Who’s left?

Paula Surridge
Jun 24, 2017 · 7 min read

Who’s left?

This was supposed to be the Brexit election, where Theresa May surfed the tide of UKIP voters to a landslide victory (though I am still unsure how you surf to a landslide); instead the result confounded commentators, as old loyalties of class collided with new divides around generation, ethnicity and education. The EU referendum served to reveal and make politically salient divides that have long been present on the ‘left’ in Britain and elsewhere; sometimes referred to as ‘two lefts’ there is no necessary relationship between the ‘old’ economic left that favours redistribution of wealth and nationalisation of industry and the ‘new’ left (better labelled ‘liberal’) position which favours openness, tolerance and diversity.

This piece brings together aggregate level data from the 2017 General Election with earlier micro-data from the British Election Study Internet Panel (Wave 10, Nov/Dec 2016) to look at the coalition of voters the Labour party brought together under the banner of the ‘the left’ in 2017; as well as those it may have ‘left-behind’.

The context

The context of the election is unusual as both the main parties increased their vote share compared with the previous election, the Labour party by 9.5 percentage points to 40.0% and the Conservatives by 5.5 percentage points to 42.4%. This was possible primarily due to the complete collapse of UKIP from 12.6% in 2015 to just 1.8% in 2017. It appears the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries of this collapse but it remains to be seen how far this was a matter of winning new votes vs winning back ex-Conservatives. The early media takes on the election have focused on the ‘youthquake’ of young Labour voters. While others have suggested that Labour was able to retain portions of the UKIP vote to shore up what initially had looked like seats that would be lost to the Conservatives. Both can be further understood through the lens of the ‘values’ held by voters.

‘Core’ values

It remains common place to think of parties and voters as positioned along a single ‘left-right’ spectrum with the Conservatives on the right and Labour on the left. This leads to a conflation of different value dimensions. An overlooked difference sharply revealed in the EU Referendum vote, which has been shown to connect most closely with education levels (those with degree level education were much more likely to vote remain than those with qualifications up to GCSE level); and to values which are not part of the tradition left-right spectrum (such as attitudes to the death penalty ; and attitudes to immigration; a similar pattern is seen in the US in relation to support for Trump.

Briefly, we can instead conceive of values as being two dimensional along a ‘left-right’ dimension which reflect attitudes to economics, such as nationalisation, redistribution and attitudes to big business. And a ‘liberal-authoritarian’ dimension which reflects attitudes to authority and social openness. In the charts that follow ‘low’ values on the scales represent the ‘left’ and ‘liberal’ positions.

Both the ‘youthquake’ and the impact of the UKIP vote are better illuminated in this two-dimensional value space.

A tide of young voters?

The most common ‘take’ on the election was that there was a surge in support for Labour during the campaign from young voters. The first step here is a rise in turnout among these young people and this benefits Labour because this group are much more likely to be Labour supporters than Conservatives.

Why are young people more likely to be Labour supporters? A common response is that they are more ‘left-wing’ than the older generations .

Using the two dimensions of values, there is no evidence that the young are more ‘left’ wing in the traditional sense than the older age groups (if anything they are slightly more ‘right’ wing); this is not an age group bravely embracing socialism. But they are significantly more ‘liberal’ than older age groups, with the youngest group (18–25 year olds) the most liberal of all. A quick look at two of the ‘iconic’ issues of the old and new left also illustrates this difference.

There is majority support for nationalisation of the railways in all age groups, but this is lowest among the young. In sharp contrast, there is a very clear age gradient when asked about gay marriage, with overwhelming support among the youngest age group and less than half in favour among the oldest.

The young are more liberal, more open and more tolerant than older age groups but so are the more educated and in areas where there were high levels of degree educated people the Conservative party lost support between 2010 and 2017. Rather than reeducating the young about socialism, the Conservatives may be better advised to reeducate the party on social openness.

Clearly there are age differences in values; but these are not the traditional ‘left-right’ values, this is not the young embracing socialism. Whether these are generational, life course or educational effects will be difficult but important to disentangle in the coming weeks.

UKIP voters; the forgotten left?

Critical to the expected success of the Conservative campaign was the eating up of the UKIP vote which had dramatically collapsed in the polls since the EU Referendum — reflecting perhaps a sense of ‘job done’ for many of these voters. But UKIP voters demonstrate the need to understand values in two dimensions just as clearly as the ‘youthquake’. As shown by Ford and Goodwin in Revolt on the Right UKIP voters in 2015 were very socially conservative (authoritarian) but they were also drawn from ‘left-behind’ groups with traditional ‘left-wing’ views about big business and nationalisation.

Those who voted UKIP in 2015 could be characterised as ‘left-authoritarians’. They are the most ‘authoritarian’ group of voters, clearly distinct from the parties of the ‘left’ on this dimension. But on the more traditional ‘left-right’ scale they are closer to both Labour party voters and even Green party voters than to Conservative voters. Looking at the iconic issues of old and new ‘left’ even more sharply distinguishes UKIP voters.

Those who voted UKIP in 2015 are broadly similar to Labour, LibDem and Green voters in their attitudes to the renationalisation of the railways but they stand out among all parties, even the Conservatives, in their attitudes to gay marriage.

As with the patterns by age described earlier, these patterns are also reflective of differences in education levels among the different groups of voters but both are reflective of a divide in values in Britain which cannot neatly be subsumed in to a single ‘left-right’ dimension. Failing to understand this is a key mistake made by the Conservatives in appealing to UKIP voters and a potential pitfall for the Labour party in trying to maintain its support among the young.

The effect of the ‘two lefts’ in 2017 can be shown by looking at the kinds of places the Labour party gained most support between 2015 and 2017. There is a clear, positive and moderately strong effect of the level of Green party support in 2015; whilst the size of the UKIP vote in 2015 is almost unrelated to the change in Labour support.

Coalition of the lefts?

For the Labour party to succeed in winning an election, it will need to to draw voters from both parts of the ‘left’. But on the ‘liberal left’ they are more likely to sneer at or demonise those on the ‘authoritarian’ left and so fail to recognise shared issues of inequality, economic insecurity and powerlessness. Whilst the ‘authoritarian-left’ feel increasingly unrepresented by a Labour party looking to win over those who do not share (all) their values.

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