By Carina Hoerst
Recently, a group of people with controversial stances protested against lockdown restrictions in the US – a particularly concerning move since the protest action was carried out against the ban of public assembly and could increase the infection rate of COVID-19. More Republicans agree that Donald Trump was doing an ‘excellent job’ about the ongoing crisis compared to only 13% of Democrat voters. Recent polls revealed that in the US, such partisan effects might be connected to perceiving a low threat of COVID-19. Similarly, 27% more Democrats than Republican voters adhered to social distancing. This is in line with mid-March survey results, showing that 68% of Democrats voters were concerned about COVID-19, compared to only 35% of Republican voters.
In the UK, public compliance with safety measures is high, the handling of the situation different. Can we nonetheless find similar partisan effects as seen in the US?
Although the first COVID-19 cases in the UK occurred quite early in the year, the UK government reacted relatively late with implementing strict measures to tackle the spread of the virus. While other European countries had already started to act, the UK might have been ‘too busy with Brexit’ preparations and celebrations to shift its attention to COVID-19. The official statement that would align the country with others and apply stronger measures was only announced on the 23rd of March.
A national survey (Hope Not Hate) revealed that while a third of the people did not seem to have faith in how the government dealt with the situation, 74% of those that supported the Conservative Party in the UK General Election 2019 were positive about how the government handled the situation. Interestingly, so were 29% of Labour voters. According to YouGov, 55% of the respondents also seemed to be supportive of PM Boris Johnson.
In a survey of 200 participants I conducted on 26th March 2020 investigating attitudes and beliefs in light of the UK General Election 2019, I found similar results: Conservative Party supporters were significantly more satisfied with the UK government’s response to COVID-19, with 77% of Conservative Party and 38% of Labour Party supporters being slightly to highly satisfied. Besides this, participants’ identification as ‘British’ was a significant factor in explaining the satisfaction with the government’s response (see table 1, Model 1).
However, party loyalty as an explanation might only be half of the story; when I additionally included collective psychological empowerment (measured as group efficacy and the experience of joy at success) as a predictor, I found that, first, identifying as ‘British’ remained a significant factor, but also that, second, party support did not seem to play a significant role anymore. Instead, the empowerment measures turned out to be significant key predictors of satisfaction with the UK government’s response to COVID-19 (see table 1, Model 2). This seems to be in line with a recent US study that found that party support alone only had an indirect influence on the lack of COVID-19 threat perception, but that instead underlying political beliefs connected this relationship with mistrust towards the government being the only belief without this effect. Instead, the authors suggest that it was more important ‘how [participants] feel about governmental policy choices’.
Now, the outbreak of COVID-19 affects everybody’s life and research has shown that during disasters, people can perceive a sense of common fate. This might make people also more aware of the superordinate in-group (‘the British’) and explain why in-group identification turned out to be a key factor for satisfaction and why a third of the Labour voters expressed their approval for the Conservative government.
But how can the empowerment effect, assessed in light of the general election, be explained concerning the current situation?
The Conservative Party was not only supported by longstanding designated voters, but also by people that were attracted by its controversial manifesto to leave the EU for good. After the party won the election with an overwhelming majority, we would assume that Conservative voters expected nationwide support for their views and believed that change (‘get Brexit done’) was now possible. In this way, Conservative voters saw their values realized against opponent views and parties. The latter were defeated, which, in turn, can lead to the experience of disempowerment amongst its voters. My study results reflect this: Conservative voters expressed significantly more joy at success and group efficacy compared to Labour voters.
Interestingly, these empowerment effects were established over three months after the election took place. Previous research found that the endurance of empowerment depends on a stable realization and maintenance of the aspired change in social relations. The electoral win strengthened the Conservative Party to unobstructedly enact these changes since, – ‘come what may’.
Let’s summarise: Identification with the Conservative Party might still be present but superseded by the perception that change is possible and by the experience of positivity amongst its voters, and this effect was enduring. This might explain why satisfaction with the government’s response to COVID-19 in March 2020 was accounted for by collective empowerment, over party support. Thus, the discussion around public approval based on partisan effects might only need to be extended by the social-psychological effects of (enduring) collective empowerment. We live in rapidly changing times though, and the UK government has recently come under increased criticism for its delayed reaction, missed meetings and deadlines, as well as for clinging on the EU exit, even at the expense of public health. Therefore, one might see whether satisfaction with its handling remains and if empowerment effects are unconditionally robust to changes over time.
 This was based on one question asking participants how satisfied they were with the UK government’s response to COVID-19. However, the question was not further specified so that we cannot say whether participants were satisfied with the pace of the government’s action or the lockdown regulations implemented three days before.
Carina Hoerst is a PhD student in Social Psychology under the supervision of Prof John Drury. She is part of the Crowds and Identities Group.
Find out more about our research on Social and Applied Psychology.