From populist to unpopular: why a reliance on opinion polling is coming back to bite Boris

Despite a predilection for governance by opinion poll, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been left staring into the abyss after falling foul of public opinion. But bad behaviour at Number 10 should not be interpreted as a weakness of the value of data insights in government or communications.

Not long ago, the Johnson administration could be best characterised as “government by focus group”. Voters were asked – often on a daily basis – for their views on new policy ideas.

Championed by Dominic Cummings, polling and data rose up the pecking order, often at the expense of traditional sources such as government advisers and liaison with backbenchers. Yet, despite a populist strategy, Boris Johnson has managed to lose public trust over the lockdown party scandal – and voters are now turning against him in their droves.

Opinion polling has been a key policy driver for all recent Prime Ministers, who have seen intrinsic democratic value in ‘giving the public what they want.’ The idea being that policy would be more palatable to those impacted by them if they are underpinned by data, insights and a deep understanding of voter sentiment.

While Labour’s John Prescott claimed to never read focus group findings, the party is said to have spent £22 million on them during the 1997 General Election campaign.

If this approach is used effectively, understanding public opinion and concerns enables politicians – and business leaders – to craft the right messages at the right time. In times of crisis, like during the pandemic, this presents the opportunity to develop effective tactics and maintain public confidence.

However, polling guru Sir John Curtice this week voiced his belief that feelings towards the Prime Minister have seen a stark swing among those who voted Conservative – some for the first time – at the last election.

Citing research by Theresa May’s former pollster, James Johnson, he suggested that, amongst people who voted Conservative in 2019, “more people now disapprove of the Prime Minister’s performance in office than approve.” Johnson recently asked first-time Conservative voters whether they would vote for the Prime Minister again as part of a recent focus group and, incredibly, “not one person put their hand up.”

The PM may, quite understandably, want to play down the significance of such findings, trying to frame the narrative around his delivery record in office. But will do so at his peril.

His government has canonised public opinion like never before, leaving the ruling party in an awkward position now that the tide has firmly begun to turn.

The approach now being driven by No. 10 is ‘Operation Red Meat’, a rapid-fire, populist policy push designed to appeal to the Tory faithful. This includes tried-and-tested announcements on the BBC licence fee, immigration and levelling-up.

While this may appease some who feel that ‘Partygate’ is a storm in a teacup, overall public opinion – so valued by this Prime Minister – is increasingly turning against him.

Another James Johnson poll this week epitomised the belief of Red Wall voters that he and the Conservatives have overpromised and underdelivered.

Voters will be going to the ballot box in May this year for the UK’s local elections, and politicians of all colours will be closely monitoring the polls as indicators of what May result. Only time will tell just how acutely the current public criticism of the Partygate scandal will translate into lost votes.

Turning to the corporate world, on the other hand, understanding political sentiment is integral to any successful public affairs campaign.

To seek to influence policy and inform political debate, we first have to get under the skin of what policymakers feel about a certain issue – or whether they feel your cause chimes with the views of the constituents who elect them. Stakeholder engagement is, fundamentally, about understanding shared interests and areas of common cause.

At FleishmanHillard, we work regularly with clients across a huge variety of industries to understand political (and public) attitudes towards important areas of their respective businesses and use this valuable insight to gauge how policymakers may respond to their arguments. Strategically and creatively, we blend this insight-based approach with traditional engagements, digital influence and bring bold innovation to our clients every day. Get in touch to find out more.

Charley Sambridge, senior account manager

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