Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
16 November 2016

Meet Britain’s largest voter group – the authoritarian populists

When anti-immigration voters join forces, they are a formidable force. 

By Julia Rampen

If liberal lefties feel isolated, they are right to do so, according to analysis from YouGov, which paints a stark picture of voters’ priorities today. 

Back in the 1980s, when the term “authoritarian populist” first was termed, it was an academic construct. It described voters who share a desire for a hawkish foreign policy, a crackdown on immigration, disapproval of the European Union and cynicism for human rights laws.

By applying it to political data, YouGov and Professor David Sanders from the University of Essex found it was possible to divide voters into four tribes – the liberal left, the liberal centre-right, the centrist authoritarian populists, and the authoritarian populist right. 

The good news for the liberal left is that in most European countries, it tends to be the biggest tribe in politics. In the UK, 37 per cent of voters are so inclined. 

The bad news, though, is that when you put the moderate and more right-wing authoritarian populists together, roughly half (48 per cent) of British voters fall into that camp. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

Of those authoritarian populists, 19 per cent are classed as the right, and the remaining 29 per cent are classed as centrist. 

The smallest political tribe is that of the George Osbornes of this world, the liberal centre-right. Just 15 per cent of voters are in this camp. 

In other words, the only way the liberal left can gain power is by striking a deal with either the liberal right, or hoping the authoritarian populists sink into squabbles. 

“Although the liberal left tends to be the single largest group,” YouGov’s Joe Twyman told The Staggers, “Once you combine the authoritarian populists, it is larger.

“That’s important not just with Brexit and Donald Trump, but with France and Germany having elections next year.”

The YouGov study also highlights mainstream parties’ dilemma – 75 per cent of Labour voters are made up of the liberal left, with just 17 per cent belonging to the authoritarian populist centre and none to the right. 

By contrast, Ukip, which is gaining ground in traditional Labour heartlands, is almost entirely made up of authoritarian populists. 

Conservatives have the biggest coalition of voters, including 7 per cent on the liberal left, and surprisingly a slightly higher proportion of authoritarian populists than Ukip.

Authoritarian populists tend to be older – 35 per cent of centrist authoritarian populists are over 60, and 42 per cent of right-wing ones are, compared to just 24 per cent of the liberal left. They also tend to be less well-educated.

But liberal lefties should beware waiting for them to die off. “Because we don’t have historical data, we don’t know whether we have got an age effect, or a cohort effect,” Twyman said. 

“As young people get older, will they become more populist, or will the authoritarian populists die out? I imagine it is a bit of both.”

The research was produced for the annual YouGov-Cambridge Forum, a joint conference held by YouGov and the Cambridge Department of Politics and International Studies.