presence of Green Party supporters). Interestingly it is not Conservative supporters, but Labour supporters, who are least likely to accept measures which could incur additional costs for consumers, households, employees and businesses. It is clear that Liberal Democrat supporters – as befits their party’s traditional concern for green issues – are more likely to favour environmental protection over economic growth and more willing to incur financial and economic costs to help the environment.

TABLE 4 Accept economic constraints in order to protect the environment

 

Con

(%)

Lab

(%)

Lib Dem

(%)

Other party (%)

None

(%)

Pay much higher prices

22.4

15.8

42.4

28.4

16.2

Pay much higher taxes

20.6

13.6

34.4

27.2

12.1

Accept a big reduction in  your standard of living

15.8

8.7

30.4

30.9

14.6

Accept much slower economic growth

45.1

37.1

61.5

50.0

42.9

Source: Survey of attitudes towards the environment and climate change, 2012. Weighted data.

Question wording: ‘To what extent are you willing or unwilling to accept each of the following?’

Another way of comparing attitudes toward the environment is to use the New Environmental Paradigm (NEP) scale, a well-established instrument which measures underlying values about the environment (Dunlap et al. 2000).[c] Here we used a reduced subset of the original 21-item NEP scale, consisting of five questions. We show responses to the separate questions, rather than mean scores for the overall scale. Depending on how each question is worded, TABLE 5 shows the proportions who ‘tend to disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ or who ‘tend to agree’ or ‘strongly agree’. It can be seen that Conservative supporters are least likely to offer the pro-environmental response to most of the statements. Liberal Democrat supporters, conversely, offer the most pro-environmental response, so the difference between the two groups of supporters is considerable in each case. For example, while 31.4% of Conservative supporters think the ‘ecological crisis’ has been greatly exaggerated, twice as many Liberal Democrat supporters think so (60.5%). Interestingly, across items, Labour supporters find themselves in between – if not necessarily equidistant from - the supporters of the other two major parties.

TABLE 5 Revised New Environmental Paradigm scale

 

Con

(%)

Lab

(%)

Lib Dem

(%)

Other party (%)

No party

(%)

The so-called “ecological crisis” facing humankind has been greatly exaggerateda

31.4

42.3

60.5

37.0

43.7

The balance of nature is strong enough to cope with the impacts of modern industrial nationsa

41.0

53.1

64.0

51.9

56.1

The earth is like a spaceship with limited room and resourcesb

67.7

74.1

82.4

64.6

69.9

If things continue on their present course, we will soon experience a major ecological catastropheb

36.4

56.3

64.4

50.6

47.9

Humans are severely abusing the environmentb

66.1

72.4

81.7

65.0

73.5

Source: Survey of attitudes towards the environment and climate change, 2012.

aPercentage who either ‘tend to disagree’ or ‘strongly disagree’.

bPercentage who either ‘tend to agree’ or ‘strongly agree’.

Overall, the survey evidence presented here indicates that there is divergence in public attitudes on green issues when we look at different groups of party supporters. Conservative supporters tended to be less green-minded than those who follow the Liberal Democrats. This was evident in relation to concern for and perceptions about the impact of climate change, prioritising the economy or the environment, willingness to accept the economic costs of environmental protection and broader ecological values. Of course, this broader examination of party supporters’ views raises the more specific question of which subgroups of Conservative supporters are less likely to be ‘green-minded’, and why?

Author

Dr Ben Clements

Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester

bc101@leicester.ac.uk


[a] Details on how the BSA measure of party support is constructed can be found here in the ‘Technical Details’ section for the most recent report, pp. 161-162): http://www.bsa-29.natcen.ac.uk/downloads.aspx.

[b] The survey was funded by a British Academy Small Grants Award with additional support provided by the College of Social Science, University of Leicester. The question used to measure party support was as follows: ‘Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or what?’

[c] See Randy Dunlap et al. (2000), ‘Measuring endorsement of the new ecological paradigm: a revised NEP scale’, Journal of Social Issues, 56 (3): 425–442.

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