31 January 2020

Division didn’t start with Brexit – but it might have further to go


It’s widely accepted that that Brexit has divided opinion – 52-48 is a close result, and polling since 2016 has consistently shown that Britons remain pretty evenly divided on the subject.

Likewise, many of the divides associated with the remain-leave cleavage are also well known; young versus old, metropolitan versus provincial, graduate versus non-graduate, and increasingly, Labour versus Conservative.

These demographic patterns, in turn, tend to correspond more with a cultural axis – how socially liberal or socially conservative someone is – than the traditional continuum between those that like big government and those that prefer it small.

Brexit-related division as a concept has been on Labour’s radar recently, both in the post mortem into its heavy defeat at the general election, and the debate about where the party should turn next. Even arch-Remainer Keir Starmer is talking about ending the divide.

Less widely discussed in all quarters is the question of which came first – did Brexit create the divisions that have reshaped the political map, or merely expose them? Polling suggests that Remainers take the former view, while Leavers think it’s the latter. There is, in fact, some truth in both viewpoints.

Comprehensive, individual-level data on the 2019 general election is still weeks away. But we can gain some insight to the longer term trends from the shifting geography of party support.

If we divide constituencies in England and Wales into strongly Remain seats (Leave share under 45%), strongly Leave seats (over 60 per cent) and seats close to average (the rest), the pattern is clear enough.

The swing to the Conservatives was much bigger in the most Leave areas (8.3%) than in the most Remain areas (2.4%). The pattern persists if we extend back before the referendum and look at the changes since 2015, the last datapoint before the referendum.

So far, so obvious. But the trends continue even further back – the Tories were outperforming the national swing and Labour underperforming it in Leave areas (and vice versa in Remain areas) for a decade before Britain voted Leave.

This isn’t surprising if we consider that much of the divide isn’t even policy related. And even then, there have been issues (particularly immigration) that have fanned the flames over that period.

Likewise, the self-sort of demographic trends has continued apace, with the big cities continuing to get younger, more diverse and more graduate, while towns move in the opposite direction.

So while Brexit has redrawn the political map before it’s even happened, it wasn’t the root of the current divisions – they were in play well beforehand. But the trends have accelerated since 2016, as Brexit has pushed the cultural axis to the fore, and helped turn attitudinal division into political division.

From 2005 to 2015, the constituencies that would go on to deliver the strongest Leave votes swung 6.8% from Labour to Conservative, while the most Remain seats swung 1.4% over the same, making a 5.4 point gap between the two.

And from 2015 to 2019, the most Leave seats 9.1% to the Tories, while the most Remain constituencies swung 1.6 per cent to Labour – a difference of 10.7%. Since the vote for Brexit, the divergence between Remain areas and Leave areas has been twice as large and in half the time as previously.

Will this pace of realignment continue? While predicting the future is hazardous, we can safely say that the cultural axis is very much a feature of politics in other countries, and as such, there is no reason to think it would become irrelevant if Brexit were suddenly to fall off the political radar.

In fact, even that is unlikely, and in any case immigration policy is likely to come under the spotlight post-Brexit. Likewise trade policy, while fundamentally economic, seems to be viewed much more through the prism of social liberalism and social conservatism than economics.

The culture divide that corresponds to Brexit, didn’t start with Brexit, and it won’t end with Brexit.  Though “Remain” and “Leave” will disappear in a literal sense, we may be a divided nation for some time yet.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Matt Singh is the founder of Number Cruncher Analytics