Move over right v left: John Curtice says the new political divide is social liberal versus social conservative

Move over right v left: John Curtice says the new political divide is social liberal versus social conservative

How politics is changing

There’s a fascinating new analysis of the new Divide in British politics from Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in the latest edition of Prospect linked to in the tweet above.

This is one of the big conclusions coming out of academic analysis of the referendum and the last general election voting patterns. This is how Curtice describes it;

“….whether someone was “left-wing” or “right-wing” made virtually no difference to how they voted in the EU referendum.

Rather, that ballot was marked by a division between social liberals and social conservatives—that is, between those who are comfortable living in a socially, ethnically and linguistically diverse society and those who place greater emphasis on the need for social cohesion and adherence to common rules and practices. Social liberals tended to vote Remain, social conservatives for Leave.

This division between social liberals and social conservatives has never been entirely absent from Britain’s electoral politics. The Liberal Democrats have always been relatively successful amongst social liberals, while, more recently, Ukip advanced most amongst social conservatives.

But so far as the two main parties are concerned, it has hitherto been very much a secondary argument—the Conservatives did a little better amongst social conservatives, Labour amongst social liberals, but the differences were much smaller than those between those on the left and those on the right.

However, in precipitating the election in June, in order to secure a mandate for her vision of Brexit, the prime minister ensured that this second dimension of British politics became more important, cutting across the familiar divide between left and right.

As a paper published on the WhatUKThinks:EU website today shows, despite the apparent reluctance of both the Conservatives and of Labour to define their stance on Brexit too closely during the election campaign in June, the Conservatives gained votes amongst Leave voters while it lost them amongst Remain supporters. Meanwhile, although Labour gained some ground amongst Leave supporters, it made a much bigger advance amongst those who voted Remain.

As a result, the distinction between social liberals and social conservatives was much more in evidence in how people voted in June. Nearly three-fifths of social conservatives voted Conservative, but no more than a quarter or so of social liberals did so. Meanwhile, at least half of social liberals voted Labour while no more than a third of social conservatives backed Jeremy Corbyn’s party.

True, the distinction between left and right did not disappear. Those on the left were around three times more likely than those on the right to vote Labour—while those on the right were about three times more likely than those on the left to vote Conservative..

..the increased importance of the division between social liberals and social conservatives does mean that both the Conservatives and Labour are now having to ride two ideological horses at once. And in both cases this ride is potentially decidedly uncomfortable.”

This all sounds highly plausible and offers a significant pointer to the way politics has moved. What is striking is that the previous Conservative leader, David Cameron, was clearly in the social liberal camp while the current one Mrs May is perceived more as a social conservative.

I have often wondered how much the legislation of gay marriage by the Coalition government impacted on the political divide.

Mike Smithson

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