From politically unsympathetic neighbours to the myth of ‘ignorant’ Leavers: Philip Cowley (Queen Mary University of London) (left) and Robert Ford (University of Manchester) introduce their new book, Sex, Lies and Politics: The Secret Influences that Drive our Political Choices.
The plan seemed simple enough. Take a selection of chapters from two previous books, Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, and its imaginatively named follow-up, More Sex Lies and the Ballot Box, do a bit of updating and put them together into a fresh book, along with a handful of original chapters. Hey presto, a new book, all ready for the forthcoming election, and with a minimum of effort.
It’ll be simple, said the publisher.
Reader, it wasn’t.
They say no plan survives first contact with the enemy – but in our case it was more that no plan survives first contact with the maelstrom that is British politics today. The original book had come out in 2014, the follow-up in 2016, and as soon as we began the process of editing, we realised quite how much things had changed.
A chapter on Scottish politics – explaining how the SNP might do well in Holyrood yet struggle at Westminster elections – originally published just five years ago now read like something from the late Cretaceous period. A chapter on youth participation in politics which had previously wondered why young people seemed so apathetic now seemed old hat after Corbynmania in 2017 (although spoiler alert: under the surface less has changed than you might think). A chapter on women voters – the average voter in any British election – which had previously discussed the diminishing gender gap now needed to discuss the rise of a new pro-Labour gender gap.
And then, in a book whose raison d’être was to make psephological research more widely accessible, there was new research which we needed to cover. The original handful of new chapters soon grew to about a dozen, almost all of which were about Brexit (the word “Brexit” now features 134 times; in the 2014 book it featured not at all, and just five times in 2016).
The best chapters in a book like this are those which take a topic the reader thinks they know about and then shows how it’s more complicated than you might think – something which is certainly true of much of the conventional wisdom about Brexit.
For example, a chapter by Paula Surridge shows that the Brexit divide wasn’t about class, as many seem to think, given much of the coverage, but rather was about education. The divisions within social classes between those with or without degrees were much larger than the divisions between the classes. Yet crucially that’s not the same as ignorance: because, as Lindsey Richards shows in another chapter, Leave voters weren’t ignorant. Or, perhaps more precisely, they were no more ignorant than Remain voters. The overall levels of knowledge about the EU held by Leavers and Remainers were basically the same – although they did know different things. Leavers were more accurate when it came to negative facts about the EU; Remainers were more likely to correctly identify the more flattering EU facts.
We included plenty of research on the economy, including Ben Ansell’s work on the strong relationship between house prices and the Brexit vote, and Jane Green’s research showing that perceptions of relative economic prosperity were important. If you felt that others were getting ahead of you, you were more likely to vote Leave, showing that Brexit was less “I’m alright, Jack” and more “keeping up with the Joneses.”. On a similar theme, work by Rosalind Shorrocks looked at the backlash element of the referendum vote: those who thought equal rights for men and women had gone too far – and that men were now being discriminated against – were more likely to vote Leave, even once you controlled for other factors. The same was true of those who felt racial equality had gone too far, and that whites were now discriminated against.
Perhaps one of the most pernicious and pervasive biases in Brexit punditry is the habit of breaking of the country down into simplistic binaries: Scotland is “Remain” and so is London; Northerners vote “Leave” and so on. All of these groups are more complex than pundits present them to be. Neema Begum’s chapter looks at one of the many forgotten Brexit tribes, the BME Leavers. While most of Britain’s ethnic minorities voted to Remain, almost a third did not, and while their reasons are mostly similar to those given by white Leavers, these were topped up by a distinctive concern that their relatives abroad were getting a raw deal on immigration policy relative to migrants from the EU.
While Brexit tribes are always more complex than the simple binaries of punditry, there is no doubt that the referendum has left deep divisions in society. Take Maria Sobolewska’s experiment on who people wanted to move in next door, which showed that many people really don’t want to live next door to people who voted differently to them in the referendum in 2016. Be careful to keep the conversation off Brexit if you need to borrow your neighbour’s lawnmower.
This all turned out to be a lot more work than we had expected. But the end product is, we think, worth it. British politics has never been more confusing; we hope we will at least help clear away a little of the fog of war.
Sex, Lies and Politics: The Secret Influences that Drive Our Political Choices, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford, is published by Biteback.
This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.
Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Robert Ford is Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester.