Exclusive poll: The Tory brand is still toxic

Just 40 per cent of people "would consider" voting for the party at the next election. 60 per cent w

How toxic is the Tory brand? It's a question that often occupies the mind of Andrew Cooper, David Cameron's director of strategy, who has consistently warned the Prime Minister that his party is still loathed by many of the voters that it needs the support of to win a majority next time round.

With this in mind, we conducted a poll with ICD Research on the subject, and the results make for fascinating reading. Asked whether they would consider voting for the Conservatives at the next election, just 40 per cent of the public said Yes and 60 per cent said No. The latest YouGov poll puts the Tories on 37 per cent (Labour is on 42 per cent), although this excludes those who don't know how they would vote and those who wouldn't vote.

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At the weekend, Cameron apologised for his recent comments to Labour MP Angela Eagle ("calm down, dear") and to Conservative MP Nadine Dorries ("'I know the honourable Lady is extremely frustrated"), for fear of appearing sexist. Before this, a leaked Downing Street memo revealed that the government was concerned about its plummeting support among women. Our poll suggests that such fears are well-founded.

The Tories are significantly less popular among women than men, with just 35 per cent of women saying that they would vote for the party, compared to 44 per cent of men. Little wonder when, as I've noted before, so many of the coalition's austerity measures - the abolition of baby bonds, the three-year freeze in child benefit, the abolition of the health in maternity grant, the cuts to Sure Start, the withdrawal of child tax credits from higher earners - hit women and families hardest.

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While Cameron is under pressure to shift rightwards on tax and public service reform, our poll found that a significant percentage of voters still see the Tories as too right-wing.

40 per cent of the public believe the party is too right-wing, compared to 18 per cent who believe it is too left-wing and 42 per cent who believe it is in the right position. Women are more likely than men to believe that the party is too right-wing. 42 per cent said that the Tories were too right-wing, compared to 37 per cent of men.

The results should not come as a surprise. As Conservative MP Nick Boles wrote recently in the Telegraph, "After three years of modernisation, David Cameron had shifted the perception of the party back towards the centre, and of himself even more so - although both were still seen as a bit more extreme than Labour and Gordon Brown. Since 2009, however, the party has shifted back to the Right in voters' eyes and, worryingly, so has he."

30 per cent of people said that the Conservatives "are much more right-wing than me" and 26 per cent said that they are "slightly more right-wing than me."

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Finally, asked how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement that "the Conservative Party is in touch with ordinary people", 31 per cent said they completely disagreed, compared to just 6 per cent who said they completely agreed. 18 per cent agreed with the statement and 28 per cent partially agreed with it.

The conclusion is clear: there are few votes to be won by shifting ever further to the right.

This exclusive poll for the New Statesman was carried out by ICD Research, powered by ID Factor, from 23-25 September 2011 and is based on a sample of 1,000 responses.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.