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Winning support for taxing wealth

The third case study from the 2020 AQR Qualitative Excellence Award finalists reveals how public attitudes towards tax, wealth and public services have been shaped by the pandemic.

In the summer of 2019, Survation was approached by a campaign and lobby organisation to discuss the thorny issue of tax. Tax Justice UK, supported by funds from Friends Provident and University of Sheffield, were looking for ways to change the debate around tax, to lobby for long overdue change to the UK's tax system.

Perceptions of tax

As Benjamin Franklin famously said back in the 1780s: "there is nothing that can be said to be certain, except death and taxes". Since that time (and probably long before), the public has viewed tax as a necessary evil. Politicians compete on a 'race to the bottom', tax cuts boost popularity, and tax rises are universally unpopular. This challenge would require a robust qualitative approach drawing on models of strategic communications and behavioural change.

When we started out on this project's journey, over a year ago, it was uncertain what political landscape lay ahead. Brexit dominated the headlines, and the UK was gearing up for the third general election in fewer than five years. As this project unfolded the Conservative Party, with Boris Johnson at the helm, won an 80-seat majority in the 2019 general election. Just a few months later, right in the middle of fieldwork, the global pandemic challenged the research but provided new opportunities for this project to evolve and, more importantly gain, in political relevance.

The COVID-19 crisis and the public spending that ensued have forced serious tax reform onto the political agenda for the first time in decades. This project became more relevant as the opportunity to influence this policy increased. While we had to adapt our methodology, re-work our analysis to reflect the health crisis and add a new stage to the project, the emerging social and political landscape proved how vital this major research project is to current political debate.

The first step was to understand the dominant narrative around tax, so we undertook a discourse analysis. We reviewed a wide range of materials from newspapers tweets, academic papers and political speeches. Then, we applied a framing structure to organise the narratives into different categories. We settled on four narrative frames with which to structure all messages throughout the research, using a strategic communications approach to understand the values we could leverage to shift attitudes towards tax.

Following the discourse analysis, we ran a series of extended co-creation workshops in London and Long Eaton. Participants were organised into groups using a 'conflict approach'. We were able to tease these apart where there was common ground, divergent views and gaps in knowledge across a diverse range of participants.

This research study has run through unprecedented times and has provided us with a unique view of public opinion during a landmark election and throughout the COVID-19 lockdown. We adapted and modified our approach to deal with the constraints of the pandemic in a way that provided comparable findings throughout, while reflecting the new reality we faced.

We built on the political momentum and maximised the impact of this research by staying relevant to the political environment. We selected constituencies of political importance, giving voices to those in what is dubbed the former 'red wall', from Blyth Valley in the North East, to Wrexham in North Wales, as well as more traditional Conservative heartland seats in the South East.

We used this opportunity to experiment with different online approaches and confront some perceptions of qualitative research head-on. We demonstrated that, with a well-moderated and clearly-designed approach, online text-based discussions can work as well, even, in some cases, better, than more traditional face-to-face methods. Using text chat may not provide the body language and non-verbal cues that we are trained to decipher. It did give us, however, a raft of diverse opinions from people who felt comfortable to share something deep-seated and personal in this more anonymised online environment.

Comparing the text based and face-to-face transcripts showed us that the quality was not compromised but it was different: stories and responses were more concise but there was an honestly and frankness in response that was refreshing to see and worked in this political context.

Clear action points

The final report is a foundational document for understanding attitudes towards tax, wealth, and public services that a variety of organisations, stakeholders and academics can use. It provides a vision of public attitudes shaped by the pandemic in a time of change. It includes clear action points and take-aways for campaigners while providing clear guidance on what the public does and doesn't want when it comes to tax and public spending.

Through this research we uncovered stories that were surprising and many that reflect modern Britain as it emerges from the crisis. We found that wealth is aspirational and messages that condemn success and achievement tend to go down badly. We saw that people hate tax avoidance, by individuals and particularly big corporates. We saw that the pandemic has focused people even more sharply on the services that we want and the need for fair taxation to play a part.

 

Jane Carn
Owner, Pearl Research and Strategy Ltd

This article was first published in InBrief magazine, May 2021
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2021