The Brexit voter “tribes” that were created during the 2016 EU 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 the Labour Party to revive its fortunes, the paper argues – including in the Red Wall constituencies that were so crucial to the Conservative Party’s landslide victory in 2019.
Covid-19 changed their mindset
Significantly, the data shows that UK voters are increasingly looking towards international cooperation as means of recovery from COVID-19. It finds, for example, that two-thirds of respondents believe in the need for more cooperation, with international partners, such as the EU, in their fight with the virus – and that just 18% think globalisation has “gone too far”. It also data reveals that, despite this call for a more coordinated response to the current health pandemic, faith in the UK’s traditional ally, the United States, has “worsened” significantly. Similar attitudes were expressed towards China, too, where COVID-19 is believed to have originated.
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 more likely to judge the government on their competence in response to the pandemic than on their attitude towards Brexit.
COVID-19 makes Brexit useless
In the UK, the pandemic has shifted perceptions across the political spectrum. 54% of all respondents say their opinion of the UK government has worsened and only 18% say it has improved. Among Conservative voters themselves, slightly more say their opinion has worsened – 32% – than say it has improved – 30%. 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%) hold the UK Government responsible.
Opinion of the UK’s historic ally, the United States, has 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. There is support for a redistributive agenda across the political spectrum – particularly when it comes to the NHS and key workers: Just under half of all respondents say they support higher government spending, including 44 % of Conservative voters. Only 12% of voters oppose more spending. At 79%, there is overwhelming support for significantly increasing wages for NHS nurses and care workers, with, again, 71 % of Conservative voters indicating their support for this measure (92% Labour voters).
Brits want to have more money
Backing for raising the wages of other key workers, such a supermarket workers and refuse collectors, is almost equally overwhelming: 73 % in total, and 61 % among Conservatives and 90 % among Labour. Just over two-thirds of all voters also say they want an immediate increase in the national minimum wage to £10.50 an hour: over half of Conservatives do, at 53 %, and 85 % off Labour supporters. A majority (57 %) also back a 50 per-cent income tax on those with an income above £200k. The ‘Red Wall’ voters, who “lent the Conservatives their vote” in 2019, are already receptive to the offering of other political parties. ECFR’s polling finds that Labour Party, under Sir Keir Starmer, has already won back a substantial number of its former voters (8 per-cent of the electorate) who abandoned the party in 2019.
Large numbers of those defined as ‘Red Wall defectors’ are also peeling away from the governing Conservatives. Almost a quarter (23 per-cent) of the ‘Red Wallers’ are now prepared to vote for Labour again, with the Conservatives set to keep just one in five of their 2019 constituency. There is also an even bigger group of “undecided” voters in play for Labour. Red Wall defectors are an uneasy fit in the Conservative coalition. This group is sympathetic to the Labour Party’s economic priorities, and significantly to the left of the average Conservative voter: 80% support increased wages for NHS workers more than average Conservative supporters (71%). Nearly three quarters (73%) want to increase the minimum wage to £10.50 an hour.