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Who voted Labour in 2017?

Posted on 24 September 2017 by Sir John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow
Tags: NatCen on the Election, elections, general election

Labour might have lost its third election in a row, but it is a buoyant party that has gathered in Brighton this weekend for its annual conference. After all, it made net gains of 30 seats in June, enough to deny the Conservatives an overall majority, and a far better result than many had anticipated when the Prime Minister first announced the snap election. The party now seems to anticipate that one more heave against a seemingly fragile government that could struggle to retain office for a full five year term will be enough to propel Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street.

Labour’s strategy in June was simple. By presenting a radical programme that emphasised less austerity and more equality it would galvanise what it believed were the many voters who stayed at home because they felt that neither of the two main parties adequately represented their views. The approach stood in sharp contrast to the emphasis on winning over ‘middle England’ that characterised the party’s appeal under Tony Blair’s leadership.

But how far was Labour’s progress in the election founded on mobilising disenchanted voters via a left-wing message? In order to assess what really happened in the election, during the summer NatCen contacted the members of its unique mixed mode random probability panel and asked them how they voted in June, how they voted two years ago, and what they thought about some of the key issues in the campaign. At the same time, thanks to previous interviews they had given, we also knew a lot about our panel members’ broader political outlook as well as how they had voted in the EU referendum.

One point is clear. Labour was relatively successful at winning the support of those who did not vote in 2015. Just over a quarter (27%) of our panel members who did not vote in 2015 turned out and voted Labour this time. Labour’s gains from this source were responsible for some four in ten of the votes that it gained as compared with 2015. In contrast, the Conservatives won the support of only one in ten of those who abstained in 2015, and indeed these were too few to counterbalance those who turned out for David Cameron two years ago but stayed at home this time around.  

Moreover, as we might anticipate, Labour were also relatively successful amongst those whose values are relatively left-wing, that is, those who are most supportive of the view that the government should take action to reduce inequality. Labour’s share of the vote amongst this group increased by as much as twelve points.  

However, it is also evident that Labour did not simply advance by winning over those who had abstained in 2015. The party also made net gains from those who two years ago voted for other parties, including the Conservatives. Equally, while less dramatic than it was amongst those on the left, Labour’s share of the vote increased by six points amongst voters who might be described as ‘right-wing’, that is, those whose values are least in tune with Labour’s message, ‘For the many, not the few’. In short, there appears to have been more to Labour’s success than simply winning over disenchanted voters via a left-wing message.

The Prime Minister’s purpose in calling the election was not, of course, to seek a mandate for the government’s fiscal stance or its welfare cuts, that is, the kind of issues that tend to divide left and right. Rather, it was called because she wanted to a mandate to pursue her vision of Brexit, whereby the UK would leave both the EU single market and the customs union and thus be free to negotiate its own trade deals and end freedom of movement.  

Brexit is not an issue that divides those on the left from those on the right. Instead, it divides ‘social liberals’, that is, those who relatively comfortable living in a diverse society in which people follow different customs and social norms, and ‘social conservatives’, that is, those who feel that everyone should share and respect a common culture. Those of the former view typically voted to Remain in the EU, while those of the later disposition usually backed Leave. Not least of the reasons why this is the case, of course, is that one of the central issues in the Brexit debate was and still is immigration. 

During the election, Labour avoided taking a clear position on the kind of Brexit that it thought the UK should seek in its negotiations with the EU. But unlike Theresa May, Jeremy Corbyn was certainly reluctant to suggest that there would be a marked reduction in immigration under a Labour government. Meanwhile, given the weakness of the Liberal Democrat campaign, where else perhaps was there for voters to go but Labour if they were unhappy with Theresa May’s stance on Brexit and immigration? In short, maybe Labour’s success was not simply based on its left-wing message but also profited from the socially conservative character of its opponents’ stance?  

To understand the divisions in an election that perhaps was not just about left and right – on which traditionally views tend to differ between those in middle class jobs and those in working class one – we need to segment voters in a way that also takes into account their degree of social liberalism or conservatism, their views about Brexit and immigration, and the demographic differences that often underlie people’s views on these subjects, that is, their age and educational background.  

Using a statistical procedure known as Latent Class Analysis, our panel data reveal that there are, indeed, as many as six distinct groups in the British electorate today. They are distinguished not by just occupation and whether people are on the left or the right, but also by age and educational background and thus how socially liberal voters are. The six groups are as follows:  

            Comfortable Britain. Mostly older people in professional occupations and who own their own home. They typically have relatively right-wing views, but are not especially concerned about immigration. Just over a quarter (27%) of the electorate belong to this group.

            Liberal Elite. Mostly graduates in professional occupations who are socially liberal and voted heavily to remain in the EU. Just under one in five (18%) of voters fall into this category.

            Young JAMs. Younger working class voters with mixed views whose main distinguishing characteristic is that half did not vote in 2015. They comprise 16% of the electorate.

            Liberal Youth. These are mostly younger people in middle-level non-graduate jobs though they have yet to get on to the housing ladder and tend to think of themselves as working class. They are, however, relatively liberal and positive about immigration. They also constitute 15% of Britain’s voters.

            Traditional Working Class. Older working class voters who are relatively left-wing but are not especially socially liberal. One in seven (14%) belong to this group.

            Anti-Immigration Working Class. Middle aged and older working class voters (together with some small employers) who are not particularly right-wing but are socially very conservative, concerned about immigration and thus nearly all voted Leave. This category accounts for just over one in ten (11%) of all voters.

These groups are very different from each other not only in the level of support that Labour enjoyed in 2017, but also in the extent to which Labour’s vote increased as compared with 2015 (see the Table below). As we might anticipate from what we have said already, one of the groups amongst whom Labour made a particularly strong advance was the young JAMs, many of whom did not vote in 2015 and amongst whom Labour support increased in June by twelve points. Even so, because around two in five (42%) of this group stayed at home once again, that still meant that only just over one in three (35%) backed Labour. Moreover, as a group at least, these voters are not especially left-wing, so it is far from clear that it was the more left-wing character of Labour’s message in 2017 that was the key to the party’s success in mobilising this group.

Labour Support 2017 and Change in Support since 2015 by Electorate Group

Who Actually Voted LABOUR

Meanwhile, the two other groups amongst whom Labour advanced most were the Liberal Youth and the Liberal Elite. As their titles imply, what distinguishes these groups most is not how left-wing they are, but rather their inclination to be socially liberal. They were also the two groups that voted most heavily to Remain in the EU. In contrast, the party failed to advance at all amongst the group that is above all predominantly working class and left-wing, that is, the Traditional Working Class. Indeed, fewer than one in three (31%) of this (also relatively older) group turned out to vote Labour. In short, there is little sign here that the party’s more left-wing stance helped it to win over what might perhaps once have been thought to be its core vote.

True, not all of Labour’s gains were amongst social liberals. The party also made a (somewhat more modest) eight-point advance amongst the most conservative and pro-Brexit group of all, the Anti-Immigration Working Class. Even so, that still left the party with little more than quarter of the vote (27%) in a group in which the party performed very badly indeed in 2015.

This point aside, what clearly emerges from our analysis is that Labour’s advance in the 2015 election was strongest not in left-wing Britain but rather in socially liberal Britain, a section of the country that is distinguished not so much by class and occupation as by education and, above all, age. Indeed, the age divide in the level of support for Labour is now bigger than the class divide – over half (53%) of the under forties voted Labour compared with just 27% of the over sixties. 

Labour’s advance in June then does not simply lie in the popularity of the more left-wing stance that the party adopted. Indeed, that may not have been particularly important at all. Rather, in an election in which Brexit and immigration were also central issues, Labour’s advance was strongest amongst those who were keenest on staying in the EU and those who were least concerned about immigration. That suggests that if Brexit does indeed go pear shaped and, as a result, Britain has another election soon, one more heave from Labour might be enough to win power. But if by 2022 Britain has sailed serenely into post-Brexit future, the party should not assume that another dose of Corbynism will pay a sufficient electoral dividend.

Many thanks to Martin Wood who did the data analysis for this piece of research.  

This analysis is being published alongside the coverage of the Labour and Conservative Party Conferences by ITV’s Peston on Sunday programme. The full analysis will be made available to coincide with the Conservative Party Conference programme on 1 October.    

Follow us on Twitter: @NatCen         

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