“Left” and “right” have been replaced. What does it mean for the two main parties? A top psephologist explains the new voting dividesby John Curtice / December 18, 2017 / Leave a comment
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…