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How populist is Liz Truss? Only Project Fear will save Sunak

A bit. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)


August 4, 2022   5 mins

The contest to decide who enters Downing Street and then goes on to win the next election will be decided by a candidate who can reach both populist and fiscal conservatives. This is because the Conservative Party’s voter base is roughly split into two relatively equal groups: one which ranks immigration and the culture wars among their top three issues, and another which does not. Will it be Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak who succeeds in winning over populist voters?

Truss currently has a 34-point lead on Sunak. While she did make her views known on culture war issues more emphatically than Sunak, she has not appeared to be the most hawkish on immigration. (It was Sunak, not Truss, who proposed cracking down on illegal immigration by detaining Channel migrants on cruise ships.)

And yet, as my new survey of 445 2019 Tory voters reveals, she has still emerged as the frontrunner among national populist voters.1 Figure 1, below, shows how support for the leading contenders varies by respondents’ views on immigration. The pattern is clear and highly statistically significant: immigration sceptics back Truss, while those who are content with current numbers lean slightly towards Sunak.

Figure 1. Source: Prolific Academic, 1 August, 2022.

It appears to be one of the principal issues differentiating between the two candidates’ support bases. Table 1, below, shows there is little to distinguish between them on race, gender, age, support for Boris Johnson and even education level. Instead, the most significant differences appear over issues rooted in the national populist attitudes underpinning support for Brexit: immigration and the belief that things in Britain were better in the past.

Table 1. Source: Prolific. N=437-445.

I also asked people to choose their top three issues. When these characteristics are placed in a statistical model, restrictionist immigration attitudes come out as by far the most important predictor of Truss support. Ranking culture wars a top issue is also significantly associated with Truss support, as is being retired/at home. Warmth for Boris is next in importance, though just shy of statistical significance, with greater Boris support predicting a Sunak vote. That is, when you screen out national populist attitudes, those drawn to Boris for other reasons — perhaps his personality or economic liberalism — lean towards Sunak. Sunak, not Truss, is the Boris continuity candidate.

My next aim was to test which factors could yet influence the leadership race. The sample was randomly divided into three equal parts and people were shown separate paragraphs. Group A saw a paragraph constructed from a BBC story about the Bank of England warning of a deterioration in the UK’s economic outlook. Group B read an excerpt drawn from a report about how Truss tried to scrap hundreds of “woke” civil service posts. Group C read part of an article about Sunak wanting to stop the “woke nonsense” he claims is “permeating public life”.

Among those who read the gloomy economic news, Truss barely led Sunak, 52-48. But those reading about Truss’s battle with wokeness backed her 65-35. Meanwhile, people who read about Sunak’s criticism of wokeness still backed Truss by a 60-40 margin. The only statistically-significant effect was for the bad economic news story, which benefited Sunak even if he still fell 4 points shy of Truss. This would suggest some version of “Project Fear”, or bad economic news more generally, could help Rishi.

However, not every voter was swayed by economic bad news. Figure 2, below, shows that economic gloom only affected individuals who did not list immigration as a top three concern (blue line). As shown at the left of the chart, reading about the Bank of England’s economic worries significantly shifted them towards Sunak and away from Truss. Indeed, notice the gap between the red (populist) and blue (economic conservative) lines for the leftmost points in the chart is 30 points (.75 vs .45 chance of backing Truss).

Figure 2.

Figure 2 also reveals how national populist voters are more resistant to economic appeals: reading about economic headwinds made little impression on them. Nearly 8 in 10 of those concerned about immigration (red line) who read the bad economic news story still supported Truss, compared with little more than 4 in 10 of those not highly concerned about immigration (blue line) — a statistically significant difference. As in the EU referendum, cultural considerations trump economic worries for national populist voters, who typically backed Brexit out of a desire for reduced immigration. They are, as a result, more resistant to economic appeals.

What about the culture war? This is becoming a signature issue for Truss, and Figure 3, below, reveals why.

Figure 3.

Comparing the one in four Tory voters who place the culture war in their top three (red line) with the three in four who do not (blue line) shows that reading about Truss’s efforts to tackle wokeness in the civil service significantly boosted her fortunes with the former group: from seven in 10 of them to nine in 10, a significant increase. Sunak’s speech railing against wokeness, by contrast, drew relatively little support from those concerned with the culture wars. At best, doing so may have helped him by a few points. It may be that cultural conservatives do not see him as credible on these issues in the same way as Truss or Badenoch.

This means that if Sunak is to stand a chance, he must consolidate support among fiscal and liberal Tories. This means he needs to foreground the economy and his role as the person who can steward the UK through the difficult headwinds to come. Truss, meanwhile, should burnish her culture war and immigration credentials to solidify her support among the national populist half of the Tory base. Indeed, the last thing she should be doing is issuing more U-turns on cultural questions, levelling up and immigration.

Of course, issues aren’t everything. Roughly 45% of pro-immigration Tories back Truss and a third of anti-immigration Tories back Sunak. Personality and vision, as well as a perception of who is likely to win, still matter hugely.

But there are other factors, too. If Truss is chosen as the party’s next leader, and if she follows through on her cultural policy agenda, this is likely to play extremely well with the national populist voters who have disproportionately left the Tories. Regaining their support is key for future Conservative success. On the other hand, if she loses focus or fails to maintain a coherent policy agenda, she will pay a substantial price at the ballot box — whether in this leadership contest or, more likely, in the general election that follows.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Polls carried out on the Prolific platform, though weighted 50-50 on gender, are not representative samples, and this data leans towards somewhat better educated, younger, and more liberal/Remain voters than Tory supporters as a whole. However, the sample allows us to robustly look at how support for candidates differs between demographic and attitudinal groups.

Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and author of Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press, 4 July).

epkaufm

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AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

And yet research after the Brexit Referendum showed the greatest factor for Leavers was ‘taking back control’, with immigration and nostalgia playing smaller roles. Perhaps Eric Kaufman, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, is cherry picking what parts of ‘populism’ he uses for his arguments?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

‘taking back control’,

yes but once you dig (and not very deep) for different people it meant different things.
Larry Elliott (the economic editor of Guardian) voted Leave because “Taking back control” for him meant more state intervention in the economy.
Danial Hannan (the libertarian right) wanted UK to be like Norway (free movement, paying money etc) with EU but he also wanted the country to Singapore in the Atlantic.
ï»ż

Guy Haynes
Guy Haynes
1 year ago

Some interesting analysis, but to me it’s more simple than all that.

I’m not sure whether either candidate has this country’s people’s interests at heart, but I can be absolutely certain that Rishi doesn’t.

Even if it could be argued that he was right to knife Boris when he did, he certainly wasn’t acting in the country’s best interests when he formed his leadership website all those months ago. And he’s completely in thrall to the supranational bodies – who in turn are doing the bidding of the massive multinationals and the super rich.

So if you want immigration to be curbed, if you want small businesses to be prioritised over multinationals, if you want the UK to forge its own way after Brexit, if you want the government – even temporarily – to prioritise getting energy bills down at the expense of net zero…. then you can forget it, because his backers will not let him even if he wants to (something I seriously doubt).

At least there is a small chance that Truss might govern in the general population’s interest. Perhaps that’s more important on the “populist” wing which might explain the stats above.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
1 year ago

Both of them Weimar style politicians. No ideas, no solutions, no drive or determination to succeed. They are both weak cardboard cutouts spouting prepared meaningless phrases for change, that even if they mean them and have the will to carry them out (LOL) will amount to little more than arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
The NHS is a disaster, the education system is utterly incompetent. The armed forces
.. the police
 the judiciary
. we can make quite a list here

There are very few politicians who were willing to say it as it is and do the necessary to give the people of this county a future. Thatcher was one of them, but these two


This county resembles Weimar more with each passing day.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

And what was the ‘result’ of Weimar may I ask?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Weimar style politicians. 

Democratically elected by the British People. And now the Tory base will make one a PM.

 Thatcher was one of them

I know, why don’t you dig her out and make her PM.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

You are getting over-excited.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

I am not.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  polidori redux

Just like ‘old times’? Somethings never change!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

Lady Margaret Thatcher was cremated at Mortlake, so that could be difficult.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

Thanks, I learned something new today.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeremy Smith

I want a leader not a British version of Joe Biden. When things get tough through continuous squandering of the inheritance of our forefathers I think we will get one and the Jackboots on our throats that comes with it.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Sure, vote for him or her.

Saul Benglemann
Saul Benglemann
1 year ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

“No ideas, no solutions, no drive or determination to succeed” applies equally well to Starmer and Davey. If these are the best our education and politics can produce, then there is something deeply flawed with these institutions. Systemically flawed?

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
1 year ago

 If these are the best our education and politics can produce, then there is something deeply flawed with these institutions. Systemically flawed?

Not beamed from space but the product of the British society.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

Labelling attitudes to ‘woke’ and to ‘the culture wars’ is so broad, so ill defined, as to be meaningless. Eg: is an anti-racist, green activist gender critical lesbian woke or non woke? Is being critical of gender stereotypes woke? Or is that transphobic?
At what point does critical race theory challenge a liberal sensibility with regard to British history? I don’t know, you tell me. If the questions don’t make sense you can be sure the answers won’t.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

No they are not broad, they are as narrow of the mindset of The National Socialist agenda in nu britn which is LBGT, climate change and ” racism’… is the weapon, that no one seems to dare challenge?

Why does the debate never involve, for example, inmigration in Japan?…. comparison of anti white discrimination in Africa or Pakistan? White representation on TV and in the media in Africa, Pakistan ? the illegality of LGBT, under pain of capital punishment in many muslim countries?

Can you please define racism?…

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

Auslander, basic instinct, but not all basic instincts are right-thinking in a civilised society.
My point was that ‘woke’ was now contradictory therefore meaningless as a term.

Paul King
Paul King
1 year ago

It is clear to Red Wall voters like me that if you vote Labour you get an North London liberal party, and when you vote Conservative you get a West London liberal party. We don’t want either. Proportional Representation would not go far enough. MPs are supposed to represent their constituency in parliament, not represent their party in parliament. We should do away with political parties altogether and make MPs stand as independents. The only whips should be in the hands of the constituents!

M. M.
M. M.
1 year ago

Eric Kaufmann wrote, “The pattern is clear and highly statistically significant: immigration sceptics back [Liz] Truss, while those who are content with current numbers lean slightly towards [Rishi] Sunak.”

Most populists doubt that Sunak will enforce the borders because he switched his position on the Rwanda policy in order to win the race for the prime ministership. This policy requires the deportation of illegal aliens to Rwanda. He opposed this policy until he wanted to become prime minister.

By contrast, Truss has consistently supported the Rwanda policy and wants to expand it.

That is still not cause for complete enthusiasm for Truss. After winning an electoral competition, politicians often renege on what they promised.

Such broken promises are common among Republican politicians in the United States. On the campaign trail, they talk the right talk about enforcing borders, but after winning the race for political office, they do not walk the right walk. Under pressure from Hispanic groups and wealthy business owners (from both political parties), these Republican politicians allow the border to remain open.

The result is that open borders have swelled the Hispanic electorate, and Hispanic political power pervades California. Hispanics run the state via the Democratic party, which Hispanics dominate. Democrats control all aspects of government.

By 2040, the United States will cease being a Western nation, due to open borders. By 2040, most Americans will reject Western culture, and Hispanic culture will dominate. In California, most residents already reject Western culture, and Hispanic culture dominates.

In Great Britain, only Nigel Farage can be trusted to enforce the borders. He is a genuine Brexiteer and has advocated national sovereignty over pan-nationalism. He is a champion of Western culture.

As for Truss, only time will tell whether she will enforce the borders.

Get more info about this issue.

Last edited 1 year ago by M. M.
Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
1 year ago
Reply to  M. M.

Oh, no, it’s you again!

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
1 year ago

Brelievers couldn’t care less about the economy – they’re idealists, not pragmatists, and their crusade primarily is a romantic, nationalist one. Dry economic arguments just bounce off them. They’re swayed primarily by emotion, not by balance sheets. Truss’ general incoherence reminds them of themselves. Advantage Truss.  

Guy Haynes
Guy Haynes
1 year ago
Reply to  Frank McCusker

Thank you Frank for summarising the views of half the population so eloquently. I’m sure deep down they’re wrong and you’re right, so it must pain you that in spite of this obvious fact, you still lost the argument.