24 Feb 2023

MHP Group launches Wave 5 of the Polarisation Tracker

Divided by political identity, united by hardship, suspicion and pessimism, we launch Wave 5 of the Polarisation Tracker.

Union Jack with crack through it
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Wave 5 of the MHP Group Polarisation Tracker, produced in partnership with Cambridge University Political Psychology Lab, is now available.

In Wave 4 of the Tracker, published in summer 2022, we found a strong correlation between a belief that the economy is performing poorly and hostility towards elites. If your fortunes are worsening, you are more likely to believe that the ‘people in charge’ are aloof, conspiratorial and actively hostile to your interests.

Since then, the economy has worsened and across the board people we surveyed are now more pessimistic about their own, future generations and our collective prospects.

So what effect has that had about how the British public now feel about elites?

The public are suspicious: Three quarters of voters believe ‘people in power often work together to frustrate the will of the people,’ while two thirds believe ‘mainstream media aren’t really independent, they work together to push the elite’s political agenda.’

This populist critique straddles the political divide and presents major challenges to businesses, media brands and other institutions. It also creates a vacuum unscrupulous political actors could step into. At a time when we are already divided this is a vulnerability that we have a responsibility to address

Elsewhere, the data uncovers a deep sense of misgiving and pessimism about the road ahead. Divisions persist between groups, but there are points of unity, and in general the public is united in despair. The cost of living crisis resonates through our entire findings – 85% of respondents told us they were experiencing financial difficulties. A rise from our previous tracker.

Everyone agrees things look and feel bleak. There is a widespread belief that future generations will have it harder than ones before and that Britain is headed in the wrong direction as a country. When people think the system is rigged against them – even if it isn’t – hostility and support for civil disobedience can rise.

So this time, we conducted questions to test how people would feel if tensions continued to escalate. Would people have sympathy for striking workers, for those who refused to pay bills they could not afford, if people took part in unlawful protest? Whilst theory suggests economic hardship will divide we uncovered a more generous picture – at least for now.

Using a vignette based on a story in Panorama, we found a high degree of sympathy for those who were struggling so refused to pay their bills or taxes. This means the momentum behind the ‘do not pay’ movement may continue to gather pace, and support. The Government may find it increasingly difficult to deliver on its agenda. Unprepared businesses could find themselves caught in the crossfire.

In previous waves, voters have told us they are broadly unimpressed by businesses speaking out about political issues, and the hostility towards brand activism (especially related to identity politics) has grown since Wave 4.

With recession looming, however, there is one field where brand activism is much more welcome: Economic policy. We found widespread support for the outspoken criticism senior executives from the British Chamber of Commerce and Evercore made  on the economic instability during Liz Truss tenure as Prime Minister. We found widespread support.

There was support too, for brands that satirised Truss’ performance and seven week long Prime Ministership.

Underneath these findings remains a cause for real concern. Animosity between different groups in the UK remains high and increased. While our polling offers glimmers of hope that sympathy can cross divides, the environment we are operating remains one where tensions are likely to increase further.

As in the previous waves of this research we have worked with Lee de Wit and David Young at Cambridge University’s Political Psychology Lab. Their insight and analysis has strengthened both this research and the clarity of its implications.

All is far from lost but the signs are ominous, and their implications for leaders complex, challenging and unignorable.

Download Wave 5 of the Polarisation Tracker.

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