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Backbone Conservatives

Who are Backbone Conservatives?

(15% of British public)

Firmly conservative in their social and cultural views, strong supporters of Brexit and the historic achievements and reputation of Britain in the world, and the most authoritarian of the segments, Backbone Conservatives, as their name would suggest, are core Conservative voters. They mirror the Labour-voting Progressive Activists on the left of the political spectrum in terms of their ideological focus and drive. 

Older, relatively well off, and relatively well educated, Backbone Conservatives are the most likely to say they are proud to be British.

The table below highlights what an ideal UK looks like for this segment, as well as the issues that are most important to them, the messengers they trust, and their preferred news sources.

Ideal UKMost important issues (Feb)Most important issues (Sept)Trusted messengersMost read news sources
1Hard-workingHealthcare and the NHSHealthcare and the NHSDavid AttenboroughBBC
2HonestBritain leaving the EUBritain leaving the EUClimate scientistsITV
3Environmentally friendlyThe economyThe economyFarmersDaily Mail

I’m incredibly proud to be British, English, whatever. You could say I was being racist by saying English. But I think we are leaders in the way of having good education or trying to have good education. Of having fairness in society, equal rights … We are the leaders of trying to have a better world, a better place for our children. A better place for us. To live more environmentally friendly. So we’re doing all the right things, and I think that’s something to be really proud of.”


Pride in being British across segments

Pride in being British across segments

Backbone Conservatives are the most likely to say that these days we seem to give an advantage to women over men (35%), are the most likely to agree that there is no point in going over the rights and wrongs of our history (81%) and that inequality is not a serious problem in the UK (46%).

Views on gender equality across segments

Views on gender equality across segments

Backbone Conservative attitudes towards inequality and the British Empire

Backbone Conservative attitudes towards inequality and the British Empire

Although they recognise the divisions in society, they are the most likely to think we’ve been through divided times like this before (33%, compared to 27% average) or that we’ve been through more divided times before (10%, compared to 6% average). Linked to their  secure financial and social position, they are the second most likely – after the similarly optimistic Established Liberals – to feel part of a community. However, they feel less safe than Established Liberals, with the majority agreeing that the world is becoming a more dangerous place (90%, compared to 60% of Established Liberals). 

Gardeners having a cup of tea at the Golden Hill Community Garden in Bristol

Confident, comfortable and proud of the country’s history, cultural heritage and the monarchy, Backbone Conservatives have relatively high trust in people (despite believing certain segments, such as immigrants, have a negative influence on society), and they are the most likely to say people in the UK are generally kind (79%, compared to 71% average) and people in my local area are generally kind (83%, compared to 75% average). 

90% of Backbone Conservatives give to charity (the second highest after Civic Pragmatists). They are most likely to say that Britain’s response to Covid-19 has revealed the best of human nature, sharing this optimistic take with Established Liberals, with more than two-thirds of Backbone Conservatives believing we look after each other.

In terms of their self-identity, this segment see themselves as respectful and hardworking, and believe people are responsible for their own choices and status in life.

Life divides between drivers and passengers. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. You can either make it happen and do it or you can sit there and be carried along by everybody else.”

...a good stable job and then you’re able to get on the property ladder and you have savings, or I can take my family on holiday every now and then ... so, comfortable living. Then we can also give back a little bit to society in terms of doing some charity work or some voluntary work.”

With a pride and confidence in who they are and what the country has achieved throughout its history, they are optimistic about what the future holds, with 55% agreeing that the UK is headed in a positive direction (this is the only segment with majority support on this measure). 

Their ideal UK is hard working, honest and environmentally friendly, suggesting the potential to engage Backbone Conservatives constructively on climate change if the right approaches are taken 

Backbone Conservatives on climate change

In keeping with every other segment, Backbone Conservatives recognise that human activity causes climate change, and agree that cutting carbon emissions is an opportunity to create jobs in the UK. They are not ‘climate sceptics’, and show some enthusiasm for and openness to the broad goal of living more lightly on the land, and in a more pro-environmental way. They are the most likely to agree that preserving the beauty of the countryside is a positive benefit of climate action.

I think environmental issues and climate issues I think are really key … I just think there's so much to worry about and so much to think about, it’s difficult to pinpoint something in particular. But just in general, I think we all need to be working more towards living in a more environmentally friendly way. And we certainly do by every little thing that we can. Recycling things, not buying things that are not needed, careful of what packaging we buy."

Ramblers in the English countryside near Gargrave, North Yorkshire

However, a significant minority (34%) believe that climate change is part of the earth’s natural cycle and that human action is not to blame. This segment are sceptical of what they consider to be ‘environmentalist’ approaches, alongside a perception that environmental campaigners are ‘worthy’ or judgmental in tone.

The environmental enthusiasts, the fanatics, will be rubbing their hands looking at what’s going on at the moment saying, ‘fantastic. Isn’t the world a cleaner, better place?’ Yes, that’s fine, if you’ve got a job and you can feed your family and you’re not waiting for a cancer operation maybe because you can’t get into the hospital. That’s all well and good. So, people are going to be refocused after this on getting back to at least where we were. And that’s not going to happen overnight. This is going to take five years.”

Backbone Conservatives are much more likely to hold foreign governments responsible for causing climate change, with 50% choosing this option in their top three, compared to 33% overall.

Us recycling a bit more and not using plastic straws, whilst it will do a little bit, it’s not nearly going to do enough to change the world in general. That comes from your major oil companies and governments. And as you say, with China, the amount that they put out. So, me deciding to have a steak for dinner doesn’t really make all the difference.”

It’s relevant to each and every one of us, but I still feel unless there’s bigger action on a global scale. If you take China and India, the population of the two combined are almost half of the world’s population. If nothing is going to happen over there for whatever reason, I feel a little bit helpless in the small things that we do and change our lives, obviously will help, but we will never achieve the aims and goals that we need to.”

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ policies

God forbid a few months ago if you were to pull out a plastic straw in public or take it to the checkout, for god’s sake.”

As the quote above suggests, this segment are likely to bristle if lobbied to make personal changes that they consider to be more symbolic than substantive (a suspicion of ‘virtue signalling’ is likely to be high among Backbone Conservatives). There is limited interest in reducing their own meat and dairy intake (perhaps linked to their support for British farmers), very little enthusiasm for vegetarianism, and none at all for veganism. Coupled with the fact that this segment expresses the highest level of agreement that environmentalists are hypocrites who fly on holiday while lecturing the rest of us about how to live (63%, compared to 51% average), Backbone Conservatives are unlikely to be receptive to messages that emphasise an ‘environmental lifestyle’. 

However, they are positive towards aspects of ethical consumption that focus on buying local, reducing food waste and supporting British farmers through eating seasonally as a route to sustainability, and their willingness to undertake common sense, practical individual actions, such as recycling and reducing electricity consumption, is higher than average.

Personal actions to stop climate change: Progressive Activists and Backbone Conservatives

Personal actions to stop climate change: Progressive Activists and Backbone Conservatives

Backbone Conservatives on Covid-19

Backbone Conservatives are unlikely to be persuaded by messages that position climate change as an emergency. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, they were, after Disengaged Traditionalists, second least likely to agree that climate change requires urgent (38%) over gradual (48%) societal action.

I just think a lot of the other issues are far more important at the moment. Particularly with things like Covid-19 at the moment, the environment has very faded into the background. It was something that was very high on people’s agendas previously but actually now isn’t even being discussed at the moment.”

They are the segment most likely to agree that if climate change was as bad as some people claim, governments would already be doing much more about it (71%), perhaps reflecting their high levels of trust in political institutions. In May, they were the second most likely segment, just behind the apathetic Disengaged Traditionalists, to agree with deprioritising climate change in the recovery from Covid-19: Coronavirus is a national emergency and we must put all other issues on the backburner to deal with it, including climate change (52%). That said, 44% felt differently – that Coronavirus is a national emergency but we must not forget about other emergencies and make sure we’re tackling climate change at the same time

Perhaps due to changing perceptions of the urgency of the Covid-19 crisis, by September this had flipped for Backbone Conservatives and other segments, who are now more likely to agree that we must not forget about other emergencies, such as climate change (53%), instead of putting all other issues on the backburner to deal with Covid-19 (39%).

Backbone Conservatives are persuadable on climate change, but are only likely to respond well to carefully crafted approaches that emphasise pragmatism and the preservation of the countryside, avoid environmentalist rhetoric, and offer positive, constructive narratives that foreground the need for people to take responsibility for themselves, without assuming everyone else will want to make identical decisions.

I’ll tell you the truth, I don’t really talk about it with people much. I mean I just tend to do my thing and they do their thing really. I wouldn’t try and preach to anybody about it because I don’t really think that’s my right to do that really. I let them live their own life."

They are less likely to agree with policies that curb industries. For instance, Backbone Conservatives show the second lowest agreement with the government only giving bailout support to polluting companies like airlines and car makers if they make major changes to become more environmentally-friendly (46%). Messages about growing the UK’s green industries to avoid reliance on countries like China, on the other hand, receive almost universal support (94%), higher even than Progressive Activists or Civic Pragmatists.

Agreement and disagreement with investing in green industries to reduce over-reliance on foreign countries

Agreement and disagreement with investing in green industries to reduce over-reliance on foreign countries

Torrential rain caused flash flooding in North Yorkshire, damaging farm buildings and sweeping animals away

NEW: Net zero

For Backbone Conservatives, it is most important that, in efforts to reach net zero, the UK should work together with other countries to reduce emissions, to prevent basic costs from rising and to maintain economic growth. Retraining workers in the coal and gas industries is also important to them, as is ensuring that they themselves don’t have to change how they live – with an emphasis on the “have to”. Backbone Conservatives show an openness to change their lifestyle for environmental reasons, but it’s important that they retain individual freedom to make the choice.

While the majority believe environmental and economic outcomes are achievable and not mutually exclusive, Backbone Conservatives want to be sure that the country is economically healthy. They are unsure about whether net zero will be good for various aspects of society, including for the economy and the creation of new jobs. They express concern about cost, both monetary and otherwise, and are uncertain about how changes will be funded or implemented.

So, if it's done in the right way, there should be more jobs but that's key to how the Government goes about it because, I think, initially, it's going to have to fund it in some shape or form and it's just how that money is managed and it needs to be put the best of use so the government gets value for that money.”

It's making life more expensive. I mean, the cost of electric cars is just stupendous. … Then, it's what do you do with these, is it lithium, batteries? There's no way of disposing of them, is there? They're digging holes and burying them, so again, that's another problem for another generation to have to solve.”

Perceived impact of net zero policies on the economy by segment. Data: Jan 2022.

In focus groups, Backbone Conservatives talked about ensuring that the UK is more independent in its energy supply. While some seemed open to the idea of oil exploration in the North Sea to ensure self-sufficiency, fracking was seen as a bad idea, as it would have too many negative side effects for people in the UK. Focusing on a well-planned transition to renewables could appeal to this segment’s desire for the UK to be energy independent.

Risk: While Backbone Conservatives generally find economic and environmental outcomes to be mutually compatible, there is a risk that they feel they have to choose between the economy and the environment.

Opportunity: Backbone Conservatives may respond well to sound economic and nation-growing arguments for net zero in maintaining the economy, seeking energy independence through renewables and retraining workers

Narrative recommendation: Policies that protect natural landscapes framed as a way of feeling proud of the British countryside will speak to Backbone Conservatives, who may also respond well to net zero policies that simultaneously protect the environment and the economy.

For Backbone Conservatives, fairness means treating everyone the same and everyone playing by the same rules. Backbone Conservatives are the most likely of all segments to want the same rules to apply to everyone, considering it unfair for there to be “one rule for them, one rule for us” between the government and ordinary people. This means rewarding hard work and closing loopholes.

Yes, I think it means equality, being treated in the same way. Treating others in the same where you'd expect to be, sort of, treated.”

We hear in the news like for example Amazon, you know. They're a big company that probably don't pay what they should, they don't pay tax as they should. And I think especially now in this economy, I think the government should really collect the right taxes from such big firms. And also from those either with businesses and rich people, like, you are taxed if you have an income but if you have a business, there are so many loopholes that special accountants can explore. And, you know, [they] can evade taxation.”

Backbone Conservatives agree that, ultimately, everybody will be affected by climate change, while recognising that some groups of people, such as people on lower incomes or people living in flood-prone areas, will be more affected than others. Their examples largely draw on the UK context, and the international dimension of who might be affected more by climate change is only vaguely mentioned. In the international context, Backbone Conservatives largely believe that large polluting countries should do more to protect the environment, but that does not mean that smaller countries should not be doing their bit.

The more flooding we get, whether that's in the UK or lower lining, so lower lying countries throughout the world. They'll be forced to have, sort of, mass migration simply because their countries are flooded, they've got to go somewhere so it is a concern that this extreme weather, it's going to lead to more things happening.”

I think it affects everybody, I mean, [it] probably depends obviously [on] where you live and everything. And which areas are affected worse, but it does affect everybody.”

It's going to affect the lower income people because they live in older buildings which, obviously, it's being flooded.”

When discussing fairness, Backbone Conservatives tend not to consider whether special rules based on different needs are necessary, although they believe some situations require case-by-case judgement. For example, while the majority were open to paying some kind of flight tax (36% against), they raised concerns about ensuring that those on lower incomes were not left unable to travel while the rich continue to fly.

So, I don't really fly much, however, I think it probably depends on what the amount is. … The worry is flying will be left to the people who can afford it and those people that can't, they may have something going on in their personal life and they need to get away for that second time in the year, it might not be a regular occurrence, it might just be a one off, they've got to go to an emergency or something. So, I think I'm, kind of, for it but I think ... it has to be [... judged case by case.”

While Backbone Conservatives care about not being forced to change their way of life, many do express a willingness to voluntarily change their personal actions as long as freedom of choice is preserved. For example, many are willing to reduce their meat consumption for both environmental and health reasons (50% are open to eating less meat or already don’t eat meat), but they are against the government telling people to eat less meat and against the removal of meat options in public cafeterias.

In the last couple of years, I've made a conscious decision, for health reasons, to eat less meat. I say ‘health’, it wasn't specifically health, but health and environmental [reasons] to eat less meat. But I do eat fish, so maybe I'm not, kind of, cancelling out, but I'm trying to eat more fish for health reasons.”

I don't think I eat meat more than once a day, anyway, so even cutting it out once or twice a week wouldn't be a big deal, but I don't think [we should] cut it out in schools. ... It should be a freedom that you get to choose. My children's school always has a vegetarian option so some days they will opt for that, but I don't think it should be taken away totally.”

Stated willingness to reduce meat consumption among Established Liberals, Loyal Nationals, Disengaged Traditionalists and Backbone Conservatives. Data: Jan 2022.

Despite being the most likely to own their own homes and despite comprising on average of medium-income households, the majority of Backbone Conservatives say they are unlikely or very unlikely to install a heat pump in their home in the next five years (59%). The main reasons they give are the cost of a heat pump (53%); that it would require too many other changes in their home (34%); and uncertainty and distrust around heat pumps as a new and unknown technology (26%).

Engaging Backbone Conservatives

Build on well-established research on engaging audiences with firmly held conservative values, and animate them over battleground issues to do with rural life: for example, food standards that protect farmers’ livelihoods and climate change-related weather effects. Remove the signifiers of left-wing environmentalism without undermining the substance of the message. Find and amplify genuine success stories around British leadership on the environment.

Key takeaways

Use their political power

This segment is essential for shifting the Conservative Party’s centre of gravity towards genuinely Paris-compatible climate ambition and policies. When they flex their muscles, they can be very powerful indeed. Persuade them to be advocates – on their own terms, and in their own language – within their key networks. This means supporting Backbone Conservatives to be vocal within constituency meetings or at social events about their passion for a form of environmentalism that grows out of conservative values rather than left-wing ones. 

Use the robust evidence on engaging centre-right audiences on climate change

In keeping with previous research on engaging conservative audiences on climate change, this segment values moderation over radical change. Avoiding wastefulness – food, energy or even money (in high-carbon industries that no longer represent an efficient investment) – is a safe and motivating starting point for Backbone Conservatives. Being pragmatic rather than idealistic, seeking balance and continuity with the status quo (continuing with progress already made) and invoking the power of intergenerational duty are all established ways of connecting effectively with Backbone Conservatives.   

Double-down on issues they already care about

Messages around protecting and upholding rural ways of life, farming as a vocation, and British agriculture as an industry and symbol of national pride will land best with this segment. Leading on the negative environmental impacts of meat and dairy farming will be less effective than encouraging a low-waste, high-quality approach to food and diet across the board – pointing to the virtues and benefits of local, trusted suppliers rather than demonising farmers and the farming industry. 

Avoid red flags (like a ‘meat tax’) to avoid culture war dynamics

Some topics are simply off-limits for Backbone Conservatives: being clear what not to prioritise with this segment (e.g. around state-imposed taxes on dietary choices) is crucial for navigating around the risks of a culture war. Over time, their perspective on this kind of policy may change, but this means campaigners taking Backbone Conservatives (and other less-engaged segments) on a journey that they are genuinely supportive of. 

Change the messenger

Backbone Conservatives are not sceptical about climate change or other risks to the natural environment, but they are very sceptical of typical ‘environmentalists’ and what they perceive as a ‘worthy’, paternalistic and largely hypocritical worldview. Scientists, farmers and representatives of rural life, and people who have been impacted by climate change in the UK and have a credible, authentic story to tell, are likely to be more trusted communicators for this constituency. In many ways, it is the messenger rather than the message that Backbone Conservatives are likely to object to.

Take pride in what Britain has done well on the environment

Backbone Conservatives are likely to look to the government for evidence of how serious climate change is. Point to practical, tangible achievements – improvements in energy efficiency and high standards in farming/welfare – rather than grand claims about global leadership. They want to hear about the things we are doing well at, in so far as they maintain a way of life that is in keeping with their values.

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