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Voter’s political perception divides

The blog post outlines how Conservative and Labour party voters now perceive politics very differently from one another.

The #2019Election witnessed the main parties securing #voters on different sides of the new ideological divide. #Labour secured voters who were younger, more highly educated and were against #Brexit, the culturally #LiberalVoters. Alternatively, the #Tories secured older, less qualified #LeaveVoters who were optimistic about Brexit, the culturally #conservative voters. However, the divides ran deeper than just voting intention. Such divides also affected how voters perceived the main parties as well, showing political divides may be deeper than initially thought. This blog post highlights how the two different camps perceive political parties, and their respective leaders, quite differently, and from this might have developed entrenched positions on opposites sides of this new divide.

“Those wanting to secure the Leave result may have gravitated towards to the Conservative Party as they were offering a new better deal and displayed a strong commitment to implementing the deal when elected”

Average ratings of the parties and their leaders:

Table 1 - Average rating of party leader, BES 2019.

On average #BorisJohnson was much more liked going into the campaign than #Corbyn was. The extension of Brexit and the dithering over Labour’s Brexit policy looks to have decreased the favourability of the Labour leadership, whilst the Tories’ more decisive action likely helped increase their credibility. Importantly, how much a leader was rated highly correlated with voting intentions. Those who were more inclined to look upon Johnson more favourably than Corbyn were significantly more likely to have a voting intention of Conservative throughout the campaign, whilst reporting a low intention of backing Labour. This was the same trend for perceptions of the parties and which leader was best for the job of PM. When the Conservatives were favoured over Labour the Tories were more likely to gain support, and when Labour was looked upon more favourably they tended to gain. Crucially, this shows that the two parties’ camps were heavily divided in how they perceived the two main parties and their respective leader. This highlights how the contrasting ratings the voters had over the two parties and their leadership throughout the election could have helped determine voting patterns.

Fig 1 - Rating of the party leader and probability to vote for Labour & Tory

Socio-political divides:

Importantly, there was disparity amongst different social group’s political perceptions, with different generations, in particular, having very different perceptions of the parties. Younger groups of voters had a much more positive perception of Corbyn than compared to older groups, a trend that only increased as the campaign progressed. Perceptions of Corbyn decreased with each increasing cohort, middle-aged groups had a slightly better perception of Boris, whilst older groups had a significantly better view of PM Boris than compared to Corbyn. Crucially, these perceptions also follow voting intention across the campaign. Younger groups reported a high likelihood of backing Labour over Conservative and this trend deepened over the campaign, whilst older cohorts increasingly backed the Tories. This again highlights the potential of how divisions around perceptions of party leaders could have shaped voting patterns across the campaign.

This trend was also replicated for groups with different levels of qualifications. Individuals who had obtained higher-level qualifications tended to be much more receptive of Corbyn than of the Tory Party leader. This group stated a much higher likelihood of voting for Labour than compared to the Conservatives throughout the campaign as well. Conversely, individuals with fewer qualifications indicated they would back the Tories far more often than Labour throughout the election. This correlation with actual #VotingPatterns again indicates how leaders appealing to specific groups might have determined voting patterns, again showing how important divides around perceptions were during the campaign.

The divide around how people voted in the EU referendum was perhaps the largest divide. Remain voters overwhelmingly favoured Corbyn over Boris, whilst leave voters felt completely the opposite way. This indicates that the decisions leaders made before the election might have helped them resonate with certain voters over others. For example, Boris securing a reformed Brexit deal and trying to force it through the commons might have caused Leave voters to better perceive the Tories. Meanwhile, Labour’s leadership’s repeated efforts to block Brexit leading up to the October deadline might have cause distrust amongst Leave voters and helped them secure favourability amongst #Remain voters. Therefore, such political divides may have caused the voters to trust and better perceive one of the main parties over the other one.

Figure 2 - How much the voters liked the parties and their leader by qualification grouping

Party Best on Most Important Issue (MII)

Table 2 - Average response to question "Which party is best on your most pressing issue", BES 2019 data.

The theory the voters were divided in their perceptions of the two main parties is given further credibility when considering how divided the voters were over which party could be most trusted to handle the biggest issues of the day. On average the Tories were more trusted than Labour to deal with voter’s most pressing concern, that of Brexit. Interestingly, the lead the Conservatives had increases when isolating groups most likely have voted Leave and to want to ensure Brexit’s delivery. People who sat within older, less qualified and Leave-supporting groups were much more likely to view the Conservatives as the best party to handle their most pressing concerns. Alongside this, when these voters felt the Conservatives were clearly more able to handle the toughest issues facing the country they were significantly more likely to vote for that party. This again indicates that perceptions divides may have deeply entrenched voters into a new two-party divide which is shaping British politics.

Conversely, Labour were perceived as being better to handle the country’s biggest problems amongst very young, highly educated and strongly Remain groups. This indicates that Labour again might be more able to appeal to some groups better than the Tories despite losing the election quite heavily to the Conservatives. Yet, the problem Labour had was that the voters they clearly lost in this election viewed the party as not able to handle a voter’s biggest priorities. Instead, these voters mostly gravitated towards the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. This would indicate Labour’s perceived incompetence on big issues might have helped them lose, and the Tories win the election, thus again showing how perception divides have greatly shaped British political outcomes in recent times.

Figure 3 - Party best on a voter's most important issue (MII) 2019, BES data 2019. ENG & Wales.

Focusing on those who most cared about Brexit:

Table 3 - Voters most pressing concern according to the listed pollsters in the 2019 election.

The most common highest priority for the voters was Brexit. Therefore, as people increasingly demanded that Brexit be dealt with in a way that would end the crisis perceptions of the parties’ ability to do this may have shaped voting outcomes. Individuals frustrated with Labour’s vague non-committal positions may have lost faith in their ability to effectively deal with the issue. Those wanting to secure the Leave result may have gravitated towards the Conservative Party as they were offering a new better deal and displayed a strong commitment to implementing the deal when elected. Alternatively, those wanting to have a second referendum and give the option to Remain grew tired of where Labour stood on the issue and also felt they could not be trusted. This could have meant that Labour’s perceived incompetence over handling Brexit may have lost them votes, whilst increasing the Tory vote share. Importantly, this could explain how Labour lost the election so badly as they put themselves in a position the caused the party to come across poorly to voters on both sides of the political divide, thus likely losing votes from both sides. This again shows how political perceptions have shifted the parties voting bases and helped shape voting outcomes and election results.

Crucially, the #BritishElectionStudy (BES) confirms this theory as it also shows that the Tories were thought of as being more able to handle the Brexit negotiations than the Labour Party was. This critically it does show that changing fortunes in leadership could well have allowed the Conservatives to present themselves as more able to lead on voters biggest concerns, whereas Labour was often not able to do so. Further to this, this was particularly the case amongst key swing voters that Labour lost. Moreover, this was not just limited to the issue of Brexit, but other key issues like the economy. All this indicates that changing favourability of party leaders could have been a factor in swaying the decisions of the very voters that shaped the contrasting outcomes of the two main parties in 2019. This again how political divides around perceptions of the credibility of the main parties, and their respective leaders, might have helped the Tories win the 2019 election, showing how crucial these new divides have become to election outcomes. It also shows how Labour getting on the wrong side of this changing of perceptions may have placed them in a deep and long opposition.

Concentrating on the 2016 EU referendum may have caused this new perception divide:

Brexit appears to have affected perceptions of the main political parties. Therefore, Brexit might be able to affect a voter supporting a given party because if a party does not reflect a voter’s preferred Brexit outcome then they might look upon it less favourably, and consequently be less likely to vote for it.

Table 4 - Acceptable Brexit outcome by party rating, BES 2019 data

Potential Brexit outcomes that a voter deemed acceptable, or unacceptable, split voters’ perceptions as well. Voters who thought cancelling Brexit could be an acceptable way forward generally did not highly rate the Conservative Party or state the Conservatives were the best to handle the Brexit process. These voters did however state a high level of favourability for Labour and the #LibDems. This was also the case for those who thought a 2nd referendum could be an acceptable way forward. Views that imply Brexit should be passed quickly instead produced much better favourability ratings for the Conservative Party and their leader. Those that wanted to pass Johnson’s deal, or have a no-deal outcome instead, were much more likely to favour the Conservative Party and like their party leader. Alternatively, a large majority of voters who expressed this view did not like Labour and Corbyn’s leadership. This again indicates how voters perceptions of British politics, and therefore how likely they were to consider voting for a given party, is possibly impacted by the new political divide.

Table 5 - Result of No deal by party rating, BES data 2019

Voter’s priorities of what policy objectives should be obtained from the Brexit negotiations also impacted voter’s perceptions of the main parties and their respective leaders. Those who thought the UK should maintain EU ties in whatever deal was agreed mostly did not approve of Johnson and the Conservative Party throughout the campaign. These voters instead approved of the Labour Party and Corbyn much more than the average voter. Those that preferred securing independence from EU institutions in a post-Brexit agreement conversely highly rated the Conservative Party and Johnson significantly more so than the average voter. This pattern again highlights how those with different views and priorities on the Brexit issue came to starkly different assessments of politicians, and their respective parties’, credibility. This indicates that these issues have become so dominant they shape how voters perceive British politics, and consequently shape who they are likely to vote for.

This theory is further supported when analysing trends regarding policy priorities in any deal the UK negotiates with the EU. Those who valued market access most had a much higher opinion of Labour and Corbyn than compared to voters who valued securing migration controls. Alternatively, voters who valued migration controls rated the Conservatives, and their leader, higher than Labour.

Fig4 - A voters EU negotiation priority by party deemed to be best on the voter's biggest issue

A consistent set of perception divides:

#Immigration, along with other questions on the EU, also produced this same divide in perceptions. Those who were less anxious about the numbers of migrants coming into the UK and felt that such people added to the UK's culture and economy tended to perceive the Labour Party as more able and representative. Alternatively, those more concerned about the rise in migrant numbers and who were more likely to feel such trends damaged the UK's culture and economy looked upon the Conservatives more favourably than Labour. Further, those who were optimistic about the impact of Brexit perceived Boris Johnson and the Conservatives much better than Corbyn and Labour, of which they had a low view. Those most anxious about the impact of Brexit tended to have the opposite perceptions and thought Labour was more able than the Tories were. This divide spread across many similar variables and shows just how deep the new political divide has become.

In Conclusion:

The above analysis has shown a clear pattern where the new political divide has altered individuals' perceptions of the main parties, and subsequently the likelihood they will vote for a main party. Those on the culturally conservative side of the debate tended to have a much better rating of the Conservative Party, and from this be much more likely to vote for them. Labour on the other hand received more favourability from voters on the culturally liberal side of the divide, and subsequently gained more support from such voters. This blog has shown that this new divide has altered the voter's perceptions of the main parties across many different thought processes and variables contained within the BES. This shows that this new political divide may have become quite deep and the parties' ability to reach voters across the opposite side may be quite limited due to the fact these voters have very poor perceptions of the main party they no longer vote for. As a result, the loss of Labour's Red Wall might have been caused for deeper reasons than just divides over Brexit and winning these deeply entrenched voters might be harder than first thought.


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