Paula Surridge analyses UK in a Changing Europe’s latest Redfield and Wilton Strategies Brexit tracker poll. She looks at the influence of a party’s Brexit stance on the voting behaviour of different groups to examine how much Brexit is likely to matter at the next election.
With Brexit seemingly of less concern to British voters and a general election on the horizon, a key question is the extent to which the Brexit positions of the parties will matter to the electorate when they next vote. It is a complex question, as voters are not always good at telling us directly the reasons for their vote. But it is critical for political parties thinking about how to engage with the issue in the coming months. Recent research has urged the Labour party to adopt a pro rejoin position, claiming it is a vote winner but has also found that the key ‘swing’ groups were Leave leaning.
When asked what the most important issue facing the country currently is, fewer than one in five voters choose Brexit. Yet it clearly continues to play a key role in our national political conversation and to divide MPs both across and within political parties. For party strategists, though, a key issue beyond the detail of policy is how party positions on the EU affect the behaviour of voters.
Our Brexit public opinion tracker has asked a wide range of questions about people’s attitudes to Brexit, their Brexit identities and the extent to which various aspects of life in the UK have been improved or worsened as a result of leaving the EU. We have also asked voters about the influence of a party’s Brexit stance on their voting behaviour, specifically: ‘Which of the following parties would you be most likely to support and vote for?’. Respondents can choose from ‘A party that advocates FOR joining the EU’, ‘A party that advocates AGAINST joining the EU’ or ‘A party that prioritises other issues first’.
Overall, the electorate are split relatively evenly across these categories, with 37% saying they would be most likely to support a party in favour or joining the EU, 28% a party that is against joining and 36% saying they would be most likely to vote for a party that prioritises other issues.
There is, as we would expect, a strong pattern of 2016 Remain voters preferring to vote for parties in favour of joining, and Leavers preferring parties which are against joining. However, there is also evidence of large groups of voters on both sides preferring parties that are prioritising other issues.
When it comes to winning general elections, crafting a coalition of voters is key. For Labour and the Conservatives, groups of voters which switch between parties at elections are of particular importance when it comes to winning key seats.
Two groups of voters in recent vote intention polling are especially important. First, those who voted Conservative in 2019 but now say they will vote Labour: it is crucial for Labour’s polling lead to keep hold of this group. Second, those who voted Conservative in 2019 but are now undecided. Ensuring these voters ‘come home’ to the Conservatives by polling day will be central to Tory hopes for the next election.
Separating out these different groups shows a more complex pattern of preferences, that pose different challenges for the parties.
Among those who voted Conservative in 2019 and currently would again, a party which is against joining the EU is the most popular response – but only just. More than one in three would prefer a party which prioritises other issues, and one in four prefer a party which advocates for re-join. This highlights that even among those voters continuing to support the Conservatives, there are differences to navigate.
But divisions are even more marked amongs the groups of voters that have moved away from the Conservatives. Among those who voted Conservative in 2019 and now intend to vote Labour, there is an even split between those who would prefer a party in favour of rejoin, and those who would prefer a party which will stay out of the EU. However, the largest group are those that want a party that prioritises other issues.
For those who voted Conservative in 2019 but are now undecided voters, fewer than one in ten would support a party advocating for joining the EU, and a two-thirds would prefer a party to be focused on other issues.
The data suggest that those who voted Conservative in 2019 are now the most likely to want a party to prioritise issues other than Brexit, while those who voted Labour in 2019 are most likely to want a party to advocate for joining the EU.
This might at first appear to offer a straightforward solution to Sir Keir Starmer. But critically, the groups of voters Labour needs to boost the coalition it built in 2019 to government are more likely to want a focus on other things. Though a majority of currently undecided voters would prefer a party to not focus on Brexit, those who do express an opinion want a party that is not advocating joining the EU.
For the Conservatives, the difficulty is not that their voters are split between Brexit and other issues. Rather, the party can no longer rely on its Brexit position to hold on to voters who now have other priorities. To win back undecided voters, it is key to understand and act on their policy priorities.
For a majority of voters, the most important issues facing the country are the economy (and inflation) and the NHS. While these are clearly not unrelated to Brexit, a focus on these issues and party policies to address them is likely to be of much greater importance to voters in the next 18 months than any move to (re)join the EU.
By Professor Paula Surridge, Deputy Director, UK in a Changing Europe.