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Has the pandemic changed voting behaviour in Britain?

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

"Even if groups that backed the Tories in 2019 did not approve of their response to the pandemic it is still likely that they believe Labour would be no better in managing the crisis."

In theory, the pandemic should be a moment of destabilisation in voters’ behaviour. Historically in times of crisis voters tend to lose faith in governing parties, especially when they are faced with crises that have no immediate solutions. The US presidential election showed us this when Trump lost his bid to secure a second term in office, something that looked very likely to occur before the pandemic hit. Yet, the polls in recent months have produced a fairly stable lead for the Conservatives, with some sign they could yet still hold onto their overall majority, despite their electoral coalition being relatively new and unstable. This blog post explores the extent the Conservative Party has retained its newfound voter coalition, and the extent to which Labour is winning back its former base during the period of lockdown, defined as early 2020 to July 2021. This blog finds that the Conservatives have held onto their lead and Labour have failed to win back their base. This is partly because the electorate still perceives the Tories as most able to handle the biggest issues of the day, especially when compared to an imagined Labour administration. Therefore, unlike the 2008 great recession, the 2020-21 covid19 pandemic has not likely been a vote changing event.

The same voter divides exist:

Figure one shows that the polls have remained remarkably static considering the crisis the government was faced with, and it must be stated one it initially handled very slowly and poorly. During the second wave of the crisis, the polls narrowed and Labour briefly took a lead, yet the Tories regained their lead once they gained a boost from a successful vaccination programme. As a result, although the polls have narrowed slightly there is not the considerable change you would expect for a mid-term government that had faced a severe crisis in its first year and a half of governing. For instance, there has not been the reversal of party fortunes that was witnessed in the 2008-09 great recession and the Eurozone crisis in 2011/12.


More interestingly, figure one indicates a key reason to why Labour has not been able to overtake a weak Conservative government, because of their inability to win back voters who voted Leave in 2016. During the pandemic, Labour has not been able to improve upon the proportion of Leave voters they secured back in December 2019. In contrast, the Conservatives roughly have the same proportion of Leave voters backing the Tories as they had done in 2019, where in some parts of the pandemic they increased such support. In contrast, in the months where Labour improved their expected vote share, this improvement tended to come from Remain voters, with the Tories gaining very few of these voters. Interestingly, this indicates that even in times of crisis where the voters will naturally doubt the governing party’s performance the Tories can still rely on their 2019 voting base, whilst Labour will still find it hard to secure their lost voters. Critically, this tells us the change in voting patterns witnessed in 2019 might be long-lasting and likely to shape British political outcomes for the foreseeable future.

Figure 1 - Voting intention during the pandemic by 2016 EU referendum vote.

(Polls used, YouGov, Opinium, Survation, RedField Wilton & Deltapoll).

Social Demographics:

The social divides witnessed in the 2019 election also have continued to shape political support. Figure two highlights how younger generations have continued to back Labour, whilst older groups of voters have given the Conservative Party enough support to maintain their lead during most of the pandemic. On further analysis, it was found that groups who had obtained low-level, or no, qualifications also produced consistent support for the Conservative Party. Alternatively, individuals who had obtained degree and above qualifications have not increased Conservative support but did bolster Labour support when they rose in the polls. Moreover, class-based voting patterns witnessed in the last general election have been stable since the 2019 election. The working-class groups, C2DE voters, have continued to support the Conservative Party in larger numbers than the Labour Party, whereas in the brief periods Labour gained in the polls this increase tended to come through middle-class voters working in professional-level occupations. Consequently, the pandemic does not appear to have broken the new voting patterns that were formed in the 2019 election, indicating the Tories’ lead remains strong and Labour’s inability to win over certain groups of voters has continued throughout the pandemic.

Fig 2 - Voting intention during the pandemic by Age group (, YouGov, Opinium, Survation, RW & Deltapoll).

Voters do not appear to regret their 2019 vote:

Figure three shows that the Conservatives have maintained a high proportion of the voters they won over in the 2019 general election. Moreover, it was also found that Labour has secured few 2019 Tory Party voters, indicating that the two main parties’ bases have been fairly static over the pandemic, suggesting the pandemic has not been a crisis that has dramatically shifted voting patterns.

Figure 3 - Voting Intention reflects 2019 trends throughout the pandemic

Why has the pandemic not been a politically redefining moment?

Voters’ perceptions have not changed:


One potential reason to why the polls have not produced a renewed lead for Labour could be because of the electoral divisions over how the parties, and their respective leadership, are perceived remains. Polling organisations often track the electorate’s views on the party leader they think can perform best in the role of Prime Minister. The polling lead the Conservatives had throughout the 2019 election has not been reduced with a new Labour leader. This has particularly been the case in recent months, where after a poor local election performance Starmer’s ratings have declined. Therefore, Johnson still has a credibility lead over the Labour leadership in his role as PM, yet when going into more detail behind these trends the sociological divides that existed over such perception divides have continued. Figure four in particular shows that the qualification divide has continued throughout the pandemic as Labour is perceived to have a more able leader by those who have gained higher level qualifications, whereas Johnson has continued to secure the backing of individuals with below degree-level qualifications. Therefore, one reason the coronavirus crisis has not produced major electoral change could be because the party perceptions created in the last few years of British politics was very deep and will not be radically changed in a short time period.

Figure 4 - Best Candidate for PM by education level, Pandemic poll averages.

(Polls used, YouGov, Opinium, Survation, RedField Wilton & Deltapoll).

These social divides were also reflected in favourability ratings. Starmer was more likely to have a higher net approval rating amongst voters who have obtained higher levels of qualifications. Oppositely, Johnson had a better approval score when focusing on voters who had secured lower level, or no, qualifications. Moving onto the generational divide, it was found that older generations disproportionately approved of Johnson's leadership and disapproved of Starmer’s. Alternatively, younger generations tended to produce more favourable scores for Starmer, and very much decreased Johnson’s net approval rating score. In terms of differing occupational class groupings, those in working-class groups tended to still back the Conservative leader more than the Labour leader, whilst more professional middle-class occupation groups tended to improve Starmer’s overall approval score. Importantly, this all indicates these groups’ perceptions of the party leaders have remained fairly static throughout the pandemic and that the polls may have not changed as some groups have become very much aligned to the Tories, giving the Tories enough support through the crisis to ensure they can maintain their lead. As Labour has not been able to break down these loyalties within Starmer’s short premiership a stalemate in the polls has occurred.

The socio-political divide witnessed in the 2019 election may have continued because the divides that were expressed in the 2016 EU referendum remain strong, despite the implementation of Brexit and the ascendency of the pandemic in the electorate’s immediate concerns. This potential is reflected in the leader’s favourability ratings. Boris Johnson has received consistent and strong support amongst Leave voters, something unchanged from the 2019 election. Figure 5 on the other hand displays how Starmer receives a much higher overall approval score amongst Remain voters. Interestingly, amongst this group of voters, the Labour leader is much better rated than Johnson, again something reflected in both the 2017 and 2019 elections. Significantly, this indicates that the polls have not been changed by the pandemic partly because prior strong socio-political divisions, formed in the aftermath of Brexit, have prevented a change in political perceptions and allegiances.

Figure 5 – Kier Starmer’s net favourability score by EU referendum vote, YouGov, Survation & Opinium.

Party competence:

Another reason why the polls have not presented a major shift is the perceived competence of the parties has not changed, especially within particular voter groupings. Our theory states Labour should gain in such a crisis because as the pandemic decreases wages and increases unemployment this should have shifted the debate into territory that favours Labour politics. As people begin to demand more intervention in the economy they begin to favour wider redistribution policies and greater levels of tax and spend, historically something that has benefitted Labour over the Conservatives. Yet, according to figure six even if the pandemic has shifted the economic debate towards Labour’s position it may not help their cause. The main reason for this is that the electorate on average trust the Conservative Party to manage the economy, and therefore to rebuild it post lockdown, more than Labour. Going deeper into the data, it can be stated that Labour has a particular problem in convincing the groups they need to win back that they can handle this key issue. Figure six highlights how the Brexit divide in particular is a major obstacle for Labour, with Leave voters feeling the Tories are far by the best party to manage the economy. Further, older, less qualified and working-class groupings felt the same way. Therefore, amongst the groups Labour needs to win back the Labour Party is perceived to be way behind the Tories on an issue that will likely be dominant post lockdown. Consequently, this does help explain why Labour has struggled to close the polling gap. The polls may have not closed because although the pandemic has produced an economic crisis for many voters they still feel the government can handle this problem better than Labour can, therefore they feel they have little reason to change their voting intention.

Figure 6 - Party most able to handle the economy during the pandemic, Source: YouGov polling archive.

This lack of trust in the Labour Party’s competence amongst certain sections of the electorate extends wider than the economy. It also extended to handling Brexit, relations with the EU and overall management of government business. Figure seven shows Labour’s problem of being associated with Remain appears to have particularly hit confidence in their ability to handle the ongoing Brexit developments. Therefore, Labour appears to have perceived competence problems over policy areas that will be highly salient amongst the voters they need to win back. As a result, Labour’s competence problem and the Tories’ monopoly of it on such issues could explain why despite the government having faced a tough crisis the polls largely reflect the position the electorate stated in the 2019 election.

Figure 7 - Party most able to handle Brexit during the pandemic, Source: YouGov polling archive

Handling the pandemic:

The government’s response:

Part of the problem with the theory that states the governing party will be hurt by a crisis is that if a voter perceives a government to handle a crisis well then the government can instead gain a boost in the polls. The assumption made earlier was that the electorate at some point in the pandemic would have disapproved of the government response, largely as the initial response was slow and did not control the virus well. Yet, not all voters have this view. In fact, figure eight shows that the majority of voters who voted Tory in 2019 approved of the government’s response throughout the lockdown. Alternatively, other voters, such as Labour voters, largely did not approve.

Figure 8 - Approve of the government’s Covid19 response by voting intention, Redfield Wilton Polling data.

Moreover, the socio-political divisions found in 2019 could affect how the voters perceive the parties to be able to handle the pandemic. Even if voting groups that backed the Tories in 2019 did not approve of their response to the crisis it is still likely that they feel Labour would be no better in managing the pandemic. Figure nine shows that older groups especially felt this way, meaning they wouldn’t have seen a large incentive to change their vote as the main opposition, in their eyes, could make things worse. Further, this was also the case for Leave, lower qualified and working-class voters. As a result, again, the very voters Labour must make inroads with felt they were not a better option in handling the biggest issues of the day, resulting in a reduced possibility for them to close the polling deficit, even in a time of great crisis for the government.

Figure 9 - Which party leader can tackle the coronavirus pandemic? Source: Redfield Wilton Polls.

Overall, Labour's perceived lack of competence and credibility amongst the electorate, especially around pandemic related policy areas, is probably a key reason to why the voting patterns witnessed in the 2019 election have not changed during the pandemic. In particular, specific groups of the electorate continue to perceive the Tories’ leadership as more likeable and more able to lead the government through tough times. Further to this, such groups have continued to believe that the Tories can best manage the economy, and therefore be most likely to feel they can secure an economic recovery post- covid19. As a result, in the month where restrictions were lifted and the worst of the pandemic looks to be over Labour was roughly the same distance behind the Tories as they were in the 2019 election. This could change if an economic recovery is not secured and this changes key voters’ perceptions of the two main parties, and their respective leaders, ability to handle the biggest issues of the day. Yet, the pandemic so far looks to have not changed these perceptions, and therefore has not changed the direction of British politics.

Author: James Prentice, First posted, 21/07/2021 & Last updated 06/08/2021 15:20.

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