Poll King Curtice describes Brexit impact on UK voting

Sir John Curtice, University of Strathclyde

Britain’s pre-eminent pollster Sir John Curtice came to MHP to explain how the Brexit process is impacting voter intentions. Here he sets out his central theme that Brexit has highlighted ideological differences among voters which transcend traditional party political affiliations.

On Tuesday morning, I gave a presentation to MHP Communications on the impact that Brexit is having on British politics – a central topic of discussion among those trying to understand why in last year’s general election voters delivered the second hung parliament in seven years.

UK elections have traditionally been a battle above all between ‘left vs. right’. In 2015, 66% of those whose views can be classified as right-wing voted Conservative, while 51% of those on the left backed Labour. In contrast, the distinction between social liberals and social conservatives – that is, between those who are comfortable living in a diverse society and those who prefer a more homogeneous environment – mattered much less in determining whether voters backed the Conservatives or Labour.

In the EU referendum, however, whether someone was on the left or on the right made virtually no difference to the chances that they voted Remain or Leave.

Younger people and graduates largely voted Remain, while older people and those with few educational qualifications mostly backed Leave.

In contrast, social liberals and social conservatives voted very differently. As many as 79% of social liberals voted Remain, while 72% of social conservatives voted Leave. There were also sharp differences between younger people and their older counterparts, and between graduates and those with few, if any, educational qualifications. Younger people and graduates largely voted Remain, while older people and those with few educational qualifications mostly backed Leave.

Consequently, the referendum cut across the existing patterns of support for both Labour and the Conservatives. Those who voted Conservative in 2015 split almost evenly between the 54% who voted Leave and the 46% who backed Remain. Meanwhile, although two-thirds of Labour supporters voted Remain, the other third supported Leave.

So, if Brexit did influence how people voted in the 2017 election, it could well mean that many voters changed which party they supported.

However, this assumes that voters were clear about where each of the main parties stood on Brexit. In practice, around a third were unable to say what each party’s policy was. Even the solidly pro-EU Liberal Democrats struggled to get their Brexit position across; during the general election only 28% of Remain voters identified the party’s policy of backing a second referendum.

This point was met with particular interest by MHP’s Managing Director Public Affairs James Gurling, who chaired last year’s Liberal Democrat election campaign.

That said, amongst those who did feel they knew where the parties stood, voters were most likely to associate Labour with a ‘soft’ Brexit and the Conservatives with a ‘hard’ one. In addition, one area where most voters were clear that there was a difference was on immigration, with the Conservatives being regarded as significantly favouring more restricitons than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

And in practice voters’ views about Brexit did make a difference to how they voted. Conservative support fell compared with 2015 amongst those who voted Remain while it increased amongst those who voted Leave. For example, according to the British Election Study, the Conservative share of the vote fell by eight points among Remainers but increased by eight points among Leavers, almost eliminating UKIP as an electoral force in the process. Meanwhile, although Labour support increased by six points among Leave voters, it increased much more, by 18 points, among Remain voters.

This pattern was also in evidence in Scotland. Most of the increase in Conservative support between the 2016 Holyrood election and the 2017 Westminster election came from those who voted Leave, helping the party to win 13 seats north of the border.

The electoral divide between social liberals and social conservatives was much sharper than at any previous election.

Thanks to this Brexit division, the electoral divide between social liberals and social conservatives was much sharper than at any previous election. The Conservatives made substantial gains among social conservatives while Labour advanced most strongly among social liberals. As a result, the social liberal/conservative divide is now almost as important as that between left and right in shaping whether voters back Labour or the Conservatives.

This pattern is also reflected in sharp differences in voting behaviour by age, with younger (mostly pro-Remain) voters mostly voting Labour while older (mostly pro-Leave) voters largely supported the Conservatives. At the same time, there was a swing to Labour amongst graduates, while the Conservatives advanced more strongly among those with few, if any, educational qualifications.

The changed support bases for both Labour and the Conservatives at the last general election leave both parties with potentially fragile electoral coalitions. Labour is worried about losing touch with its ‘traditional’ working class vote that is more inclined to back Leave, but it also has to avoid losing its younger, socially liberal voters who perhaps might yet be at risk of switching to the Liberal Democrats or the Greens.

Meanwhile, the increasingly economically and socially protectionist attitudes of Conservative voters sit uneasily with the party’s traditional pro-business instincts.

Both parties find themselves with difficult paths to tread as they try to negotiate their way politically through the Brexit process.