After Brexit, it's no longer about "left" and "right"—it's now social liberals vs social conservatives

“Left” and “right” have been replaced. What does it mean for the two main parties? A top psephologist explains the new voting divides

December 18, 2017
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The continuing debate about Brexit is creating considerable angst within both the Conservative and Labour parties. The cabinet is evidently divided between those who want a “soft” Brexit that maximises the UK’s continued access to the single market and those who want a “hard” Brexit under which the UK reclaims its sovereignty and is able to exert greater control over its borders. Labour, too, seems unsure how far it can support a softer Brexit without upsetting those of its supporters who are concerned about immigration.

It is, in truth, little wonder that both parties are unsure about what Brexit path they should take. For they are operating in a very unfamiliar electoral environment.

The debate about Brexit does not follow the usual contours of British politics. These are usually delineated by the distinction between “left” and “right,” between those who want a bit more government in order to make Britain more equal, and those who want a little less state activity so that entrepreneurs are encouraged to stimulate economic growth. Those on the left tend to be inclined to vote Labour, those on the right to back the Conservatives.

The new divide

However, whether someone was “left-wing” or “right-wing” made virtually no difference to how they voted in the EU referendum.

Rather, that ballot was marked by a division between social liberals and social conservatives—that is, between those who are comfortable living in a socially, ethnically and linguistically diverse society and those who place greater emphasis on the need for social cohesion and adherence to common rules and practices. Social liberals tended to vote Remain, social conservatives for Leave.

This division between social liberals and social conservatives has never been entirely absent from Britain’s electoral politics. The Liberal Democrats have always been relatively successful amongst social liberals, while, more recently, Ukip advanced most amongst social conservatives.

But so far as the two main parties are concerned, it has hitherto been very much a secondary argument—the Conservatives did a little better amongst social conservatives, Labour amongst social liberals, but the differences were much smaller than those between those on the left and those on the right.

However, in precipitating the election in June, in order to secure a mandate for her vision of Brexit, the prime minister ensured that this second dimension of British politics became more important, cutting across the familiar divide between left and right.

Riding two horses at once

As a paper published on the WhatUKThinks:EU website today shows, despite the apparent reluctance of both the Conservatives and of Labour to define their stance on Brexit too closely during the election campaign in June, the Conservatives gained votes amongst Leave voters while it lost them amongst Remain supporters. Meanwhile, although Labour gained some ground amongst Leave supporters, it made a much bigger advance amongst those who voted Remain.
“Whether someone was ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’ made virtually no difference to how they voted in the EU referendum”
As a result, the distinction between social liberals and social conservatives was much more in evidence in how people voted in June. Nearly three-fifths of social conservatives voted Conservative, but no more than a quarter or so of social liberals did so. Meanwhile, at least half of social liberals voted Labour while no more than a third of social conservatives backed Jeremy Corbyn’s party.

True, the distinction between left and right did not disappear. Those on the left were around three times more likely than those on the right to vote Labour—while those on the right were about three times more likely than those on the left to vote Conservative.

However, despite the supposedly more left-wing stance adopted by Labour in the election, it is not clear that the party was particularly successful at gaining ground amongst those on the left. Instead the left/right division was simply just as strong—but no stronger—as it had been in 2015.

However, the increased importance of the division between social liberals and social conservatives does mean that both the Conservatives and Labour are now having to ride two ideological horses at once. And in both cases this ride is potentially decidedly uncomfortable.

What the new divides mean

The Conservatives have secured for themselves a predominately pro-Brexit socially conservative electorate whose wish for greater “control” puts them at odds with the views of the party’s traditional allies in big business, who hitherto have been attracted by the more laissez-faire, pro-free market, centre right stance of the Conservative party.

For example, the former group want to see immigration cut, while the latter argue that a ready supply of migrant labour is essential to their ability to fill job vacancies. Little wonder some Conservative MPs prefer to listen to the party’s social conservatives, while others are uncomfortable pursuing a path that could harm the party’s relationship with what traditionally has been one of its key backers.

Meanwhile Labour finds itself with an electorate that is relatively comfortable with the forces of globalisation—and is thus probably quite close to big business on the question of what Brexit should mean. Certainly, the party’s support is demographically a long way away from its traditional conception of itself as the party of the working class.

In 2017 Labour was almost as popular amongst (mostly pro-Remain) university graduates as it was amongst (Leave inclined) working class voters. The party dominated, above all, the preferences of (also heavily pro-Remain) younger voters. Yet many a Labour MP still feels their party should be appealing to the apparently “left behind,” older, “traditional” working class voter that was once the bedrock of the party’s support.

Perhaps, once Brexit has been negotiated, the division between social liberals and social conservatives will return to the political background once more. However, given that the process of withdrawal promises to be a long and contentious one, this does not seem likely to happen any time soon. If so, then both the Conservatives and Labour face a potentially fragile and fractious future as they try to resolve the internal tensions and negotiate the unfamiliar political environment that Brexit has helped to create.

Read more by John Curtice