Labour’s fragmented base and the Tories’ new supporters

The 2019 election witnessed large changes in the two main parties’ bases of support. Labour’s new electoral coalition founded in the 2017 general election splintered, whilst the Tories new electoral groups from 2017 remained mostly intact, and even were extended slightly. This blog post outlines how the Tories extended their powerful 2017 base and how Labour’s base fragmented by analysing the flow of the vote. This tracks where the Tories’ gains primarily came from and where 2017 Labour voters defected to. This blog also identifies how voters who drifted apart, especially amongst Labour’s fragmented base, had greatly contrasting views. These views were particularly divisive on key issues of the day, immigration and Brexit, of which this article focuses on. The Conservatives are found to have gained from older, less qualified Leave voters who generally displayed views against immigration and the EU. Labour on the other hand lost from both sides of the debate. Instead, they lost younger, more highly qualified Remain voters to left liberal-parties, such as the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. Conversely, Labour also suffered losses from older, less qualified Leave voters to the Tories, and sometimes to the Brexit party as well. This articles argues that this squeezing of the Labour vote and the Conservative Party’s gains from this squeeze represents how the parties now have new electoral bases, which subsequently has changed how the parties compete for votes, academically known as a change in party competition structures. This change in competition structures reflects the culturally liberal vs conservative cleavage divide, and therefore the blog also asserts it is this divide that now shapes British politics.


Flow of the vote – some key statistics:

Table 1 - 2017 Labour flow of the vote and Conservative gains in 2019

Table 1 above shows Labour’s losses and the Conservative’s gains. The Labour Party lost most of their 2017 vote to the Conservatives Party, however they also lost a significant amount of support to the Liberal Democrats, and when combined with Green Party losses this equated to roughly a similar amount of voters lost to the Conservatives. Yet, overall Labour lost slightly more to the conservative side of the divide when considering the losses they also experienced to the Brexit Party.


Significantly, this trend was not limited to short-term changes between the 2017 and 2019 election as this pattern had developed from the 2010 and 2015 elections. The Conservatives had been gaining more votes from Labour as the decade progressed, particularly post-2015. Labour on the other hand spent its time building a new coalition, with their 2015 base securing many disaffected Lib-Dem voters and their 2017 base gaining many smaller party voters, such as Green Party supporters. However, in many cases Labour lost these new voters back to the Lib-Dems and Greens, alongside also suffering defections from their traditional base to the Tories. These longer-term trends again show patterns of voters breaking traditional voting habits, thus creating new bases of support for the two main parties.

Table 2: Long-term perspectives of Conservative gains and Labour losses form 2015 onwards

Now the patterns of changing support have been outlined the rest of the article will outline how these defecting voters had a consistent set of views which tells a deeper story in how British politics was remoulded in the 2010s.

Figure 1, Sankey Diagram - Flow of Labour's losses. Figure 2, Flow of Conservative gains, 2019 GE.

The views of these switching voters:


Brexit:

Table 3 - 2016 EU ref by flow of the Vote, Table 4 - View on 2nd Referendum by vote flow.

The voters the Conservative Party gained, regardless of the party they secured these gained votes from, mostly voted to Leave the EU and did not favour having a second referendum. The few amount of voters the Conservatives did not hold onto instead did prefer to Remain in the EU and often advocated holding a second referendum. Similarly, Labour’s lost support to third parties, such as the Lib-Dems and the Greens, also favoured Remaining and holding a second referendum. Yet, in contrast Labour’s losses to the Conservative and Brexit Party experienced the opposite set of opinions. Instead, they expressed Eurosceptic views, such as with wanting to Leave the EU and prevent a second referendum being held. Interestingly, this shows how these voters diverged into similar patterns of support in regards to views on the Brexit issue. Moreover, it also highlights how the parties’ bases have changed and how they are now competing over voters in a very different way to how they tended to fight over voters in elections Pre-2015.


Priorities over the Brexit negotiations:


The Brexit divide went further than just matters of a second referendum. The shift in voters the 2019 election displayed occurred according to the electorate’s divide in the Brexit negotiations and what should be prioritised in these discussions. The Conservatives often received gained support from former Labour and Lib-Dem voters when such individuals wanted to secure migration controls above all else. Similarly, Labour lost voters to the Tories and the Brexit Party when they too shared prioritising this policy objective. Yet, Labour also lost voters to the Lib-Dems and the Greens overtime when they much more favoured securing continued access to EU markets over gaining any new controls on immigration. This again shows how Labour’s vote fragmented and did so according to a new clear political divide, the cultural liberal vs conservative divide. It also shows how this clear dividing pattern has produced new political competition structures, and from this likely changed how parties compete for votes, especially when compared to pre-2015 elections.

T5- Tory gains & Labour's losses by Brexit negotiation priority

Immigration:

T 6 - Tory votes gained by view on migration numbers, T7 - Labour losses by view on how migration effects UK culture

Immigration also followed very similar patterns in terms of how the voters flowed from one party to another across the last decade. Those who stayed loyal to the Conservative Party tended to be anxious about the levels of migration and felt such changes brought negative effects to the UK’s economy and culture. Individuals who historically had supported Labour tended to leave Labour for the Conservative and Brexit Party when they shared these same set of opinions. Yet, the new base Labour had constructed in 2015 and 2017 tended to abandon Labour when they had the opposite view, when they felt migration levels were acceptable and that such migrants brought benefits to the UK. This again shows how the cultural liberal and conservative divide helped shape the parties bases throughout the decade, and especially in the 2019 election. It also shows how political competition may have changed according to this new value divide.

Table 8 - Tory gains and Labour losses by view on how migration effects the economy

Focusing on Labour’s Losses:


Focusing upon Labour’s losses it can be stated that upon examining further questions relating to the EU, Brexit and immigration the same divide described throughout this blog was found. Those who left Labour for the Tories and the Brexit Party thought cancelling Brexit was a bad idea. Moreover, such individuals thought the only acceptable way forward was to leave with Boris’ deal, or if this could not be achieved to leave with no deal. Alternatively, the voters who flocked to the Lib-Dems and Green Party mostly thought this was acceptable. Further, such voters believed having a second referendum was an even better way forward and generally did not select options that would quickly implement Brexit after the 2019 election.

Table 9 - Labour losses in 2019 by view on acceptable Brexit outcomes.

Moreover, looking further into questions surrounding immigration it can be stated that voters’ demands over net-migration levels heavily shaped trends in Labour’s fragmenting vote. Those who wanted migration levels to reduce and believed the Conservatives could achieve this, and Labour could not, tended to flow towards the Tories. Alternatively, those less concerned with rising numbers and felt Labour could handle the issue, and that the Tories would probably drive numbers down too far, either stayed with Labour or flowed towards the Lib-Dems and Green Party.


Conclusion: Cultural Liberalism vs Cultural Conservatism:


Table 10 - Labour and Conservative voters average position from 2005 - 2010 across the old and new divide.

Throughout this blog post it has been argued that the flow of Labour’s fragmented vote, alongside the Tories’ gains, follow a new cultural divide. The blog has highlighted how Labour losses diverted between the Tories and Lib-Dems mostly due to a culturally liberal and conservative divide that existed between such voters. Those who wanted to leave the EU, thought Brexit would bring benefits and wanted to ensure its implementation tended to flow towards the Tories, and sometimes opted for the Brexit Party instead. Further, such voters also wanted reductions in migration and tended to think migration harmed UK culture more than an average group of voters.


However, individuals who felt pessimistic about Brexit, wanted to Remain and thought a second referendum was needed generally diverted to the Liberal Democrats or the Green Party. Moreover, such individuals also felt that migration levels were acceptable, whilst they also thought migration could produce benefits for the UK.


Crucially, the above pattern shows a culturally liberal vs conservative divide in how the voters have shifted their support, and it particularly reflects how Labour’s 2017 base fragmented. When calculating a variable for this cultural divide, table 10, it shows Labour’s voting base since 2010 has become more culturally liberal with successive elections, whilst the Tories’ became more culturally conservative. Therefore, this new divide now shapes the parties’ support bases and has been a great factor in altering how the parties compete for votes. Therefore, this new divide has altered party competition structures, which significantly means that it will likely to continue to dominate how parties appeal to voters, meaning it could be significant in shaping future election results.



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