The Brexit voter “tribes” that were created during the referendum, and that culminated in Boris Johnson’s general election victory last December, are already fading, according to new research published today by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
ECFR’s YouGov and Datapraxis-commissioned polling of UK voters reveals that the coronavirus has changed Britons’ attitudes to the world, Europe, and the state. It suggests that the pandemic may be bringing the “Brexit era” of British politics to a close – ending a four-year escape from normal politics. This presents an opportunity for Labour to revive its fortunes, the paper argues – including in the Red Wall constituencies that were so crucial to the Conservative’s landslide win in 2019.
According to the think-tank’s founding director, Mark Leonard, the UK could be returning to a “natural state” of “left and right” politics, as a result of COVID-19. Leonard suggests that the health pandemic could “transform perceptions” of the Conservative pitch of competence, and “open up” a way for Labour to regain the ground it lost at last year’s general election.
Key findings from the ECFR’s polling of UK voters include:
The tribal identities created by Brexit have blurred. The conventional wisdom that politics is now organised around Brexit tribes – with the Conservatives representing socially conservative voters in towns and the countryside, and Labour becoming the party of metropolitan graduates and ethnic minorities – has been reshaped by the pandemic. Voters have become cross-pressured between their Brexit identities and new issues stirred by COVID-19. Voters are as likely to judge the government on their competence in response to the pandemic than on their attitude towards Brexit. They show a pragmatic internationalism – including on free movement.
Public opinion of the Government has worsened during pandemic – even among Conservative voters. ECFR’s polling finds that in most European countries, COVID-19 has not disrupted politics, but exacerbated pre-existing tends. Those who voted for their incumbent Government tended to have confidence in that government’s handling, while those who had not voted for it expressed little confidence. In the UK, the pandemic has shifted perceptions across the political spectrum. 54 per-cent of all respondents say their opinion of the UK government has worsened and only 18 per-cent say it has improved. Among Conservative voters themselves, slightly more say their opinion has worsened – 32 per-cent – than say it has improved – 30 per-cent.
Voters are more likely to hold the British Government responsible for the loss of lives in the pandemic than anyone else. In this first “global domestic crisis”, where a country’s response can be compared to the rest of the world, the UK Government has been found wanting. ECFR’s polling shows that when voters are presented with nine options about who is most to blame for the loss of British lives (such as: the Chinese government, people not following the rules, people returning to the UK), a plurality of voters (32 per-cent) hold the UK Government responsible.
Opinions of the UK’s historic ally, the United States, and its big Asian trading partner China, have worsened significantly. Two thirds of respondents to ECFR’s polling said that their view of the US has “worsened”, with large majorities across both Labour and Conservative voters. A majority of Britons (56 per-cent) also report that their opinion of China has worsened during the crisis.