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Why opinions on new important issues have reshaped British politics

The blog post outlines such change may have occurred due to the fact the #voters were increasingly concerned about non-economic issues, such as #immigration and #Brexit.

In the aftermath of the referendum result understandably a considerably large proportion of the electorate were worried about the future of Brexit. Consequently, this issue dominated both he 2017 and 2019 elections.

The #2010s will be looked upon as quite a unique time within British political history. Following the desire to rebuild after the 2007/08 #FinancialCrisis, the decade started with the traditional debate around who was best to manage the economy. However, after the summer of #2012, this normality was soon disrupted with the rise of #UKIP and the dominance of the immigration debate. UKIP soon gained many local representatives in the 2013 local election and a year later they won the 2014 EU elections. Labour soon found themselves struggling to hold onto the poll lead they had gained in 2012 and the Conservative Party was losing by-elections to UKIP. This spooked the Tories into pledging a referendum on the issue if they were granted a majority in 2015, which of course they would go onto lose. Subsequently, the following years would be marked by great instability and rapid voting switching. Yet, what was this trend driven by? Why were voters behaving so erratically? This brought the debate away from the traditional economic debate the three main parties were comfortable discussing and put the parties on the ground where they struggled to connect with some of their traditional voting bases. As the parties failed to address the issue, and in the case of Labour sometimes ignored it, some long allied voters became disillusioned and altered their voting behaviour. Furthermore, these new issues distributed voters differently, producing further shifts in support. This reshaping of political allegiances went onto creating dramatic results in both the 2017 and 2019 elections, therefore meaning these new issues likely played a large role in shaping a very different political decade.

The rise of the immigration debate 2004 - 2016

The first non-economic issue to rise up the agenda was the migration issue. In 2004 the EU expanded by incorporating former Soviet Union states into the democratic union. Unlike other countries, the UK failed to impose transition controls, and in some cases actively welcomed migration from this part of the world. This led to unaccustomed levels of migration, especially migration from Eastern Europe, within a relatively short period. Consequently, from 2004- 2007 the electorate consistently stated that immigration was their most prominent concern. This concern abated during the 2008 financial crisis, where thoughts gravitated around how best to end the crisis and start a process of recovery. Post-2012 as the UK entered a double-dip recession, austerity failed to work and the Eurozone crisis worsened concerns around the economy continued to be dominant. However, as the global economy improved post-2013 the migration issue quickly rose up the voters’ agenda, which helped UKIP surge in the polls. This trend continues into the 2015 election and this issue dominated over half of the electorate’s thoughts during the 2014 EU elections and 2015 general election.

Figure 1 - Voters stated Most Important Issue: 2004 - 2014. According to the Essex Continuous Monitoring survey

Leading into the 2016 EU referendum:

With Labour unable to successfully address the issue and the Tories’ strategy of adopting UKIP’s policy, the Conservatives won the 2015 election. As the Tories adopted UKIP’s policy the Conservatives now were in the populist right party’ territory, which especially became the case when they set the date of the referendum. Leading into the EU referendum campaign the immigration issue dominated individual’s concerns, moreover, the issue of Europe started to rise up the agenda as well. Therefore, it is likely that non-economic issues, such as immigration and Europe, were prominent in the minds of voters during the moments they made key decisions that would change the course of British politics. Significantly, if these very prominent thoughts in any way affected voting outcomes in the 2014 EU elections, 2015 general election and the 2016 EU referendum it is likely these new issues played a large role in reshaping British politics.

Figure 2 - IPSOS MORI, 2015 to June 2016 voter's stated most important issue

Table 1 - Voters' most stated important issue during the 2017 election, according to the British Election Study

In the aftermath of the referendum result understandably a considerably large proportion of the electorate were worried about the future of Brexit. Consequently, this issue dominated both the 2017 and 2019 elections. Alongside this, immigration was often inside the top three issues during this time period. Alternatively, traditional issues of debate, such as the economy and public services (like the NHS) were often outside the top three concerns. Therefore, again if any of these prominent concerns affected voting decisions in these two crucial elections, and in particular the 2019 election, it can again be said these new issues were partly behind the dramatic remoulding of British politics within the last decade. Interestingly, past academic research, such as Whiteley’s performance politics, has shown that the issues most prominent in voter’s mind during election time is often important in determining how the electorate perceive the parties, and also often affects the likelihood of voting for a given party. Therefore, it is quite likely these new issues did play a part in dramatically reshaping political allegiances.

Figure 3 - Most important issues according to the voters in the lead up to the 2019 GE

Why does the rise of new issue matter?

The rise of new issues matter because it has altered how voters position themselves, and from this how representative they perceive the parties to be. British politics has historically been categorised around the economic divide, also known as the left/right divide. This divide is incredibly important as it has fixed voters in a specific place within one political spectrum, limiting the number of defections a voter is able to make quite considerably. Moreover, the liberal/authoritarian divide does not appear to break up strong divisions in the left/right spectrum on economic issues. Consequently, British politics has been dominated by parties fighting over a small number of swing voters within the very centre of British politics which has left many voters with little option but to stick with their traditional party.

Figure 4 - Voters divided economic by the left/right divide, but not by the cultural Aut-Lib didive.

Critically, according to the data analysis of the British Election Study, it can be said that these issues are not economic. This means the distribution of opinions do not follow the left/right divide, but they do follow the cultural divide, also known as the libertarian/authoritarian divide. Crucially, this meant the voters have been redistributed across a new divide. This meant that the positions parties took often placed themselves away from some of their core bases and pushed this group of voters towards the party they historically had been most opposed to. For example, this might have been why some anti- Europe and immigration voters drifted away from Labour throughout the decade, and later broke tradition by backing the Conservative Party in 2019. Therefore, new issues coming along were able to break apart these strong longstanding political divisions. As new non-economic issues rose up the agenda it allowed voters to free themselves from their strongly fixed positions on the left/right spectrum. As another dimension was added parties could latch onto different voters using this new divide, allowing them to win over voters they were very unlikely to in previous elections where only a left/right dimension mattered. This change has therefore increased the amount of political change that can occur and allowed the parties to shift their voting bases, helping to create an era of rapid political change.

Note: the above graph trends occurred for responses to multiple variables relating to Europe, Brexit and immigration.

F5 - the left/right divide isn't effective on EU issue, but the Lib-Aut divide is, thus it redistributes voters

Why the trends outlined are unlikely to be just random correlations.

It is important to note that whilst the trends discussed above could all be coincidental it is unlikely that this is the case. This is because my thesis has carried out multi-nominal regression analysis that has found that views on these new pressing issues to be significant in shaping the alteration of voting patterns. Immigration was found to be relevant in changing voting patterns in the 2015 and 2017 election, whilst Brexit in particular greatly altered allegiances in the 2019 election. Therefore, based on these findings we can say that new opinions on new issues affected how voters perceived the main parties and consequently determined their likely voting decisions. For example, pro-Europe and migrant groups increasingly switched to Labour, whilst the contrasting groups increased Conservative Party support, especially in the 2019 election. Critically, this divide appears very different from the economic divide that shaped the 2010 election, again highlighting just how much these new issues have reshaped how British politics operates.

In conclusion:

Overall, despite economic crises, low growth and cost of living problems new non-economic issues did come to dominate the voters’ concerns, especially in the latter part of the last decade. This fundamentally transformed the way British politics operated. A rise of such concerns coincided with the rise of UKIP, Brexit and increased voter unpredictability. Brexit and the unplanned elections of 2017 and 2019 clearly altered the course of British politics and views on immigration, Europe and Brexit clearly dominated the electorate’s opinions during this era. Attitudes on such issues, regardless of the specific question asked, distributed the voters very differently to the economic left/right divide. Significantly, this meant that throughout the decade voters were less fixed in their positions than they had been pre-2010, creating a scenario where voters had the capacity to feel increasingly distant from their historically aligned party. As Brexit continued to dominate voters started to act on this disillusionment, and partly switched their vote based on such feelings on these key issues. This has caused parties bases to change, which now means the parties compete over different voters than historically has been the case. This likely will continue to shape British political debate and elections, where parties will continue to fight over Red Wall voters by seeking to convince them they represent their views on pressing matters.


Regression table

Taken from my thesis which was discussed during the article.

Note: that this table shows the EU and immigration issue being significant in causing voters to choose one of the main parties over the other one, and also over alternative smaller parties.

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