One of the features of last month’s general was the lack of a single direction the results showed in the movement of opinion in British politics. While the overall result may have favoured Labour, and resulted in a Conservative government, across the divide there is much more of a shift in orientation, rather than simply direction, of opinion. In others words, we are right in the middle of a fundamental “turn” in politics – marked by a shift in the demographic profiles of voters for each party. The most prominent observation of and explanation for this has been from centre-left commentator David Goodhart, mainly in his book The Road to Somewhere. Emmanuel Macron and Donald Trump would be the global leaders representing the “anywhere vs somewhere” divide appearing across the democratic West. The questions this new divide raises are firstly, what constitutes and drives this reorientation, secondly, what does it mean for the current political parties, and thirdly, who can capitalise on the new lines of division to shape political debate and policy.
Most discussed as a signifier of the changing divides in politics, especially in Britain, was age, with the youth vote seeming to swing towards and turn out for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, and previously the correlation between age and Leave vote being borne out by constituency demographics and polling. In England and Wales there was a 2.5% swing to Labour in seats where less than 7% of the population is aged 18-24, but a swing of 5% in seats where at least one in 10 people is of that age (John Curtice). Current students voted by 64 to 19 percent in favour of Labour over the Conservatives (YouGov), tuition fees undoubtedly playing a massive part in this split. Notable Labour gains with a high student population were Canterbury, Reading East, and Warwick and Leamington.
Students also link the age factor to educational background, also highly discussed as an issue. Graduates, being concentrated in London most of all, but also the South East and Scotland (ONS “Graduates in the Labour Market”, 2013), swung by 9% from Conservative to Labour (YouGov showed a 1% lead for the Tories in 2015, followed by a 17% lead for Labour this year). Labour also won two more university seats, Leeds North West and Sheffield Hallam, from the Liberal Democrats, still facing a backlash over the increase in tuition fees they presided over. There was a direct correlation between educational background and voting patterns; YouGov showed a 22-point lead for the Conservatives among lower-educated (GCSE or below) voters compared to 8 points two years ago, a 5-point lead among medium-educated (A-level) voters compared to 6 points in 2015, and the aforementioned swing to Labour among graduates. Interestingly, Labour were also narrowly ahead for full-time and part-time workers (4 and 6 point leads respectively), with the Tories becoming more reliant on the retiree vote with a 39-point lead.
These divides were also displayed in the EU referendum last year, and the distribution of the Brexit vote share itself serves as a useful indicator statistically of the themes outlined. This is especially true when comparing the projected constituency results to the recent election – of the 6 seats gained by the Conservatives from Labour, there was an average Leave vote of 66.7%, none of which voted to remain. Conversely, of the 28 seats that went directly from Conservative to Labour, there was an average Leave vote of 48.2%, and of those in Southern England (SE, SW + London, and making up 11 of the 28), an average Leave vote of 41.3%, with only Plymouth Sutton & Devonport voting leave. Of 10 of the 11 seats that swung most heavily to Labour (Truro and Falmouth discounted as the Lib Dems were in second place in 2015), there was an average Leave vote of only 31.1%, and of the 10 seats that swung must to the Tories, there was an average Leave vote of 68.9% – an exact mirror image. The latter included seats with a large UKIP presence such as Rother Valley, and pushed the Conservatives over the line in seats like Mansfield and Walsall North, both historic gains. Included below is a chart showing every England and Wales constituency, barring the Speaker’s seat of Buckingham, by swing from Conservative to Labour and Leave vote share, where the trend speaks for itself.
The results of the election underline these divides on a regional scale as well. There was a small swing to the Conservatives in the North East (0.25%), and swings much smaller than average (average England swing 2.9% Con-Lab) to Labour in the West (1.2%) and East (0.8%) Midlands than the national average, with the Tories gaining one seat net in the West Midlands to Labour’s loss. Significant in the West Midlands also was that the single seat Labour gained was that of Warwick and Leamington, a university town that was the only Remain-voting counting area in the West Midlands. These regions were also returned the three highest Leave votes by percentage, surely no coincidence.
Conversely in London there was an average 6.3% swing from Conservative to Labour, and the Tories also lost out in two seats to the Liberal Democrats that are part of the affluent commuter suburbs in South West London. The affluent South-East also saw an above-average swing to Labour of 4%. The British Election Study’s voter “churn” diagrams of Remain and Leave voters confirm that remain voters deserted the Conservatives for Labour and leave voters left UKIP and Labour for the Conservatives, but not in decisive enough numbers to secure the majority Mrs May desired.
So what drives these shifts and churns in political opinion? I raise two factors in answer; the expansion in higher education from the conversion of polytechnics to full universities and move to a 50% school leavers attending university target, and in tandem, the changing economic geography of Britain. As graduates tend to be more liberal, internationalist, and focussed on different issues than non-graduates (climate change and immigration being issues illustrative of this divide), an expansion of higher education was always likely to result in a more socially liberal and internationalist electorate. In the “Brexit election” (confirmed by the British Election Study as the biggest issue by far the electorate saw), this undoubtedly benefited Labour.
On the second issue, it is a facet of both politically-active deindustrialisation at a national level, and more elemental changes in the place of Britain in the world economy owing to specialisation happening on a global scale, that certain parts of the UK would produce and attract more of these better-educated people and thus become differently politically aligned after a period of time. England has seen the move of manufacturing from easily replicable technologies that were pioneered in the Industrial Revolution in resource-rich areas such as the North-East and South Yorkshire towards knowledge-intensive technologies in belts of high human capital owing to their spatial relationship with either London or the research sectors driving them such as the M4 corridor or the “Silicon Fen” around Cambridge. This means those in deindustrialised areas are likely to feel less connected to, and concerned about, the rest of the world. Meanwhile “high service” industries have become dispersed across the country, mostly in relatively well-off or well-connected (either by transport or higher education) areas, meaning some deindustrialised areas thrive on new service industries while the less connected or diversified suffer. The latter is broadly the case in the constituencies gained by the Conservatives from Labour in 2017, taking Mansfield as an example – 20% of the town’s inhabitants are claiming out of work benefits and regeneration schemes have been hit by austerity and the Great Recession.
Given these new demographic and political fault lines caused by changing educational processes and economic geographies, it is clear that the coalitions of voters that support each of the two main parties are becoming less homogenous and more of an internal contradiction for both the Tories and Labour.
The Conservatives are seeing their traditional base of wealthier and better-educated voters drawn away because of burgeoning cultural liberalism among the ABC1 classes and especially graduates. Dissecting the middle class, Labour saw a small lead among C1 workers of 2% according to YouGov, while the Tories lead by 7 points in the C2 class, compared to a Tory lead of 12 points across C1 voters and level pegging for C2 voters in 2015, on Ipsos MORI’s figures. The Tories face a contradiction between the affluent commuters well-represented in the South-East (where they lost 6 seats, split evenly between Remain and Leave, and 4 to Labour, 2 to the Lib Dems) and typified by George Osborne’s politics of social and economic liberalism, and the shire counties and market town social conservatives who value the national interest over “individualist liberalism” as David Goodhart deems the ideology of Somewheres. This could pose a problem for any socially conservative party as the generations subject to the expansion in higher education move through the demographic stages and possibly retain more of this cultural liberalism than previous generations, and as improving transport links bring these graduates to parts of London and the South-East traditionally populated by the social conservatives that the Tories can rely on. In addition, there are practically no more UKIP votes left to take for the Conservatives, and few from the Liberal Democrats, whose remaining voters share far more ideologically with Labour than with the Tories after the recent shifts.
Meanwhile Labour, in trying to appeal to this constituency, has seen a chunk of their traditional working-class core defect first to UKIP, then in part to the Conservatives, likely in pursuit of social conservatism on matters such as immigration and political correctness. Labour is torn between cosmopolitan liberalism on one hand, and maintaining its traditionally socialist image to hold onto the core vote in deindustrialised areas now being attracted to the Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn’s attitude towards issues such as immigration and terrorism must be at least partially behind the varied regional and local swings between the Conservatives and Labour outlined above. Labour does face bright prospects for the future though, as important as attitudes towards immigration and national security are, as the increase in university graduates as a percentage of the population will likely disperse itself across the kind of seats Labour has aspirations of making their new strongholds.
So what kind of politics lies ahead? Dr Steve Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs predicts a realignment of politics towards true libertarianism (or at least liberalism), both social and economic, in the style of Emmanuel Macron, versus an authoritarian or conservative approach to social and economic affairs in the way populist leaders such as Donald Trump and Viktor Orban in Hungary have already trailblazed to some success. For now, in my opinion, the inertia of political allegiance, both traditional and rational, will to some extent maintain the unstable coalitions that piece together both parties. Whether a true realignment is imminent only time will tell, but the best that either party can hope for for now is to widen their electoral base as much as possible; for Labour, this means winning back the voters they lost to both UKIP then the Conservatives, and eating into the Liberal Democrat and remaining Green vote on the other side. For the Conservatives, they face a choice between pivoting back to the Cameron-Osborne coalition of voters with more liberal policies in the style of gay marriage, or trying to become, as Robert Halfon wants to, the “workers’ party”, translating the geographical shift in their vote into a socio-economic one as well. If this does become the case, then a phrase uttered by one John Enoch Powell in 1964 could prove prophetic – that “In the end, the Labour party could cease to represent labour. Stranger historic ironies have happened than that.”