The tectonic shifts in British politics, explained
Roughly a month ago, two British Cabinet ministers involved with Brexit negotiations resigned, objecting to Prime Minister Theresa May’s approach to dealing with the European Union. That moment exposed startling changes within the British party system — and indeed the nation at large — that had been felt first with the Brexit vote.
Let’s look at the tectonic political shifts shaking up Britain — much like those in the United States and Europe.
1. Dissatisfaction with mainstream politics drove the Brexit vote
As Geoffrey Evans and I recently argued, increased dissatisfaction with and distrust of mainstream politics were among the drivers of the Brexit vote. For one thing, voters were shaken by the financial crisis and unhappy about high levels of inequality, and didn’t believe anyone in charge cared. Feeling both left behind economically and ignored by politicians, citizens increasingly disengaged from politics, a shift particularly marked among the worst-off in society. In 1987, the poorest quintile of the population had a turnout rate 4 percent lower than that of the richest quintile. By 2010, this gap was 25 percent. And in 2015, 48 percent of those with low levels of education and a working-class occupation turned out to vote.
For another, socially conservative voters increasingly felt disenfranchised as both major parties moved in a more socially liberal direction (it was the Conservatives who legislated to allow same-sex marriage). Of these social conservatives, about 80 percent opted to leave the E.U., compared with less than 10 percent of the most socially liberal, as you can see in the figure below.
The chance to vote against politics as usual brought about 3 million more Britons — almost 10 percent of the electorate — to vote during the Brexit referendum in June 2016 than had voted in the May 2015 general election. The boost was more pronounced among social groups with a preference for leaving the E.U. In the 2015 general election, the “participation gap” between university-educated voters and those in manual jobs stood at 39 percent. During the Brexit referendum, that gap was nearly halved, to 20 percent.
And, of course, those with university degrees largely voted to remain, while manual laborers largely voted to leave.
2. The Brexit vote is reshaping the political landscape
Less than a year after the referendum, May decided to call a snap general election. The outcome revealed that socioeconomic constituencies were shifting their party allegiances, in keeping with those Brexit divisions. For instance, Kensington and Chelsea — perhaps the most affluent constituency in the country — voted for the Labour Party for the first time ever. Stoke-on-Trent South, a poor area in a struggling former industrial city, mirrored that switch when it shifted from Labour to the Conservatives — again, for the first time ever.
Political scientist John Curtice points out that working-class support for the Conservatives went up 12 points from 2015, but that professional and managerial voters increased their support for the Conservatives by 4 points. In the past, of course, the economically well-off tended to vote Conservative while those with less tended to vote for Labour. But the two groups shifted, in keeping with their Brexit allegiances. As Curtice writes, “Brexit was associated with, and was probably at least a partial cause of, a reshaping of the choice voters made between Conservative and Labour.”
Higher education became Labour’s new stronghold, with almost half (49 percent) of people with degree-level qualifications voting Labour, compared with 33 percent of those with secondary-school degrees or less. Brexit activated a fault line between socially liberal cosmopolitans and older, less educated, socially conservative voters. Seventy-three percent of 2015 UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters backed the Conservatives in 2017, underlining its appeal to more socially conservative, pro-Brexit voters.
3. Britain’s major political parties are deeply split over Brexit
And Brexit has divided not only the electorate but also both major political parties. A survey of members of Parliament carried out at the end of 2017 revealed that both the Conservatives and Labour faced profound internal divisions over the U.K.’s relationship with the E.U.
These internal factions have created parties within parties. About 90 Labour MPs — more than a third of the parliamentary party — supported a vote in parliament to keep Britain in the EEA (European Economic Area), thereby keeping the country as near to the E.U. membership as possible. The leadership, for its part, is committed to leaving the single market — and not remaining a member of the EEA.
By contrast, the pro-Brexit European Research Group in the Conservative party, with about 70 supporters, wants a much more uncompromising Brexit than May is willing to negotiate.
These continuing internal divisions make it difficult to predict the outcome of the Brexit process — or whether members of parliament will put party loyalty over their own Brexit preferences.
Shifting class politics here intersect with shifting beliefs about immigration and diversity, as well. Political scientists Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford have pointed out that Brexit will sharpen Britain’s divide over identity politics, showing that those who believe that equal opportunities for ethnic minorities have gone too far are highly correlated with those who support Brexit.
This divide is likely to remain important in national politics. Political scientists Sara Hobolt, Thomas Leeper and James Tilley have found that some 75 percent of the British people now self-identify as either leavers or remainers, suggesting that these political identities will prove quite sticky.
Perhaps more worrying, they illustrate outright animosity toward the other side. Both describe the other as “hypocritical,” “selfish” and “closed-minded,” and their own group as “honest,” “intelligent” and “open-minded.” The responses have a remarkable symmetry.
Britain thus faces the dilemma of confronting one of the most difficult public policy challenges faced in peacetime — extracting itself from the European Union after decades — with a party system in flux, divided parties and a parliament governed by a minority administration.
Anand Menon (@anandmenon1) is professor of European politics and foreign affairs at Kings College, London, director of the UK in a Changing Europe, and author, with Geoffrey Edwards, of “Brexit and British Politics” (Polity Books, 2017).