This post is by Emma Rose, director at Unchecked UK.
The UK’s departure from the EU has triggered a number of deregulatory pronouncements from Number 10. Boris Johnson’s recent recent call to business leaders to help identify regulatory flotsam for the scrapheap (a suggestion not greeted with much approval by the business community) was followed by last week’s announcement of a new Better Regulation Committee, tasked with cutting EU red tape for businesses.
Many have questioned the efficacy of such initiatives. Unchecked UK’s analysis of the 2011 Red Tape Challenge finds that it failed on many counts. But, while the government should be aware of the difficulties facing these kinds of regulatory simplification exercises, it should pay even more heed to the question of whether such moves would be supported by voters in key battleground seats.
Unchecked UK’s new research suggests not, particularly when it comes to food standards.
Weakening food standards would be a betrayal
Our research, carried out in partnership with KSBR Brand Futures, and published on 20 January, finds overwhelming support for strong, well enforced food standards among first time Conservative voters in the so-called ‘red wall’ northern constituencies.
The research was carried out in several stages in 2020 with 52 voters who swung from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019, and included teleforums carried out in the constituencies of Burnley, Heywood & Middleton, North West Durham, West Bromwich East, and Wrexham. The project explored participants’ views in relation to regulations in general, and to food standards in particular.
We found that, far from advocating a lowering of standards in the wake of Brexit, the majority voted to leave the EU so that the UK could take back control of making its own laws; with the expectation that these would be strengthened, not weakened.
Indeed, Leave voting participants viewed any potential weakening of food laws as a betrayal of their vote for Brexit, and they expressed strong opposition to any politicians pursuing such an agenda. This view was well articulated by one of our Burnley focus group participants:
“I voted Leave and I wanted a better Britain. I don’t think we should be looking at trade deals with America to compromise what we have now – we should be building on that…”
And by a participant from West Bromwich East:
“I don’t think because of Brexit we should go all easy and forgiving on the rules. I think they’ve been set in place for a reason. I don’t think we should deteriorate from them at all..”
The main conclusions of the research
1. These swing voters lean to the left on economic issues, but are conservative on cultural and social issues. This blend of economic and cultural values manifests itself in strong support for effective rules and public protections.
2. Participants were strongly in favour of well enforced rules and regulations, seeing them as essential to the kind of country they aspire to live in, and necessary to ensure respect for law and order, to keep standards high and to create a fair society. If anything, they would like to see tougher punishments for those who break the rules.
3. These voters feelBritain has always had innately high standards, higher than those of many other countries. They made repeated references to the need to put the “great” back into Great Britain by strengthening our standards.
4. This view holds particularly true for foods standards. These voters are sceptical about trade deals with countries like the United States, and expressed the strong position that under no circumstances should the UK compromise its food standards in order to secure trade deals.
5. These voters do not see cheaper food or increased choice of products as a fair price to pay for securing trade deals if this means standards are compromised. Indeed, participants were actively opposed to the idea of lowering standards as a way to reduce the cost of food.
6. Instead, they felt that, with families struggling to put food on the table due to Covid-19, it is all the more important to have a strong regulatory floor in place to make sure that cheaper food is still safe.
Politicians on all sides should not ignore these findings
These findings provide welcome verification for those of us who have long questioned the assumption (by successive governments) that regulation is unpopular with the public, with the 2016 EU Referendum result often portrayed as the ultimate rejection of regulation.
This assumption is misguided. Far from seeing the reduction of regulation as a high priority for government, new Conservative voters in ‘red wall’ seats are, in fact, strongly supportive of regulations, particularly when it comes to maintaining food standards.
With these constituencies set to represent a key electoral battleground in years to come, politicians across all parties would do well to take note of these views. Swing voters in these seats will be important to political parties’ fortunes not just at the next general election, but in local government elections and elections to the devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales this year.
Deregulatory momentum is already underway in Whitehall (efforts which may be facilitated by the UK-EU trade deal text on ‘non-regression’, which states that regulatory divergence is only a problem where it can be proven to impact trade or investment). While deregulatory proponents in government are unlikely to forgo this long awaited opportunity, our research strongly indicates that any weakening of standards is not likely to be greeted with enthusiasm by the voters that Boris Johnson won over in 2019.