Sky Sports irritates me. Not its coverage, which is great. But its tendency to imply that football only started in 1992, when the Premier League launched. We risk doing something equally misleading when it comes to politics – tracing everything back to Brexit. The reality, as the recent UK in a Changing Europe report underlines, is somewhat more complex.
None of which is to say that Brexit wasn’t hugely significant. It was – in the language of the British Election Study team – an “electoral shock” that affected politics and public opinion in a number of ways.
First, and most obviously, it brought into existence new political tribes: leave and remain. The strong identification between Brexit tribe and voter choice has fundamentally shaped our politics since 2016. Boris Johnson won his 80-seat majority in 2019 by in effect creating a coalition of leave backers and cementing a Brexit realignment.
This in turn has introduced novel elements into our politics. There has been an educational cleavage, for one thing. In a striking reversal of traditional patterns of economic voting, graduates now lean towards Labour, despite being more likely to have high incomes, professional jobs and own their own homes. Those who leave school at the first opportunity with few or no qualifications are more likely to line up with the Conservatives – even though this group will typically have lower incomes and less secure work. This pattern first emerged in 2016 and has continued since.
But not everything can be attributed to Brexit. Take intergenerational differences. It’s true that younger voters primarily voted remain, while older voters often opted for leave. But the generational gap in voting behaviour started to widen well before 2016. There is now an eye-watering 40 percentage-point range in support for Conservatives between the oldest and youngest voters, with 50% of those born before the second world war identifying as Conservative supporters, compared with just 10% of gen Z. This is up from about 20 percentage points in the early 2000s, and only 10 points in the early 1990s. Labour, for its part, now faces a 30-point gap in support between the youngest and the oldest.
One reason for this is the increased centrality of social values. While politics was once about left versus right, it is now increasingly a battle between social liberals and social conservatives, divided by issues such as Brexit, immigration, gender equality or gay rights. The referendum gave labels to pre-existing cultural divides: leave and remain allowed values coalitions to crystallise under clearly defined identities, which in turn enhanced their visibility and political salience.
Equally, the striking shift in voting patterns since 2016 has been facilitated by a longer-term increase in voter volatility – the proclivity of voters to switch their support from one party to another between elections. This phenomenon peaked in 2015 before falling back a little. Nonetheless, it provided the fertile soil in which the Brexit realignment could take root.
Elsewhere, we see that Brexit reinforced trends apparent well before the referendum. One striking feature of the leave-remain cleavage was the emergence of cross-class coalitions on both sides. Working-class northerners and middle-class Tories in shire seats joined together to support Brexit. Yet class voting patterns have been declining since the New Labour period. Brexit accelerated this decline to the point where the 2019 election saw the reversal of traditional patterns of class voting.
It’s not, therefore, all about Brexit. Equally, however, we should guard against the assumption that the declining salience of the issue means a reversion to the status quo ante. Even given the resurgence of the economy as the most important issue for voters, we have not seen a return to the traditional pattern of class voting. The Conservatives have lost their lead among all classes but the self-employed. Similarly, while Labour has regained its lead among the working class, this is smaller than its advantage in all other classes (again, with the exception of the small self-employed class).
Similarly, analysis of the role of social values in driving voter choice by Leonardo Carella and Edmund Kelly reveals that the Conservatives have neither been disproportionately losing liberal voters (as we would expect if the Brexit realignment had continued), nor have they disproportionately shed authoritarian voters (as we would expect if realignment had reversed). Instead, they have been disproportionately losing voters on the economic left. We are, in other words, witnessing a pause in party polarisation over social values and, as a corollary, a return to economic values as a crucial determinant of voter choice.
Brexit had a significant effect on our politics, not least in hastening or reinforcing a number of trends apparent well before 2016. Moreover, even though it is no longer a critical issue for voters, we are not witnessing a simple reversion to pre-referendum behaviour. Reality, as ever, is rather more complicated. Certainly, new cleavages such as the differences in educational attainment seem to be playing a far larger role in driving voter choice than was once the case. But what the last decade and a half has taught us is that the kinds of electoral shocks to which we have become all too accustomed can interact with longer term trends in complex and unpredictable ways.