Welcome to our review of 2019: another year of Brexit and another general election. We are putting this review to bed before the outcome of the election and so we don’t know if the Conservatives ultimately managed a significant majority, or had a shock similar to that of 2017. At the time of writing, a Labour victory looked almost impossible, and Jeremy Corbyn had not seen the kind of surge witnessed in 2017, despite many of his policies being popular.
While we have looked at politics in this edition, it’s always a surprise to many clients that politics is only about 0.3% of our business, even in an election year. Tech and pharma companies, consumer goods and government are our main clients – politicians not so much. Similarly, much of our work no longer involves asking questions – we have, for example, just been awarded the contract to measure what people look at online for the UK from January 2021.
The issues facing Britain remain challenging – an ageing population, public services needing major investment, record employment, but also record concern over low wages and inequality, as well as falling investment. Both the Leader of the Opposition and the PM are very unpopular by historic standards.
Both Labour and the Conservatives have promised to increase public spending, which the public welcomes. The majority also say they favour tax increases to pay for this if necessary, although what people say and who they vote for are not necessarily the same: a key issue is always perceived competence.
The year saw climate change finally recognised as an issue, with some 78% of us saying we are heading for disaster if we don’t make major changes soon. The Oxford English Dictionary has chosen 'climate emergency' as word of the year. Sales of electric cars hit 10%. But we are only decarbonising our homes at the rate of 220 a week – we need to be hitting 15,000 a week, and soon, to meet our targets for carbon reduction. There is no sign of a serious global consumer revolt against fast fashion – or flying. Annual global passenger numbers rose 7% last year to 4.4 billion, as people in developing countries start to take the sort of flights we already take for granted.
The public remain worried about the state of the country as a whole and in 2019 Britons were among the most negative in the world about the future, with 79% saying the country was headed in the wrong direction. The widespread feeling that we face an uncertain future is pervasive – one of the biggest shifts in Britain over the last decade has been the ‘loss of the future’: in 2003 only 12% of us thought our children would have a worse life than us. Since the 2008 crash it has risen, and now sits at 45%. That is a huge psychological change, and coupled with a long slowdown in income growth for most people, explains the national mood.
Most of us think we have a housing crisis in Britain. Economic confidence remains low. Statistically, we are due a recession and the public expect an economic fallout from Brexit, in the short-term at least.
But as you read this we will have finished the election campaign, and it will nearly be Christmas, and so I’m going to focus on the positives. The first is that, in 2019, Britons continue to believe we have more that unites us than divides. We are not divided into ‘Anywheres’ or ‘Somewheres’ – in 2019 we found Leave and Remain voters equally 'attached' both to their local area and to Great Britain. Traitors? Saboteurs? Best confined to newspaper headlines.
Second is that whoever has won the election, we are heading for considerable increases in public spending on the NHS and police services, as well as infrastructure investment – which we say we welcome.
While Britons see little sign of Brexit divisions healing any time soon, and contemporary discourse is far too toxic, the British public has become significantly more liberal on moral issues over the last 30 years. Our happiness has been rising for the last few years, according to the Office of National Statistics and we are taking more exercise.
Our report ‘Trust: the Truth?’ this year found no new crisis in trust – we have never trusted politicians. Although we are frustrated over Brexit, trust in ordinary people has actually been rising, and we trust experts more than in the past, as our annual Veracity Index shows this year.
British institutions such as the monarchy, the NHS, BBC and armed forces remain popular (if not impervious to scandals and challenges). As last year, globally, our reputation among the public is still holding up – the UK remains one of the most well regarded countries on the planet, despite Brexit. In America, Trump has retained relatively positive personal ratings in a polarised country, but has severely dented Brand America globally. Brexit has not done the same to Britain.
All that remains for me is to wish you and your family our best wishes for Christmas and for 2020 – with the prospect of a new decade of surprises; hopefully some of these will be positive. It is, after all, Britain – one mustn’t grumble!
Chief Executive, Ipsos MORI
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