The recent political ructions and ruptures within the dominant UK political parties are not random events. They were predictable – and predicted. They are the inevitable result of a massive reconfiguration of the basic demographic structure of voter behaviour, which with hindsight we can see has been under way for more than a quarter of a century. This is the story of UK politics right now, but the same key plot points are also evident in the political storyline in the US and across Europe.
As a result, one of the most famous political clichés has lost its pertinence. Elections are no longer defined by the sign famously pinned to the wall of the Clinton campaign’s Little Rock headquarters in 1992: it’s not “the economy, stupid” any more. This is the age of identity politics. Cultural values have replaced economic factors as the key drivers of political behaviour.
What are these cultural values? They are fundamental demographic factors, which relate so strongly to the 2016 EU referendum vote, for example, that it is possible to predict the Leave vote in each UK region very accurately from just three statistics about its population: the proportion educated only to GCSE level or below (the school tests taken at age 16); the proportion defining their national identity as English (or Welsh); and the proportion judging their own health as “not very good”. If we also know the proportion who have non-professional jobs and who are white, we can predict the 2016 vote for Brexit to within 1% of the result.
Demographics explain almost all variance in EU referendum vote
Correlation of key demographic factors and voting Leave
Brexit has turbo-charged this shift to values in the UK – because, for the vast majority of voters on both sides of the argument Brexit isn’t about our relationship with the European Union, but a proxy for a world-view and core values. That’s why it is so deeply divisive and why so few people have changed their mind, even as the reality of Brexit has become clearer.
Many people probably do as Keynes said he did, and change their minds when the facts change. But a host of studies carried out over long timeframes concur that very few people ever really change their core values. Most people’s view on Brexit is principally a function of where they stand on issues like globalism, multiculturalism and social liberalism. That is why for the great majority, their 2016 referendum vote is more definitive than votes in elections often are.
An authoritative research study in late 2018 found that nearly eight in ten British voters now define their own political position by reference to their Brexit vote – as either a Remainer or a Leaver – and fewer than four in ten do so by reference to any political party.
So the Brexit schism will continue to divide the UK politically far into the future – and the depth and breadth of the gulf in values mean that few on either side can even slightly see the alternative point of view. The chances are high that each side will dig in further, blaming the other if things don’t turn out well.
Forging the new politics
Looking back, the first liver-spots of Brexit were already marking the country’s political skin in the early 1990s. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty lit a fire from old embers within the Tory party, and it became an eternal flame. That Treaty turned the European Community into the European Union and made us all its citizens; as such it was natural that we should all have the right to move and live anywhere within its external frontier. Few anticipated the scale of economic migration that this right of “free movement” would eventually enable and the nationalist impulses thereby stirred.
The UK relatively rapidly became a more diverse country; increasingly multicultural, the chemistry of its population tangibly changing. One marked consequence was the rise of an England-specific patriotism, which bubbled away quietly but was to become a major contributory factor in the movement for Brexit.
There were moments when this trend became visible. In 1996 England hosted the European football championship and the flag of St George – the flag of England, not of the United Kingdom – suddenly seemed to be everywhere. If you Google pictures of the Wembley crowd for England’s triumph at the 1966 World Cup final, there is a sea of Union Jacks.
There is evidence that the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1998 inflamed an impulse in many English people to assert their national political identity. It coincides with a sharp rise in the number of people defining their own national identity as English.
The growth of identity politics and the political energy that built around the values of nationalism, which felt to many voters like the logical response, has caused the axis of the electoral dividing line to rotate in the UK and in many other countries.
The EU referendum clarified and accelerated the rotation because, without the complications that elections feature – of party allegiance, the panoply of different policy issues and candidate preferences – it was, in effect, a binary vote on world view: internationalism v nationalism, for or against globalisation.
That divide having been thrust to the surface, is shifting the demographic pattern of party support too – and fundamentally destabilising the Conservative and Labour parties because it slices through their traditional, comfortable, demographic heartlands.
The axis of values
In the United States the same rotation has occurred for exactly the same reasons. Since the turn of the century, the average Republican voter in presidential elections has become successively poorer, less well-educated and even less diverse – in a country becoming rapidly more diverse – while the average Democrat voter has become progressively better off, better educated and more diverse.
In France the same story applies. In the most recent presidential election the candidates of the established centre-left and centre-right parties were eliminated in the first round and the final choice presented to voters was between the candidate of hard-line nationalism and the candidate of liberal internationalism. The same happened in the most recent presidential election in Austria. In Germany, support for the nationalist AfD party and the marked swing to the Green party are driven by the same underlying factors, which are also evident within the complicated electoral churn in, among other countries, Italy, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.
In Britain the leaderships of the two main parties have responded very differently to the rotation of the political axis, which has disrupted them. Labour, in its soul, is a pro-EU, internationalist party, but it is led, eccentrically, by people who support Brexit. As a result, it has opted for ambivalence. Jeremy Corbyn got away with this at the 2017 election because his specific position on Brexit didn’t receive much scrutiny – since it was universally assumed there was no chance whatsoever of him winning – and was sufficiently confusing that voters on both sides were able to make their own assumptions about it. Now that the Brexit process has flushed Labour’s fudged position into the cold light of day, it is increasingly clear to people that Labour is neither a party of Leave, nor a party of Remain and as a consequence is losing votes on both sides of the equation. It has long been inevitable that if Labour did not occupy the open values space in the rotated political landscape, another party would emerge to do so.
World-view (‘open’/‘closed’): highly predictive US election & Brexit referendum
It was a notable feature of the 2016 referendum that, while the majority of Conservative-held constituencies had fairly small majorities for Remain or (in far more cases) Leave, both the most strongly pro-Brexit seats and those with the biggest majorities for staying in the EU were held by Labour. The painful spectacle of Labour’s contortions in trying to hold on to both of these extremes reveals a crucial broader truth: the vastness of the difference between the two underlying world views means that there is no tenable, coherent, middle position. It is, ultimately, unfudgeable. Parties, politicians and voters have to pick a side.
The Tories have done this with alacrity and with barely an audible hint of regret – reacting to the shift in the political axis simply by becoming, lock, stock and barrel the Brexit party.
Without the effervescent brilliance of Ruth Davidson, the quintessentially mainstream and socially liberal leader of the Scottish Conservatives, today’s Tories would look and sound like little more than an English Nationalist party. The party’s choice of next leader may well take it the final few steps in that direction.
At the 2017 election the demographic profile of the average Conservative voter was significantly different from the previous election, just two years earlier, in exactly the same ways that the demographics of Trump Republicans differed from Reagan Republicans: poorer, whiter, less well educated. The political beliefs that define and animate the new heartland to which the Tories are cheerfully migrating are those of nationalism, not those of centre-right economics. Cultural conservatism has been part of the mix in the British Conservative Party’s internal coalition, but never before the dominant characteristic that it is becoming.
Gulf in ‘world-view’ & values aligns with Brexit vote
Net % expressing positive opinion
In the short run, becoming the Brexit party may work to the Tories’ electoral advantage, if it shape-shifts to align with the demographics of the Leave vote which still represents more than 45 per cent of the voting electorate. This could be viewed as the latest example of the Conservative Party’s famed adaptability, which is often cited as the reason for its longevity and electoral success. It is more likely, however, that it is an epic mistake of historical – potentially existential – proportions.
The 2017 general election produced by far the biggest age gap in UK electoral history. Labour beat the Tories by around 30 per cent among under-45s. On an array of different values-based questions, under-45s have startlingly different views from over-55s. Under-45s generally have very positive views about the impact of, for example, immigration, multiculturalism, diversity, feminism, globalism and social liberalism, while over-55s generally have much more negative feelings. This divergence is not explained by life-stage. It is a cohort effect: the different reactions of people born in different eras to living through the same changes.
This means that the Conservative Party’s rapid mutation into the Brexit Party is, in effect, a bet against the future. It’s a gamble that voters currently in their twenties, thirties and forties will change their world-view as they get older – and that the next generations of new voters will hold pro-Brexit values. Unless that happens, the Tory party’s demographic base will shrink, along with its electoral prospects, one funeral at a time.
These demographic patterns also cast Brexit as a tragedy, as well as – in most people’s current view – a farce. It has been estimated that the sum of predominantly Leave-voting old people who have died since the 2016 referendum and of overwhelmingly Remain-supporting young voters coming onto the electoral register, means that the natural majority in Britain flipped silently, in January 2019, from Leave to Remain.
With every passing day the trend of the demographics that shape political behaviour, and which are redefining politics everywhere, increase further the margin by which Britain no longer wants a Brexit that it may, nevertheless, end up having to swallow and live with.
Andrew Cooper (Lord Cooper of Windrush) is co-founder of the research and strategy consultancy, Populus. He served as Director of Strategy to prime minister, David Cameron.