How important was Brexit in the so-called ‘Brexit election’?

Published on Shared Growth

Anyone who channel-hopped their way through Thursday night’s election coverage will have noticed two things. First, pundits are very good at recycling and refining their reactions as they work their way around the various studios. And second, different channels established different, but seemingly equally plausible, narratives about just what on earth was happening. But one theme that consistently cropped up was the importance of the distribution of the former UKIP vote. Understanding exactly what happened will take a lot longer than 24 hours, but what clues can we garner at this early stage from some quick and dirty chart drawing?

The chart below compares the scale of the change in the Conservative vote between 2015 and 2017 across 631 constituencies (excluding Kensington and Northern Ireland) with the proportion voting Leave in the EU referendum. Overall, there’s a pretty clear relationship between the strength of the Leave vote and the increase in the Conservative share recorded yesterday. But very few of those share increases converted into new seats for the Conservatives. Instead, most of the party’s gains came in (generally Remain-voting) Scottish constituencies: just five Labour seats shifted to the Conservatives across the country.

The next chart presents similar analysis for the change in Labour share since the 2015 election. In contrast to the Conservative picture, it depicts a relatively even increase in share across Leave and Remain areas. Crucially, Labour also achieved a much higher strike rate in terms of converting vote increases into seats.

What does all this mean? Well obviously it’s little more than speculation at this stage, but a few ideas offer themselves up.

First, the Conservative picture is consistent with a strategy of banking the party’s existing majority while aiming for gains in previous Labour heartlands by hoovering up former UKIP voters. To that end, the Conservative’s focus on Brexit in its election campaign – and relative disregard for wider social and economic issues – could be seen as marking an attempt to appeal to a very specific group. If that’s true, then a second observation provides some clue as to why that tactic proved less successful than hoped: namely that Labour also managed to increase its share in Leave-voting areas. The implication is that not all UKIP voters migrated to the Conservatives, but that some shifted over to Labour.

What then might account for Labour’s relatively uniform performance across the country in terms of increasing its vote share? Again we’re doing no more than speculating, but it’s likely that the greater emphasis the party placed on non-Brexit issues – and in particular living standards – found fertile ground. With wages falling once more in recent months, coming on top of the already-hard felt living standards squeeze that characterised the post-crisis period, it’s not hard to imagine why policy promises focusing on raising pay and cutting costs resonated across constituencies. Indeed, the very fact that Labour deployed language that dealt directly with some of the economic disillusionment that contributed to the Brexit vote might go some way to explaining why the party was able to attract more former UKIP voters than many expected.

The party’s particular focus on policies designed to appeal to both younger voters (and a concerted effort to increase turnout among this group) and older voters is also likely to have borne fruit, reflecting the growing sense that our social and political backdrop has an increasingly intergenerational tint.

One final thing worth noting from the two charts is the extent to which Scotland looks different. The Conservatives ran a very different campaign north of the border, and the evidence seems to suggest that it – and its architect-in-chief, Ruth Davidson – proved much more effective than the England and Wales version. Labour also increased its vote share (and picked up seats) in Scotland, but this was broadly in line with its performance elsewhere. The Scottish Conservative experience stood out for its obvious exceptionalism.

Getting to the bottom of just what drove different parts of the vote in different parts of the country will take some time. Moving towards more definitive conclusions will rest on more detailed regression analysis that tests in isolation the explanatory power of different variables across the country. That’s for the coming weeks. For now perhaps the most obvious takeaway is that political parties ignore living standards at election time at their peril. Since 1900 only six elections have taken place while real pay has been falling – 1910, 1922, 1923, 1945, 2010 and 2017 – and none have ended well for the incumbent government. With that in mind, maybe Thursday’s result wasn’t such a surprise after all. It’s always the economy, stupid – and never more so that after a decade of assorted squeezes on living standards up and down the country.