We are a divided nation, torn apart by Brexit and unable even to have Christmas dinners together – or so the story goes. The 2016 referendum created a deep divide in British society around which people are increasingly positioning themselves. Some believe that this is now the defining feature of our political landscape. But while it is true that almost half of the British electorate identify “very strongly” with either leave or remain, and this can outstrip party identification, it would be wrong to imagine that any future general election will only be about this “new” politics. Older divides that have structured political behaviour in Britain for the best part of a century still have a major part to play.
Looking at the values of those with very strong Brexit identities, it’s possible to see interesting “cross-pressures”. The positions people hold on subjects other than Brexit do not always line up as you might expect. This helps us to understand why someone with a strong remain identity might have ended up voting Conservative in 2017, or why someone with a strong leave identity may intend to vote Labour next time around. People’s stances on economic questions, for example, are often rooted in longstanding antagonisms that have not been entirely replaced by identities based on Brexit. Those who are very strongly attached to remain but voted Conservative in 2017 are the group most likely to have right-leaning views on the economy, for instance, while at the same time being more socially liberal than other Conservative voters. Likewise, those who identify strongly with the leave side but who voted Labour in 2017 are more likely to take leftwing economic positions, while being more socially conservative than their fellow party members who support remain.Tthe old politics of left and right, of state intervention versus market liberalism, still structured voting choices in 2017
In short, the old politics of left and right, of state intervention versus market liberalism, continued to structure voting choices in 2017. It is still the key dividing line between the Conservative and Labour parties. It unites the Labour vote: for example, the left may be fragmented on Brexit, but it is united on nationalising the railways and on curbs on the power of big business. These issues are not related to the EU referendum. Nor do they match up easily with the liberal-authoritarian axis that figures such as Jo Swinson have said characterise these volatile political times.
For voters who seem to have voted “wrongly” in 2017 – Conservative remainers and Labour leavers – broader political goals are as important as the outcome of the never-ending Brexit process. Among Labour leavers, concerns are high about the NHS and the cost of living. Conservative remainers, while also worried about healthcare, are more likely to be preoccupied with the national economy than other groups.
This, of course, has implications for any upcoming election. Brexit will simply be one of a number of issues voters factor in. While analyses suggest that a significant number of “very strong” leave identifiers who voted Labour in 2017 would be unlikely to vote for the party again (about one in four say their chances of ever voting Labour are zero), almost half say that they are “likely” to do so. Similarly, among the smaller group of Conservative voters with very strong remain identity, more than seven in 10 say they are “likely” to vote Conservative again. So even among those most wedded to a particular side in the referendum debate, the realignment of our politics is far from complete. Party loyalties seem to have been underestimated.
The picture of a divided Britain is now commonplace, with commentators arguing that we have reached a state of polarisation similar to that seen in the US over the last decade. But the divides in Britain are not simply between those who voted to remain and those who voted to leave. Rather, there are now two distinct divides running through the electorate. The old separation between left and right, defined in terms of economic justice and rooted in class politics, is one. The second has been crystallised by the leave-remain binary – but it is more deeply represented by values relating to social issues. It is this divide that distinguishes Ukip voters from Green party voters, for example, something we are not able to do based on economics alone. It is also the key battleground for the Liberal Democrats, which is seeking to re-establish itself as the party for those with liberal values.
These two divides cut across one another. Knowing whether someone voted leave or remain is of little use in predicting whether they also want to see strong trade unions or raise the minimum wage. This creates fragmentation within the electorate, which responds differently to different issues. And it naturally puts strain on the major political parties.
Crucially, it also means that in an election campaign that is about more than a single issue, the electorate has the capacity to make surprising choices.
In this sense, party dynamics in Britain are beginning to look much more “European”, just as we prepare to leave the EU. In contrast to other European nations, the electoral system in the UK has historically served to keep this fragmentation in check. In the uncertain post-referendum environment, that may be changing. But we will only know to what extent when voters go to the polls once more.
• Paula Surridge is a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s school of sociology, politics and international studies