The Great Political Realignment of Britain

The British Electorate and Party System are Evolving – and Old Certainties about How People Vote are Crumbling

In less than two weeks Britain will go to the polls in the most consequential election in years. The election is intended to break the deadlock and finalise Britain’s often-delayed departure from the EU, but will also influence the likelihood of a second referendum on EU membership, a second independence referendum in Scotland, the most economically radical Labour Party for a generation, and, ultimately, its position in the wider international order. If you look only at the latest polls, then the outcome looks highly predictable. Ever since a majority of MPs voted to hold the election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his party continue to average a double-digit lead – a commanding position which would usually lead to pundits predicting a comfortable majority for the Conservative Party. The incumbent Conservative Party has averaged 38 percent, the opposition Labour Party 27 percent, the Liberal Democrats 16 percent, Brexit Party 10 percent, Greens 4 percent and Scottish National Party 3 percent. So why is this election being called one of the most unpredictable in years? Apart from widespread mistrust of opinion polls after most of them failed to accurately predict recent election results, these polls hide many shifts that are taking place within voting patterns. This election is already Britain’s fifth nationwide election in only four years. After the 2015 general election, 2016 EU referendum, 2017 general election and 2019 European parliament elections, Britain’s political system, and the electorate have been in a state of almost continual instability. Along the way, a large number of voters have reassessed their loyalties making the 2019 General Election a big gamble for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and may not give the Conservatives, or the Labour party, an overall majority in Parliament.

For many decades people have been relatively stable in their voting patterns, choosing to stick with their chosen party through thick and thin. But the trend of weaker identification with the main parties in the UK has been growing in recent years.  In the 1900 general election, 99 percent of the votes cast went to Conservative, Labour and Liberal candidates. In the 2005 election, the equivalent figure was 95 percent. In 2010, a record of 10 percent of the vote went to non-establishment candidates. In 2015, this number more than doubled– a full 23 percent of all votes cast went to non-Conservative/Labour/Liberal Democrat candidates. But when it came to the 2017 election, things began to look up for the Conservatives and Labour, who recorded the highest joint vote percentage share in any election since the 70s.  But just two years later, the European elections proved to be politically devastating for both with the Labour and Conservative parties unable to muster even a quarter of the votes between them. The Conservatives came fifth with their lowest level of support of in any national elections since 1832, and Labour came third with its lowest vote share since 1910. 

The scale of this unprecedented voter volatility was recently analyzed by the British Election Study (BES) team. The BES has captured voting behavior at every general election since 1964, through a series of substantial surveys of voters. The study is currently supervised by academics from Manchester University and Nuffield College, Oxford.
Last month they presented some remarkable data and declared the electorate the most volatile in modern political history.  As the study makes clear, the current rate of ‘vote-switching’ in British politics, where people switch their vote from one election to the next, is largely unprecedented in the post-war era. Across the three elections held in 2010, 2015 and 2017, a striking 49 percent of people switched their vote. By contrast, between 1964 and 1966, when the survey began, just 13 percent of voters changed their minds.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson poses for a photo wearing boxing gloves emblazoned with "Get Brexit Done" during a stop in his General Election Campaign trail at Jimmy Egan's Boxing Academy on November 19, 2019 in Manchester, England. (Getty)

“Given the UK’s recent history of vote switching and the unpredictability of the current climate, it would be unwise for any political party or commentator to presume how voters will behave in a general election,” said Edward Fieldhouse, professor of social and political science at Manchester University.

Underscoring these developments is another set of BES data that tracks the collapse in the strength of party identification over past decades. In 1964, 48 percent of Conservatives described their party identification as “very strong”; the figure among Labour supporters was 51 percent. In 2017, the comparable figures were 14 percent and 23 percent respectively.

This is not all about Brexit, but Brexit is now accelerating this process with the emergence of partisan Brexit identities cutting across traditional left\right party loyalties, which has long distinguished Labour and Conservative voters. Most voters now feel a closer affiliation with “Remain” or “Leave” than to any of the main parties. Leave voters currently see Johnson as the man to get Brexit over the line and their only route to victory, while Jeremy Corbyn is the most favored candidate to be PM among Remain voters. The weakening of party loyalties can also be attributed to what unites Britain’s current generation of party leaders - that they are all unpopular. Sir John Curtice, one of the country’s most renowned polling experts has even dubbed the election as an “unpopularity contest.” Data compiled by Ipsos-MORI reveals that while Johnson has the lowest ratings of any new prime minister, Corbyn has the lowest ratings of any opposition leader since records began.

The EU referendum and the three years of chaos allowed the Lib Democrats to regain much of the ground they lost after the 2010 election by offering a distinct position to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50, and the Brexit party to reoccupy the space filled by UKIP in 2015. This makes the outcome of constituencies more difficult to predict as, in areas where there are four or more parties gaining larger chunks of the vote, a candidate can, therefore, win with a relatively modest vote share. Recent modeling by Best for Britain has suggested that some seats may be won by vote shares of less than 30 percent. This means that for the two main parties, they must not only focus on winning over new voters but also to hold as large a share of their 2017 voters as possible. Both Labour and Conservatives are likely to lose votes to the Lib Dems and the Brexit party. This is not to say these smaller parties they will win – but if they manage even 10 percent of the vote, it will be who that 10 percent comes from that will make a difference in many seats.

All this suggests that more shifts could be on the way during the lead up to the elections and that polling and predictions of the election outcome should be viewed with a dose of skepticism.