BSA 41: One-dimensional or two-dimensional?

The changing dividing lines of Britain’s electoral politics

This British Social Attitudes chapter analyses recent trends in the ideological basis of party support.
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Signpost pointing in different directions


Support for political parties in Britain traditionally varied along a left-right dimension, with ‘left-wing’ voters, who were concerned about inequality, supporting Labour and ‘right-wing’ voters, who were more concerned about the promotion of growth, supporting the Conservatives. However, the Brexit debate divided voters along a different ideological dimension – between ‘libertarians’ on the one hand and ‘authoritarians’ on the other. This chapter analyses trends in the ideological basis of party support since voters opted to leave the EU. It considers whether the libertarian-authoritarian dimension remains as important as it was during the Brexit debate, or whether the politics of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are once again dominating the structure of party support.  

Key findings

Libertarian-authoritarian dimension has become more important

Despite the lack of debate about Brexit since the UK left the EU at the beginning of 2020, the libertarian-authoritarian dimension is more strongly related to patterns of party identification now than it was at the time of the EU referendum. But the ‘left-right’ divide is also still in evidence, ensuring that the ideological basis of Britain’s electoral politics is now two-dimensional.

  • In 2015, the combined level of support for the Conservatives and UKIP was 19 points higher among authoritarians, while that for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens was 21 points higher among libertarians.
  • Now the equivalent figures are 32% and 42% respectively.
  • These figures are similar to those for the ‘left-right’ divide. Support for the Conservatives is now 34 points higher among those on the right, while the combined level of support for Labour and the Greens is 37 points higher among those on the left.

Party support has become more strongly related to specific issues associated with the libertarian-authoritarian dimension

Party support is now more strongly linked to issues, other than Brexit, which are associated with the libertarian-authoritarian divide, including immigration, sexuality and questions of identity and empire.  

  • In 2015, those who thought migrants undermined Britain’s culture were 16 points more likely to support the Conservatives or UKIP. Now the equivalent figure is 33 points.
  • In 2015, those who think that migrants enrich Britain’s culture were 21 points more likely to support Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens. Now they are 48 points more likely to do so. 
  • Those who think that equal opportunities for lesbian, gay and bisexual people have not gone far enough are 37 points more likely than those who believe they have gone too far to support one of Labour, the Greens or the Liberal Democrats, almost double the equivalent figure of 20 points in 2013.