Analysis: Why Labour & the Tories are talking ‘tough’ on China – votes are at stake

Morgan James is a Consultant at Freshwater Strategy.

Over the past few years, it has become evident just how readily events from abroad can shape domestic politics. From the sudden onset of the Covid19 pandemic, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, events like these are demonstrating that risks originating from overseas are no longer ‘extrinsic’ shocks, but increasingly baked into the lives of everyday Brits, and becoming drivers of domestic politics.

The invasion of Ukraine, which precipitated a European energy crisis, demonstrated just how vulnerable British politics have become to international events. The abrupt halting of Russian energy partnerships has resulted in profound economic, and political consequences across Europe. In seeking to de-risk Britain’s domestic politics from factors originating from abroad, the other factor yet to be addressed is our relationship further east, with China.

Britain, alongside much of the Western world, has formed important economic ties with China, ties that have become hard to disentangle. Yet, these kind of relations have proven to be increasingly risky, with real domestic political consequences; should the government fail to address them.

Alicia Kearns, the Tory chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee, told the Guardian: “We cannot risk hesitation if we are to outpace the autocrats, and we must be unapologetic for making our nation more resilient to those who seek to undermine us.”

She continues to note that the threat of China should “not be seen as primarily economic…that is to fail to understand that China is foremost seeking to undermine our national security and sovereignty. Because no county can have economic security without national security.”

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that we have seen both Labour and the Conservatives adopt tougher stances on China, particularly on social issues tightly linked to upholding Western values, including China’s dubious human rights records.

Labour, though less hawkish in its stance, has dialled up its rhetoric. Asked by Politico on his party’s stance, Shadow Secretary of State, David Lammy, said that he thought “what we’ve seen from China is that they continue to be more internally repressive, and obviously, there were huge concerns in Xinjiang.”

He added: “We’ve got to challenge China, and they are definitely a strategic competitor in essential areas, and we’ve got to hold them to account on human rights — but there are areas where it’s important to cooperate.”

Having recently co-authored a research paper in collaboration with the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), the team at Freshwater Strategy has analysed the public opinion data. The polling corroborates rhetoric from Labour and the Conservatives around a growing anxiety about deep collaboration with high-risk states in sensitive areas. The public are highly risk averse around research partnerships with states such as Russia and China, and strongly support increased safeguards and restrictions across several sensitive areas.

Public anxiety about ensuing there are strict protections are grounded in a real and growing trend. Whilst collaboration with Russian entities is minimal, partnerships with Chinese academics and companies have grown by 34.7% between 2018-2021 alone.

Freshwater public opinion research found that the British public place a high level of importance on upholding human rights standards, data privacy protections, and democratic principles among the UK’s partners.

The polling also demonstrated a growing concern about how international actors could potentially ‘influence’ sensitive areas such as cyber security or DNA testing, a particularly pressing concern given China’s reported standards in both of these areas. As well as the rather ambiguous relationship between corporate China, and the State.

The full extent of these risks are unknown, with several high-profile cases marking only those examples that have made it into the public arena, due to the political fallout from this kind of risk exposure.

The findings from the HJS report show strong voter agreement that academics and state-sponsored companies from high-risk countries, like China, should not be allowed to participate in research and development of cyber security and DNA testing in the UK. This sentiment is even more pronounced among Conservative and Lib Dem voters.

Given these concerns, it is not surprising that dialogue about ‘getting tough on human rights concerns’ has amplified in British politics, on both sides of the political aisle.

Our polling suggests that a failure for the current government to follow through or protect British citizens from these risks under a could see a up to one quarter of Tory voters seriously consider voting for another party.

In fact, measuring the potential impact of this kind of breach through voter’s intentions, the electoral fallout could see Conservative vote share collapse from a ‘long-shot’ position for a comeback, to electoral obliteration. Although most voters shift to a more ‘hesitant’ undecided position, a significant minority of voters shift their vote to another political party.

The bottom line is that the British public are highly protective of upholding western values; particularly standards on human rights, data privacy, and democratic principles. With increasing collaboration and partnerships, comes heightened concerns about the risks that these partnerships pose, particularly with high-risk States who don’t value the same principles.

What our polling demonstrates is that there are real political consequences to a lack of action, or the political will to respond to these kinds of risks. Should voters feel that the government has dropped the ball in these areas, it will hurt them at the ballot box.

It seems that this is increasingly well understood by both Labour and Conservatives strategists, as evidenced by the significantly ‘tougher’ stances and rhetoric that both parties are taking, on Chinese collaboration in particular.

However, should they fail to live up to the rhetoric, as the research shows, the punishment at the ballot box will be large, for whomever is in government.


About the author: Morgan James is a Consultant at Freshwater Strategy.

You can read the full research report, published on the HJS website, here.

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