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Why did so many voters switch parties between 2015 and 2017?

A third of those who voted in 2015 either changed parties this year or stayed at home. What is going on?

If parliament defies the government and blocks a “hard” Brexit, a specific group of four million voters, identified by new research, deserves much of the credit – or the blame. These people voted to leave the European Union in 2016 but did not vote in this year’s general election. Had they turned out and voted in the same way as other pro-Brexit voters, the Conservatives would have won around 30 extra seats and a comfortable majority in the House of Commons.

The fact that one in four Brexit supporters stayed at home this June emerges from the largest ever panel study of its kind. YouGov tracked the voting decisions of the same 50,000 people at the time of the 2015 and 2017 general elections, as well as last year’s referendum. As a result, YouGov has been able to monitor voters changing their minds. The exceptional size of the sample allows us to examine the voting behaviour of different groups in granular detail. The New Statesman has been given exclusive access to the data, which provides an unrivalled insight into the factors that have led to today’s crisis over the future of the United Kingdom.

What emerges is a picture of unprecedented turbulence, which helps to explain why historically blue seats such as Canterbury – Conservative since it was formed in 1918 – fell to Labour, while established Labour strongholds such as Mansfield and Stoke-on-Trent South went Tory.

YouGov’s data shows that as many as 1.1 million voters, mainly pro-EU Remainers, switched directly from Conservative to Labour, while 850,000, mainly Leavers, made the opposite move. All together, ten million of the 30 million people who voted in 2015 either changed party or abstained this year. Here are ten key findings from YouGov’s research.

Picture: Ella Barron for the New Statesman

More Remainers than Leavers voted in the 2017 general election

In last year’s EU referendum, approximately 17.4 million voted Leave, while 16.1 million voted Remain. The abstention rate among Leavers in the 2017 general election was twice as high as among Remainers. As a result, 14 million Remainers voted this year, compared with 13 million Leavers.

The abstention rates were especially high in two specific groups. Of the 3.9 million people who voted Ukip in 2015, 30 per cent, or almost 1.2 million, did not vote this year. In addition, of the five million non-voters in 2015 who took part in last year’s referendum, more than three million stayed at home in 2017, two-thirds of them Leavers.

It looks as if, for many people, the chance to vote on Europe was a one-off opportunity to decide the nation’s future, rather than the start of a continuing engagement with politics.

The Conservatives fell short among former Ukip supporters and Leavers who hadn’t voted in 2015

The abstention rate among Leavers does much to explain how the Conservatives blew this year’s election. The Ukip vote did indeed collapse, as the Tories hoped – from 12.6 per cent in 2015 to 1.8 per cent in 2017. The party could not even match the 1.9 per cent that the BNP won in 2010. But, as the table below shows, the Conservatives attracted fewer than half of Ukip’s supporters. With Labour picking up 12 per cent of Ukip’s 2015 vote (more than the number of those who stayed loyal to Ukip), the net advantage to the Tories in Conservative-Labour contests was just 4 per cent of the nationwide vote.

The Tories also failed dismally among those who had abstained in 2015 but voted Leave last year. Theresa May’s promise that “Brexit means Brexit” might have been expected to win over much of this group. But it didn’t. Just 19 per cent voted Conservative this June. Labour, with 12 per cent, was not far behind.

Both main parties suffered considerable  Brexit-related defections – Conservatives among Remainers, Labour among Leavers

Europe was a dividing line for the supporters of both Labour and the Conservatives. Desertions took place on a large scale among Conservative Remainers and Labour Leavers. As many as 25 per cent of those who voted Conservative in 2015 and Remain last year switched to another party, mostly to Labour. A further 12 per cent abstained this year.

Likewise, 22 per cent of Labour Leavers switched party, the great majority to the Tories, while only 11 per cent of Labour Remainers took their vote elsewhere. As concerning to Labour is that as many as 21 per cent of Labour Leavers abstained this year, compared with just 8 per cent of Labour Remainers. These stay-at-home Leavers may well have tipped the balance against Labour in three constituencies that the Conservatives gained from Labour on relatively low turnouts – Mansfield, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, and Stoke-on-Trent South – and denied Labour victory in at least six seats that it hoped to gain.

Those nine seats saved Theresa May’s premiership. Had Labour won them all, she could not have secured a majority in parliament, even with the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists.

Most of Labour’s 10-point rise in support came at the expense of smaller parties

While the Tories did less well than they hoped among former Ukip supporters, Labour beat expectations among those who voted for smaller parties two years ago. We have already seen that more 2015 Ukip supporters switched to Labour this time than stayed loyal. The same is true of those who voted Green and Plaid Cymru in 2015. Among the 1.2 million who voted Green two years ago, 650,000 switched to Labour this year, while only 130,000 stayed with the Greens. Labour gained two million votes from smaller parties, neutralising any Conservative gains from Ukip. This delivered two-thirds of Labour’s 10-point surge across Britain.

Almost half of those who supported the SNP in 2015 deserted it this year

The SNP is in even deeper trouble than the raw results suggested. YouGov’s data shows that only 55 per cent of people who voted SNP in 2015 stayed loyal this year. The other 45 per cent divided equally into those who voted for a rival party and those who stayed at home. Indeed, the SNP lost a higher share of its support to abstention than any other party with MPs in the new parliament.

This high abstention rate is a sure sign of a party in difficulty. It explains why Scotland was the only part of the UK with a fall in turnout, from 71 to 66 per cent. It looks as if the impressive 85 per cent turnout in its independence referendum three years ago, like the Brexit referendum across the UK, has failed to convert many former non-voters into long-term participants in subsequent elections.

The long-standing gender gap in British politics has been reversed, with women in their thirties and forties moving decisively towards Labour

For six decades, pollsters have been analysing the gender split at general elections. Until 1992, women were more likely than men to vote Conservative. From 1997 until 2015, the gender gap all but disappeared. This year, for the first time, women were significantly more likely than men to vote Labour. Among men, the Tories enjoyed a 6-point lead (45 to 39 per cent) – enough to give Theresa May a comfortable majority. Women divided evenly (43 to 43 per cent). On those figures, Jeremy Corbyn would now be prime minister.

The table below shows the two groups of women who swung most to Labour this year compared with men: full-time workers and women in their thirties. Many more women than men have modestly paid jobs in the public services, such as health and education; they have been hit harder than most by pay restraint, cuts in public-service funding and, more recently, the post-referendum rise in inflation.

As for women in their thirties, this is the group with young children that most precisely fits Theresa May’s description of “just about managing”, in terms of family finances and access to public services. Far from winning these women over with her concern, May has alienated them with the impact of her policies.

In the US, there has long been a substantial gender gap, with most women voting Democrat and most men voting Republican. With the decline in Labour’s male-dominated culture, rooted in the big industries and trade unions of the mid-20th century, is Britain heading in the same direction?

Social class has ceased to be the decisive influence on party loyalties

Fifty years ago, the political scientist Peter Pulzer wrote: “Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail.” No longer. While the gender gap has widened, the class gap has closed. This year’s election smashed two records. Labour’s support among professional and managerial “AB” voters this year was 38 per cent – up 8 points compared with two years ago and higher even than in Tony Blair’s landslide victory of 1997. In contrast, the Tories did substantially better among semi- and unskilled “DE” voters than in Margaret Thatcher’s landslide of 1983.

The Brexit debate has played a significant role in a range of demographic shifts. However, Brexit alone does not explain the narrowing class gap. Labour’s weakening support among working-class voters is not new. The long-term loss of industrial jobs has shrunk Labour’s historical electoral base. Brexit has accelerated an existing trend, not created it.

The big dividing lines this year were age, education and attitudes to Europe

The wider impact of Brexit on Britain’s electoral demographics is hard to overstate. Young voters and graduates strongly favoured staying in the EU in the referendum and notably swung to Labour this year. Older voters who left school at 15 or 16 plumped for Brexit last year, and those who voted at all went Tory this year.

There is nothing new about different groups producing varying swings. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was propelled to power by a big swing among skilled manual workers. But never have the swings varied so wildly as this year, with major swings to Labour among some groups, and equally major swings to the Conservative Party among others. The last time Labour’s vote rose sharply, in 1997, the Tories lost ground in every demographic group. Not this time.

The opposing swings at the opposite ends of the class spectrum were largely driven by Brexit, with “ABC1” Remainers swinging Labour’s way, and “C2DE” Leavers shifting to the Tories. This suggests that the class gap might widen again if and when Europe ceases to dominate domestic politics – unless, that is, the impact of the Brexit debate has been to produce a lasting shift in Britain’s political culture. By 2030, we should know.

Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to “deal with” the debts of former students did not boost Labour’s vote

YouGov’s data debunks one myth about the election – that Corbyn’s promise boosted Labour’s support among graduates in their twenties. It is true that Labour’s vote rose among such voters by a remarkable 21 points, from 44 per cent in 2015 to 65 per cent this year. But these figures – both the levels and the changes – are almost identical among those who never got beyond A-level and also among those whose education ended with GCSEs. Labour did very well among the under-thirties, regardless of whether or not they were debt-burdened graduates.

The impact of education kicked in among the over-thirties. For those born before 1987, there was almost no swing to Labour among people with no qualifications higher than GCSE, but there was a big shift among graduates, with the Tories down 6 per cent since 2015 and Labour up 16 per cent.

The challenge facing Labour next time is greater than it looks

Few political sentiments are more seductive than “one more heave”. Labour’s 41 per cent was the highest share received by an opposition party since 1970. It would take only a modest further shift for the party to win next time. The question is: where will these votes come from? There seem to be few Lib Dem, Green or Ukip voters left to squeeze. Labour would do well to hold on to all the younger voters and the older, better-educated voters, whose choice this year was largely driven by opposition to Brexit.

The one significant opportunity for Labour is the group with whom it most underperformed this year: working-class voters, especially in the Midlands and the north of England. These are the constituencies that Labour must win back if its leader is to enter Downing Street within the next ten years. But can the party find a way to appeal to the pro-Brexit voters who deserted it in these crucial seats, while retaining the loyalty of the anti-Brexit voters it harvested this year with such effect? 

Peter Kellner was President of YouGov from 2007 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for Newsnight, the New Statesman, and others.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy