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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.