Trouble ahead in 2019?

YouGov sets out challenges for businesses over the next 12 months

James Robinson, Founder of Woburn Partners

February 2019


Running a business is hard work, but pausing to reflect on the challenges ahead is part of every CEO’s day job. It is impossible to assess reputational risk without looking beyond your own business and sector in order to understand how the world is changing. 


As we enter a year in which the odds of another UK election are stark, populism is on the rise from Brazil to Bulgaria, and the possibility of another EU referendum looms, businesses need more support than ever to understand just what is going on.

Pollsters may have had bad press of late, but Yougov was the only polling company to accurately predict the shock result of the 2017 election. So who better to hear from than Yougov's Head of International Polling, Marcus Roberts?

On a cold January morning in Westminster, Woburn Partners hosted a number of clients and leaders from business, law, NGOs and the creative industries at an intimate breakfast with Marcus, to hear his take on what 2019 has in store.

Unsurprisingly, Brexit comprised a large part of the discussion. It seems that public opinion falls slightly in favour of staying in the EU, due to a shift in the position of people who previously answered "don't know" when asked whether they wanted to leave or remain. 

But Marcus warned against any automatic assumption that Brexit would be easily overturned in a second referendum. Remain's lead is steady but still fragile - and we have been blindsided by enough recent campaigns where the numbers indicate one side "can't lose" (Hillary 2016 anyone?)

As Marcus outlined, any election depends on turnout. Given the strength of feeling a second referendum would evoke on all sides, we could see a surge in young remainers, disillusioned leavers, or both.

Of course the question on the ballot paper would be critical. A three way vote between remaining, leaving with a deal and leaving with no deal, could see the latter option emerge as very popular. It is easy to see how a campaign led by hardline Brexiteers could style this as a "clean break", making it very difficult for the other campaigns to avoid repeating the mistakes of 2016: listing endless numbers and figures, and neglecting to appeal to the "heart" over the "head".

In the scenario of another general election, the outcomes are also unclear. There are reasons for the Tories to be optimistic. There is a small (but steady and significant) Conservative lead, largely attributable to the fact more voters prefer May to Corbyn. There is a marked and steady increase in support for the Conservatives amongst the working class (C2DEs) - a group that is disproportionately represented in the most marginal seats. And if Corbyn fails to support a remain agenda via a second referendum, he risks losing the youth vote, including the 29-39 year old demographic that was so crucial to his strong 2017 showing.

But Labour would be dealt a strong hand in an election where the Government was effectively pleading for votes, on the basis that it is too weak to get its Brexit plan through Parliament, and desperately needs a bigger majority. Despite apparently growing support for the Tories, C2DEs are also broadly supportive of left-wing policies. From rail nationalisation to rent caps, to increasing income tax for the top 5%: those blue collar workers so crucial to swing seats could be persuaded by a Corbyn agenda.

More globally, populism was a key theme we can expect to hear lots more about in 2019, with working class voters a key constituency in the battle between national and global narratives in countries across the world.

Fascinatingly, it appears that the success of the Brexit and Trump campaigns may have made it easier for blue collar workers to be more socially liberal. In the UK and USA we can see a rise in the numbers supporting socially liberal policies, and a move away from immigration as the most important issue. The same is not true in France, Germany or other countries where voters do not feel they have had a 'moment of reckoning.' Perhaps once they have expressed their anger, they can move on. 

Marcus did have two pieces of interesting advice for supporters of a liberal order dismayed at the slide into populism. The first: change your language and policies to include people who feel left behind. The second: stop putting George Osborne and Tony Blair live on air from Davos as your spokespeople.

As a boutique PR firm advising a range of businesses and individuals on their public reputations, we strive to keep clients up to date with the political environment and how it can affect organisations across a number of sectors.  We look forward to working with Marcus and other experts on polling and public opinion to support all our clients in the year ahead. 

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