The headline vote shares in the last general election masked a fractious reality. Now that reality has kicked in—with dramatic consequences for both the Conservatives and Labourby John Curtice / July 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
One of the most remarkable features of the last general election was how the Conservatives and Labour between them managed to dominate the electoral scene. Over four in five (82 per cent) of all votes cast were given to one or other of those two parties, a higher proportion than at any election since 1970. After years of appearing to be under threat, it seemed that the country’s two-party system had suddenly been restored to rude health.
This development was all the more surprising given the backdrop against which the general election was being fought—the debate about Brexit. This is a subject on which opinion cuts across the distinction between “left” and “right” that typically divides Labour and Conservative supporters. Consequently, both parties found that their voters were divided in the EU referendum. Although on balance Conservative supporters backed Leave over Remain, still as many as two in five voted Remain. Similarly, although most Labour supporters backed Remain, a substantial minority of around one in three supported Leave.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Brexit was not a subject about which either party felt it possible to be dogmatic about during the 2017 election campaign, as they tried to keep their divided supporters together. This was in stark contrast to Ukip, nearly all of whose voters had backed Leave and which was clearly in favour of a “hard” Brexit, and indeed to the stance adopted by the traditionally pro-EU Liberal Democrats who were already in favour of a second EU referendum. Yet, even though the 2017 general election was meant to be about Brexit, Ukip’s vote collapsed while the Liberal Democrats barely registered any recovery at all from the slump in their fortunes that had occurred in 2015.
However, a look underneath the surface raised questions about the idea that the two-party system had returned. Despite the ambiguity in their positions on the subject, voters appeared to be using a vote for either the Conservatives or Labour to express their views about Brexit. This was particularly evident in the pattern of support for the Conservatives, who gained ground among those who had voted Leave, including not least many a voter who had backed Ukip in 2015, whereas they lost ground among those who had backed Remain. As a result, the party garnered an electorate whose views on running the economy were…