Opinion: voting patterns from the UK election show that Brexit now trumps party loyalty or class 

As the dust settles on the 2019 UK general election, it is worth considering the extent to which this comprehensive victory for the Conservatives was influenced by continuing debate and division surrounding the 2016 referendum in favour of leaving the EU. How much substance is there to the claim that Brexit is becoming the defining issue in British politics - and how is that reflected in voting patterns?

As loyalties to parties decline and class has receded as the main predictor of voting, recent elections have divided the British electorate into two camps: those for Brexit and those against it. Those in favour of remaining in the EU tend to be younger and higher educated, while evidence shows that anti-EU voters tend to stem from the opposite demographics.

The geographic spread of the electoral results lends weight to this claim, with Labour losing traditionally working-class seats that they have held since the 1930s to the Conservatives, but remaining strongest in major cities. While numerous issues will have influenced voters, it is difficult to put shifts of this scale down solely to traditional issues and the popularity of individual party leaders.

Financial Times' poll of polls as of December 12 2019. Image: Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/263615ca-d873-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17

Opinion polls conducted across 2019 suggest a link between levels of support for the Conservative and Brexit Party on the one hand and the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats on the other. Therefore, an argument can be made that levels of electoral support across the year have been reliant upon how firmly and clearly parties have either supported Brexit (Conservatives and the Brexit Party) or opposed it (Labour and the Liberal Democrats).

A 2005 study examined the tactics of large established parties when faced with competitors focused upon emerging issues such as Brexit. It identified three options: (i) ignore the new issue, which often starved their emerging competitors of attention; (ii) attempt to adopt the challenger's position on the new issue or (iii) firmly oppose the emerging party on the issue. The latter option was usually adapted if it involved a subject on which their traditional main opponents were weak because giving the issue attention would increase votes for the smaller party at the expense of their main opponent.

In 2014, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) successfully won most seats in the European Parliament election in the UK, beating the Conservatives into third place. It appears that David Cameron then deployed the second tactic during the 2015 UK general election campaign by promising a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU in order to undermine the threat posed by UKIP.

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"Let's get Brexit done - but first, let's get breakfast done"

This strategy certainly seemed effective as the Conservatives succeeded in winning a majority for the first time since 1992.  But despite the two main parties both receiving their highest vote totals in decades in the 2017 general election, internal divisions became increasingly prominent resulting in the two parties being overtaken in the 2019 European elections by the Brexit Party (UKIP's successor) on the leave side and the Liberal Democrats advocating for remain.

Under the leadership of Boris Johnson, the Conservatives again responded to this new challenger by seeking to absorb the Brexit Party’s harder line stance on what constituted a "real" or clean break Brexit. The success of this strategy, and efforts to ensure that the election was squarely focused on efforts to leave the European Union by January 31st next and getting Brexit done, were clearly evidenced in the polls as the Conservative vote share grew at the same rate as the Brexit Party’s declined.

The tactics of the Brexit Party itself will have also influenced this, such as not running against Conservative candidates, and the decision of some of their MEPs to resign from the party to support the Conservatives and Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal. Similar divisions are reflected in the Labour party whose stance on Brexit was perceived as less clear than that of the more explicitly pro-remain Liberal Democrats.

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From RTÉ News, 5 stories from UK election night

A 2017 study looked into what topics parties focus upon and found a strong link between how united a party is in its opinions on a subject and the level of attention given to an issue. This may go some way to explain efforts by Jeremy Corbyn and other Labour candidates to keep the focus of their campaigning away from Brexit and onto subjects where they are stronger and more united such as the NHS. This is more in line with the tactic of ignoring the issue on which the challenger party is most strong, particularly as it is one on which the Labour Party itself was divided and therefore weak.

This final result demonstrates that the Conservatives were able to keep the focus upon Brexit and absorb the vote of the Brexit Party in order to win the party's most seats in Westminister since 1987. In contrast, Labour's efforts to shift the focus away from the topic and onto their areas of strength proved unsuccessful, leading to their worst result in terms of seats won since 1935.

Ultimately, Corbyn’s efforts to unite his party and the country around a compromise position on Brexit failed. Labour lost support across the country as the Conservatives gained votes from them in areas that voted to leave the EU in 2016, while the Liberal Democrats gained votes (but not seats) from Labour in areas that had voted remain in the 2016 referendum.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ