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07 Feb 2020

Politics and Society

Are there value divides among the British electorate?

The EU referendum threw into sharp focus key value divides among the British electorate. These can be thought of as aligning on two ‘core’ dimensions. The first is an economic value dimension, which closely resembles our ‘common-sense’ understanding of left and right and was quite closely related to voting behaviour in the 2017 general election.

The second is a social liberalism dimension, variously referred to as liberal vs authoritarian or open vs closed, and this dimension is closely associated with voting behaviour in the EU referendum.

The battle between these two dimensions of values tells much of the story of the way parties tried to retain and win over groups of voters in 2019. Where voters were concerned about Brexit, the social liberalism dimension dominated (as seen in the May 2019 European Parliament election) but when concerns were around the economic domestic agenda the left-right dimension continued to structure vote choices.

It will be some time yet before data on values and voting in 2019 is available. However, using data from the British Election Internet Panel Study, we can use a measure of likelihood to vote for parties to construct groups of voters that were at least open to voting for other parties and from whom vote switchers are most likely to have been drawn.

The items used to measure each dimension can be found here. They include attitudes to redistribution and big business on the economic dimension and attitudes to the death penalty, traditional values and censorship on the social liberalism dimension. Each dimension runs from 0 to 10, with low values representing the ‘left’ and ‘liberal’ positions respectively.

Groups of voters are constructed based on their voting behaviour in 2017 combined with whether they considered themselves ‘likely’ to ever vote for each of the parties. Voters who rate this likelihood as 6/10 or higher are considered as possible voters for that party. Voters may score more than one party as six or higher. The relative size of the groups, shown in Table 1, matters for building election winning coalitions of voters.

Both main parties were facing competition on both flanks but not equally on each side. While almost one in five Conservative voters were possible Lib Dem voters, more than one in two were considering the Brexit Party.

For Labour the figures are similar but reversed, with almost one in two considering the Liberal Democrats and 15 per cent considering the Brexit party. While these data were collected in June 2019, and do not reflect leadership changes, Brexit policy nuances or the impact of the election campaign itself they nonetheless illustrate the shape of the competition within the electorate and the groups of voters each party were competing for.

The value space in Figure 1 is restricted to the area of the left-right scale that runs from 0-6, indicating that on average every group of voters is located in this part of the economic dimension – leaning towards the left, and the areas of the liberal-conservative scale that runs from 4-10, indicating that all the groups on this dimension are in the socially conservative part.

As discussed elsewhere, the groups of voters that were ‘loyal’ to their 2017 vote are the most polarised on the left-right scale. Voters considering the Liberal Democrats or the Brexit Party are most polarised on the liberal-conservative dimension and in each case the group considering this party is more extreme on this dimension than those likely to stay with their 2017 vote. However, this difference is much larger for Labour voters than for Conservative voters.

The 2017 Labour voters (represented above by circles) considering the Brexit Party or the Liberal Democrats are further apart on this social dimension than the 2017 Conservative voters considering this party (represented by squares).

In other words, when the social liberal-conservative dimension is most salient it is much harder for the Labour Party to hold its electoral coalition together than it is for the Conservatives.

As we know, the Conservatives were able to neutralise the threat from the Brexit Party (albeit this was in part the Brexit Party neutralising itself). Part of the reason for this was that the values of the Brexit Party curious among Conservative voters aligned fairly closely with the values of those staying with the party. Likewise, although Conservative 2017 voters considering the Liberal Democrats were a little further away, they were a very long way from the positions of Labour 2017 voters, even those considering the Liberal Democrats.

By Paula Surridge, Political Sociologist at University of Bristol. You can read the full report Brexit: what next? here.

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