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The electorate has changed, and it favours Labour

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

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In the 2019 general election, Labour suffered its biggest defeat in post-war British history. There were multiple reasons for such a large defeat. There were short-term factors that contributed to this problem, such as the leadership and individual policies that went down badly with Labour’s working-class voters, along with swing voters in key marginal seats. Yet, in the two previous local elections Labour reversing these short-term problems did not bring the large gains the party experienced this year. This was because the long-term barriers that had prevented Labour from winning general elections since 2010 were still in place.

The long-term problem of cultural questions:

Although the pandemic had brought great hardship and confidence in the Conservative government had been shaken, in both the 2021 and 2022 local elections the Conservative Party were not experiencing significant losses and there were so signs that Labour was likely to gain a majority at the next general elections. Labour had not yet found a way to win over the voters they had lost and needed to win over in 2019, older, less qualified leave voters. In short, a barrier to Labour winning elections throughout the 2010s was an inability to deal with issues that primarily tapped into cultural concerns. Firstly, in the 2010-2015 parliament, although Labour managed to carve out a double-digit lead over the Tories and did well in the 2012 local elections, the party began to fall back as it was unable to discuss the issue of immigration and deal with the UKIP threat. Many of its traditional working-class voters and key swing voters in marginal seats cared about the issue and it rapidly rose up the agenda as the economy improved and net migration numbers rose approaching the 2015 general election.

Labour partly lost the 2015 election to the Conservatives because of Labour’s inability to appeal to voters concerned about immigration and these concerns partly led to Brexit, another cultural question that did not favour Labour. Brexit split Labour’s vote roughly down the middle, which was terrible for the party as it went on to dominate British political discourse for the next 3 years. Labour did better in 2017 as they managed to appeal to both Leave and Remain voters by having a vague stance on the issue, but by 2019 Labour discovered that it could not satisfy both camps. This is because these two camps wanted different things. One group valued the political and economic links Europe provided and were less concerned by migration, and these voters tended to be younger, more highly educated and tended to be more open to international institutions such as the EU). In contrast, the other did not see the benefits of Europe and wanted to stop the migration coming from it. This was particularly the case for older, less qualified voters in working-class communities who felt isolated from the gains global markets and institutions (such as the EU) had brought.

By December 2019, Leave voters were fed up with Labour’s refusal to deliver on the issue by voting for a Brexit deal in the House of Commons and this partly led a considerable number of their traditional voters to abandon them, causing Labour to lose the Red Wall and the Conservative Party to regain an overall majority. This also stopped Labour from winning over swing voters in key marginal seats, leaving them an electoral mountain to climb.

Has the electorate moved on from 2019?

During my doctoral research, I analysed the 2021 and 2022 local election results and discovered that Labour were still struggling to increase their share of the vote in areas most likely to have disagreed with Labour’s stance over the cultural issues of Brexit and migration. These areas tended to have more elderly voters who had not experienced a university-level education and these areas tended to have voted to Leave the EU by a clear margin. Therefore, although the government had experienced a loss of confidence from how they dealt with the pandemic, Labour’s gains primarily occurred in Remain-leaning districts that had a high proportion of younger, highly qualified voters. This indicated that working-class, leave-voting communities that had a high proportion of older low-qualified voters were still reluctant to trust Labour partly from the fallout of disagreements over cultural questions.

Yet, since the 2022 local elections inflation has been rampant and the government have been riddled with successive crises and scandals, losing two Prime Ministers in the process. Vitally, the 2023 local elections show that the fallout from these important events likely has caused the public to move on from the cultural divides that dominated the 2010s and voters who had grown distant from Labour are now returning to Labour.

The Brexit divide:

The easiest way to gauge the extent to which cultural issues impact voting outcomes is to compare the extent to which a council district voted to leave the EU and compare this to the Labour Party’s share of the vote. This can be done for both the 2019 general election and the 2023 local elections. Figure one shows that in 2019 the more a parliamentary constituency voted the Leave the EU Labour’s vote share tended to be lower, indicating that Brexit hurt Labour’s ability to win votes. In my thesis, I also demonstrated how this trend did not greatly change in the 2021 local elections. Yet, Figure one shows that in the 2023 elections, Labour’s vote share was strong in council districts that voted to Leave the EU. In fact, their vote share increased slightly the more an area had voted to leave the EU, vitally demonstrating that cultural questions, such as Brexit, do not appear to be limiting Labour’s ability to increase its vote share as it has done in previous elections. Gaining votes in leave-leaning areas enabled Labour to gain seats in the key areas of Hartlepool, Grimsby, Redditch, Worthing and Medway. Interestingly, out of the ten councils where Labour gained the most, eight voted to leave, and most by a clear margin (such as Tameside, Thanet, Dover and High Peak). This all indicates that one of Labour’s biggest barriers to electoral success is no longer present. This change is vital as the seats and voters Labour has needed to win since 2010 were out of Labour’s reach because of this barrier, such as key marginal constituencies on the coast like Hastings & Rye where 55% of people voted to Leave and most obviously in the Red Wall seats Labour needs to win back.

Figure 1 - The effect of Brexit on Labour's vote share. It shows Labour is performing better in areas that strongly voted to Leave, enabling it to win key target areas. Click the image to see the change.

The age barrier:

Even before the 2010 election Labour has struggled to win over older voters, those over the age of 55. As concerns around immigration and support for Brexit tend to be higher amongst this grouping, this is partly due to cultural issues. But, this long-term problem goes further than this. These voters have also not trusted Labour on the economy since the great recession of 2007/08 and these voters tend to feel that the Conservative Party can deliver better economic outcomes, which is one key reason why Labour lost the 2010 and 2015 elections. Therefore, winning the support of this group is vital to overturning many long-term electoral challenges the Labour Party has faced as it demonstrates that Labour is winning support from Brexit voters and individuals who previously had concerns over the party’s ability to manage the economy.

Importantly, Figure two outlines that Labour is overcoming the problem of securing support from areas with a high proportion of elderly voters. In the 2019 election, Labour suffered a clear decrease in support as the proportion of older voters within a constituency increased. However, in 2023 as the proportion of older voters in a council district increased Labour secured a slight increase in their vote share. This enabled Labour to make gains in Bexhill, Swindon, Mansfeild and Great Yarmouth. Indeed, some of Labour’s biggest gains came within such districts numerous with older voters, most of which were key Labour targets. This again demonstrates how key voting groups have moved away from the Conservative Party and are now supporting the Labour Party in greater numbers. This has enabled Labour to secure a large number of new council seats and makes it easier for them to win back the Red Wall and long-term key marginal seats that New Labour won.

Figure 2- Older voters' effect on the Labour Party vote share 2019 - 2023. It shows Labour doing better in areas numerous with older voters. Click the image to see the change.

The qualification barrier:

Often a divide that goes under-reported is the education divide. Specifically, individuals who have gone to university are significantly more likely to vote for a liberal or left-wing party than a conservative-leaning party. Alternatively, voters with low levels of qualifications have become more likely to vote against their traditional left-wing parties and more likely to embrace right-wing parties. This is partly because these voters prioritised cultural issues over economic concerns, and therefore were prepared to vote for parties they traditionally saw as opposed to their economic interests. However, there are further long-term problems Labour have experienced with this group of voters. The Labour Party’s majority in Red Wall seats declined from 1997 onwards partly because working-class communities felt they were not benefitting economically from the growth the rest of the country had experienced.

Further, losing the support of individuals with fewer qualifications was not just a problem within the Red Wall but key marginal constituencies too, where losing traditional working-class Labour voters in these seats prevented Labour from getting over the line in these very tight contests. Therefore, winning over individuals with fewer qualifications, especially in poorer working-class constituencies is essential for the party to be able to regain a majority.

Vitally, Figure three shows that Labour is overcoming this electoral barrier. In 2019, the greater the proportion of voters with only level 2 and below qualifications the worse Labour tended to perform. However, in the 2023 local election Labour’s vote share did not suffer a decline in areas with a high proportion of these voters. In fact, it increased slightly. This enabled Labour to gain seats in key target areas, such as Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent, Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Broxtowe and North East Derbyshire. Again, this is another sign that the electorate is changing their patterns of voting and this is enabling Labour to overcome the barriers that have prevented them from winning general elections for over a decade.

This has most probably occurred due to working-class communities being frustrated over the lack of economic delivery since Brexit was implemented. After Brexit was implemented these communities would have moved on from the Brexit debate and expected to see economic returns from the policy that had strongly backed in 2019. When inflation hit and the government appeared more interested in their internal squabbles than dealing with the severe hardship these communities were facing, this may have caused these communities to change their minds, allowing Labour to make a new pitch that these voters prefer to the current government chaos. This has enabled Labour to win back enough of these communities to make significant gains in the local elections. Although these gains were numerous there were target councils that Labour failed to progress, such as Darlington and Stockton, meaning although this new electoral landscape favours Labour an overall majority is not guaranteed.

Figure 3 - Low qualification effect on Labour's vote 2019 - 2023. It shows Labour doing better in areas numerous with voters who only have obtained low qualifications. Click the image to see the change.

Conclusion – The electorate has changed and that suits Labour:

The electorate has clearly broken from ridged voting patterns that have prevented Labour from winning parliamentary elections. The divide over cultural questions, such as Brexit and immigration, no longer limits Labour’s vote share. Individuals who backed Brexit, who mostly would have not trusted Labour over the question of immigration, appear to have moved on from this issue and no longer punish Labour for being on the opposite side of the divide. Further, areas with a higher proportion of older and low-qualification voters are also rewarding Labour with greater support. This further indicates that these communities, who had concerns over Labour’s economic credibility, have moved on from these concerns and appear to be more likely to give Labour a chance than the Conservative Party.

These trend changes have emerged over the last year as the 2021 and 2022 local elections demonstrated Labour had not yet overcome the Brexit divide problem. This indicates that as inflation has risen voters who may have backed Brexit have moved on from this debate and now care deeply about how the parties are going to address the cost of living crisis. Further, as this economic crisis developed these voters likely would have taken a very dim view on the Conservative Party’s inability to work collectively to take action against this problem. With successive scandals, resignations and a failed budget the problem has only worsened and these voters are understandably looking for an alternative. Labour has improved, and vitally polling shows that the public trusts them on the economy more than the Tories. Polling also confirms that leave voters are moving to Labour, again indicating that the new economic climate has changed the electorate’s concerns and that this new landscape favours Labour.

This change has allowed Labour to make significant gains in this year’s local election and to do so in areas they will be targeting in the next general election. Therefore, the change in the electorate’s thinking favours Labour and means they are likely to be the largest party in the next parliament. But, Labour did not make large gains in some councils they were looking to win back (Darlington and Stockton for example) and some analysis indicated Labour may fall short of an overall majority, showing a Labour government is far from secured. However, what these recent local elections demonstrate is that the electorate has changed the way they view British politics. They have moved on from Brexit largely due to the terrible economic situation many households face and groups who were concerned about Labour’s credibility now appear more willing to give Labour a chance. This change suits Labour and shows how 2022 may have been the turning point Labour has been waiting for.

Figure 4 -Each council ward winner, defined as the party who won the most amount of votes. The Map shows Labour winning more votes in the Red Wall and other key target areas.

The article was written by James Prentice 22/05/2023.

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