What’s next for British elections?

21 Mar 23

What’s next for British elections?

At a Westminster briefing event held on 20 March in partnership with UK in a Changing Europe (UKiCE), Professors Edward Fieldhouse, Jane Green and Dr Jack Bailey from the British Election Study’s (BES) scientific team shared early findings from the most recent BES data (December 2022) and their ongoing research for a new British Election Study book. Professor Paula Surridge, Deputy Director at UKiCE, chaired the event.

Professor Fieldhouse opened the event with a look back at the Brexit referendum, which had such a dramatic impact on the “electoral realignment” in Britain.

Professor Fieldhouse said:

”While long-term trends preceded the referendum, it took a major change of representation by the largest political parties to realign the electorate in such a dramatic way. We believe the future of the electoral realignment depends on how the major parties continue to compete around it.”

Both the scale and the timing of the realignment are most evident post-2016.

With the different positions taken by the British electorate on Brexit, both Labour and Conservatives attracted Remainers and Leavers, respectively, a process referred to as “sorting”. Today pro- and anti-European voters hold different views, and they also tend to have different socio-demographic profiles. Leavers tend to be older, and are less likely to have a degree than Remainers. This sorting into the Conservatives and Labour, respectively, has had a huge knock-on effect on Britain’s electoral alignments across a range of other measures.

More recent political shocks, such as the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the current cost of living crisis are also having an impact, with the Conservatives having lost support overall, but – as of December 2022 (the latest wave of BES data) – this is not yet affecting the strength and pattern of realignment seen since the 2017 and 2019 general elections. The tide has risen overall for Labour, but the underlying patterns of electoral support remain unchanged.

There is an important loss of confidence in the Conservatives for managing the economy, most starkly since the autumn of 2022 (using YouGov polling data), following the Truss period of government. BES respondents who cite the economy as the most important issue now consider Labour to be better able to handle the economy than the Conservatives. That said, the patterns of electoral support have remained, and the two largest parties have continued to represent the two sides of the Brexit debate in the eyes of the voting public.

Across a range of factors, the realignment has persisted since 2019. BES data shows stability in the relationship of Brexit referendum vote choice to Labour and Conservative vote intention and stability in the perceptions of the parties’ ideological positions on the EU. It also shows, when EU attitudes and vote intention are measured at the same time point, the realignment is even stronger. This is because voters have ‘sorted’ into parties and also changed their views on Brexit, as well as the underlying pattern of demographic change which is contributing to Leave attitudes overall.

Professor Green explains:

“Our data shows that the relationship between the voting public’s demographic makeup and their individual voting choices are similar, but the levels of support across the electorate are more transient. We see a large proportion of BES respondents changing from Conservative support to don’t know, for example, when there is a loss of trust. And it is these levels of support that will be key to the outcome of the next election.”

How voters perceive political parties is also crucial. A greater proportion of BES respondents cannot place Labour’s position on the EU, and BES data shows that there is currently greater clarity in perception overall for the Conservatives position on the EU. The relationship between party policy positions and party support is greatest among ‘conflicted’ voters (Conservatives who supported Remain, Labour voters who supported Leave). These voters are switching support on the basis of ongoing party competition, both on the EU dimension and on left-right issues, whereas ‘un-conflicted voters’ have had little reason to update their views or their party choice on ideological grounds.

The importance of Brexit is undeniable in understanding voting behaviour, and its significance has persisted until now. The patterns of voting behaviour seen through the ongoing BES data are important contexts for the next general election, and also for the upcoming local elections this May.

For more information on the British Election Study and the most recent data sets.

The BES team interviewed for Times Radio, Matt Chorley: More politics (still no boring bits).