Before 2019, it was pretty common on social media to see the idea that in certain places – particularly in the north of England – Labour MPs could rely on voters to reelect them no matter what they or the party did. This was never really true (and it was often laced with classism) but it was most clearly disproven in 2019, when many voters in areas which had voted Labour for decades left the party.
Even as the idea of tribal Labour heartlands declined, the idea that Labour and the Conservatives maintained a vice-like grip on most voters persisted. As 2010 and 2015, when the two main parties won only 65% and 67% of the vote combined, moved into the rear view mirror, to be replaced by 2017 (82%), many assumed that we were locked into a 40% vs 40% electoral battleground. The 2019 European elections were a blip, with normal service resumed as third parties were squeezed in time for the general election.
Since then, the relative stability of the polls (with the Conservatives tending to keep a narrow-ish lead), continues to make it seem like the country is divided into two camps, with little movement between the two. Looking at individual voters, however, reveals significant pluralism, with voters considering multiple parties and moving between them at high rates. British party-political affiliation looks little like the US’s extremely tribal and polarised system.
For example, of those British Election Study (BES) respondents in 2020 that had recorded votes in every general election from 2005 onwards, over 60% did not vote the same way in all five elections. Over a quarter changed their vote between 2017 and 2019. Even this conceals some “shopping around” – just because a voter did not change vote between elections does not mean they are necessarily a committed partisan.
To consider how voters think about who they might vote for, I have analysed a different BES question:
“How likely is it that you would ever vote for each of the following parties?”
The question allows respondents to rate each party (Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Greens and Brexit Party) on a scale from 0 (very unlikely) to 10 (very likely). This allows them to express interest in multiple parties. There are some obvious criticisms of this question, for example that survey respondents are usually bad at predicting their own future behaviour, and that certain parties (e.g. the Greens or Brexit Party) might be advantaged by visibility they would not have during an election campaign. But the question offers an interesting insight into the party-space that voters are thinking in.
In the plot below, respondents are grouped by the parties they are ‘considering’. For the sake of this analysis, I mark a respondent as ‘considering’ a party if they answer higher than 5 on the scale (i.e. 6-10). This is a somewhat arbitrary threshold, but given 5 is a clear midpoint which could be used to express ambivalence, I thought it was best to include responses starting at 6, which respondents are more likely to use to indicate a distinct possibility. Squares proportional in size to the number of respondents.
The largest group, 15.6% of respondents, is those who are only considering the Conservatives (top right), followed by those considering the Conservatives or Brexit Party (10.5%) and those considering only Labour (top left, 8.3%).
Overall, there is a fairly even split between Labour and the Conservatives, with 48% considering the former and 49.2% the latter. 20% of respondents did not answer higher than 5 for either Labour or the Conservatives.
Probably the most striking thing about this chart is how few respondents are considering only one party. Alongside 15.6% for the Conservatives and 8.3% for Labour, 1.8% were only considering the Liberal Democrats, 1.7% Greens, 1.5% Brexit Party and 1.5% Plaid or SNP. In total, almost 70% of respondents were considering more than one party.
Finally, it is worth considering that this fragmentation is not evenly distributed between the right and the left. Of those considering the Conservatives, 32% are not considering any other parties, compared with only 17% for Labour. The average respondent considering the Conservatives was considering 2.6 parties, compared with 2.9 for Labour. This is unsurprising, given the more established Liberal Democrats and insurgent Greens, but it is still interesting to note the size of the Labour / Liberal Democrat / Green square (8.2%), showing the size of the broadly “progressive” but non-tribal vote.
This question is just one (admittedly flawed) approach to considering how voters approach elections but the takeaway is clear, the majority of voters are not wedded to just one party. This does not mean that 70% of voters will change votes at every election but that a majority of voters are ‘in play’ at election time. National and constituency aggregation will always understate the amount of churn underneath the surface, as flows in opposite directions cancel each other out, so we should not make the mistaken assumption that voters are anywhere near as tribal or intransigent about parties as they seem.