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How the debate has changed across the last decade in British politics

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

The last decade of British politics has seen large changes. The Conservatives have gone from a minority to a large majority. Most of the leading politicians that started the decade are either on the backbenches or long retired from politics. The parties have changed greatly too. Labour and the Conservatives are no longer thought of being similar entities promoting similar policies.

The Conservative Party has changed from a party very much built around targeting liberal middle England swing voters to a party now focused upon winning over working-class voters based in post-industrial constituencies north of middle England. Conversely, the Labour Party has become a radically more left-wing party that has gained greater success in Liberal metropolitan cities and large towns, particularly in such places with large university and student populations. These seats are located away from their old northern bases, some of which have switched over to the Conservative Party.

These changes might have been created through a change in the debate the British political system has undergone over the last decade. The debate appears to have moved away from traditional debates surrounding a left/right economic divide. The debate was consumed around this topic as soon as the recession hit and by the time of the 2010 general election parties were competing around middle England voters who grew concerned around the size of the deficit and public spending. The debate also focused on who was best to manage the economy in this time of crisis, resulting in a typical election where parties sought to convince voters they could perform in managing day to day economic tasks all governments must.

Fast forward to the end of the decade and the debate instead is consumed around a new crisis of Brexit. This crisis was instead non-economic and more political, thus changing the nature of the debate. As this new debate raged on and the UK approached another snap general election the Conservative Party decided to own Brexit. As the election was announced it appeared owning the policy of delivering Brexit favoured the Conservative Party and with their victory, the decade, and possibly the next one, belongs to the Conservatives. This article seeks to map how the debate has changed over the last decade. It will conclude by stating what impact this may have had upon the fortunes of the two main parties, along with how this might shape the next decade of British politics.

Politics at the start of the decade: The debate at the start of the decade very much favoured the traditional centre-ground two and a half party system. The Labour and the Conservative party take both quite similar economic positions with a divide of how to deliver these similar approaches. The Liberal Democrats would be with the centre of these two parties taking approaches from both sides to provide voters with an alternative to the two-party system many had become tired of.

This word cloud summarises the context in which the 2010 general election debate took place. The larger the word in this cloud the more prominence it had during the debate. The cloud highlights just how much the economy, and particularly the effects of the 2008 economic crisis, had during the debate. The debate often reverted to comments concerning the general condition of the economy and how best to build on the start of the recovery. Concerns around the rising amount of spending and the national deficit also were incredibly prominent. Focusing on how best to reduce public spending also was a key part of the debate at the start of the decade with parties taking different positions on the number of cuts needed. The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats tended to take more fiscally conservative positions stressing the need for fast waste and spending reductions. Alternatively, Labour stressed the potential social and economic damages of cutting too hard and fast. This is perhaps where the sharpest divide was at the start of the decade.

The debate at the 2015 General Election:

One political cycle later and the 2015 election starts to show some important changes in how the narrative had already started to develop, even before the 2016 EU referendum was announced. The economy was still somewhat prevalent in the 2015 general election debate, but new non-economic issues appear to have greater focus. The topics of Immigration and the EU are much more frequently mentioned. This indicates that the party leaders were aware voters had become increasingly concerned with these issues and were compelled to address topics that strayed away from traditional centre-ground politics, such as economic management. These new non-economic issues surrounded concerns stemming from thoughts concerning migration and the EU. Immigration, in particular, was much discussed during the 2015 general election, indicating that politicians were now aware that in order to address voters’ concerns they had to talk about this issue. This shows a delayed effect where voters had been concerned about immigration for some years, but it took some years before the issue featured prominently in British political debates.

Therefore, it could be the case that these issues became so prominent amongst voters main concerns that party elites simply could no longer avoid talking about such issues. As a consequence, once politicians had started to talk about these issues they had let the genie out of the bottle and the drift towards addressing such concerns through an EU referendum had become more likely. Therefore, it may have been voters changing priorities of their most pressing issue that created the emergence of a referendum and the large political shifts that came from this.

The 2019 General Election.

The EU referendum accelerated the change in the political debate as it meant now politicians could not deny the large demand for immigration reform and desired change to our relationship with the EU. The debate within British politics has increasingly been consumed by how to handle Brexit and what would be the best deal for the UK. This caused a stalemate as different parties, and different groups of MPs within the same party had quite different ideas on what a deal with the EU should resemble. From this stalemate, the debate intensified and as the debate dragged on in most cases the divide only seemed to intensify. Despite a change in the Prime Minister the deadlocked continued causing another snap general election where the debate was still focused on these non-economic issues. The debate had become focused on Brexit for some time since 2016. The Conservative Party felt this had caused voter fatigue and that a message of implementing Brexit would win the day. Meanwhile, Labour felt that the public wanted to hear about other issues and attempted to focus on Brexit less than the Conservatives. They instead pledged to deal with the issue within the first year of the new parliament with little more detail given during the campaign.

Content analysis of the 2019 general election highlights Labour’s attempt to focus the election onto other issues failed. In the debates, of which both Corbyn and Boris attended, the audience asked a significant number of questions that in some way related to Brexit. Even on questions that did not always specifically relate to the EU Boris always tried to relate it back to the EU, forcing Labour to speak more about the issue than they would like. The analysis also shows how the debate had greatly changed from the start of the decade. The economy was covered during the debate but was not discussed nearly as much as other non-economic issues, with especially the EU has increased in prominence throughout the decade. Often when discussions of the economy took place the narrative would be brought back to the type of trade deal Britain would want for future economic needs. Alternatively, the idea that the economy could not be dealt with before Brexit had been implemented was frequently raised when possible. Crucially, this shows that over the last decade traditional British political debates focusing around which party best could manage the economy had been broken apart by new non-economic issues as the decade progressed.

During the debates, Labour’s stance of trying to bring the debate away from Brexit might have hurt their ability to get their message across. Other narratives Labour had of investment, spending, education and the NHS appear to be crowded out by narratives based around Brexit. Because of this, it could be suggested that a party focusing on economic issues, such as those debated in the first half of the decade, were less able to connect with the electorate, get their message across and secure votes. Importantly, this means that how British political narratives have developed during the last decade might have impacted Labour’s ability to win elections. Labour’s difficultly in addressing non-economic issues of the EU and immigration might have made it harder for them to win elections, strengthening the Conservative’s grip on power. Therefore, the changing narrative within British political across the last decade might have profound consequences on political outcomes throughout the next decade.

The change in the nature of the debate, where it has moved from economic to non-economic issues, may have also encouraged a shift in voting allegiances. Economic divides between left and right were quite entrenched between left/right, Labour and Conservative. However, the rise of new issues dominating British political discourse may have provided an opportunity for voters to reconsider who best represents them on their most prominent concerns. As a result, the change witnessed in the 2019 election might have only been made possible with changes in voters’ most prominent concerns and parties changing their narratives to accommodate such concerns. The Conservatives moving towards socially conservative positions on immigration and Brexit might have attracted former Labour/ UKIP voters. Meanwhile, Labour focusing on economic investment may have acquired them former middle England voters, especially in areas with a large university and student populations. Consequently, the next decade might increasingly be shaped by these new set of allegiances. If Labour can’t address these new issues and divides the Conservatives may not have just strengthened their grip on power throughout the last decade, but also into the next one as well.

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