Hearts, minds, votes: Voting demographics, social attitudes and values in the UK

I created this document as a personal project because I wanted to collect relevant data and to better understand how approaches to understanding social attitudes and moral values might influence framing and messaging. I hope you find it useful and welcome any feedback.


  1. Demographic overview
    Demographic data on recent voting and other trends
  2. Economic and social attitudes
    Opinion research data and attempts to segment by attitude
  3. Mapping values
    Approaches to understanding cultural and moral values 
  4. Beyond the segments
    Implications for framing and narrative

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Three things we learned about how people see the economy

Are we talking about the economy in completely the wrong way?

Framing the Economy is the largest ever study of how the British public understand the economy and how progressive organisations might communicate more effectively. The two-year project, run by NEF, the New Economy Organisers’ Network, the Frameworks Institute and the Public Interest Research Centre, included 40 in-depth interviews across the UK, 55 on-the-street interviews and a survey of 6,600 people.

Here are three things we learned…

Read the full article at New Economics Foundation.

Power to the people (of Preston)

What unifies the disparate measures that fall under the community wealth building banner is their potential to disperse power, wealth, and ownership away from centralized elites and into local communities. And while some of the steps can individually appear small and piecemeal – which is partly a strength as it means they can be put into practice right now – collectively they add up to something greater: a shift away from relying on the post-war social democratic model of taxing and regulating the economy to transforming ownership of the economy.

Read the full article at Next System Project.

Campaigning beyond our comfort zones

Cross-posted to Open Labour, 5/2/16

A recent report by Labour’s centre-right RedShift group on “reinvigorating Labour’s brand” calls for Labour to be more “surprising” and “counterintuitive”. An unnamed advisor is quoted as saying:

“We have to marry [resilient] Labour voters with a wider group by saying something surprising. Labour has not said anything surprising for eight years. We need to do something surprising. Genuinely surprising. I have not seen a Labour politician stand up and say something counterintuitive, surprising or brave for at least eight years. We have some kind of repetitive strain injury about calling the Tories rich toffs – I don’t think it makes a difference at all.”

You could quibble with the “brave” part – taking on the Murdoch media empire seems pretty brave – but there is some truth in the rest, and it applies to movements beyond Labour too.

The report, whose authors include former minister Liam Byrne, is entitled “Brand Labour: Communicating Our Timeless Values in the Brave New World of 2020” – an oddly Kim Jong-un-esque name given RedShift’s mission to win back English seats from the Tories. Its bigger problem is that it doesn’t define what “surprising” and “counterintuitive” mean. A few paragraphs before the call for Labour to stop repeating itself, another unnamed advisor says:

“Where does the Labour brand need to be in 2020? Modern, aspirational, fair, electable, economically credible, using modern language, business friendly, properly one member one vote, more democratic, genuine believers in representative democracy, bottom up, accessible to non-politicians.”

So much for being counterintuitive; this is mostly the kind of bland, vacuous language “modernising” politicians have been coming out with for years. Elsewhere the report offers observations like: “Arguably, there are only two genuine brands in British politics, Conservative and Labour. They are the Pepsi and Coke of politics.”

All of which is likely to fuel suspicions that for many of the report’s contributors being “counterintuitive” means being more like the Tories. This would be a pity, because being more surprising and counterintuitive – and going beyond our comfort-zone issues of inequality and social injustice to create broader alliances – is exactly what the left should be doing.

Consider the call for Labour to be more “business friendly”. After the 2015 general election defeat, Ed BallsMary Creagh and Alan Sugar were among those that queued up to attack Labour for being too “anti-business”. But the idea that you can simply be “pro” or “anti” business – without at least considering what type of business – is meaningless. Is attacking Tesco for squeezing its suppliers pro- or anti-business? How are the interests of corporate bankers aligned with those of a workers’ coop?

This means campaigners need to undermine the “pro” vs “anti” narrative rather than take sides. One attempt to do just that was Jeremy Corbyn’s Better Business website – which had the URL (full disclosure: I built it). Corbyn pledged to “stand up for small businesses, independent entrepreneurs, and the growing number of enterprises that want to co-operate and innovate for the public good” rather than tax-avoiding corporations and private monopolies. His was the only site by a Labour leadership contender dedicated to business.

To be fair, some of the policies were a bit skimpy. It’s hardly a secret that Corbyn went into the leadership campaign lacking a fully worked-out programme. But shadow chancellor John McDonnell has taken up the themes with gusto, as his excellent Manchester cooperatives conference speech showed. Whether he can get a decent hearing – or any hearing – remains to be seen. Labour’s leaders have been more successful at rallying the faithful than communicating beyond leftwing bubbles, while the simplistic “pro” vs “anti” business narrative continues to dominate the airwaves – see Cathy Newman’s recent Channel 4 News interview with McDonnell.

Labour’s “New Economics” speaking tour, featuring academic experts like Mariana Mazzucato and Thomas Piketty, might help, but right now the party’s ability to influence public opinion is severely curtailed. This means we need more powerful organisations outside of Labour. Perhaps they will come out of existing think tanks that have already done good work on these issues – such as New Economics Foundation, High Pay Centre and Centre for Local Economic Strategies. Or maybe they will be forged from new alliances like Business Against TTIP. But they will need the capacity to compete with established, conservative business voices like the Institute of Directors and CBI.

More ambitiously such approaches could help crystallise Jeremy Gilbert’s vision of “a new socialist strategy: an active alliance between workers and those creative entrepreneurs who realise that their interests and those of the big financial institutions are far from being aligned”.

There are other areas where the left can go beyond its familiar concerns, for instance reclaiming the mantle of personal freedom by attacking the bureaucratic surveillance of both the state and private sector in spheres from academia to welfare to work.

We can take inspiration here from the unlikely duo of Yanis Varoufakis and Karl Rove. Republican strategist Rove argued you should attack your opponents where they are perceived as being strongest not weakest. And Varoufakis has argued that the concept of “freedom” should never have been ceded to the right in the first place: “Having failed to couch a critique of capitalism in terms of freedom and rationality, as Marx thought essential, social democracy and the left in general allowed the neoliberals to usurp the mantle of freedom and to win a spectacular triumph in the contest of ideologies.”

Ultimately such strategies may help us win back the prized “centre ground” of English politics that RedShift is so concerned with, without simply drifting to the right or bowing at the altar of big business.

Should we be less “radical” and more “sensible”?

First published in Compass, 7/7/15

Did Labour lose the election because it was too left wing? That’s become a standard explanation in right-wing newspapers and among some Labour commentators. But Hopi Sen – who sits on the right of the party and would be the first to complain about this sort of thing – has a different take:

“Labour went into the election with a costed, centrist policy platform. However, it had spent the previous five years trying to sound as radical as it could – sounding like a party opposed to austerity, angry with the government, eager to take on the vested interests of the rich and powerful on the behalf of the ordinary man and woman. This meant Labour was an SPD* sheep in Syriza clothing.”

Sen exaggerates wildly, yet still takes us closer to the truth than the “too left wing” story: Labour’s rhetoric, if not exactly revolutionary, was – at times – to the left of its policies. On issues around “predator” capitalism, energy rip-offs and the power of the Murdoch press, Ed Miliband was prepared to speak out – and rightly so. But the accompanying measures – like a “two-year freeze” on energy bills – fell flat. Labour tended to highlight the problems and fudge the solutions.

Sen identifies Labour’s earlier, more “radical” rhetoric, rather than its “centrist” policies, as the problem. But polls suggest that Miliband suffered from being perceived as “too weak”, not “too left-wing”. Former policy review head Jon Cruddas offers a more convincing explanation when he says it wasn’t Labour’s earlier vision that was at fault, but that vision’s subsequent narrowing into a series of “retail offers” – an approach mocked by US strategist David Axelrod as “vote Labour, win a microwave”.

Nevertheless, there remains a germ of truth in Sen’s observations, especially for those of us who would have liked Labour to go further in challenging the status quo. In its language, the left does often revel in its own “radicalism”, which can drive away potential supporters. Owen Jones made the point well in an article written several years ago, in which he called for “radical ideas, moderate words”:

“Lefties often think that, if you’re pushing really radical policies, the language you use has to be equally radical. If it’s not, it’s almost seen as betraying your left-wing beliefs. But you can promote ideas with moderate language without diluting their radicalism.”

Spain’s Podemos party has grappled with such issues, and its campaigners have even questioned the use of the word “radical” itself. Sirio Canós, a London-based party activist, says:

“I don’t think labelling the new parties and citizen platforms as ‘radical’ helps in the slightest. First, ‘radical’ as a purely descriptive term is neither negative nor positive, it just describes how different something is from what was there before. Thatcher’s economic policies were radical; so was Mandela’s idea of a rainbow nation.

“But the real problem is that ‘radical’ is not neutral at all. It carries a lot of baggage, mostly negative. I appreciate for most people in activist circles and on the left ‘radical’ has positive connotations, but that’s not the case for wider society. In Spain it’s one of the traditional strategies used by the establishment to discredit new political formations. In most people’s minds, being ‘radical’ is the opposite of being ‘sensible’, and it evokes images of violence and chaos. In a political landscape where the traditional elites have lost all credibility and all they have left is fear, ‘radical’ is one of their greatest allies.”

Canós adds that the most successful campaigns in Spain have not only shown that their policies are just, but also that they are “reasonable, necessary and realistic”. For those campaigns, “the true ‘radicals’ are those that have been destroying our welfare state, privatising public assets and putting their private interests before the common weal”.

In the UK, such views are reinforced by a TUC-commissioned post-election poll, which found that five times as many voters preferred the second of the following statements:

  •  “I want political parties to offer a big vision for radical change in this country.”
  •  “I want political parties’ concrete plans for sensible changes in this country.”

There are reasons not to take such polls purely at face value (what people say motivates them isn’t necessarily what does), and you could question the wording (why are concrete plans “sensible” and a big vision “radical”?), but either way the result adds weight to Jones’s and Canós’s arguments.

One implication of Canós’s advice to be “reasonable, necessary and realistic” is that we ignore the language of “competence” at our peril. The Conservatives framed a whole election campaign around this theme, counterposing Labour “chaos” with Tory “competence”. The Tory manifesto was designed to look like a corporate annual report, with Cameron’s cabinet as the board of directors.

It may be true that governments lose their reputation for competence rather than oppositions winning it, but Labour should have done more to undermine the Tories’ self-image. Instead it seemed scared to hit back, perhaps fearful of reinforcing the Tories’ frame and resigned to losing the war of words on the deficit, which meant the government was never sufficiently pinned down on a trail of fiascos, from empty free schools to universal credit.

John Curtice, who has written a valuable analysis of Labour’s poll defeat, says Labour was narrowly ahead on policy, but suffered heavily on competence, particularly among older voters.

“As many as 40 per cent of the over-65s said that they were voting for the most competent team, compared with 26 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24. Older voters were, by contrast, less concerned than younger voters about policy promises: while 57 per cent of those in the older age group said that they were voting for the party whose promises they liked best, the equivalent figure was as high as 70 per cent among those in the youngest group.”

The non-Labour left, too, shies away from issues around competence, preferring to focus on injustice and inequality. Admittedly, under our current leaders, it isn’t always clear where incompetence ends and deliberate malice begins, but by ceding this ground we make it easier for would-be supporters to reason: “There may be a bunch of bastards in charge but at least they are bastards who know what they’re doing.”

One reason for the left’s reticence about “economic competence” is that it can be code for business as usual: “Britain plc” run by an “expert” elite. But that is precisely why we should challenge the terms of debate. Exposing our opponents’ incompetence helps us resist the anti-democratic idea that a narrow corporate and political elite can run our lives better than we can – a notion that should have been put to bed by the 2008 financial crash yet lives on.

These issues, of course, go beyond language. But language matters, and we must find ways to show that the policies that will lead us to greater equality, democracy and sustainability are not a “radical alternative”, but plain, common sense.

*SPD: Germany’s “centrist” Social Democratic Party.

We need a new set of economic responses if we are not to be utterly defeated

First published in New Left Project, 11/5/15

Are you ‘Old Labour’ or ‘New Labour’? For ‘wealth creators’ or against them? A supporter of ‘aspiration’ or not? The whole debate around Labour’s future direction is being framed in terms that are obsolete or meaningless, or both.

The post-war social democratic model dependent on redistribution through taxation with a bit of regulation (or even an energy ‘price freeze’) is looking increasingly past its sell-by date. It was a model shared to some extent by the various strains of Labour (though “New” went softer on the regulation).

We need a new set of economic responses if we are not to be utterly defeated, which include questions of economic democracy – how we can own and manage businesses more collectively, not just tax them? (This is not to say that our history and traditions don’t matter – one of the points of Robin Murray’s ‘Cooperation in the Age of Google’ is that technological change gives new vitality to the older structure of the co-operative.)

Nor can we rely on trade unions alone to act as a sufficient countervailing force to the excesses of capitalism, despite all the exhortations to ‘rebuild’ them (which again, is not to say they don’t matter – how they can be given new relevance as part of a mission to democratise the economy is another important question).

Turning this into a viable political strategy is hard, but it does also give us the possibility of building much-needed new coalitions, and of starting to undermine some of neoliberalism’s deeply entrenched frames.

Being both ‘pro-business’ and ‘pro-worker’ sounds like another bit of New Labour triangulation, but once we are clear we aren’t talking about any type of business it becomes more meaningful, and offers the potential to build alliances with democratic and small businesses against monopolistic corporations. (And indeed we should not allow ourselves to be branded as simply ‘anti-market’ by those who have presided over a new age of monopoly capitalism; understanding the limits of markets is a very different thing.)

Equally it helps us challenge the language around ‘wealth creators’. Labour MP Pat McFadden, one of the first off the mark to call for a return to Blairism following Miliband’s defeat, said: ‘We need to speak about wealth creation and not just wealth distribution.’  The idea of there being a class of ‘wealth creators’ at the top – on whom we are dependent and to whom we must at best be grateful for a bit of their taxed income – is diminished once we start talking about democratising wealth.

None of this offers easy or short-term fixes. There are glimmers of hope at local level like Preston council’s community wealth building initiative, though the election of a Tory government risks extinguishing them before they have had a chance. Nevertheless we have no choice but to move on to new terrain.  If we just keep saying we need to fight austerity with anti-austerity we will fail.

We must find ways to devolve economic power

First published in openDemocracy, 22/4/14

The left’s love-in with devolution deepened with last month’s Compass-organised letter to the Guardian, signed by everyone from Progress on Labour’s right to Class on Labour’s left, alongside Greens and others. They may have been pushing at an open door in their call for Labour to devolve power. Both Ed Miliband and policy head Jon Cruddas have argued similarly in recent months, with Cruddas stating: “The real divide within Labour is no longer between left and right, but between those that centralise power and those that devolve it.”

Labour must “win power so we can give it away” is the new mantra. The sentiment is right, but it only covers half the picture. If we are serious about devolving power, then we need to talk about economic as well as political power – and much of that is not the government’s to give away; it belongs to centralised and increasingly monopolistic corporations.

That is why it was disappointing that, in an otherwise forward-looking speech on devolving power, Cruddas fell back on a public service cliché uttered by just about every minister since New Labour: “What matters is not whether the provider is public, private or third sector but that it does what the people who use it want.”

But the logic of decentralisation suggests ownership does matter – and no more so than in public services, where the participatory approaches offered alongside devolution, like co-production and relational welfare, make market-based relations centred on private producers and consumers increasingly irrelevant.

Part of the reluctance to discuss alternatives to private ownership is understandable: public ownership has become closely associated with the post-1945 “Morrisonian” model of nationalisation: bureaucratic, centralised and top-down. But it was never the only model, and in recent years there has been a growing interest in public ownership forms that are decentralised, participative and pluralistic.

Two books have made important contributions to this debate. Andrew Cumbers’ 2012 “Reclaiming Public Ownership”, offers a broad definition of public ownership “encapsulating all those attempts, both outside and through the state, to create forms of collective ownership in opposition to, or perhaps more accurately to reclaim economic space from, capitalist social relations” (see Joe Guinan’s review essay for a detailed account).

Cumbers praises “hybrid” ownership models, such as in renewable energy in Denmark: “Denmark’s wind power revolution is neither a story of market-led growth, nor of top-down, state-driven planned developments, but instead reflects a grassroots, community-based initiative, underpinned by decentralized, cooperative and municipal ownership alongside small-scale private ownership.”

But he adds that this has not occurred spontaneously. Bottom-up initiatives still need top-down support, and the state has played a vital enabling role in “establishing targets and the construction of particular institutional arrangements, through rules around ownership and the setting of prices outside pure market forms”.

These themes are developed further in the Jimmy Reid Foundation’s recent “common weal strategy for community and democratic ownership of Scotland’s energy resources“, co- authored by Cumbers. The report notes five key principles of a Nordic approach to energy ownership, which could well be applied elsewhere:

1. Resources should be commonly owned to benefit the community as a whole rather than vested interests.

2. Resources should be geared to social need rather than private economic returns.

3. Support for principles of collective learning and knowledge formation.

4. Development of de-centred institutional structures that spread economic decision making power.

5. A mix of forms of collective and public ownership that allow strategic planning at higher levels to fuse with the encouragement of local democracy and community participation.

Such an approach chimes with Paul Salveson’s 2012 Chartist pamphlet, “Socialising Transport“, which envisages not-for-profit regional operators coexisting with a publicly-owned Intercity network. The latter would be based on the state-owned Directly Operated Railways, but with “more democratic governance involving not only the Department for Transport but employees, the Scottish and Welsh governments, local authorities and passenger groups”.

The other key book is Gar Alperovitz’s “What Then Must We Do?”, published last year. Alperovitz is an economist with decades of experience helping to develop grassroots alternatives in the US through projects like the Democracy Collaborative and Evergreen Cooperatives. He argues: “The old liberal system model let the corporations and elites largely own the system and hoped after the fact to use politics and reform to regulate, incentivise and tax and spend for public purposes. That model, give or take momentary blips, is fading away.” (See Anthony Painter’s summary for more.)

In its place Alperovitz advocates a “pluralist commonwealth” that “draws upon literally thousands of on-the-ground ‘common wealth’ developments to move in a different direction. It rests fundamentally on the principle of subsidiarity: development should begin at the community and neighborhood level, moving up to higher state, regional and national levels only when absolutely necessary. Among the primary local institutions considered are: cooperatives, neighborhood corporations, worker-owned companies, social enterprises, land trusts, and municipal utilities—along with, of course, small scale private businesses and innovative high tech firms, and in many areas, traditional non-profit institutions.”

He envisages a power shift that could take decades as alternative economic institutions displace established ones; this is a long way from earlier left demands to “nationalise the top 200 monopolies”, or even co-operatise them. Whether this approach can scale up to create the systemic change Alperovitz wants remains to be seen. But its appeal is that we start to put ideas into action now rather than waiting for some future utopia. It’s vital work: unless we find ways to devolve economic power, political devolution risks leaving us still more powerless in the face of corporations.