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8 June 2018

The nine voter groups who are more important than Labour Leavers

A year after the election, one bloc of voters has been analysed in much more depth than any other. 

By Stephen Bush

In the year since the general election, Labour Leavers – that is, voters who backed Labour in 2015 and “Leave” in the referendum of 2016 – have received an outsized share of attention and analysis.

That’s partly because it’s in the interests of a number of influential political power brokers. On the Conservative side, winning these voters over is one of the few things May can say she did right, at least compared to what happened elsewhere. It also appeals to a certain strain of anti-Corbyn opinion to depict the Labour leadership as inimical to its “white working class core”. And it helps the Labour leadership and some Labour backbenchers justify their preferred approach to Brexit.

It’s true that Labour Leavers are an important chunk of the electorate. The Conservatives could win a majority next time solely by doing a teeny-tiny bit better with this group, provided they hold on to the rest of their 2017 coalition. But oranges aren’t the only fruit and Labour Leavers aren’t the only voting bloc in town. Here are ten others that I wish I knew more about and if I had grant money to spend I would be asking academics to research.

Labour 2017, Gives An Answer Other Than “Jeremy Corbyn” When Asked Who Would Make The Best Prime Minister

This group includes a lot of Labour Leavers, to be fair, but it also includes a lot of Labour Remainers and a very small number of Labour voters who did not vote in the referendum of 2017. It seems to me that the more important thing about these voters is not their referendum position but how they feel about their party’s leader ending up in Downing Street.

In 2015, people who told pollsters they were voting Labour but gave an answer other than “Ed Miliband” when they were asked who they wanted to be prime minister didn’t, come the crunch, vote Labour. In 2017, they did. Why?

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There are a couple of hypotheses that fit the data we already have: that they disliked Theresa May a lot more than David Cameron, that they in the end disliked Corbyn less than they did Miliband, or that they simply didn’t think Corbyn would win and were therefore safe to vote for him.

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Conservative 2015, Remain 2016, Labour 2017

The flipside of the “Labour 2015, Leave 2016, Labour 2017” voters, and a group that’s just as important. In fact, they should properly be considered in unison.

May was quite good at gaining Leave voters, but was almost as good at losing Remain voters, and thanks to First Past the Post they were a lot more important in 2017. A case in point: the Conservatives gained 10,000 voters in Ashfield, and they were largely Leave voters, but they narrowly failed to win the seat. They lost just 2,000 largely Remain votes in Kensington but they narrowly lost the seat.

There are a couple of things we don’t know about this group. The first is that it is not entirely clear how motivated they were by Brexit and how much they were motivated by social liberal issues, like the threatened return of fox hunting and the ivory ban. The second is we don’t know if the Conservatives can win more Labour Leavers without losing an equal number of Tory Remainers, and vice versa.

This is important because an awful lot of Conservative theories about how they’ll win next time centre around the idea that they’ll do a bit better in Bishop Auckland, Darlington, Ashfield, Newcastle-under-Lyme and similar seats by gaining Labour Leavers whileholding onto their 2017 vote. This relates to this group’s close cousins…

Conservative 2015, Remain 2016, Conservatives 2017

How committed are these people to the Conservative Party, come what may? And again, they have to be considered in unison with the “Labour 2015, Leave 2016, Leave 2017”.

But there are other referendums…

Yes 2014, SNP 2015, Did Not Vote in 2017

First Past the Post is a hell of a drug: Labour gained six seats in Scotland in 2017 and turned dozens more into marginals, but gained a little over 10,000 votes across the whole country. The reason? Because a bunch of people who voted Yes in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and then for the SNP did not vote in the 2017 election, and we have no clue as to why.

One thesis, suggested to me by a senior Conservative recently, is simply that “they want to leave the EU”. A third of SNP voters backed a Leave vote in 2016, so it’s certainly possible.

Another, and more favourable to Labour is that these voters really didn’t like the Labour party that existed before Jeremy Corbyn became leader, but were sufficiently well-disposed to the new version that they sat at home, having decided either a Labour MP under Corbyn or an SNP one was fine.

And a third is just that while you can energise non-voters for a little bit, after a few elections they go back to their old habits. That brings us to another important group…

Non-voting until 2016, Remain 2016, Labour 2017

We know very little about this group and we really should as they were significant to a number of Labour’s gains. As were first-time Leave voters who kept up the habit, who also were more likely to back Labour than not.  But most first-time Leave voters didn’t keep up the habit…

Non-voting until 2016, Leave 2016, Non-voting 2017

Plus their close cousins, people who had never voted until 2015 when they voted for Ukip, who voted to Leave in 2016 and then didn’t vote in 2017. (A third of the 2015 Ukip vote).

We simply don’t know enough about this bloc and whether or not they can be lured back to the polling booth and under what circumstances.

Conservatives 2015, Liberal Democrats 2017

Although the Liberal Democrats got the same number of votes in 2015 as 2017, they weren’t in the same places. That helped them retake Bath but it also helped Labour take places like Battersea and Kensington, where the Conservatives lost votes not only directly to Labour but to the Liberal Democrats and the other newbie Remain parties.

The problem for the Liberal Democrats (and Labour, by extension) is that the Liberal Democrats tend to do much better in elections where the outcome is seen as a foregone conclusion (1997, 2005, 2010) than ones in which it is seen or believed to be close (1992 and 2015). When the outcome is a certainty, people can risk a third-party vote. With the next election anything but certain, the Liberal Democrats can expect to be squeezed, hard, and we don’t know what that means for the struggle for power at Westminster. We also don’t know enough about what motivated this group – was their problem Brexit, or did they think they were sending a message to a Theresa May government that was going to be comfortably re-elected regardless?

Conservative voters in 2017

The Labour party fought a great campaign, with superb Facebook videos, excellent party political broadcasts, exciting rallies and popular policies. Jeremy Corbyn did better in all of the televised setpieces than his main rival. The Conservatives, in contrast, had a dire campaign, in which Theresa May put in disastrous appearances in front of camera, her manifesto alienated voters, much of the social media good practice of the David Cameron era was forgotten and the party offered nothing to induce anyone to the polling booth.

Yet they got 42 per cent of the vote.