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2022 weakened the Brexit divide

"The polls currently show that the Brexit divides witnessed in the 2019 general election have severely weakened, if they are still influential at all."

The 2019 general election produced stark social and political divisions that propelled the Conservative Party to an 80 seats majority and doomed Labour to electoral defeat. These divisions can be described as the Brexit divide. The Conservative Party secured a large proportion of Leave voters within specific constituencies to allow them to carve out a large majority. These voters tended to be older, less likely to have experienced a university-level of education and come from working-class areas and work within working class occupations. The Conservative Party took these voters from the Labour Party, allowing a direct transfer of support that allowed the Tories to win seats they had not won for decades, and in some instances never won. This change in political behaviour led some prominent academics and commentators to claim a long-term change in British had occurred, with clear distinct social groupings having formed contrasting tribes.

For example, as recently as January 2022 Matthew Goodwin argued in a public ‘I-Squared’ debate that Labour could not regain a majority as it had lost too much of its traditional voting base. This argument is known academically as a realignment. However, was the political shift witnessed in 2019 a long-lasting realignment or a temporary shift that only existed whilst cultural issues like Brexit and immigration were high on the voter’s list of concerns? Now that Brexit has slipped down the voters’ agenda list and more traditional issues like the economy and the NHS top the voters’ concerns, there is an excellent opportunity to examine the durability of the Brexit divide. This is especially the case when considering Labour has been able to turn an 11-point deficit into a 20-point lead since the last general election. By analysing polling since the 2019 election, this blog demonstrates that the parties’ fortunes have reversed largely because the Brexit divide has weakened. This divide has weakened whilst the pandemic caused the issues of the economy and the NHS to increase in saliency, indicating that key events may have moved voters away from the Brexit divide, thus allowing voters to rethink their allegiances. This weakening of ties made it easier for voters disillusioned with the government’s performance and behaviour to break from their new political tribal home and revert to their former home of Labour. This trend has caused the Brexit divide of 2019 to severely weaken in 2022.

Changing concerns, changing divides:

Approaching the general election in 2019, the issue of the EU and Brexit dominated British politics, with 72% of the electorate putting it within their highest priorities. However, now only 20% state this to be a pressing issue, see figure 1. This trend has largely occurred due to the pandemic and its consequences. As the pandemic hit in early 2020, concerns around the NHS and public health overtook Brexit and this change has not reversed since the outbreak of Covid19. Throughout 2020 the NHS was ranked as the biggest issue facing the country, with more than 50% of the electorate stating this should be the government’s top priority. Unsurprisingly, it would appear that the national lockdowns and daily death figures dominated the headlines and people’s lives in 2020-’21 were sufficient to break the electorate’s fixation on Brexit. Further, health concerns have continued post-Covid19. Although the vaccine rollout had concluded and lockdowns were over by the spring of 2022, concerns related to the NHS and public health were still thought to be a high priority by 37% of voters, making it the second biggest issue. Yet, because the long-term effects of the pandemic have overwhelmed the NHS, in the winter of 2022-’23 this rose to over 50%. With NHS strikes continuing, NHS delays and services within the NHS are unlikely to see improvement there is little reason to think that these public service and health concerns will abate in 2023.

Additionally, the pandemic has returned the issue of the economy as the most dominant issue. Firstly, when the pandemic forced lockdowns even with government intervention this limited many individuals’ income. Further, lockdowns weakened economic growth and this limited businesses’ ability to make money. This caused economic concerns to rise from just 28% in the 2019 election to 54% by April 2020, see figure 1. Interestingly, despite the major health challenges the pandemic brought, the economy was still regarded as a very high priority throughout the pandemic, with it reporting similar priority levels to the NHS throughout the pandemic. As the pandemic abated and the cost of the pandemic became clear, in terms of limited economic growth and higher inflation, since February 2022 the public has consistently stated the economy to be the biggest issue. These concerns continued to be strong after Truss’ mini-budget failed and interest rates increased mortgage repayments.

Although immigration has risen in importance recently, these concerns are not thought of as the most pressing issue facing the country as much as economic and NHS matters are. Vitally, this means that cultural issues like Brexit and immigration have been replaced by issues that are based on traditional left/right divisions, the economy and public services (specifically the NHS). This presented an opportunity for Labour to win back their traditional voters lost in 2019, bringing potential the Brexit divide witnessed in 20109 won’t repeat itself at the next general election.

Figure 1: Responses to the question ‘'What are the most important issues facing the country”. Source: YouGov polling 2019 - 2023. Note: IPSOS MORI and RedFeild Wilton confirm these trends.

Polling shows that this potential has been realised as realignment trends have broken. The polls show that Labour who were 11% behind the Tories in late 2019 are now 20% ahead of the Conservative Party. Vitally, this change has been driven by reversals in the divides witnessed in the 2019 election.

The Brexit divide:

Firstly, figure 2 shows there has been a reversal in Brexit support trends. In 2019, the Conservatives had a 30% lead over Labour amongst Leave voters. Yet now they have a 7% deficit. Remain voting trends have slightly strengthened for Labour, but not enough to fully explain this reversal in voting intention. This trend coincided with events in 2022, with Boris Johsnon’s continued scandals, high-profile resignation and the failure of Liz Truss’ premiership. Crucially, the magnitude of change in leave voter trends means that Labour has been able to gain a large voting intention lead by gathering Leave voters from the Conservative Party. Further, this claim is supported by YouGov polling that has shown a direct switch of voters from the Tories to Labour, with 20% of 2019 Conservative Party voters making this switch. As the realignment was partly driven by Leave voters gravitating towards the Conservative party post-Brexit, it can be stated there is evidence that realignment trends have broken.

Figure 2: Voting intention 2019 – 2023 by a voter’s EU referendum vote. Source: Average of Deltapoll, Survation, Opinium & YouGov polling.


Since the 2019 general election, figure 3 demonstrates that Labour has increased its lead amongst younger voters (those polled that were below the age of 35) by 8%. Whilst the Labour Party has gained 2% of these voters and the Tories have lost 6%, this cannot fully explain the large deviation in voting intention. These large deviations can be more fully explained by trends of older voters, those 55 and over. In late 2019, the Tories had a 50% lead over Labour amongst these voters, but the first months in 2023 show us that this lead has evaporated and they now have a 4% deficit to Labour amongst this group of voters. Again, this trend appears to coincide with Boris Johnson’s resignation and rising inflation, see figure 3.

These trends were strengthened by Liz Truss’ failed economic policies and forced resignation and have since stayed consistent. The arrival of a New Prime Minister has only slightly narrowed the deficit the Conservatives were facing amongst older voters, again indicating that these trends could continue throughout 2023. Vitally, these trends that have given Labour a sizeable polling lead are in contrast to the divides witnessed in the 2019 election, again indicating 2022 has broken the Brexit divide.

Figure 3: Voting intention by younger and older age groupings, polls 2019 - 2023. Source: Deltapoll, Opinium, Redfield Wilton, Survation and YouGov.


In terms of the qualification divide, there has again been a clear breakdown of realignment trends. In the spring of 2020, the Conservatives had a lead of 23% amongst voters with lower level qualifications (GCSE and below) over Labour. However, by February 2023 Labour had gained a 15% lead amongst this section of the electorate, see figure 4. Labour has also increased their lead over the Conservatives by 10% in the same period amongst voters with higher levels of qualifications (degree and above). Therefore, most of the gains Labour has secured when building its large polling lead have originated from voters who have not experienced a university-level education.

This goes against divides witnessed in the 2019 election where Labour lost many of these voters and became more reliant on individuals with degree level qualifications for support. Again, these changes coincide with a time when economic issues increased in saliency and government incompetence over economic matters. This would again support the argument that the return of economic and public service concerns has broken the political tribes formed in the late 2010s. Therefore, figure 4 confirms the possibility the Brexit divide may not be durable enough to influence the next general election.

Figure 4: Qualification level and voting intention, polls 2020 – 2023. Source: Survation.

Occupational Class:

During the month of the general election, polls showed the Conservatives had a 19% lead over the Labour Party amongst voters who reside within working class occupations, defined as occupations that fit into the C2DE category. In fact figure 5 shows that in 2019 the Conservative Party were more reliant on working class voters than individuals who reside in more middle class occupations, defined as occupations that fit into the ABC1 category. However, the first two months of 2023 have demonstrated this trend has reversed, with the Conservatives now only having 25% support from working class groups, 2% less than compared to support coming from middle class voters. Alternatively, Labour has seen a revival of working class support where they have turned a 19% deficit into a 20% lead, see figure 5. Further, they have similar levels of working class and middle class support, indicating that their reliance on middle class voters is not as strong as it was in the 2019 election. Once more, these stark changes in trends have coincided with increasing inflation and high-ranking ministerial resignations, indicating the political divides of the 2010s have abated in part due to the return of thoughts that place voters along a different divide, the traditional left/right economic divide. It also indicates that as Conservative leaders have been perceived to not deliver this may have caused less traditionally conservative voters may have abandoned their new home and return to Labour, thus making the 2019 realignment a temporary political shift.

Figure 5: Occupational class grouping and voting intention, polls 2019 – 2023. Source: YouGov and Deltapoll.


In conclusion, the Brexit divide that we witnessed in the 2019 election is far from guaranteed to be a long-standing divide as some academic researchers and political commentators have suggested. Instead, the polls currently show that these divides have been severely weakened, if they are still influential at all. In the minds of the electorate, Brexit was fully implemented by 2022 and the pandemic brought fresh new concerns that allowed the public to move on from Brexit. The public health and economic consequences faced both during and in the aftermath of the pandemic have increased concerns that encourage voters to think along more traditional dividing lines of British politics.

These dividing lines better reflect the left/right economic public service provision debate and the voters who abandoned Labour in 2019 have become naturally ideologically closer to Labour than the Tories because of these changing concerns. This, on top of the Conservative government failing to deliver, and at times appearing in meltdown mode has caused voters to break away from the Conservative Party and back Labour in such large numbers that it has weakened, if not ended, the Brexit divide. This has made it possible for Labour to not just win the next general election, but to gain an overall majority, something that was unthinkable just over a year ago.

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