Populism against Liberalism: a postscript
Following up on what divides (politics) and unites (everything else) the British people
Well that escalated quickly. Almost half a million Twitter views for an arcane piece of factor analysis is good going, I guess.
Regular readers will, hopefully, recall that on Easter Saturday I tiptoed into the ‘new woke elite versus the people’ debate with a data-focused piece that argued that, whatever the merits of talking about elites, it’s not really clear that there is a coherent ‘will of the people’ in the UK. Or anywhere really. That, of course, is a core argument of the chapters on democracy in Why Politics Fails.
You may recall the picture above, that shows that if we boils down a dozen survey questions into two dimensions (economic and social), then whatever differences there are among demographics in the UK are vastly outweighed by differences in terms of how people behave politically. The parties in here are voting in General Election 2019 and we see that if we define people by their parties, not their demographics, we get much more extreme positioning on the two axes.
So why is pointing to demographics and ‘elites’ versus the ‘people’ so in vogue? Well, some people have books to sell. Me too! Why Politics Fails. Go buy it.
But it also plays a role in shifting the focus away from parties to groups outside of politics who can be held responsible for… for… for the things that politicians largely control. At least that’s my basic theory of why we’re in this rather inane debate.
With all that said, I don’t think we should throw the ‘values’ baby out with the ‘new woke elite’ baby. Looking at the social values dimension is useful for understanding the decisions being made by Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak.
In a couple of recent posts, I asked why Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were emphasising ‘socially authoritarian’ issues such as stopping the boats, and cutting crime. In doing so, I drew on data on current voting intention and how it compares to voting in the last election. Briefly, the basic message is that the people that Starmer has won from the Conservatives - and those who voted Conservative but are wavering now - are really rather socially conservative.
So I thought it might be a useful followup to see how they mapped onto the graphs from last time.
Let me remind you what our final figure with all the demographics (faded out) and the General Election 2019 votes looked like. I’ve extended the axes slightly by the way, for reasons that will become clear.
You can see here that the main difference between Conservative and Labour voters in 2019 was on the economic dimension, which perhaps might surprise you if you’ve been reading a million diatribes about how Labour just didn’t get the socially conservative Boris Johnson coalition. What really united that coalition appears to have been more economic. The Brexit Party, Greens, and Lib Dems on the other hand really did have quite distinct social preferences.
What if we look at how people are choosing to vote now? Where now is not in fact now but when I ran the survey in October 2022 (sorry!).
It’s a pretty similar story, with some important differences. Look how far people who intended to vote for the Conservatives or Reform UK are now from the centre of the action. Indeed, I actually had to extend the scales slightly from the last Substack post. Those staying with the Conservative Party are largely distinct from Labour on economic issues and very much so. Labour by contrast have moved slightly closer to the middle as have the Lib Dems. So this is the battle that CCHQ faced in late 2022 - their voters had become more extreme, Labour’s less so.
But there was hope. Specifically, people in the Don’t Know category. They look a little closer to the Conservatives. And crucially they are in the upper right box of economically and socially rightwing.
And this, I think explains much of what we need to know about the current debate between Sunak and Starmer. The easiest way to look at this is to combine past voting with current intentions. I say easy but to be fair it’s going to look a bit of a mess. Still, the graph below shows what you did last time (before the hyphen) and what you now (in Oct 22) intend. The little numbers underneath the parties are how many people there are (out of 3000 in the sample) in each group; e.g. only 8 Lab to Con switchers. Note that not every group is up here, e.g. SNP, PC, Green, or Reform voters.
So what do we learn. Well, people who stick with their party are mostly split on the economic dimension. Interestingly, consistent Conservatives don’t seem to be culture warriors. Nor indeed are people who didn’t vote last time but are thinking Conservative now.
The socially conservative groups are the switchers - especially Con-Lab and Con-Lib switchers - about five percent of the sample in total. People who voted Conservative in 2019 but are now Don’t Knows are also quite socially Conservative, as are people who didn’t and probably won’t vote, and people who didn’t but will now vote Labour. This fits with the general trend that people who don’t vote tend to be more socially conservative.
Finally, the bottom left is full of people either staying with Labour, staying with the Lib Dems, or flitting between the two.
OK so what are the take homes?
First, the battleground between Labour and the Conservatives is over people who are really quite socially conservative and also somewhat economically conservative. And so, Starmer is very very likely to frustrate many Labour Party members and supporters as Crime Week turns into Crime Month turns into Crime Year. Similarly, Sunak is going to keep on trying to Stop Those Boats.
Second, the remaining core of the Conservative Party are tax-cutters, anti-redistribution, anti-complaining about inequality, all that stuff. We know this already because they wanted (and briefly got!) Liz Truss as Prime Minister. But were tragically halted by the woke international bond markets. Note though that loyal Labourites are also pretty far to the left. The average Labour supporter now is closer to the centre but that’s because many of them had not backed Corbyn.
Third, there is a huge strategic opportunity for a Lib-Lab pact. The parties’ bases differ in their emphasis on social and economic issues. But they are both firmly in the bottom-left cell, along with people switching between them like bored Tinder users. As long as Starmer’s appeals to the top right box don’t frighten off the Liberals, this is I think Labour’s super-power for this election. And more or less how Blair won a huge majority in 1997. Still, the polls-are-a-moving. We’ll see where we end up. But not til late 2024 it appears.
If you enjoyed today’s post, you’ll be delighted to know I have a new book out. Why Politics Fails was selected as an ‘unmissable’ politics book in Waterstones’ monthly newsletter. So, don’t miss it! You can order from Waterstones here. Or a signed copy from Topping here. Or at the behemoth here. Don’t delay!
Does this agree with what Matt G bangs on about in a less balanced manner? Red Wall etc
“First, the battleground between Labour and the Conservatives is over people who are really quite socially conservative and also somewhat economically conservative.”