The 2017 general election was remarkable in many ways. The campaign saw a transformation in political fortunes unheralded in modern Britain. What had looked like an inevitable electoral triumph for the Prime Minister became an embarrassment. When the election was called, only around 25% of people intended to vote Labour. By the end of the campaign 40% had done so.
Yet the election saw the Conservatives’ vote share increase by 5.5%. Given this, and the 9.6% jump registered by Labour, the smaller parties suffered. Support for UKIP plummeted (down from 12.6% to 1.8%) while the Greens fell from 3.8% to 1.6%. The election produced the highest aggregate vote for the big two parties (82%) since the general election of 1970.
All this came about in two steps. After the EU referendum the Conservative Party adopted a clear proBrexit position in an attempt to attract former UKIP-supporting Leave voters. Then in the campaign, Labour recovered some of those who had deserted it temporarily, as well as attracting some 2015 non-voters, Greens and Liberal Democrats.
The outcome of the EU referendum was of course a seismic shock to the British political system. Within a year the political map of Britain had been (partly) redrawn. In 2017 Kensington – arguably the most affluent and cosmopolitan constituency in the country – fell to Labour for the first time ever, while Stokeon-Trent South, a poor area in a struggling former industrial city, went from Labour to the Conservatives – again for the first time ever.
Much of this electoral change is attributable to Theresa May. By autumn 2016 she had made clear that after Brexit the UK would control immigration, make its own laws, and strike trade deals with third countries: Brexit meant hard Brexit.
The Prime Minister ‘owned’ Brexit. The logic of making this a centrepiece of Conservative strategy was clear: given the Prime Minister’s stance, UKIP’s self-proclaimed role as the ‘guard dog of Brexit’ was redundant.
Labour, for its part, looked ripe for the taking, with its working class base being far more anti-immigration than the party itself. More generally, the Labour leader’s popularity amongst his own members seemed inversely correlated with his appeal to the public at large.
So how did this all play out with the voters? British Election Study (BES) surveys tracking movements between 2015 and the start of the 2017 campaign show that the Conservatives won 69% of their new 2017 voters by the start of the general election campaign, more than double the 33% that Labour attracted.
Much of this success was linked to a belief that, unshackled by EU membership, the Conservatives would be effective in reducing immigration.
In 2015 hardly anyone believed David Cameron would reduce immigration. The boy had cried wolf once too often. But the referendum changed things. This new-found credibility on immigration control was the key to their being able to effectively wipe out UKIP: over 80% of 2015 UKIP voters believed the Conservatives would reduce immigration voted for them in 2017.
Figure one: Voters’ perceptions of parties’ ability to reduce immigration
When it came to the election campaign itself, however, personality mattered as much as policy. Jeremy Corbyn’s easy manner and authenticity stood in stark contrast to Mrs May’s ‘robotics’. We can again see this from the BES, which followed over 1,000 people a day throughout the campaign, and captured a nose dive in May’s popularity more than matched by a rise in Corbyn’s.
Figure 2: The changing popularity of the party leader during the election campaign
Corbyn’s appeal wasn’t simply down to personality. After years of austerity, the Labour manifesto tapped into a widely felt desire for change, promising more spending on public services, the NHS, education and an end to university tuition fees.
Unsurprisingly, students were particularly keen on Labour – YouGov found that 64% voted for them. But they were also successful at winning the support of people who had not voted in 2015. Over a quarter of non-voters in 2015 voted Labour in 2017, roughly 40% of the votes the party gained.
During the campaign itself, Brexit continued to influence voters. In polls conducted by ICM immediately prior to the election being called, 53% of Leave voters said that they intended to vote Conservative, compared with 38% of Remain supporters.
This gap widened during the course of the campaign to 58% and 33% respectively – a 10% increase. A similar pattern in reverse was found for Labour – a 15% difference between Remain and Leave voters at the start of the campaign had grown to 22% by the end.
The link between having voted for Brexit and choosing the Conservatives rather than Labour intensified. These Brexit driven shifts in turn reshaped the traditional social divisions that have underlaid British politics.
The Conservatives gained most in predominantly working class constituencies. Ipsos-MORI found Conservative support up 12% amongst working class ‘DE’ voters compared to 2015, but only 4% higher amongst professional and managerial ‘AB’ voters. Similarly, the party increased its vote by 9% in the most working class seats in England and Wales but by only 1% in the most middle class seats.
In place of social class, education, with its close relationship to the social and cultural values that were such a crucial determinant of voting patterns in the EU referendum, became a more significant driver of electoral choice. YouGov’s post-election survey found that 49% of people with degrees voted Labour, while only 32% voted Conservative.
Overall 2017 was a Brexit election but one that, because of the campaign, also witnessed a Labour renewal under Corbyn’s leadership. Whether the Conservative Party can keep its new Brexit supporting voters as it tries to negotiate Brexit against the backdrop of a hung Parliament remains to be seen.
Even a year after the referendum, the BES found no sign of a decline in the ‘very strong’ sense of identification with Leave and Remain camps, which are substantially more important to voters than their party identities (see Hobolt et al. in this report).
So when problems arise, and they will as the Brexit negotiations progress, we can expect to see voters once again switching to parties that best represent their views on Brexit.
By Geoff Evans, Professor and Official Fellow in Politics, Nuffield College, University of Oxford.