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The long-term divisions that remoulded the UK electorate

This blog looks at long-term voting trends & how it has altered British politics.

“During the period of financial crisis and economic downturn both groups became more concerned about the economy, however older cohorts still prioritised the immigration issue more than their younger counterparts.”

In our last blog post, it was identified that non-economic issues rose up the agenda and that these issues had the capacity to redistribute the electorate in a way that would encourage them to break traditional voting behaviour. This article goes into how this became possible in more detail. It particularly outlines how the electorate was reorganised by different #SocioPoliticalGroupings around divisions on these new important issues. Opposite socio-political groups would have very different attitudes towards Europe and #immigration questions. Older, less qualified #Leave voting groups reacted against increased #MigrationFlows and EU-UK integration. In contrast, younger, more qualified, and #Remain groupings were more accepting of these changes. These divisions developed over a long period of time and became quite deep in the years leading up to the #referendum. Such divisions then only grew #postBrexit, especially around the European question. Crucially, the divergence that shall be explored mirrors the #fragmentation of the parties’ voting bases, meaning that these divides might have reordered the electorate in a way that means the two main parties now represent different sides of this divide. Therefore, this raises the possibility that British electoral competition has been changed for the long-term, and breaking this new pattern might take many years of campaigning, thus providing a tough challenge for opposition parties.


Different Priorities

Overtime contrasting social groupings grew apart in what they perceived the biggest issue facing the country to be. Just before newer waves of migration flowed towards the UK these groups tended to care about immigration and the economy at roughly similar levels. Moreover, there was little difference between social groupings in how important both these two issues were. Yet, after waves of #migration impacted the UK different social groupings reacted in contrast. Younger cohorts grew less concerned about the migration question, whereas older generations grew much more concerned. By the time of the 2007/08 financial crisis younger groupings already had grown more concerned over the economy, alongside other issues, whereas older groups tended to prioritise migration concerns over economic ones. During the period of #FinancialCrisis and economic downturn, both groups became more concerned about the economy, however, older cohorts still prioritised the immigration issue more than their younger counterparts. Importantly, these groups began to diverge greatly as the economic downturn abated. Older groups quickly began to care more about migration concerns than any economic anxieties that remained.

Oppositely, the younger generation prioritised economic matters over the migration debate, and also cared about other issues, like the environment. Further to this, there was a similar divide around different qualification groups, where individuals with higher levels of qualifications prioritised economic thoughts and those with fewer qualifications tended to have greater concerns around migration flows. Critically, this means that as the UK approached the very important time of the 2015 election and 2016 EU referendum different sections of the electorate likely had different priorities, and therefore might have voted differently according to such concerns. For instance, those more concerned about migration may have driven the UKIP surge and Conservative victory in 2015, whilst also helping to deliver the Leave result. Furthermore, social divisions around priorities on #Brexit were deep, meaning that these social divisions carried onto the critical 2017 and 2019 elections. Consequently, it can again be said long-term social divisions might have led to very divisive and decisive political moments within the 2010s of British politics.


Different views on these contrasting priorities:


One key division that grew overtime was the extent to which individuals were content with net migration levels. In the 1990s there was a fairly high amount of individuals from different social groupings who felt that migration levels were about right. However, two decades later, and just before the 2016 EU referendum, these social groups had diverged. Younger groups were more content with the prospect of rising numbers, whereas older cohorts certainly were not, with much-demanding migrations flows to be reduced. Further to this, such a divergence was replicated amongst groupings with different qualification levels. Voters with higher-level qualifications tended to respond as having significantly fewer concerns over net migration levels than compared to individuals with lower-level, or no, qualifications. This trend also grew overtime and depended as the UK approached the critical turning points of the #2015Election and the #2016Referendum.

Views surrounding the perceived economic impact of immigration also diverged. According to the #BritishElectionStudy (BES) socio-political groupings were fairly untied around the statement, “immigration brings economic benefits”. Different generation and qualification groupings initially stated similar levels of agreement on this statement. Yet, with successive elections this disagreement grew, with younger more qualified voters being increasingly likely to agree with this statement, yet older less qualified voters grew apart and reported a low likelihood of agreeing with this statement. This divergence was even steeper with the Remain/Leave divide. Groups that indicated support for the EU were much more likely to agree with this statement by 2019, whilst groups indicating a preference of Leave were very unlikely to agree. Significantly, the gap over this divide greatly grew overtime amongst this divide.

Interestingly, this divide also existed when surveys asked how voters felt immigration was impacting the UK’s culture. Younger cohorts, individuals with higher qualifications, and those who had backed Remain overtime tended to become much more likely to feel migration benefitted UK culture, with opposing groups increasingly feeling it damaged it. This again shows how the public became increasingly divided over key issues with successive general elections.

One reason behind these groups’ growing divisions might have stemmed from the different reactions against the increased flows of Eastern European immigration. At the start of this increased flow younger people with higher qualifications indicated that they were much more likely to feel the UK should welcome such immigration compared to contrasting groups. Therefore, disagreement about new types of migration flows, especially as these flows rapidly increased, may have developed long-term disagreements over key issues that would dominate British politics in the 2010s.

The EU:

Vitally, these long-term divisions extended to the EU issue. Although limited questions over time have been asked on the EU issue, due to it historically being ranked very low amongst voters' concerns, there is evidence of divergence on this issue. Taking views from different social groupings on the single market, which later became the EU, it can be said that at first all groups tended to have a slight Remain majority. In the 1990s the strong lead for Remain declined at a roughly similar level and fluctuations from this point towards 2013 were similar for all groupings, with roughly half of voters from each group backing Remain. However, as the EU referendum approached social divisions around the issue rapidly grew. For instance, in 2015 there was a 40% difference between the amount of younger and older people stating they wanted to Remain. Further, a year after the referendum there was a slight increase in this division, with another slight increase in this social divide occurring in 2019. Moreover, this trend was repeated for contrasting education groups, with those who had access to university-level education being significantly more likely to back Remain compared to those with lower-level, or no, qualifications.

Another set of questions that have been asked for long enough to produce long-term trends covers feelings of European, British and English identity. Focusing on levels of European identity it can be said that social groupings have been divided on this for at least two decades. Younger cohorts with higher levels of education have often felt much more European than contrasting groups who have historically felt more British than European. This again highlights instinctive dividing attitudes between social groupings towards the EU question.

Despite the EU question not being asked consistently in the time period leading up to the EU referendum, there were occasions where the same question on the EU was asked twice, thus allowing for a direct comparison across two time-points. Again, the same social division occurs. Older people with fewer qualifications have become more concerned with the level of EU integration, the perceived negative effect of the EU upon the UK economy and have tended to feel foreign policy should be diverted away from the EU towards other options. Alternatively, younger groups with more qualifications felt more comfortable with EU developments and preferred to keep foreign policy close to Europe. Remain and Leave groups also witnessed the same divide. This again shows the possibility of long-term divisions having developed on these new issues.

Concluding thoughts

Long-term changes of attitudes towards the EU and immigration issue have helped reshape British political divides across different social and political groupings. As these issues rose up the voters’ agenda different sections of the electorate diverged. Younger, highly educated, and Remain groupings were less concerned about immigration and more worried about the future of the economy. Oppositely, older, lower qualified Leave voters primarily grew concerned about immigration above other matters. Further, these divides continued surrounding thoughts over Brexit and became very deep divisions indeed. Critically, the phenomenon occurred as the electorate made key decisions, such as the decision to Leave the EU and to award the Tories a large majority in 2019. This indicates that divisions on these new issues translated into political outcomes and new patterns of voting behaviour. These new patterns of behaviour look to have become quite strong as they are reinforced by long-term changes in attitudes that will not be shifted easily. Therefore, this again shows the challenge opposition parties face in shifting support their way as they will have to appeal to others who sit across a very strong divide.


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