Are British voters Right or Left wing? This question has profound impacts on the politics of Britain. For 30 years the assumptions about voters being primarily rational, self-interested in their political assumptions were largely quashed in both Brexit and the 2017 election. In Brexit, areas with large car industries such as Sunderland, Swindon and Luton voted Leave, despite car exports being dependent on the EU. In the 2017 general election, the link between social class and voting behaviour has largely been removed. The difference between how working class voters vote and middle-class voters vote is less than 2% according to the YouGov post-election study. In 2017, there was an 8% gap between Labour and the Conservatives among professional, middle-class voters or “AB” voters; which was 2% lower than in 1997 election where Labour won a landslide election. What kind of changes to political ideology has happened in the UK to make politics so different from the past?
One major change in political ideology within voters was the 2017 British Social Attitudes Survey article, Voting: The 2017 Election: New divides in British politics? highlights a significant change within the political ideology of British voters. The survey identifies Libertarian voters that value individualism and social liberalism as being more likely to vote Labour and Authoritarian voters who value social order and authority as being more likely to vote Conservative. 56% of Authoritarians voted Conservative compared with 33% voting Labour whilst 55% of Libertarians voted Labour and 22% voted Conservative. This is comparable to American politics and the rise of Donald Trump; social authoritarians are moving to the political Right and embracing populist right-wing policies and politicians. The American “Culture War” is in many ways similar to the rise of Identity Politics across the world and it appears to be affecting British political ideology of voters.
The Opinium has identified the emergence of deep political tribes in its 2016 piece of research Dead Centre: redefining the centre in British politics. Its piece of research argues that rather than people being able to identify themselves on a political spectrum of Left wing and Right wing, people broadly fit into 8 political tribes that explain British politics. The Left-wing groups include Democratic Socialists who hold traditional socialist and internationalist views, Progressives who hold social liberal views and Left-wing economic policies and Community voters who are essentially Communitarian voters in that they value social conservativism and community but also value equality and public services. The Right-wing “tribes” include Our Britain voters, who are strongly nationalist and authoritarian, Common Sense voters who value small government and nationalist values, Free Liberals who hold Classical Liberal and Libertarian political views such as capitalism, individualism and small government and New Britain who are similar to Free Liberals.
This survey gives a way of being able to define political ideology of British voters. The research identifies that 50% of the population are Right-wing nationalists, 13% are Right-wing Libertarians, 7% are Swing-voters and the remaining 24% are Left-wing voters. 4% of the voters are not included in survey, given that the voters included add up to 96% rather than 100%. This study can explain Brexit rather well, given that Our Britain and Common-Sense voters are highly nationalistic. However, this study is deeply flawed because it fails to explain the election result in 2017. If 63% of the electorate are Right-wing, then the Tories should have won by a landslide majority in the commons. Instead, the electorate have split 40% for Labour and 42% for Conservatives. This study fails in its ability to explain this bi-polar election or explain why Corbyn’s Labour party is so popular given that it calculates that only 24% of the electorate are Left-wing.
A far better piece of research is the paper The UK’s changing party system: The prospects for a party realignment at Westminster, by David Sanders. This defines the political ideology of British voters into four camps; Liberal Internationalists, Liberal Centre-Right, Authoritarian Populists Centrists and Authoritarian Populist Right. Liberal Internationalists were the largest group making up 37% of the voters and could be described as being Left-wing Internationalists. The Liberal Centre-Right are a group with similarities to New Britain and Free Liberals in the Dead Centre: redefining the centre in British politics by Opinium and make up similar numbers in the research, around 15% of the voters. Authoritarian Populist Centrists adopt nationalist and communitarian values but hold economically centrist ideas; they made up 29% of the electorate. The last voters were Authoritarian Populist Right voters, who are Right-wing nationalists make up 19% of the electorate. This research holds an interesting proposition; Labour is unlikely to grow in its supporters because whilst it holds a significant numbers of Liberal Internationalist voters, it is unlikely to attract voters who are Populist Centrists because of their support for Brexit.
The London School of Economics, however, rejects both Opinium’s research and David’s Sander’s paper in concluding that looking at people’s objective political values are considerably more to the Left than previously thought. In the 2016 research, Ideology is in the eye of the beholder: How British party supporters see themselves, their parties, and their rivals, by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, voters are considerably more Left-wing in all parties, the most being UKIP voters. On a 0 to 10 scale, 0 being Left-wing and 10 being Right-wing, voters believed themselves to be Right or Left-wing and then were asked whether their party was Left or Right wing. Most voters identified themselves as Left or Right wing along the party they supported. As predicted, Labour voters thought they were Left-wing and had a score of 2.97 whilst Conservative voters thought they were Right-wing and had a score of 7.53. However, what was interesting is their objective political ideology, that is to say, their actual score was consistently more to the Left than what they thought they were. UKIP voters who thought they were Right-wing with a score of 6.77 were actually Left-wing with a score of 2.62! This shows a complete contrast to the previous studies. It would ask a very serious question: if people are significantly more to the Left than they think they are, why does the political Right still dominate British politics.
Article by Dan Clemence
Photograph by Mint Press News