Are voters motivated by policy preferences or partisan identities? Bryan Schonfeld and Sam Winter-Levy present findings from a study of how British voters responded to the Conservative Party’s sudden change in Brexit policy following the 2016 EU referendum. They find evidence that voters are sufficiently policy motivated to shift their allegiances if they disagree with their party on important issues.
Ever since the 2016 referendum, British voters have been leaving their old parties and joining new ones. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this volatility has been driven largely by their views on one issue: Brexit. In a new study, we find that in the wake of the referendum, 8% of pro-European Conservatives – out of the roughly 40% of Conservative voters that backed remain – abandoned the party, while Eurosceptics from other parties swung behind it.
In public opinion surveys conducted immediately after the referendum, as well as during the 2017 general election, Eurosceptics who did not vote Conservative before the referendum were substantially more likely to turn out for the party, while formerly Conservative Europhiles were much less likely to support it. Parties’ positions on Brexit thus played a crucial role in shaping voters’ political loyalties.
These realignments over Brexit have led to some of the most extreme volatility in recent British political history. But they also tell us something about the importance of policy positions for voters. A large body of social science literature, dating back at least half a century, argues that party loyalties, rather than policy preferences, drive voters’ choices. In this view, voters do not hold consistent or stable ideological preferences. Instead, they respond above all to partisan cues when they evaluate policies.
In the British context, an earlier generation of scholarship argued that ‘allegiance to party is one of the central facts of the British elector’s political awareness’. The most extreme version of this argument, outlined in one journalist’s summary of the academic research on American politics, maintains that ‘there’s basically no plausible position a politician or political party can endorse or enact that will have a meaningful impact on their likelihood of retaking political power’.
That is probably not true in the American context. A wide body of research suggests that voters generally respond to the economy and government performance, seem to care about policy, and punish extremists. And it is certainly not true in contemporary British politics. Traditional political loyalties have weakened, electoral volatility has increased, and voters are punishing and rewarding political parties and candidates for their policy positions – or at least, for their positions on Brexit. On some issues – European integration, above all – most voters are not simply following their psychological attachments to their political parties. Brexit has given rise to new political identities, which cut across old party lines and shape how voters view the world.
But even in the United Kingdom, where party identification appears to be in long-term decline, party loyalties remain a powerful force. Voters who identified strongly with the Conservatives before the referendum followed the party in becoming more Eurosceptic, with the party’s most loyal supporters embracing an increasingly hardline view on the issue.
And as voters’ partisan attachments shifted in response to parties’ stances on Brexit, their views on other policy issues followed suit: as soon as Eurosceptic voters affiliated with the Conservatives, we found that their views on economic policy became more Conservative as well, shifting toward increased scepticism of economic redistribution. Voters remain receptive to cues from parties and leaders they trust on major issues that happen to be less politically salient.
For much of the British electorate, Europe is now the defining issue that determines party allegiance. This cleavage has overwhelmed voters’ views on almost everything else, cutting across party lines and class divides, running through the traditional support base of both of Britain’s major parties, and leaving the country’s old two-party system in flux. What was once a central axis of political competition – the appropriate level of economic redistribution – has become secondary to voters’ views on Britain’s relationship with the EU.
Of course, whether this will remain true in the wake of the pandemic remains unclear. Perhaps the debates over how best to manage Covid-19 will supersede both Europe and redistribution as a central political issue. But for now, at least, the question of Europe is likely to remain one of the dominant cleavages dividing voters.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying paper at the Journal of Politics
Note: This article first appeared at our sister site, British Politics and Policy at LSE. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)