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Realignment? How Brexit Reshaped British Voting Behaviour

Fri, October 1, 6:00 to 7:30am PDT (6:00 to 7:30am PDT), TBA

Session Submission Type: Virtual Full Paper Panel

Session Description

The panel brings together four papers which address the question of whether the shifts in British voting patterns seen since Brexit – specifically the general elections of 2017 and 2019 – should be considered a realignment. The papers form part of a forthcoming book from the British Election Study team, due to published next year with Oxford University Press. The panel covers the main theoretical framework underpinning the arguments in the book, including the link between electoral shocks and realignment; and examines three of the three electoral changes that might suggest realignment: long-term changes to importance of different values dimensions for vote choice; the changing relationship between education and vote; and the changing electoral geography.

Paper 1. Overview and theory: How Brexit Reshaped British Voting Behaviour
This paper will present the theoretical arguments examining the link between electoral shocks and realignment. We discuss how the mechanisms by which shocks affect voter behaviour in combination to the response of political parties, can bring about electoral realignment. These include the impact of an electoral shock (specifically Brexit) through changes in perceptions of competence, party image, issue salience and issue preferences. We then identify the indicators which might indicate a realignment, including changes to the importance of different value dimensions; the shifting of electoral cleavages; the persistence of alternative political identities; and a reversal in electoral volatility.

Paper 2. Brexit and political values
We explore how values dimensions have mapped onto British voting behaviour since the 1980s, and in particular how the Brexit shock fundamentally disrupted this relationship. A major consequence of the Brexit shock was a change in the way the liberal-authoritarian dimension mapped on to party choice. Vote choice in the EU referendum was almost entirely uncorrelated with voters’ left-right values, but it was very highly correlated with liberal-authoritarian values, and adjacent attitudes such as immigration preferences. In 2017 liberal-authoritarian values were equally important to left-right values in determining choice between the Conservatives and Labour. The 2019 General Election saw both a continuation and a reversal of this development.

Paper 3. Education and vote choice after Brexit
We examine the reasons for the emergence of the educational cleavage and provide a fine-grained analysis of its character. We show that the growing impact of education on vote choice in part reflects the expansion of the proportion of the electorate who have experienced higher education in recent decades. As a result, there is a more substantial demographic basis for an educational cleavage that reflects the political values of those who have received higher education. We then analyse the ways in which education matters for these values, issue positions and, increasingly, vote choice. Our emphasis is on the way that changes in the parties’ positions and emphases on socially conservative and liberal values, and the political issues associated with them, has influenced the parties’ appeal to different educational groups. We also estimate the extent to which education has now become a new cleavage supplanting and cross-cutting that of social class.

Paper 4 . A new electoral geography?
In 2019 we saw a large-scale shift in the geography of support for the major parties, with Labour losing many of its ‘red wall’ seats to the Conservatives, especially those which voted strongly for Brexit. At the same time Labour strengthened its dominant position in the Remain leaning metropolitan heartlands, associated with its new ‘cosmopolitan’ support base. In this paper we provide a detailed examination of how the geography of support – at constituency and regional level - has changed over time, and the extent to which the new electoral map reflects the geography of Brexit. We examine four inter-related questions. (i) How does the current geography of support compare with pre-referendum geography of support? (ii) Did the referendum mark a change in the regional basis of support? (iii) Has there been a differential change in the relationship between socio-economic characteristics and partisanship by region or are geographical changes independent of other cleavages? (iv) How far do changes in support reflect long-term changes in socio-economic structure or a Brexit effect?

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