4 public votes, 3 Prime Ministers, over 200 million tweets and 67.5 million people affected by every decision. The Brexit conundrum has fundamentally shifted our alignment with our political parties.
In 2015, the Conservative party won 331 parliamentary seats, Labour 232, the Liberal Democrats 8 and UKIP 0. Post the Brexit vote, the 2017 election saw the Conservative party lose their majority, with Labour and the Lib Dems gaining seats. By 2019, voting preferences had moved again with many voters abandoning the old traditional parties. The 2019 European Parliamentary Elections, the best indicator of voter party preference since 2017, brought a shift away from the old two-party system with the Conservatives picking up less than 10% of the vote and Labour doing only marginally better.
Social factors, built on traditions of justice and democracy, influence general voting and the Brexit vote is no different. Crucially, however, ideology on Brexit cuts straight through traditional party lines and party values. Labour, for example, is built on the solid foundation of supporting the ‘working class’ but also with progressive roots in outward-looking, educated urban youth. Brexit splits the Labour vote, as the most dramatic social cleavage divide is education; 70% of those achieving GCSE education or lower voted to leave the EU, while those with a university degree voted to remain by a similar percentage. Similarly, Brexit divides Conservative voters. Traditionally appealing to older, white voters, 58% of those traditionally aligned to the Conservatives, voted leave and 42% voting to remain.
The ideology of leave or remain has become crucial in voter identity since the referendum, which has usurped the traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’, as positions are constantly debated and rehashed. Until the Johnson government, the two main parties were far more split on their opinion of Brexit and so took a less firm, middle-ground stance in an attempt to appeal to a wider array of voters, especially as they could no longer rely on social factors and typical voting behaviour for votes. However, without exceptional leadership, this ‘middle ground’ approach is flawed as it creates a sense of weakness, disorganisation and inconsistency and encourages voters to move to parties more definitive in their opinion. Splits and disagreements within parties further exacerbate dealignment.
There are two key reasons for party dealignment. Firstly, people who would typically vote for the same party fundamentally disagree on the question of Brexit and the ‘middle ground’ approach has had little appeal for leave or remain. Secondly, the lack of unity and the fracturing of the two main parties means that voters feel that they cannot rely on their party to deliver on Brexit – or anything else.
But why does the issue of Brexit remain so divisive? Brexit fundamentally is an issue of ideology, and the two old parties are losing sight of this. The main reason for people voting to leave the EU was the core belief that the UK should govern itself – not a vote based on policy ideas for economic growth, tax cuts or government investment. A vote for remain was a vote for multiculturalism and social liberalism. Since the referendum, the main parties have been mired in questions of practicality rather than ideology. It is no longer Brexit or no Brexit but backstop or no backstop, trade deals or no trade deals.
Single issue and clear message parties, such as the Brexit Party and the Lib Dems, have gained support by observing that Brexit is fundamentally ideological; leave or remain. The Brexit party has the luxury of a clear undiluted stance without the burden of having to execute their position. The support for the Brexit party has shifted the Johnson government towards a hard-line Brexit strategy to attempt to bring back the Brexiteers who may be moving towards the Brexit Party.
Brexit has broken party loyalties, and it remains simplistic to expect old alliances to return unchanged. From the Brexit chaos, there will undoubtedly be political opportunities, and the greatest opportunity perhaps lies with those able to adapt from old positions to bring optimism and a global outlook to a fractured Britain.