Labour lost its leavers while Tory remainers stayed loyal | Paula Surridge

The Tory victory relied on voters who identified strongly with leave – while retaining those with softer attachments to remain

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Did Britain finally get its Brexit election? The results on Thursday seem to suggest that this was the case. As seat after seat in the Labour heartlands fell to the Conservatives, the pattern seemed clear: leave areas had backed the Tories.

But as more results came in, this pattern proved to be a little more complex. The Conservatives didn’t just win in Labour areas with a leave majority – they held on to almost all of their remain seats, too. The Liberal Democrats and the other remain parties outside Scotland failed to gain the key Conservative remain constituencies they had been targeting. If this was the Brexit election, then surely Cheltenham should have been within the Lib Dems’ reach?

Much has been made of the Brexit identities we now hold. They are supposed to divide us, to trump our party loyalties. But data from the British Election Study suggests that not everyone holds these identities equally strongly.

While most people will choose a “side” of the Brexit debate (hardly surprising when politics has been about little else for the last three years), not everyone feels equally attached to their side. Asked whether they have a “very strong”, “fairly strong” or “not very strong” leave or remain identity, the public is quite polarised. Around one in four say they identify very strongly with remain, and a similar proportion very strongly with leave.

By the 2017 election, these groups of voters had, to a large extent, already aligned their vote with their Brexit side. Only 13% of very strong remain identifiers voted Conservative, while 17% of very strong leave identifiers voted Labour.

It is the varying strength of Brexit identity, and the ways in which it interacts with other political values, that is central to understanding this election. In the early hours of the morning, the first results to declare were concentrated in the north-east, a leave-voting region and one with an imbalance between strong leave and strong remain identity: the proportion of very strong leave identifiers is about eight points higher than that of very strong remain identifiers. This set the narrative for the rest of the night.

But why did pro-remain seats such as Cheltenham, Guildford and Lewes continue to support candidates from the Conservatives, a party offering a hard Brexit? In Lewes, the Conservative vote fell by just 1.6 percentage points; in Cheltenham, the party’s vote share increased by 1.3 points. The explanation may lie in voters’ Brexit identities. Just 7% of Conservative voters in 2017 had a very strong remain identity – whereas 11% of Labour voters had a very strong leave identity, which is what made many of the party’s leave seats so vulnerable. Among those with a remain identity who did vote Conservative in 2017, that identity tended to be only weak or fairly strong; among Conservative leave voters, strong identification was more common.

Throughout the campaign, data collected by Lord Ashcroft had shown that a substantial majority of these Conservative remain voters were more willing to leave the EU than see the election of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. While this shows how worried those voters were about the economic policies Corbyn would usher in, it is clear that their weaker remain identities also played a part.

Much will be written about the fall of the Labour leave seats to the Tories and the task for Labour to reconnect with these voters. But it is this asymmetrical realignment that ultimately produced such a large Conservative majority, allowing the party to keep its electoral coalition together while winning over new voters. It was thought that the Conservatives would need to gain leave seats in the north and Midlands to offset the loss of remain seats elsewhere; in the end, they simply piled on more seats, and lost very few.

The remain side staked everything on this election as the last chance to stop Brexit. But it lost in dramatic fashion. Some have suggested that the UK has now undergone a fundamental realignment in electoral politics, that the results in Labour heartlands in the north and Midlands echo their disastrous loss of Scotland in 2015. But such talk may be premature. Plenty of voters did stick with their parties.

If the Brexit divide, a new dimension of British politics, pulled the Labour electoral coalition apart, then something much older – the economic left-right divide – seems to have helped hold the Conservatives’ coalition together. But the Tories’ success shouldn’t be taken for granted. Depending on how voters experience five years of Conservative-majority government and the fallout from Brexit, that coalition could yet be pulled apart in 2024 – with economically left-leaning voters delivering the heartlands back to Labour.

• Paula Surridge is a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol’s school of sociology, politics and international studies


Paula Surridge

The GuardianTramp

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