How can Labour turn the debate away from Brexit?

Labour's Brexit

As always in a general election, there is a swirling mass of issues to be considered by voters. While Brexit is very present in the public and political debate, it is not the only topic of discussion, with much talk about the economy, the environment and social matters.

While all these issues are highly salient in the election campaign, some new data gathered during the election campaign suggests that issues related to Brexit are far more polarising than other issues, including the economic issues that underpin the left-right divide.

The discussion below comes from analysis of data generated from a Voting Advice Application (VAA) called WhoGetsMyVoteUK.

WhoGetsMyVoteUK presents its users with a battery of thirty salient policy issues. Users respond using five categories from “completely agree” to “completely disagree”.

By comparing their responses to party positions, the VAA matches each user to the political party with which they are closest in terms of policy.

The main benefit of the VAA for researchers is that it generates “big data” on its users’ political views. It also asks its users their age, level of education, how they intend to vote on 12 December and how they voted in the 2016 EU referendum.

Between 25 November and 3 December, around 28,000 users accessed WhoGetsMyVoteUK. Given that it is a self-administered questionnaire, the sample of users is not representative of the voting population at large.

I therefore extracted from it a subsample of 3,000 that is broadly representative of the voting population in terms of age, education, vote intention and previous vote in the 2016 referendum.

Within that group I explored the extent to which those voters who express an intention to vote for one of the main three nationwide parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, agree with a number of issues on Brexit and on the economy.

Of the 3,000 users, 2,216 expressed a clear vote intention, while the others were undecided or preferred not to say how they would vote.

Figure 1 shows the positions of prospective party voters on four issues relating to Brexit.

All four issues polarise the parties with Labour and Liberal Democrat voters standing on the “remain” side of the divide, and Conservative supporters on the “leave” side.

For all four issues the most popular categories for both Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters were the more extreme “completely agree/disagree” positions, indicating the strength of feeling around these issues.

Labour

Figure 1

In contrast, party supporters were less polarised and mostly held more nuanced positions on those economic items that are normally seen as fundamental to the left-right divide in politics (see Figure 2).

For three issues – on forcing large companies to give company shares to their workers, on redistribution and on the renationalisation of the railways – Labour and Conservative supporters stand on the opposite side of the fence, but the most popular positions for both parties’ supporters were the less extreme “agree” and “disagree” option.

Liberal Democrat supporters were on the same side of the fence as Labour on the last two issues, but their most popular option for the first issue (on forcing large companies to give company shares to workers) was “neither agree nor disagree”.

For the fourth issue, on zero-hours contracts, the lion’s share of supporters of all three parties favoured banning zero-hours contracts, although Conservative supporters somewhat less enthusiastically so.

Labour

Figure 2

The issue of Brexit therefore forms a far clearer dividing line between party supporters than issues relating to the economy and economic justice.

It is interesting to note that on Brexit the supporters of the two opposition parties think very much alike, with Labour supporters almost as Europhile as Liberal Democrat supporters.

On this most critical issue, both parties seem to be fishing from the same pond. And herein lies the problem for both parties.

Society is deeply divided over Brexit, with more voters identifying far more strongly with the “leave” or “remain” camps than with any political party, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey.

On the “leave” side, the Conservative Party has managed to achieve a near monopoly of pro-Brexit votes because of the virtual disappearance of the Brexit Party.

On the “remain side”, however, while Labour has managed to squeeze Liberal Democrat support, most opinion polls still put the latter party at around 13% of the vote, leaving the “remain” vote split.

Given the first-past-the-post electoral system, this virtually guarantees the Tories a majority. The only way to avoid this is for Labour to draw far more on “leave” voters than Figure 1 suggests that they have done so far.

Of course, Labour’s attempt to reframe the debate in terms of economic justice and austerity, if successful, could be a way of doing this.

Effectively they need to make this election about “left” and “right” in the economic sense, rather than about “leave” and “remain”.

The ambivalence of many prospective Tory voters on these left-right issues is striking. A quarter support nationalisation of the railways, while 43% want to ban zero hours contracts – more, in fact, than support their preservation.

It is quite likely that these voters intend to vote Conservative only reluctantly, either because they want “Brexit done” or because of their misgivings about Jeremy Corbyn as a leader. Whether Labour can persuade them to change their minds remains to be seen.

By Dr Jonathan Wheatley, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Oxford Brookes University. 

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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