FEATURE11 December 2019

Election insights to understand GE2019

Brexit Election 2019 Features Public Sector Trends UK

At a conference held by The UK in a Changing Europe and the British Election Study last week, academics shared their insights on some of the issues affecting the general election 2019. We take a look at some of the key takeaways on elections and voter identity.

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The rise of voter volatility

There has been a steady upward shift in voter volatility – the percentage of people who vote for a different party than they did in the previous election – since the British Election Study (BES) began in 1960s. It peaked at around 40% in 2015 and then dropped slightly in 2017, but the last three elections have been the most volatile on record – one reason being the decline in party identification.

“Voters have become less attached to political parties than they were in the past,” said Edward Fieldhouse, professor of social and political science at the University of Manchester. “Not just how they vote, but how they feel.”

The second reason for volatility is the rise of smaller parties, as the more successful smaller parties are, the more volatile an election tends to be.

Electoral shocks such as Brexit, the financial crisis and the Scottish independence referendum have also contributed to voter volatility because they have changed the status quo and are difficult to ignore so they cut through to people who are not interested in politics. They change perceptions of competence and can change the social or political image of parties – for example, the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 led to Labour being seen not as the party of the left but of the union.

Volatility is likely to stay high in the 2019 general election, however this could also be offset by Brexit. “Voters are not anchored in their choice to parties, therefore their choice is likely to be affected by what parties do on Brexit.” Brexit has led to new dividing lines in politics, and these may cause voters to remain more stable or crystallise identities.

The number of voters with no political identity has been increasing since the 1970s, and this is now almost half of voters, at 40%, said Dr Jonathan Mellon from BES and University of Manchester.

Data from the campaign wave of the BES showed people switching in large numbers since the pre-election period (a two-week period) – 21% of voters have changed their voting intentions in the past two weeks ( 13% if ‘don’t knows’ are excluded) – meaning this election has seen the same amount of volatility in two weeks than in two years in the 1960s (between 1964 and 1966 ).

Brexit identities

The gap between party identity and referendum identity has stayed since the 2016 EU referendum, and referendum identity is much stronger. Around 40% of Labour voters in the last election felt more strongly ‘Labour’ than their referendum identity. About 20% of Conservative voters more strongly identified as ‘remain’ than Conservative, and Labour has about the same level for ‘leave’ voters. “These are the people who might hold the key to what happens in this election, if Brexit is still the issue that is driving people’s vote choice,” said Chris Prosser, research fellow at the University of Manchester.

“The vast majority of people who voted Conservative in the last election feel much more strongly about the referendum than they do about the party, and aound 40% of Labour voters at the last election felt more strongly Labour than a referendum identity.”

Data from the British Election Study suggests politics is shifting from the economic to the cultural and social. In the 2015 election, the economic and cultural dimensions were very similar, and 2017 saw a small uptick for cultural politics. “From the pre-election data, it looks like this ‘second dimension’ of politics is becoming the ‘first dimension’ of British politics,” said Prosser.

However, it’s not just about Brexit. “One of the tricky things about the Brexit context is we seem to dichotomise easily, we think about remain voters and leave voters and we tend to forget there’s variants between them,” said Jane Green, professor of political science and British politics at Oxford University and co-director of the BES.

For example, Conservative-voting remainers are much less pro-EU than Labour remain voters, while Conservative Leave voters are more anti-integration than Labour leave voters. 

Tactical voting

Of people who say they are thinking about voting tactically, only six per cent mention tactical voting websites as an information source, despite the media attention garnered by such sites, the BES found. Instead, people say they are relying on remembering the 2017 election results to vote tactically, but knowledge of the results was mixed.

While respondents largely knew who had won, fewer than 30% could correctly name the party that came second in their seat. Knowledge was still poor even in marginal constituencies, where fewer than half of voters could name the second place party correctly.

“There’s at least some scope for tactical voting, but it’s going to be a minority pursuit,” said Mellon. “Only about 40% of voters in the first place are actually willing to consider other parties and then less than half of voters know the information required to go about it.”