The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

28 Jan 2020

Politics and Society

values divide

Brexit is not just about Brexit. Our differing attitudes towards the EU are a symptom of a broader values divide in British society between two groups with very different worldviews.

You don’t need to be an academic to observe it – examples of this conflict are all around us.

Why would a group of apparently ‘working-class’ men, like those in the picture, feel the need to declare their love for Boris Johnson, leader of a party not exactly known for its working-class credentials? The answer lies in their socio-cultural values.

Why has the British public presented two very different responses to Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle’s decision to step back from royal duties (‘Megxit’)? The answer lies in their socio-cultural values.

So how exactly can we describe the nature of this values divide?

In line with other advanced industrial democracies, there has been a cultural dimension to British politics that has been steadily growing in significance since the arrival of new social movements from the mid-1960s onwards.

This cultural dimension has changed in character since that time as new sociocultural conflicts (such as our differing responses to contemporary mass European immigration) have emerged and been integrated into it.

The cultural dimension of British politics has not supplanted the Left-Right dimension that describes our attitudes towards economic distribution, but has made our political space two-dimensional.

This means that to understand an individual’s political preferences today, we need to look at both their position on the Left-Right economic scale, and their position on the socio-cultural scale. But what is to be found at either end?

Academics have come up with different terms to describe the nature of the values conflicts that constitute Britain’s cultural dimension.

In his 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart refers to individuals at either end of the socio-cultural scale as ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. Anywheres value autonomy and openness and ‘comfortably surf social change’, whereas Somewheres are more rooted in their local communities and value security and familiarity.

Anywheres tend to be more highly educated and more mobile than Somewheres.

Other commentators have referred to these two tribes as ‘cosmopolitans’ and ‘communitarians’ respectively, while some prefer the simpler terms ‘socially conservative’ and ‘socially liberal’.

In terms of the 2016 Brexit referendum, communitarians tended to vote in favour of leaving the EU, cosmopolitans to remain.

But what is the significance of all this for the Labour Party?

Labour are in the process of electing a new leader – someone who will be decisive in forming the party’s new narrative with the British people. The position they take on the socio-cultural dimension of British politics could be highly significant.

values divide

values divide

Figures 1, 2 and 3 show the position of British political parties within the two-dimensional political space described above.

Between 2010 and 2017, Labour shifted its position significantly, becoming more left-wing economically and more socially liberal on the cultural dimension.

Survey data is not yet available for 2019 but given that Labour shifted its position on Brexit, from ‘we will respect the referendum result’ in 2017, to ‘we want a second referendum’ in 2019, we can only conclude that in 2019 they were positioned even more closely to the socially liberal (or cosmopolitan) pole.

values divide

values divide

values divide

Figures 4, 5 and 6 show how the vote share in key former Labour ‘red wall’ constituencies rose sharply for the Conservatives between 2015 and 2019.

These are areas with strong Leave majorities – suggesting that many voters in these areas can be considered communitarian, or socially conservative.

As Sir John Curtice, has explained, one key feature of the 2017 election was the extent to which the Conservatives gained ground among Leave voters. This reflected a deliberate attempt by Theresa May and her team to appeal to communitarian voters.

Under Boris Johnson’s leadership during the 2019 election campaign, the Conservatives were able to consolidate this trend.

With a narrative strongly focused on ‘getting Brexit done’ they effectively targeted and won over enough voters in seats that had become marginal in 2017 to give them an overall majority.

Labour, meanwhile, earned a respectable 32.2% of the vote share overall but their voters were largely concentrated in densely populated metropolitan areas.

In other words, their appeal was largely confined to cosmopolitan voters that tend to live in urban areas, and this was not enough to offer them electoral success in terms of seats.

So what should Labour do now?

Figures 1, 2 and 3 show us that the political space defined as being economically left-wing and socially liberal in cultural terms is crowded.

If Labour remains in this space they will be forced to continue to compete with the Liberal Democrats and the Greens in England, plus the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales.

Given that there are no parties that are economically left-wing and culturally communitarian, a sensible strategy would be to combine a (plausible) left-wing economic agenda focused on public services with a cultural agenda that straddles the values divide, bringing together cosmopolitans and communitarians.

What would that look like in practice? Well, that’s for the Labour Party to decide, and beyond the reach of this article.

A good place to start, however, would probably involve formulating a narrative that combines a commitment to social equality, minority rights and tackling climate change, with a generous dose of patriotism and a commitment to rebuilding structures of human capital and public services within local communities.

The UK will leave the EU at the end of January 2020, but the country’s values divide will live on. Labour will be wise to pay attention to it.

By Diane Kirkwood, PhD Researcher, Department of Politics, University of York


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