The 2019 Election: Success or Failure?

Posted on 12 December 2020 by John Curtice

It might seem a rather unusual question. How can an election be adjudged a success or a failure? Or at least are we unlikely to discover anything other than the banal conclusion that the winners think it was a success, while the losers prefer to live in hope that they might do better another day?

However, it is an important question to ask of the election that took place a year ago today. The ballot was precipitated in the hope that it would resolve the Brexit stalemate that had gripped the House of Commons for the previous two years. It was not called by one side in the Brexit debate and then foisted on the other. Rather, the election was called when the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and the SNP agreed to back the pro-Brexit Conservatives’ view that a ballot was necessary, after which Labour fell in behind the decision too. But did the politicians collectively make the right call?

To answer this question, we need some criteria against which to judge the ballot. In an analysis paper we publish today we evaluate the ballot against three criteria:

  1. Did the election succeed in registering voters’ current preference for remaining in or leaving the EU?
  2. Did the ballot succeed in indicating the views of Remain supporters on how Brexit should be stopped and the opinions of Leave voters on how it should be pursued?
  3. Did the outcome reflect the current majority view among the public as to whether and how Brexit should be progressed?

On the first count the report argues that the election was largely a success. Despite the fact that in the election voters might have brought a variety of considerations to bear on the choice that they made, most Remain supporters voted one way and most Leave voters voted the other. No less than 83% of Remainers voted for one of the parties that in one way or another supported the idea of holding another referendum on Brexit – in most instances in the hope and expectation that this would produce a different result than the one that transpired in 2016. Equally, 83% of Leavers voted for a party that was in favour of leaving the EU.

Indeed, so important was the issue in voters’ minds that many of the traditional patterns of party support – such as the class divide and the distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ – were upended. As a result, the 2019 election came close to being the second referendum for which many in the Remain campaign had hoped but which most in the Leave campaign had been against.

One potential advantage of ascertaining voters’ views about Brexit via an election in which there was competition between multiple parties rather than just a binary choice is that it might allow voters not only to indicate their views on the principle of remaining in or leaving the EU, but also their preference as to how any decision should be operationalised. After all, in the run-up to the election the Brexit Party were arguing that the UK should leave the EU without a formal agreement, whereas the Conservatives wished to leave on the basis of the deal that the Prime Minister had negotiated. On the other side of the argument, Labour were wanting to negotiate a revised deal that would be put before the electorate (and on which the party leader at least would be neutral), the Liberal Democrats were willing to cancel Brexit forthwith but otherwise would back a referendum, while the SNP and the Greens wanted to put the government’s deal to voters in the hope that they would reject it.

However, this myriad of potential choices seems to have made little difference to how people voted. On the Leave side of the debate, the choice was effectively removed for many Leave voters when the Brexit Party decided to withdraw its candidates from those seats that were being defended by the Conservatives and thereby, by implication at least, indicated a willingness to accept what the government had negotiated so far. Certainly, in the event, those who preferred to Leave without a deal were somewhat more likely to support the Conservatives (76%) than were those who preferred to leave with a deal (66%).

Meanwhile, although on the other side of the debate Remain voters were presented with some clear alternatives, the detail of the pro-second referendum parties’ stances seems to have made little difference to how people voted. Support for Labour among those whose first preference was to remain in the EU after holding a referendum (53%) was almost exactly the same as it was among those who wanted Brexit cancelled without another ballot (52%). Meanwhile, despite the controversy that surrounded the Liberal Democrats’ decision to back cancelling Brexit forthwith, the party was slightly more successful among those who wanted a referendum first (26%) than it was among those who did not feel a ballot was necessary (21%).

So, while the election appears to have registered most voters’ views on the principle of Brexit it failed to ascertain their views on the detail of how it might be progressed. But was the former attribute at least sufficient to satisfy our third criterion – that the outcome of the election registered the majority view on the principle of Brexit?

Although Remain and Leave supporters were equally likely to vote for a party whose stance on the principle of Brexit might be thought to have reflected their own views, they distributed their favours very differently. No less than 79% of Leave supporters – attracted it seems in part by a confidence in Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver Brexit – voted for the Conservatives. In contrast the votes of Remain supporters were divided between Labour (49%) and the Liberal Democrats (22%), with the nationalist parties and the Greens performing relatively well among them too.

This imbalance was crucial. Tallied across the parties as a whole, 52% of the votes cast in the election were given – overwhelmingly by pro-Remain voters – to pro-second referendum parties. In contrast, 47% were cast – overwhelmingly by pro-Leave supporters – for parties that were backing Brexit. Such an outcome is very close to what the polls at the time anticipated would have happened if voters had been presented with the choice between Remain and Leave once again. However, the Conservatives’ ability to unify the Leave vote while neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Jo Swinson proved able to achieve the same success among Remain supporters ensured that the Conservatives enjoyed a twelve-point lead in the ballot box and, given the use of the single member plurality electoral system, an overall majority of 80.

Thus, Brexit was done. The outcome was truly a remarkable success for Boris Johnson and the Conservatives. But as a way of resolving one of the most important policy issues since 1945 we should not be surprised if historians eventually come to the view that as an exercise in democratic decision-making the 2019 election left a lot to be desired.

John Curtice

By John Curtice

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

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