Cracks Become a Chasm as Brexit Threatens the Conservative-Labour Duopoly

Posted on 15 May 2019 by John Curtice

Prompted by the Newport West by-election, at the beginning of April we published an analysis of how support for both the Conservatives and Labour had slipped during the course of the Brexit impasse. The Conservatives appeared to have lost ground among those who voted Leave, while Labour had lost support among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit perhaps rather more among the former than the latter.

Much has happened since then. Not only did the UK not leave the EU on the original target date of 29 March but also did not do so on the next deadline of 11 April. The government initiated talks with Labour with a view to identifying possible amendments to Mrs May’s Brexit deal that might secure the backing of the official opposition. However, so far at least, these talks have not been productive, and the government still seems to lack the parliamentary support it needs to secure the passage of the EU withdrawal treaty. Meanwhile, as a result of the continuing impasse, the UK now finds itself about to elect new representatives to the European Parliament, a body from which it has been trying to withdraw for the last two years.

None of this has done either the Conservatives or Labour any good. The cracks in their domination of the competition for the support of voters in evidence at the beginning of last month have now become a chasm. In the last couple of days, three polls of voting intentions for Westminster (that have also asked voting intentions for the Euro-elections) have on average put the Conservatives on 22%, while Labour stand at no more than 26%. These figures represent a drop of no less than 14 points in Conservative support since the beginning of April, while Labour are down nine points. In short, since the date on which the UK was originally meant to leave the EU, both parties appear to have been haemorrhaging support, such that they now command the support of less than half of those with a current vote intention – a position not seen in the polls since the headiest days of the SDP/Liberal Alliance in late 1981.

However, European Parliament elections are different from general elections. They are often portrayed as ‘second-order’ contests in which relatively few voters bother to vote, and those that do (a) often regard it as an opportunity to protest against the current perceived inadequacies of the government, and (b) are more willing to vote for smaller parties (a pattern that perhaps is further facilitated in the UK because EP elections are held under a system of proportional representation rather than single member plurality). Small, Eurosceptic parties often do particularly well, as attested by the success of UKIP at the last Euro-election, coming first with 27% of the vote (in Great Britain). In short, if, as seems to be the case, voters are unhappy with the way in which the Conservatives and/or Labour have handled Brexit, a European election provides an environment in which voters are particularly likely to make that unhappiness clear.

That, indeed, appears to be precisely what they are minded to do. Polling of how people say they would vote in the Euro-elections puts the level of both Conservative and Labour support even lower than that for a general election.  The Conservatives stand on average at just 11%, as much as eleven points adrift of their rating for Westminster. Labour’s position is not as dire, but, at 21%, support for the party is still five points down on what it currently is for Westminster. (In both cases a further reading published today from BMG Research largely confirms these figures.)

In the case of the Conservatives the principal reason for the drop in their support for Westminster and the fact that even fewer voters are likely to vote for them in the Euro-elections is clear – in a continuation of the pattern that was already in evidence in early April, the party has lost the support of many a Leave voter.

Just 28% of those who said they voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum now say they would vote for the Conservatives in a UK general election. This represents a drop of no less than 16 points on the average poll figure in early April. Meanwhile support for the Conservatives among Leavers in the Euro-election is another 17 points lower, standing at just 11%. This level of support is no higher than the equivalent figure among those who voted Remain – among whom support for the party in a general election has also fallen somewhat since early April, but, at six points, much less so than it has among those who voted Leave. (The further drop-off in support in how people say they will vote in the Euro-elections is lower among Remainers too.)

Most of these sometime Conservative Leavers have been enticed away by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which has thoroughly eclipsed UKIP. Nearly three-fifths (58%) of those who voted Conservative in 2017 say that they will vote for the Brexit Party in the Euro-elections. Indeed, nearly two-thirds (64%) of all those who voted Leave are saying they will vote for Nigel Farage’s new organisation. It is very difficult to avoid any conclusion other than that most Leave voters find voting for a party that believes the UK should have left without a deal on March 29 much more attractive than backing one that so far has been unable to facilitate the UK’s exist from the EU.

But what about the loss of support that Labour is suffering? In line with the pattern we identified at the beginning of April, the party’s lost ground has not arisen as a result of an especially heavy loss among those on one side or other of the Brexit divide. Rather, the party has lost significant ground among both Remainers and Leavers, albeit rather more so among the former than the latter. Thus, the party now finds itself standing on average at 36% for Westminster among Remainers, a drop of eight points since early April, while it has the backing of 15% of those who voted Leave, a fall of five points. Meanwhile, the party is suffering a further drop-off in voting intentions for the Euro-election of seven points among Remainers and of five points among Leavers. In short, Labour’s compromise stance on Brexit may well have enabled the party to be more or less equally appealing to both Remainers and Leavers – it has just not been very successful at keeping either group of voters on board.

This pattern of losing ground among both Remainers and Leavers is reflected in the preferences for the Euro-election now being expressed by those who voted Labour in 2017. On the one hand Labour is losing some support to the Brexit Party, albeit on nothing like the scale of the defection being endured by the Conservatives. At present 12% of Labour’s vote at the last election (or around two in five of those who voted Leave) is heading in that direction. On the other hand, the party is also losing support to two of the parties that are in favour of a second EU referendum, that is, the Liberal Democrats (16%) and the Greens (13%). Nearly three in ten of all Labour voters – and thus rather more than one in three of those who voted Remain – have moved in that direction. As a result, between them the combined tally of support for the Liberal Democrats and Greens among 2016 Remain voters (36%) is now higher than that enjoyed by Labour (31%). The dominance that Labour has hitherto enjoyed among Remain voters has, it seems, been significantly eroded.

Moreover, there are signs that both these patterns have intensified since Easter. At that point, Labour’s loss of support to the Brexit Party stood on average at 8%, compared with 12% now. Meanwhile, only around one in six (16%) of 2017 Labour voters intended to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens, or little more than half the proportion now.  The one consolation for Labour is that the challenge from Change UK, formed originally by a group of defecting Labour MPs, seems to be waning. Just 4% of 2017 Labour voters now say they will vote for the new pro-Remain party compared with 9% a fortnight ago.  This is part of a wider pattern in which Change UK (average Euro-vote 5%) seems to be losing the civil war with the Liberal Democrats (14%) for the socially liberal pro-Remain vote.

Challenges to the traditional Conservative and Labour duopoly are not new.  One at least – that posed by the SNP – has already destroyed that duopoly north of the border.  Both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats have previously had their days in the sun – but not at the same time. UKIP’s initial rise in 2012 occurred after the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote following the formation of the Coalition in 2010. Now, however, in the wake of the Brexit impasse, the challenge is coming from both a Eurosceptic and Europhile direction at the same time. That, alone, might be thought to mean that it should be taken seriously.

Still, the real test of the electoral fallout from the Brexit impasse will come once the Euro-elections are over. Some, at least, of the loss of Conservative and Labour support for a Westminster election in the polls may be a temporary knock-on effect of the proximity of the European election. Previous Euro-election surges for one of the smaller parties have often been accompanied by a contemporaneous increase in their support for Westminster. However, that increase has then disappeared once, a few weeks later, the Euro-election has become little more than a distant memory. But unless the Brexit impasse is resolved soon, maybe this time the memory will remain fresh in voters’ minds – in which case expect to hear very little this summer about either Labour or, perhaps, a new Conservative leader manoeuvring to try and precipitate an early Westminster ballot.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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