British politics: the referendum and beyond

Referendums perturb politics. They can reinforce existing political divisions. They can create new ones. They can also muddy the waters when it comes to responsibility for democratically legitimate decision making.

The Brexit referendum seems to have achieved all three things. It gave voice to political dissatisfactions. It has also brought to the fore a new division in British politics, one based on values rather than traditional left-right ideology. Meanwhile, Parliament has struggled to deal with the aftermath of the vote.

In a recent book, Geoffrey Evans and Anand Menon argued that the drivers of the referendum outcome were long term in nature. Clearly, opposition to European integration was important. And euroscepticism took on additional resonance as the European Union became associated with unprecedentedly high levels of immigration. Less often remarked upon, however, are the political sources of the outcome.

In the two decades prior to the EU referendum, Britain’s major political parties coalesced around an economically centrist, socially liberal, pro-European consensus. In combination with the country’s first past the post voting system, this left those with socially conservative preferences, or who opposed the prevalent economic orthodoxy, with no obvious mainstream political home.

After 2008, the combination of the MPs expenses scandal and the policies of austerity implemented in the wake of the financial crisis heightened discontent and anger at the political class. The Scottish independence referendum, which appeared to many a victory for the status quo, provided a clear warning sign of levels of distrust and discontent with Westminster.

With the gift of hindsight, it should have been seen as a flashing light on the Westminster dashboard. Instead, it was interpreted as an indication of the winnability of divisive referendums.

Combined, all this created a climate for rebellion. An increasingly disenchanted electorate was confronted with a limited set of political choices. Evidence of this build-up of unreleased pressure, along with a further cause for resentment, was provided by the performance of Ukip in the 2015 general election. The party won 3.9 million votes, but only one parliamentary seat.

The impact of the Leave campaign can be gleaned from the striking levels of turnout achieved among its supporters. The ‘participation gap’ between the university-educated and those in manual jobs – largely Remain and Leave voters respectively – was reduced from 39% in the previous general election to 20%.

There was a certain irony in Vote Leave’s Chief Executive Matthew Elliott – who had run the successful campaign against changing the electoral system in 2011 – so effectively exploiting the dissatisfactions that the first past the post system had allowed to fester.

Voter discontent with politics was not sufficient to get the Leave vote over 50%. But it provided a rationale for many of those who had effectively opted out of politics to reengage. It saw a majority of those who turned out ignoring the advice of the majority of the political establishment.

The impact of the financial crisis made many voters suspicious of claims that the status quo was worth defending. Growing detachment from politics and distrust of politicians made such a rebellion not only conceivable, but even desirable.

Moreover, the referendum did not divide people along traditional left-right party lines, but rather along a cleavage centred on values, which had been concealed by the existing party structure.

This battle between social liberals and social conservatives, in which education represents a key dividing line, cut across parties. NatCen found a crystal-clear link between values and attitudes towards the EU: 66% of social traditionalists voted to leave, while only 18% of liberals did so.

This appears to explain the vote much more convincingly than economics. Pensioners, for instance, were much more likely to vote to leave than those of working age, despite the latter suffering from a decade of stagnant real wages, while pensions have risen steadily.

The immediate post-referendum impact was a new Prime Minister. The vote, moreover, accelerated a shift in the substance of political debates in British politics, shattering the old consensus and ushering in a new political debate. The Overton window – or the range of ideas tolerated in public debate – became a set of French doors. The response was a dramatic shift on both sides of the political spectrum towards economic interventionism.

Theresa May combined a pledge to take the UK out of the EU and to clamp down on immigration with promises to improve the lives of those ‘just about managing’. This shift became clearer following her decision to call a snap election.

The Conservative manifesto was arguably the most statist produced  by a governing party in living memory. It declared, in a decisive break with post-Thatcher Conservative governments, that Conservatives ‘do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality’. In rhetoric, at the very least, this was a shift to a post-Thatcherite Conservative agenda.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader predated the referendum and underlined prevailing diss-atisfaction with the political establishment. He injected ideology back into the Labour Party.

The Labour manifesto of 2017 arguably was as sharp a break with its own recent past as its Tory equivalent, proposing a massive expansion of state control of the economy, direct and indirect, including the reversal of several of the major Thatcher-era privatisations.

The election campaign had a clear effect: Remainers drifted to Labour, and Leavers to the Conservatives. This changed their electoral coalitions of support. In the week before Theresa May called the snap election, YouGov found 58% of Leavers intending to vote Conservative, and 30% of Remain voters – a 28% gap. In their post-election poll, this had increased to 40%: 65% of Leave voters said they had voted for the party, and 25% of Remainers. The opposite dynamic can be seen in the make-up of the Labour vote.

In April, 34% of Remain voters planned to vote Labour, and 12% of Leave voters – a 22% gap. By mid-June this gap had increased to 31%: YouGov calculated 55% of Remain voters, and 24% of Leavers, voted for Labour.

This can also be measured in the way the 2015 Ukip vote crumbled. Of Ukip’s 2015 voters, only 16% voted Ukip again in 2017: 51% instead opted for the Conservatives, 17% for Labour. The strategic choice of the Conservative Party was clearly to regain the votes of social conservatives, and these new Tory voters were disproportionately working class: whichever pollster measured it, support for the Conservatives among unskilled labourers and the unemployed went up by 12%, with a swing from
Labour to the Conservatives of 3%.

So far, so expected. What was unexpected was that these dynamics did not translate into a thumping Conservative majority. The counter-reaction – social liberals migrating to the Labour Party – more than outweighed Conservative gains. The Labour Party’s strategic positioning on Brexit, resting on the vacuity of a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, was deliberately ambiguous.

But, nevertheless, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership acted as a lightning rod for social liberals who voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. The perception of Corbyn among Remain voters as less hardline on Brexit was enough to attract a quarter of 2015 Liberal Democrat supporters, as well as a significant proportion of Tory Remainers. Labour profited from a division over values, crystallised in the new political identities of Leave and Remain which, as Sara Hobolt, Thomas Leeper and James Tilley have shown, have persisted and deepened.

The electoral coalitions of the two parties shifted socially, but also geographically. Both Labour and the Conservatives regained a foothold in Scotland. Labour gained seats across England – winning not just in Remain bastions like Canterbury and Sheffield Hallam, but also places like Peterborough, which was 61% Leave. In London, Labour overturned huge Conservative majorities in Battersea, Kensington and Enfield Southgate.

The Conservative party gained just seven seats from Labour in England. Apart from Walsall North, all these constituencies were north of the River Trent and, across these seats, the vote to Leave in 2016 was an estimated average of 64%.

The number of Conservative gains in England was expected to be closer to 70 than seven. The crucial story of the election was one of Labour holding on to seats (and MPs) that were expected to fall to the Conservatives.

Yet, despite this, Theresa May has clung on as Prime Minister. And while politics has shifted on its axis, the government still has Brexit to deliver. As we outline in our analysis of the parliamentary dynamics of Brexit, and as Adam Cygan reiterates in this report, the government’s lack of an overall majority has hampered its ability to deal with this challenge. The Brexit negotiations have been as much a question of cabinet and party management as of the talks with the EU itself. The divisions within both parties are stark.

The European Research Group, headed by Jacob ReesMogg, has (with relative success) pushed the government – in rhetoric, at least – towards stating strong negotiating ‘red lines’. It shares a party with the ‘Brexit mutineers’, a group of europhile Tories fewer in number but likely to be of increasing importance given the perilous parliamentary calculations confronting Mrs May. Meanwhile, those carrying the torch for the Remain campaign reside largely in the Labour party.

They sit alongside pro-Brexit colleagues who could ultimately vote for May’s deal and keep her in office. Little wonder that talk, however loose and fanciful, continues to rumble on about the prospect of a new centrist party.

Backbenchers in the House of Commons are playing an increasingly prominent role, with groupings in the Commons representing the range of views on Brexit that exist across Parliament and the country at large.

These new Brexit divisions – representing the values divide exposed by Brexit – are layered on top of existing political faultlines that have in some cases been reinforced by the experience of the referendum. Interpreting these disparate signals and forming a coherent governing strategy out of
them is a thankless task indeed. On reflection, perturbation is perhaps too weak a word.

By Professor Anand Menon, Director and Alan Wager, researcher at The UK in a Changing Europe. You can read the full report ‘Article 50 one year on’ here.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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