This post is by Emma Rose, director of Unchecked UK.
Over the past eight weeks we have learnt a lot about what British people think is important. We have learnt that the public see compassion as a desirable response in a crisis. We have seen how much people care about the wellbeing of others in their communities. And we have learnt that citizens can – and do – change their behaviour when they understand the reasons for doing so, when these reasons chime with their own interests, and when rules are seen to fairly apply to all.
As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, the question is whether the broad reservoir of support for the government’s response will hold. The polling indicates that, to some degree, how well post-Covid policies are received will depend on how squarely they chime with the values that have been activated during the pandemic.
Now, a new poll – carried out for Unchecked UK by Ipsos MORI – provides specific insights into what level of environmental protection voters are likely to find acceptable, as the UK deals with the economic fallout from Covid-19 and negotiates its future outside of the EU.
The survey explores attitudes towards regulation among adults aged 22 to 48 in Great Britain who voted to leave the EU in 2016. The findings show there is a compelling case for strong political action to put environmental protection at the heart of post-pandemic recovery plans.
Support for environmental protections and standards
On the back of the current extraordinary threat to lives and livelihoods, British values are likely to be increasingly grounded in a collective appreciation for the protections which ensure our wellbeing. When it comes to the environment, the results of this poll show that the desire for strong protections and standards runs deep.
It finds that 81 per cent of younger Leave voters across the political spectrum think there should be either no change to current levels, or higher levels, of environmental regulation. This holds true for respondents who voted Conservative in December 2019, as well as for Labour voters.
This support extends to specific categories of environmental regulation: 75 per cent of younger leave voters want to increase or keep air pollution reduction targets; 74 per cent want to increase or keep regulations on the production and use of chemicals; 73 per cent want to increase or keep measures to curb overfishing and protect marine life; and 70 per cent want to increase or keep greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Sixty four per cent support maintaining or strengthening current EU levels of wildlife protection.
There is little appetite for less regulation of businesses
In the age of Covid-19, the notions of reciprocity, mutual sacrifice and collective responsibility are paramount. British businesses have received extraordinary financial support during the crisis. Unchecked UK’s poll gives an indication of what the public may expect in return.
It finds that 78 per cent of younger Leave voters think regulation is necessary to ensure fair behaviour by businesses. Seven in ten think large businesses should be regulated more, or that current levels are about right. Just seven per cent want to see large businesses regulated less.
These views must be taken into account. In the current crisis, younger people have put their careers and freedoms on hold. These voters, who support climate action more than any other age group, will want to see their concerns given priority in return for their efforts.
They want stronger enforcement of regulations
Alongside wanting to strengthen UK environmental safeguards, younger Leave voters support stronger enforcement, with just a quarter of this cohort agreeing that regulation is adequately enforced in the UK.
These views are quantified by Unchecked UK research, which has found steep declines in enforcement activity across many areas of environmental protection. Covid-19 has shown that the health of our public institutions underpins the resilience of wider society. Within this context, there may well be broad public support for further investment in the public bodies which enforce our environmental laws.
The crisis is re-shaping the public outlook in ways which will define politics and policy for a long time. As we move into the recovery phase, the costs and benefits of social, environmental and economic deregulation are set to become a matter of intense debate. This poll has taken the temperature of younger Leave voters on these issues, and finds a clear message that, among this cohort at least, there is no appetite for environmental deregulation.
Instead, there is likely to be greater public support in future for regulatory policy making which prioritises environmental public goods; for policies which set out new norms for business conduct; and for proper investment in the public bodies which protect us and our natural assets.
As this poll indicates, these priorities are likely to become the new drivers of government legitimacy. The government would do well to align its environmental policies accordingly.