How people voted in the EU referendum was not predictable from their traditional party and social class allegiances. The ‘old’ politics of economics, of left and right, was at best weakly correlated with referendum voting; instead referendum voting correlated with a long-standing cross-cutting ‘values’ divide which has at one end ‘liberal’ and at the other ‘authoritarian’ social values.
This divide had been present for a long time, and is most strongly associated with education rather than with social class. Prior to the referendum, its relationship with electoral behaviour had been of relatively marginal interest in British electoral studies, especially compared to questions of competence, leadership and issues.
The result of the referendum and the profound changes in British politics since, however, are increasingly viewed through the lens of social values. Some even argue that there has been a fundamental realignment of the electorate along this ‘new’ divide, with the fall of the ‘Red Wall’ seats the symbolic end to a process set in motion by Brexit.
Yet the reality is more complex and the future of these divides unpredictable.
Using data from the British Election Study we are able to use this social values dimension alongside the traditional economic left-right dimension to create a value space in which we can locate voters and political parties and measure distances between them.
In 2015, the key divide between the two major parties lay along the economic dimension. While their voters did differ on the social values dimension the difference was smaller.
The minor parties in England (UKIP and Liberal Democrats) both lay between the two major parties on this economic dimension but were each further towards the ends of the social values scale, with UKIP voters the most socially authoritarian and the Liberal Democrat voters the most socially liberal.
Voting in the EU referendum bisected the space between Labour and the Conservatives with Leave and Remain voters virtually identical in their economic values but in similar positions to UKIP and the Liberal Democrats respectively on social values.
The result of this was to politicise a divide which had previously been most closely related to ‘3rd party’ voting in general elections and to bring this social values dimension into wider voting decisions through its relationship with Brexit.
Where are we now?
The 2017 election saw the collapse of the UKIP vote (and a further squeeze of Liberal Democrat support) which meant that, in terms of economic values, Labour and Conservative voters moved a little closer together as these voters were absorbed back into the two party system, though it is important to note that there was still a larger gap between the parties on this dimension than on social values.
The 2019 election saw more direct switching from Labour to the Conservatives and so continued this process, and though in many cases seats were won by the Conservatives that had been Labour for their entire existence, this was not a sudden rupture but rather the tipping point of a process that had been occurring for some time.
Nonetheless, as Figure 1 shows, 2019 was the first time that the difference between Labour and Conservative voters was greater on the social values dimension than on the economic dimension.
The result of this shift has been much discussed, most often framed as how the Conservatives can hold on to the seats won from Labour in the North of England and the Midlands.
Were these votes merely loaned to the Conservatives to ‘Get Brexit done’ or the first indisputable evidence of a lasting realignment of the electorate, perhaps even the birth of a new political cleavage?
Where are we heading?
With 2021 set to bring the impact of Brexit into sharp focus and the social, economic and political aftershocks of the Covid-19 global pandemic still to be felt, it is impossible to know how British public opinion will change.
Though recent research suggests that Brexit identities remain salient for the British public, there is little evidence to suggest that these connect meaningfully with attitudes to the Covid-19 crisis. There is therefore no reason to think that there will be further polarisation of Brexit identities arising from the aftershocks of the crisis.
Polling has shown that many people are worried about its economic consequences, and these economic worries seem set to increase in salience as the world moves out of the immediate health crisis and begins to rebuild.
This may lead to greater emphasis on the traditional economic divides, revealing the fault lines in the voter coalition the Conservatives put together in 2019, and which have been evident in some of the battles over lockdowns.
But we have seen that there are also issues on which the social values divide is the more salient and with the consequences of Brexit itself becoming more tangible as the transition period comes to an end, it seems more likely that the next few years will be defined by the ways in which these value positions combine into distinct constellations rather than by one or other set of values dealing a knockout blow to the other — or at least to the party seen as representing them.
While this divide around social values remains critical to understanding British politics, it is not the case that we have replaced one set of binary divides with another. Indeed, it is the combination of these ‘old’ and ‘new’ divides which will shape the post-Brexit and post-pandemic era.
In a political landscape where both economic and social values matter, holding together coalitions of voters is difficult. The period from 2015 to 2019 placed pressure along the fault lines in the Labour coalition which were closely related to Brexit and the social values divide.
The years 2021 to 2024 may increase the pressure on the economic fault lines within the Conservative’s voter coalition, making it unlikely that British politics will settle into a convenient and predictable pattern any time soon.