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4. Living together in the wake of Brexit

The Brexit Cleavages in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections

Pauline Schnapper
p. 219-238

Résumé

The EU referendum of 23 June 2016 revealed new cleavages among British voters, based on age, values and geography rather than social class or centre/periphery. This paper examines how the main parties have responded to the challenge in the following general elections in 2017 and 2019, and whether a realignment has taken place along the Brexit faultlines. It argues that both Labour and the Conservatives managed to partially adjust to the challenge and made some electoral gains by reconfiguring their political strategy to adapt to the new electoral environment. But the Conservative party proved better able at attracting the pro-Brexit voters than Labour was with the - divided - Remain voters. It remains to be seen whether these developments will be short-lived or will endure.

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Introduction

  • 1 See e.g. Alexandre-Collier, A., « John Major vs ‘the Bastards’ ou la puissance de la mobilisation e (...)
  • 2 Cameron, D., speech at Bloomberg, London, 23 January 2013, available at https://www.gov.uk/governme (...)

1The European issue has long been a headache for British political leaders (whether Conservative or Labour), not just because their commitment to European integration was generally half-hearted but also because they were confronted with intra-party divisions from the 1960s and even more so after the Maastricht treaty was signed in 19921. The rise of euroscepticism in the country as a whole and UKIP’s success in the European elections from 1999 onwards to the detriment, mostly, of the Conservative party eventually led David Cameron, then Prime Minister, to promise an in/out referendum in his Bloomberg speech in January 20132.

  • 3 Reif, K., and Schmitt, H., “Nine second-order national elections: A conceptual framework for the an (...)
  • 4 Franklin, M., van der Eijk, C. and Marsh, M., “Referendum Outcomes and Trust in Government: Public (...)

2Far from being a “second order” issue, the EU has therefore had consequences on the arena of British domestic politics, including the party system3. Here we examine some of these effects, looking at the 2017 and 2019 general elections. The UK referendum of 23 June 2016 on whether to stay in the European Union revealed (rather than created) new cleavages among British voters which had been partly concealed in the previous general elections. Unlike them, referendums are fought on a single cross-party issue and organised less around party politics than general elections. Referendums can also be an opportunity to express broader discontent with a government or a political class4.

  • 5 See Lipsett, S. and Rokkan, S. (eds), Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectiv (...)
  • 6 Glynn, J. and Menon, A., “Brexit” in Cowley, P. and Kavanagh, D. (eds), The British General Electio (...)

3Psephologists had in the past identified two main divides in the UK, an ideological one between the left and the right, along to socio-economic lines, and a geographical one between a Conservative-leaning South of England and a Labour-leaning North plus Scotland and Wales.5 Instead the referendum showed what appeared like new ones, including a cleavage between generations, with older people voting Leave and younger ones voting to Remain by a wide margin, as well as education. New geographical lines also appeared, not just between England and Wales which voted to Leave and Scotland and Northern Ireland which voted to stay, but also between pro-European cities and anti-European towns, coastal and rural areas, especially in England. This cleavage seems to have prevailed over the traditional North-South divide. Values also proved an important factor, with the liberal vs authoritarian line closely mirroring the pro and anti-Brexit divide. Remainers tended to be more comfortable with multiculturalism and socially liberal than Leave voters. Above all the referendum reflected a level of dissatisfaction with the political class which had been brewing for years6.

4These new faultlines have been a major challenge for mainstream parties which have been divided about Europe for decades and more generally struggling to represent the identity-related issues which have become more salient in the UK political debate (including devolution and multiculturalism). Both the Conservative and Labour parties were split during the 2016 referendum campaigns, although to a different extent, and the outcome of the referendum showed that their voters were even more so. This paper examines how the main parties have responded to this challenge and whether a realignment has taken place along the Brexit line since 2016, based on a comparison between the 2017 and 2019 general election campaign, voters’ expectations and results. It aims to establish whether and to what extent the Brexit issue continued to frame the political debate and voters’ choices after the referendum.

5The first section will look at the 2017 general election, a year after the referendum, before comparing it with the December 2019 election, with an analysis of the manifestoes of five main parties (Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and Brexit Party) for the ‘supply’ side in section two and of voters’ response and behaviour (the ‘demand’ side) in the third section. In the conclusion I will draw some lessons from these two ballots for mainstream British political parties and assess the potential consequences of these developments.

Brexit in the 2017 general election : limited realignment

  • 7 Schnapper, P., “Theresa May, the Brexit negotiations and the Two-Level Game 2017-2019”, Journal of (...)

6Theresa May called a snap election in the spring of 2017 in order to strengthen her majority in Parliament. This took place shortly after she activated article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty in March, which officially started the withdrawal negotiations with the EU. These talks were proving difficult as the Prime Minister had indicated that her preference was for a hard Brexit (leaving the single market and customs union) while also demanding “frictionless trade with the EU”, which for the EU required accepting the four freedoms of circulation for goods, capital, services and people. These contradictory demands made her position difficult in Brussels and in London7. On the domestic front, she was already faced with a vocal minority of about 60 Conservative MPs led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, the so-called European Research Group, which argued that she should not yield to EU demands, particularly on the exit bill and on the Irish border. They were happy to leave the EU without any deal, a view which was shared by some in her Cabinet, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. In this context, the Prime Minister hoped that a bigger majority - such as opinion polls pointed to - would help her achieve a deal and especially get it ratified by the Westminster Parliament.

  • 8 Fieldhouse, E. and Prosser, C., “General election 2017: Brexit dominated voter’s thoughts”, 2017, a (...)
  • 9 Conservative Party, Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future, May (...)

7The 2017 general election was therefore directly related to Brexit, which indeed dominated voters’ thoughts: over a third mentioned Brexit as their first priority in a large-scale British Election Survey study, with the economy and the NHS coming second and third, at 20% and 10%8. One would therefore have expected the government to insist on its Brexit policy in its manifesto. Yet the Conservative manifesto devoted only two pages to leaving the EU, referring to Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech and Withdrawal Bill White Paper, and three pages to “Global Britain”, the new strategy which the government would embrace once it was out of the European Union and no longer subject to its rules9. This limited space was in part meant to show the government was, rather than focussing on Brexit, addressing voters’ domestic grievances which had in their view led to the referendum result. But it was also a way of papering over party divisions on the exact terms of Brexit. There was therefore a difficulty in trying to stamp the Prime Minister’s authority on the Brexit process while avoiding to mention a dividing issue within the party.

  • 10 Labour Party, For the Many, Not the Few, Labour Party Manifesto 2017, available at https://labour.o (...)

8On the Labour side, the official position on Brexit was vague, with a basic “Jobs First Brexit” slogan implying that the UK should leave the EU but stay in the customs union and not diverge from EU regulations. The Manifesto merely asserted that Labour would “prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give a meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations”10. This was the position agreed at the leadership level but it contrasted with a much more pro-Remain view among MPs and party members. Because this policy was far from consensual in the party, the Labour chose not to press it much either. It is worth noting also that differences between the two parties’ official policies on the Brexit negotiations were therefore not huge at that point, with both parties accepting Brexit but disagreeing on whether the UK should remain in the customs union of the European Union.

9Other parties had a much clearer policy. UKIP, led at that point by Paul Nuttall, presented itself as the “guard dog” of Brexit and insisted on an immediate no-deal exit by simply repealing the 1972 European Communities Act and not following the procedure set down by article 50 of the Lisbon treaty11. On the Remain side, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and the SNP campaigned openly for a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats as well as the Green party wanted voters to be granted the opportunity to choose between a future Brexit deal, which would include staying in the single market and customs union, and remaining in the EU12. The SNP focused on Scottish issues and opposition to Tory austerity policies but pledged to campaign to keep Scotland in the European single market in case of Brexit and, in the longer term, to have an independent Scotland in the EU13.

10Overall, the Brexit issue did not feature much in the campaign, since none of the two main contenders had a clear and united line. After showing a clear lead for the Conservative party, opinion polls documented a dramatic increase for Labour, which on polling day came close to winning as many votes as the Tories (41% against 44%). Although the Conservatives came first, they lost their majority in the House of Commons and had to rely on the 10 Democratic Unionist Party votes from Northern Ireland to keep a majority - a complete failure of May’s strategy.

  • 14 Cowley, P. and Kavanagh, D. “The Election in retrospect” in Cowley, P. and Kavanagh, D. (eds), The (...)

11The fact that both parties gathered over 82% of the votes (even 87.5% in England), to the detriment of UKIP mostly, prompted speculation about a return to traditional two-party politics, in contrast with the fragmentation of votes that had taken place in the previous general elections14. That Labour and the Conservative party did so well was also remarkable since they had seemed to have been the main casualties of the referendum campaign, in which they had both been divided and seen their leaders’ cues, which was to stay in the EU (admittedly with little enthusiasm for it in both cases) rejected by voters.

  • 15 Ashcroft, J., ‘How Did This Result Happen ? My Post-Vote Survey’, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 9 June 2017, (...)
  • 16 Curtice, J. and Simpson, I., “The 2017 Election : New divides in British Politics ?”, in D. Phillip (...)
  • 17 Hobolt, S.H., op. cit., p. 48.

12This unexpected outcome did not mean that the Brexit divides had vanished. Instead it was made possible by the fact that some realignment took place along pro/anti Brexit lines, which increasingly coincided with the Conservative/Labour divide. Over half of UKIP voters and a small number of Labour Leave voters opted for the Conservative party while some previously Conservative Remain voters shifted to Labour.15 All in all, 58% of Leave supporters voted Conservatives and 52% of Remain supporters voted Labour16. In other words, compared with 2016, the Tory represented more faithfully the Leave voters and Labour represented more Remain voters, although the shift was far from complete. As Hobolt noticed, they were the parties that benefitted from the Brexit cleavage, and not those parties which had taken a much clearer line on the issue in the referendum, such as UKIP and the Liberal Democrats17.

  • 18 Curtice, J and Simpson, I., op. cit.
  • 19 Adam McDonnell and Chris Curtis, “How Britain voted in the 2019 general election”, YouGov, https:// (...)

13Other aspects of the 2017 vote mirroring the new Brexit cleavages were age and education, with younger voters (who had voted Remain by a majority of two-thirds) shifting to Labour and older ones voting Conservative by a much larger majority than before. Support for Labour increased dramatically among 18-34 years-old to 62%, which represented a 23% swing since the 2015 general election. At the other end of the spectrum, 55% of voters aged 65 or over voted Conservative, a swing of +6%18. University graduates were also much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative (43% against 29%)19.

  • 20 ABC1 voters are professional, managerial (higher, intermediate and junior classes), C2DE voters ski (...)
  • 21 Cowley, Ph. and Kavanagh, D., op. cit., p. 420; Hobolt, S.H., op. cit., p. 46.
  • 22 Curtice, J and Simpson, I., op. cit., p. 19.

14The election also confirmed the decline, although by no means the disappearance, of the relationship between class and vote which has become apparent in the 2010s. The swing to Labour among ABC1 voters was +12% compared to 2015 while among C2DEs the Conservatives gained 12% more votes than two years before20. The traditional opposition between working class/Labour and middle class/Conservative was weakened. Immigration proved a decisive factor in the shift of a number of working-class voters towards first UKIP and then the Conservative party21. Finally the libertarian/authoritarian divide, which was also shown to be relevant in the Brexit referendum, was increasingly expressed in support for Labour vs the Conservative party. Labour gained 19% among libertarian voters between 2015 and 2017, while the Conservatives gained 8% among the most authoritarian group of voters22.

  • 23 Johnston, R., Manley, D., Pattie, Ch. and Jones, K., “Geographies of Brexit and its aftermath: voti (...)

15These shifts should nevertheless not be overstated. A realignment according to Brexit lines did take place but remained relatively limited, as shown by Johnston et al, especially for the Labour party23. Only a small minority of 2015 Labour Leave voters switched to the Conservatives in 2017 and conversely there was also little change in the Labour vote in London, even though voters had massively supported Remain there (70%). Mellon et al actually identified that this realignment decreased during the campaign, with Labour winning back wavering Leave voters in the weeks before voting day:

  • 24 Mellon, J., Evans, Fieldhouse, E., Green, J. and Prosser, C., ‘Brexit or Corbyn? Campaign and Inter (...)

“the 2017 election was predominantly a Brexit election, and a Corbyn and May campaign. The EU referendum impacted on an already volatile electorate which substantially reshaped the bases of political competition. However, the subsequent emphasis on leadership and more traditional Labour and Conservative competition led to a very different pattern of switching during the campaign itself”24.

16So some realignment did take place along Brexit lines in 2017, mostly to the benefit of the two largest parties which attracted some more Leave (for the Conservatives) or Remain (for Labour) voters. But it shouldn’t be overestimated, with factors other than Brexit, such as the personality of the two main party leaders, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, continuing to determine voting patterns.

Brexit in the 2019 campaign

17By the time of the December 2019 general election, the political context had changed radically. Theresa May found herself much weakened by her lack of majority and struggled to exert any authority over her Cabinet and parliamentary group while negotiating with the EU taskforce for Brexit. The Chequers plan that she presented to Cabinet in the Spring of 2018, which contemplated a “common rule book” for EU/UK trade and UK checks on goods entering the EU via Britain, was followed by Boris Johnson and David Davis’ resignations from their positions as Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and was then rejected by the EU-27. Theresa May then found another agreement with the EU on the Irish border in November 2018, by which the UK would in practice remain in the customs union during the transition period. This failed to be ratified in Parliament on three occasions between January and March 2019 and the Prime Minister was compelled to ask to postpone Brexit day from 31 March to 31 October 2019.

18The European election which had been organised in May as a result of this delay saw a victory for the newly-formed Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage, with over 31% of the votes cast, with the Liberal Democrats coming second, with just below 20% of the votes. The Conservative party came a distant fifth, after the Greens and Labour, with a dismal 9% of the votes. May eventually resigned in June when it became clear she would not get parliamentary support for any of the possible ways out of the political deadlock in London. Her successor, Boris Johnson, argued that he would leave the EU on 31 October even at the price of a no deal Brexit and claimed that he could achieve a successful negotiation with the EU.

19Johnson himself lost the majority in the House of Commons when he chose to withdraw the whip from 20 pro-EU Conservative MPs in September. He then prorogued Parliament, which was eventually deemed illegal by the Supreme Court, but not before the House of Commons had passed the Benn Act. This impelled the government to ask the EU-27 for another extension in order to avoid a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. The government did achieve a deal with the EU which no longer mentioned “frictionless” trade with the EU and established a border between the EU and the UK on the Irish sea during the transition phase, to the Northern Irish unionists’ despair. With no majority in Parliament to ratify it, Johnson asked the Queen to dissolve Parliament and call for an election on 12 December.

20Even more than in 2017 therefore, this general election was going to be about Brexit, but in a new, four-party configuration where votes were expected to be even more fragmented than in 2015 or 2017. The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats could expect to make significant breakthroughs on the basis of their results in the European election, although of course the latter had been fought on proportional representation. This did not happen in the end because both parties collapsed in the 2019 general election.

  • 25 The Conservative Party, Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential, Conservative and Unionist Par (...)
  • 26 Alan Wager and John Paul Salter (eds), Brexit: the manifestos uncovered, The UK in a Changing Europ (...)

21Johnson and the Conservative Party had a clear and simple slogan for the campaign, “Get Brexit done”, which played well with voters angry with the stalemate in Parliament. In their manifesto, Brexit only featured in one page at the start of the document, as something to get out of the way as quickly as possible. The idea was that once it was over the government could focus on other priorities, which were developed at length - investment in schools, hospitals and the police, in particular: “we will listen to the people
who have felt left behind by the last few decades of economic growth and want to have more control of their future. We will get Brexit done, so we can unleash Britain’s potential”25. However, the manifesto said nothing about the negotiation about the future relation with the EU, except that there would be no extension beyond 31 December 2020. It also referred many times to the Leave slogan, “Take back control”, which suggested limited alignment with EU rules in the future26.

  • 27 Labour Party, It’s Time for Real Change, Labour Party Manifesto 2019, available at https://labour.o (...)

22Equally, Labour only devoted two pages to Brexit, towards the end of its manifesto. They rejected both a no deal Brexit and Johnson’s deal. The new one they promised within three months in power would involve staying in the customs union and “aligning” with the single market, although no details were provided as to how this would be done. The new agreement would be put to a second referendum within six months, alongside the option to remain27. But Corbyn pledged to remain neutral in such a campaign, in an effort to reach out to Labour Leave voters, which maintained ambiguity about where his party really stood on the basic, Remain or Leave, issue.

23In contrast, the Liberal Democrat offer was very clear and radical - revoking article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and stopping Brexit without even organising a second referendum, or if they were not in government, continuing to campaign for it. The argument was that there was no way the damage caused by Brexit could be mitigated, so Brexit should simply be abandoned. The policy came first in their manifesto, in the introduction and first chapter aptly called “Stop Brexit”:

“Electing a Liberal Democrat government is the only way to get the Brexit process over. Although the Conservatives claim that a vote for them will ‘get Brexit done’, it won’t: it will simply usher in more years of difficult negotiations over the UK’s trade deal with the EU, with a very high chance of Britain crashing out and trying to survive on so-called ‘WTO terms’ – a deal so bad that almost no other country anywhere in the world trades on that basis. Labour want to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement all over again and negotiate a new deal – but they will not say whether they want Britain to remain in the EU or leave. The fact is that whether Labour Red or Tory Blue, Brexit is bad for the UK”28.

24The Liberal Democrats were the only Remain or mostly-Remain party to adopt such a line. The SNP insisted on how badly treated Scotland had been by London since the start of the UK/EU negotiations. The Brexit issue was used once again as one more argument in their campaign for Scottish independence rather than as a separate issue. They reiterated their view that Scotland should be an independent nation in the EU. The irony here is that this discourse about Scotland “choosing its own future” mirrored in many ways the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control” slogan.

25As for their immediate Brexit policy, it was close to the Lib Dems’ except that they backed a second referendum first and the revocation of article 50 as second best should no deal be the only other option:

“The SNP will therefore continue working with others across Scotland and the UK to stop Brexit. We will support a referendum with remain on the ballot paper to allow Brexit to be stopped for the whole of the UK. And if we face a situation where the only alternative is a no deal Brexit, we will support the revocation of Article 50”29.

26Finally, the Brexit party’s Contract with the People, in line with UKIP two years before, talked about a “Clean-Break Brexit” (meaning no-deal) which would make the UK “free to start building our future immediately, to change politics and Britain for good” thanks to the “Brexit dividend”30. All their other policies derived from the seminal decision to leave the EU, which would make everything else possible - regional regeneration, investment in public services, cuts in VAT, reducing immigration and so on. Although this manifesto was even more radical than the Conservative one, the party actually provided substantial help to the government when Nigel Farage unilaterally chose in November not to field candidates in Conservative-held constituencies in order to rally the pro-Brexit voters behind a single party31.

27This time therefore, all parties except Labour had a very clear policy on Brexit, with the Conservative party using it as a simple slogan, which proved very successful, while not dwelling on it and prioritising other issues in the campaign. Neither Johnson nor Corbyn wanted to put it at the centre of their respective campaigns. The outcome of the election showed that the parties which chose to focus mostly on Brexit (Liberal Democrats and the Brexit party) made no specific gains out of it but instead either stagnated or collapsed, in a more dramatic way than in 2017.

The role of Brexit in voters’ choices

  • 32 Ashcroft, J., “How Britain voted and why. My 2019 general election post-vote poll”, Lord Ashcroft P (...)

28There are clear indications that Brexit did matter a lot to voters, even if did not feature as much in the party campaigns. The post-vote poll conducted by Lord Ashcroft shows that a total of 57% of respondents ranked it as the main issue when it came to deciding how to vote. But it also shows a highly differentiated response according to the party they supported. 72% of Conservative voters ranked “Getting Brexit done” first, 65% of Liberal Democrats ranked “Stopping Brexit” first but only 28% of Labour voters mentioned Brexit32.

  • 33 Cutts, D., Goodwin, M., Heath, O. and Surridge, P., ‘Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Real (...)

29This points to a significantly bigger commitment on the part of Leave voters which was mirrored in turnout levels. The national figure, at 67.3%, i.e. 1.5% lower than in 2017 but above that of all other general elections since 2001, was not particularly notable. But turnout fell slightly more in Labour seats (-2.6%) than in Conservative ones (-0.9%). That was especially true in Labour Leave seats, which may have played a part in Labour’s misfortunes33.

  • 34 YouGov polls, 17-28 October 2019.
  • 35 Ashcroft, J., “How Britain voted and why…”, op. cit.
  • 36 Kellner, P., “Five crucially important but frequently ignored facts about the 2019 election”, Prosp (...)

30The Conservative party continued to attract more Leave voters from the Labour party, especially in the North of England, and to attract most of the voters who had opted for the Brexit party in the May 2019 European elections34. According to the Ashcroft poll, 25% of the Labour Leave voters (in 2017) switched to the Conservatives in 2019. But in contrast, only 8% of Remain Conservative voters switched to Labour, which suggests that the Brexit faultline was not enough to convince them to vote for a party led by Jeremy Corbyn35. The Conservative party was much more successful at attracting new Leave voters than Labour to attract new Remain ones, which is one factor explaining the overall result. Yet, as Kellner noted, this should not be overstated either: 64% of Labour Leave voters did remain loyal to their party and the same proportion of Conservative Remainers stuck to their party36.

31The Brexit faultlines of 2016 and the realignment of Conservative and Labour votes according to their pro or anti-Brexit views were on the whole confirmed in 2019. The Conservatives won by a comfortable majority but made no gains in any of the big cities which had voted for Remain in 2016. This confirmed that the new Brexit geographical divide between cities and towns was becoming entrenched as a Labour/Conservative one too. As far as age is concerned, the picture was relatively unchanged since 2017. The younger generations remained pro-Labour and anti-Brexit by a large majority (57% of under-25s). 62 % of people above 65 voted Conservative whereas Labour only attracted 18% of them.

  • 37 Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon, “The Re-shaping of Class Voting”, British Election Study, 6 Mar (...)
  • 38 Idem.
  • 39 Examples of such constituencies include Sedgefield, Bolsover, Blyth Valley, Dudley and Wakefield.
  • 40 Quoted in https://www.bbc.com/news/election-2019-50771014 [accessed 12 October 2020].

32The social gap was even more dramatic because it confirmed the reversal of traditional class voting in the UK already observed in 2017. There was a 15-point difference between working class votes for the Conservative party (48%) and for Labour (33%), which was unprecedented37. In 1983 Margaret Thatcher had only achieved a 3-point lead among working-class votes for the Conservative party38. This time the difference was much wider and shows the extent of the challenge for Labour in the years to come. The fact that all social groups gave a majority to the Conservatives in 2019 (44% of AB voters and 45% of C1) means that Labour both lost some working-class votes and failed to gain votes among the middle-class in spite of the fact that a majority of them supported Remain. At first sight this explains why the Conservative party was able to win seats in the so-called ‘red wall’ in the Midlands and north of England, previously sage Labour constituencies where there had been substantial majorities in favour of Brexit39 There is still a debate though, especially within Labour, about whether these results were due to the Brexit divide reshaping party support or whether it was due to the Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity in these areas. Phil Wilson, the Labour candidate in Sedgefield, tweeted immediately after the results that “for Labour leadership to blame Brexit for the result is mendacious nonsense. Jeremy Corbyn's leadership was a bigger problem. To say otherwise is delusional”. On the contrary, Labour Chairman Ian Lavery blamed Labour support for a second referendum for these losses40.

33The Conservative victory was also greatly helped by the divisions in the anti-Brexit camp and the failure of tactical voting, in spite of the efforts made by a number of groups during the campaign.41 Jeremy Corbyn had also refused to contemplate any pact, however informal, with the Liberal Democrats. In contrast, the Brexit party’s tactical choice to cooperate informally with the Conservatives boosted the government’s fortunes. As Pippa Norris noted, the total number of Remain votes - 16.2 million, that is 1.5 million more than the Leave parties - was consistent with the share of Remain vs Leave opinion documented by opinion polls since 2017. Her research shows that the Brexit party’s decision to field candidates in Labour-held constituencies helped the Conservatives win 20 Labour-held seats in the north of England, doubling their parliamentary majority.42 The voting system played its part, even if it is probably somewhat simplistic to add Lib Dem, Green, SNP and Labour votes as if they were all 100% anti-Brexit, since a number of Labour voters in 2019 had voted Leave in 2016. But it remains true that the electoral system, as often, distorted the reality of attitudes towards the EU and gave the Conservatives a disproportionate number of seats compared to the true share of Remain and Leave opinions in the UK.

Conclusion

34The Brexit referendum exposed new cleavages based less on class than on demography, geography and values, which overtook the traditional class-based cleavages that had dominated British politics for decades. Though the latter did not disappear, they were combined with these new faultlines. The challenge for mainstream political parties was to represent these new divides in order to stop the haemorrhage of voters to smaller or fringe parties which had been increasing in previous general elections. The lessons from the 2017 and especially 2019 general election are particularly interesting in that regard.

35First, there was a return to the two-party system, especially in 2017, with Labour and the Conservatives attracting 82.4% of the votes in 2017. In 2019 the figure was slightly lower at 75.8% but still way above the 2015 result (67.3%) and even more the 65% they had got in 2010. Class voting has also made a come-back after the decline it experienced since the 1990s. But, and that is an important caveat, the system is now based on different social, geographic and demographic features, which points to a form of realignment which has not so much supplanted traditional patterns as added a further level of complexity to them. Labour now represents cities, the middle classes and the young in bigger proportions than in the past. The Conservative party has attracted more working class voters than ever (via UKIP and the Brexit party at first), as well as towns and rural areas, including in traditional Labour strongholds of the North of England. So the Brexit referendum seems to have had an effect on the terms of the debate in the UK and on the party political system. Yet it has not transcended the traditional left/right divide, which is still present and does not overlap with the pro/anti Brexit line. This raises difficult questions for the Conservative party if it is to keep previously Labour seats once Brexit is “done”.

36It is obviously too early to say whether this is a long-term trend or whether it is linked to the specific crisis caused by the Brexit referendum. The Covid crisis that followed shortly after showed, among other things, how quickly issues can become much less salient in the public debate. What is clear is that in the 2019 election the Conservative party managed to adapt better to the demands of Leave voters who put Brexit at the top of their priorities, than Labour did of Remainers, and they as a result attracted new voters. Labour instead was unable to benefit from the anti-Brexit vote, which was split anyway between several parties. The first-past-the-post system was the last nail in the Remain camp’s coffin, turning the Conservatives’ 45% of the vote into a majority of 80 seats.

37In the longer term, and provided these developments are confirmed in future general elections - a big caveat, they could contribute to stabilising the political system after four years of turbulence in British politics following the Brexit referendum. But this realignment will not in itself reduce the divides and inequalities that the referendum exposed.

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Notes

1 See e.g. Alexandre-Collier, A., « John Major vs ‘the Bastards’ ou la puissance de la mobilisation eurosceptique au sein de parti conservateur », Observatoire de la Société Britannique, 2009, pp. 63-83 ; Simon Usherwood, « Opposition to the European Union in the UK : the dilemma of public opinion and party management », Government and Opposition, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2002, pp. 211-230.

2 Cameron, D., speech at Bloomberg, London, 23 January 2013, available at https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg [accessed 15 October 2015].

3 Reif, K., and Schmitt, H., “Nine second-order national elections: A conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results”, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1980, pp. 3-44.

4 Franklin, M., van der Eijk, C. and Marsh, M., “Referendum Outcomes and Trust in Government: Public support for Europe in the Wake of Maastricht”, West European Politics, Vol. 18, No. 3, 1995, pp. 101 –17.

5 See Lipsett, S. and Rokkan, S. (eds), Party Systems and Voter Alignments: Cross-National Perspectives, New York, Free Press, 1967. For UK-specific and recent analyses, see Evans, G. (ed.), The End of Class Politics? Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999; Franklin, M. et al., Electoral Change: Responses to Evolving Social and Attitudinal Structures in Western Nations, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992; Evans, G. and Tilley, J., ‘How parties shape class politics: explaining the decline of class party support’, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 42, No. 1, 1999, pp. 137-161.

6 Glynn, J. and Menon, A., “Brexit” in Cowley, P. and Kavanagh, D. (eds), The British General Election of 2017, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 21-40; Schnapper, P. and Avril, E., Où va le Royaume-Uni ? Le Brexit et après, Paris, Odile Jacob, 2019.

7 Schnapper, P., “Theresa May, the Brexit negotiations and the Two-Level Game 2017-2019”, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 2020, forthcoming.

8 Fieldhouse, E. and Prosser, C., “General election 2017: Brexit dominated voter’s thoughts”, 2017, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-40630242 [accessed 5 February 2020].

9 Conservative Party, Forward, Together: Our Plan for a Stronger Britain and a Prosperous Future, May 2017, available at https://general-election-2010.co.uk/2017-general-election-manifestos/conservative-manifesto-2017.pdf [accessed 30 January 2020]; see also Theresa May, “The government's negotiating objectives for exiting the EU”, speech at Lancaster House, 17 January 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech [accessed 15 October 2019] and HM Government, “The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with, the European Union”, CM 9417, February 2017, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/589191/The_United_Kingdoms_exit_from_and_partnership_with_the_EU_Web.pdf [accessed 28 March 2020].

10 Labour Party, For the Many, Not the Few, Labour Party Manifesto 2017, available at https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/labour-manifesto-2017.pdf [accessed 30 January 2020].

11 UKIP, Britain Together, UKIP 2017 Manifesto, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ukipdev/pages/3944/attachments/original/1495695469/UKIP_Manifesto_June2017opt.pdf [accessed 29 March 2020].

12 Liberal Democrats, Change Britain’s Future, Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2017, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/themes/5909d4366ad575794c000000/attachments/original/1495020157/Manifesto-Final.pdf?1495020157 [accessed 29 March 2020], p. 9-10; Green Party, Confident and Caring Britain, Green Party Manifesto 2017, https://www.greenparty.org.uk/assets/files/gp2017/greenguaranteepdf.pdf [accessed 29 March 2020].

13 Scottish National Party, Stronger for Scotland, SNP Manifesto 2017, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/thesnp/pages/9544/attachments/original/1496139998/Manifesto_2017.pdf?1496139998 [accessed 29 March 2020].

14 Cowley, P. and Kavanagh, D. “The Election in retrospect” in Cowley, P. and Kavanagh, D. (eds), The British General Election of 2017, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 409-448; Hobolt, S.H., “Brexit and the 2017 UK General Election”, Journal of Common Market Studies, Vol. 56, Annual Review, 2018, pp. 39-50.

15 Ashcroft, J., ‘How Did This Result Happen ? My Post-Vote Survey’, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 9 June 2017, available at https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2017/06/result-happen-post-vote-survey Heath, O. and Goodwin, M., “The 2017 General Election, Brexit and the Return to Two- Party Politics: An Aggregate-level Analysis of the Result”, The Political Quarterly, Vol. 88, No. 3, 2017, pp. 345–58.

16 Curtice, J. and Simpson, I., “The 2017 Election : New divides in British Politics ?”, in D. Phillips, J. Curtice, M. Phillips and J. Perry (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 35th Report, London, The National Centre for Social Research, 2018, available at https://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/39284/bsa35_full-report.pdf [accessed 4 February 2020].

17 Hobolt, S.H., op. cit., p. 48.

18 Curtice, J and Simpson, I., op. cit.

19 Adam McDonnell and Chris Curtis, “How Britain voted in the 2019 general election”, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2019/12/17/how-britain-voted-2019-general-election [17 December 2019].

20 ABC1 voters are professional, managerial (higher, intermediate and junior classes), C2DE voters skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers in the UK’s demographic classification.

21 Cowley, Ph. and Kavanagh, D., op. cit., p. 420; Hobolt, S.H., op. cit., p. 46.

22 Curtice, J and Simpson, I., op. cit., p. 19.

23 Johnston, R., Manley, D., Pattie, Ch. and Jones, K., “Geographies of Brexit and its aftermath: voting in England at the 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election”, Space and Polity, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2018, pp. 162-187.

24 Mellon, J., Evans, Fieldhouse, E., Green, J. and Prosser, C., ‘Brexit or Corbyn? Campaign and Inter-Election Vote Switching in the 2017 UK General Election’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 71, 2018, p. 721.

25 The Conservative Party, Get Brexit Done, Unleash Britain’s Potential, Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019, available at https://vote.conservatives.com/our-plan [accessed 3 February 2020].

26 Alan Wager and John Paul Salter (eds), Brexit: the manifestos uncovered, The UK in a Changing Europe., 2019.

27 Labour Party, It’s Time for Real Change, Labour Party Manifesto 2019, available at https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Real-Change-Labour-Manifesto-2019.pdf [accessed 3 February 2020].

28 Liberal Democrats, Plan for Britain’s Future, Manifesto 2019, https://www.libdems.org.uk/plan [accessed 29 March 2020].

29 Scottish National Party, Stronger for Scotland, SNP Manifesto 2019, available at https://www.snp.org/general-election-2019/ [accessed on 4 February 2020].

30 Brexit Party, Contract with the People, 2019, available at https://www.thebrexitparty.org/contract/ [accessed 4 February 2020].

31 Proctor, K. and Wearden, G., “Brexit party will not contest 317 Tory-won seats, Farage says”, The Guardian, 11 November 2019.

32 Ashcroft, J., “How Britain voted and why. My 2019 general election post-vote poll”, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 13 December 2019, available at https://lordashcroftpolls.com/2019/12/how-britain-voted-and-why-my-2019-general-election-post-vote-poll/ [accessed 17 February 2020].

33 Cutts, D., Goodwin, M., Heath, O. and Surridge, P., ‘Brexit, the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 91, No. 1, January-March 2020, p. 9.

34 YouGov polls, 17-28 October 2019.

35 Ashcroft, J., “How Britain voted and why…”, op. cit.

36 Kellner, P., “Five crucially important but frequently ignored facts about the 2019 election”, Prospect, 16 December 2019, available at https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/five-crucially-important-but-frequently-ignored-facts-about-the-2019-election-labour-conservatives-brexit-corbyn-johnson [accessed 17 February 2020].

37 Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon, “The Re-shaping of Class Voting”, British Election Study, 6 March 2020, https://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-findings/the-re-shaping-of-class-voting-in-the-2019-election-by-geoffrey-evans-and-jonathan-mellon/#.X4RV2tbgqgQ [accessed 12 October 2020].

38 Idem.

39 Examples of such constituencies include Sedgefield, Bolsover, Blyth Valley, Dudley and Wakefield.

40 Quoted in https://www.bbc.com/news/election-2019-50771014 [accessed 12 October 2020].

41 See for instance https://tacticalvote.co.uk/ or https://www.bestforbritain.org/final_general_election_tactical_voting_recommendations_from_best_for_britain - For an analysis of the failure of tactical voting, see Peter Kellner, “Tactical voting was set to be the Remainers’ saviour, so what went wrong ?”, The Guardian, 14 December 2019.

42 Norris, P., “Was Farage the midwife delivering Johnson’s victory ? The Brexit party and the size of the Conservative majority”, British Politics and Policy LSE blog, 16 December 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/ge2019-brexit-party-impact/ [accessed 8 April 2020].

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Référence papier

Pauline Schnapper, « The Brexit Cleavages in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections », Observatoire de la société britannique, 26 | 2021, 219-238.

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Pauline Schnapper, « The Brexit Cleavages in the 2017 and 2019 General Elections », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 26 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2022, consulté le 17 janvier 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/osb/5190 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/osb.5190

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Pauline Schnapper

Professeure des Universités en civilisation britannique à l'Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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