Brexit and public opinion: The left-right divide

Since the vote to leave the EU, there has been a steady stream of publications considering new divides and new identities among the British electorate. It is true that it is barely possible to separate Leave and Remain voters based on their positions on a traditional ‘left-right’ set of values. However, to suggest that the old ‘left-right’ divide is no longer relevant in British politics is at best premature.

The language of ‘left’ and ‘right’ itself can be misleading when talking about the political values of the electorate, as it has both economic and social connotations. More useful is to think of values as having (at least) two distinctive dimensions, one economic and one social.

The economic value dimension closely resembles our ‘common sense’ understanding of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’. It is concerned with issues of economic justice, economic inequality and economic organisation. The social dimension is less easily labelled, having variously been referred to as the ‘second dimension’, ‘other dimension’ and ‘open vs. closed’.

Here we adopt the label used when it was first measured in the British context: the ‘liberal-authoritarian’ dimension. Using data from the 2017 British Election Study, collected via face-to-face interviews in the weeks immediately following the general election, the economic ‘left-right’ positions of the electorate are measured using a scale derived from four items:

1)  Ordinary people get their fair share of the nation’s wealth

2)  There is one law for the rich and one for the poor

3)  There is no need for strong Trade Unions to protect workers’ rights

4)  Private enterprise is the best way to solve Britain’s economic problems

The liberal-authoritarian scale is measured using five attitudinal items:

1)  Young people don’t have enough respect for traditional values

2)  Censorship is necessary to uphold moral values

3)  We should be tolerant of those who lead unconventional lifestyles

4)  For some crime the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence

5)  People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences

People are asked to express how much they agree or disagree with each statement on a five-point scale, from strongly agree to strongly disagree. The average of the items is taken to form a scale (running from one to five) with low values representing the ‘left’ and ‘liberal’ and high scores ‘right’ and ‘authoritarian’.

Previous work has shown that in most general elections between 1992 and 2017 it was the left-right dimension which was most useful for explaining the key voting choice between Labour and the Conservatives. But the EU referendum vote is barely connected to these values at all.

The chart compares the values of Leave and Remain voters within each of the two main parties. It shows that Labour Remain voters are no different to Labour Leave voters on the ‘left-right’ scale, similarly Conservative Remain voters are not different to Conservative Leave voters on this scale.

In contrast, there are  large differences between Labour Leave and Remain voters on the liberal-authoritarian scale and between Conservative Leave and Remain voters on this scale. Labour Remain voters are by far the most liberal group, whilst Leave voters are equally illiberal regardless of whether they voted Conservative or Labour in 2017.

Cross party differences are much more closely related to left-right values. Those voting Labour in 2017 are more left wing than those voting Conservative (Labour Remainers are more left wing than Conservative Remainers).

Understanding whether and how this might continue to shape British electoral politics is important. Left-right position relates to income, wealth and social class, and when it structures behaviour these factors remain important for voting decisions and electoral strategies. Liberal-authoritarian values are not related to income but are driven by education and age, when they influence behaviour these ‘new’ divides are more important.

Voters hold values on both these scales and combine these in ways which make behaviour unpredictable. To address this, it is helpful to think about voters as located within a ‘value space’ defined by these two dimensions.

To aid in thinking about positions within value space, these scales are each divided into three groups (Left/Centre/Right and Liberal/Centre/Authoritarian) and these positions are then combined to generate nine potential locations within each ‘value space’. Considering the two dimensions together more clearly demonstrates how they combine or cross-cut in their influences on political behaviour.

Figure 2 shows how EU referendum vote choice, Labour vote share and Conservative vote share are related to positions in this value space.

The share of the Leave vote varies substantially by Liberal-Authoritarian position within each category of the left-right scale. However, the patterns for Labour and Conservative vote share is clearly one which primarily varies from left to right.

There are nonetheless important differences within categories of the left right scale according to values on the social dimension. A large majority of those on the left who are also liberal voted Labour. Among those on the left who are in the centre or authoritarian parts of the liberal-authoritarian around one in three voted Conservative.

The relationship between values and political behaviour is complex and depends critically on the context of the vote in question. When political emphasis is placed on a traditional left-right divide, as in the 2017 general election, then voters’ positions on this divide are much more closely related to their behaviour.

However, other divides are not irrelevant. Liberal-authoritarian positions substantially modify party choices within left-right value positions. This pattern has been evident since at least 2010 and is part of a longer-term restructuring of party competition. It is not new, nor driven by the EU referendum. The result of the referendum may be better thought of as a symptom of this divide in the electorate rather than a cause.

Political values can no longer be solely interpreted through a left-right lens as other values cross-cut and modify. This leads to complexity which is not easily captured in a first-past-the-post electoral system, and to parties which are still organised according to the older logic of a simple left-right divide rooted in the economic (class) positions of the voters.

It is likely to mean that voting behaviour will be volatile for the foreseeable future, as voters and parties seek to find their places in this multi-dimensional space.

By Paula Surridge, Senior Lecturer at the University of Bristol. You can read The UK in a Changing Europe’s Brexit and public opinion 2019 report 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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