Making social science accessible

02 Feb 2018

Politics and Society

Among the various well-known explanations of the outcome of the EU referendum, there are many that promise, or have already proved themselves, to have had a lasting influence on politics.

Generational and geographical divisions are some of the more prominent examples of this, as are value divides over the role of globalisation, immigration and social liberalism more broadly.

While almost all political commentators use the labels of the ‘left behind’ or the ‘cosmopolitan’ voter, little attention is paid to a very prominent feature of these divisions: attitudes towards ethnic diversity, and their impact on the political choices of white voters.

On the one hand, rejection of the racial equality and diversity agenda is a key element in the political agenda of ‘left behind’ white voters, over and above their views about immigration; on the other, support for diversity, multiculturalism and racial justice are key factors mobilising identity politics among young and university graduate white cosmopolitan voters.

While society has become more tolerant of diversity, racial attitudes have become more complex and are beginning to influence policy areas such as welfare that have not previously been obviously related to race. In many ways the growing impact of diversity on British politics parallels similar, but much longer established, divisions in American politics.

Ethnic diversity and the referendum

While the young and university graduates predominantly voted to stay in the EU, the label of ‘cosmopolitan voter’ that is frequently used to describe them is vague and often poorly understood. What distinguishes cosmopolitan voters, and what kinds of ‘value’ does the alleged new value conflicts between those who embrace and reject cosmopolitanism involve?

The survey questions used regularly in many existing accounts focus on attitudes towards immigration, and more specifically whether or not it benefits Britain. The answer to this question is indeed a strong predictor of whether someone voted to stay in, or leave, the EU and is related to whether someone qualifies as a cosmopolitan voter.

Yet, immigration is not necessarily a permanent social divide, especially if the current post-referendum trend of falling immigration, and thus falling concern about immigration, continues (see Matthew Goodwin’s chapter in this report).

Nor was it the only explanatory factor in the referendum. A much less studied, but more lasting divide, and one that is growing fast, exists over white British voters’ views about the rapidly rising ethnic diversity caused by both recent and historic waves of immigration, and the sharp population growth among immigrant-origin minorities, including exponential growth in the mixed ethnicity population.

Yet this diversity divide has received far less academic and policymaker attention, and as a result we have fewer survey measures available to study it, and fewer time points to look at, than on higher profile conflicts such as immigration. One of the few regularly asked items examines whether people think equal opportunities for black and Asian people have gone much too far, too far, about right, not far enough, or not nearly far enough. Analysis of this hitherto neglected item reveals that it captures a crucial divide in the white British electorate, both in terms of how many people express discomfort with equal opportunities and how much this issue is becoming politically polarised.

Our research shows that this attitude does not correspond neatly to opinions on immigration, although it is related to these. For example, only about half the people who stated at the time of the referendum that immigration undermines British culture also thought that equal opportunities for ethnic minorities went too far. The impact of both attitudes on the decision on how to vote in the EU referendum was significant when both are analysed together in statistical models of the vote.

Figure 1 shows that British Election Study respondents who thought that equal opportunity for ethnic minorities have gone too far voted heavily for Leave. Equally, those who felt that equal opportunities have not gone far enough were much more likely to have voted Remain. This is regardless of whether they felt immigration undermined British culture (left hand panel) or enriched it (right hand panel).

Figure 1: Percentage of Leave and Remain voters by attitudes to equal opportunity for ethnic minorities have gone too far/not far enough and views on immigration

Policy making in a diverse society

With ethnic diversity growing fast, we only need to look to the United States for evidence of how attitudes towards it impact upon policy making. There is increasing evidence that attitudes towards ethnic diversity influence political preferences and differential support for policies, notably welfare, but also others ranging from taxation to education. Some of the mechanisms that facilitate this are to do with perceived beneficiaries of policies that are seen to predominantly benefit minorities.

While policies sanctioning racial discrimination are usually not controversial on their own, policies that seek to address racial disparities within their respective sectors might prove much more problematic, particularly if they adopt an ‘affirmative action’ character, such as quotas. Policies which provide extra assistance or special treatment to ethnic groups based on their ethnicity alone remain widely opposed, even if the existence of the ethnic disadvantages is recognised.

What this means is that a policy forbidding discriminatory hiring practices might be popular, while a more interventionist policy obliging employers to hire a certain percentage of minorities is likely to be opposed. Thus, policy framing becomes a pivotal element of policy making, and not just in the area of equality policy: voters tend to be more hostile to any policy that may be interpreted as benefiting one racially or ethnically defined social group over others.

While Britain has not yet seen ‘culture wars’ over identity, diversity and legacies of prejudice of the kind that have divided and polarised American politics for decades, the robust link between views about ethnic equality and votes in the EU referendum could be a warning signal of how politics is changing.

This link highlights that the referendum was not just about the EU, but divided people according to their broader views about the kind of Britain they want to live in. Those who are comfortable with diversity, and keen to address ethnic disadvantage, lined up with Remain.

Those who dislike rising diversity, and reject the need for action to combat ethnic disadvantage, voted to Leave. Brexit has thus placed voters who embrace and reject diversity on opposite sides of a major political conflict – if this pattern lasts, it may come to be seen as the first shot fired in a British culture war.

By Dr Maria Sobolewska, Brexit research leader and Professor Robert Ford, Brexit investigator at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally featured in The Telegraph.


Has Reform UK really come of age?

Core vs swing voters: unpacking Labour’s electoral dilemma

The restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland: back to the old routine?

What does the launch of Popular Conservatism mean for the Conservative Party?

Will Labour’s stance on Gaza harm its electoral prospects?

Recent Articles

Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required