With a new prime minister set to be anointed within a matter of days, what prospects will the new Conservative leader have of maintaining Boris Johnson’s 2019 election-winning coalition of culturally conservative left-wing voters and right-wing voters? Our new data suggest that this will be a challenge because the party has been losing many of the culturally conservative left-wing voters that it had gained in recent years.
There has been much discussion about how Brexit started a realignment in British politics from economic to cultural issues. But this year’s Conservative leadership race has focused on the most basic of economic issues: taxes. In fact, it has focused on a traditional divide among Conservatives: whether the government should balance the budget even if this means keeping taxes high (Rishi Sunak) or cut taxes with the purpose of stimulating economic growth (Liz Truss).
Why after several years of focusing on Brexit and related cultural issues like immigration are we seeing this shift in what Conservative leaders choose to emphasize? Has there been a shift in their voter base? And if so, what does this tell us about whether Boris Johnson’s 2019 electoral coalition will endure?
Recent trends suggest that voters are on the move. The Conservatives have fallen behind Labour in the polls during the past year. And political developments suggest a shift in voter base for two reasons. First, economic issues like a weak pandemic recovery and the cost-of-living crisis have come to dominate the policy debate. Left-wing, culturally conservative voters would likely side with Labour on solutions to these issues. Second, the Conservative Party may have run out of road on Brexit and related cultural issues. As Brexit has become a series of protracted trade negotiations, technical border disputes, and apparently never-ending political rows, support for it even among true believers has ebbed. Moreover, rows about immigration and asylum have clearly not been eliminated by ‘taking back control’ – a disillusioning discovery for culturally conservative, left-wing voters for whom this was a significant prize.
Data from an original survey that we conducted with JL Partners in spring 2022 confirm suspicion of this shift. The survey covered approximately 2,500 respondents across Great Britain and asked each about their 2019 vote, which party they would vote for if an election were held today, and a battery of questions to get at their positions on economic[_] and cultural[_] values.
While cultural values were a stronger source of support for Conservatives than economic values in 2019, they had become substantially weaker by 2022. Using our five-point scale of cultural conservatism from the British Election Study, a one standard deviation increase (i.e. moving from the 50th to the 84th percentile) in cultural conservatism increased a respondent’s probability of voting for the Conservatives by approximately 13 percentage points in 2019. But it only did so by approximately 8.5 percentage points earlier this year.[_] By contrast, the change in relationship between economic right-wing values and Conservative voting between 2019 and 2022 was negligible.
However, the dividing lines of cultural liberalism and conservatism are always shifting and the issues that define the cultural conservatism scale found in the British Election Study - like equal treatment for gays and lesbians – are somewhat dated in that they have increasingly become a matter of consensus. Meanwhile new dividing lines have opened.
To address this, our survey also included an updated cultural conservatism scale (‘New Cultural Conservatism’) based on questions on current cultural issues, like transgender issues, race/Black Lives Matter, and ‘cancel culture’.[_]
This new cultural conservatism scale better traces the front line of the culture war today. And this arguably more relevant measure of cultural conservatism has weakened even more as a driver of voting behaviour than that of the original scale. Where a one standard deviation increase in the new scale increased propensity to vote Conservative by 13 percentage points in 2019, that was down to about 7.5 percentage points in spring 2022.
What do our results mean for the realignment thesis? Perhaps rather than being about realignment, the story of the past few years has been one of dealignment and volatility. Cultural values have become a more important source of voting behaviour, but they may not be equally important in every election cycle.
While the Conservative and Labour brands were defined by economic issues in the past, they are currently defined by a mix of economic and cultural issues. Which aspect of their brand each party chooses to emphasize may follow the salient issue of the day. And vote switching may become more common as voters link issues to parties in a more complex way than in the past.
At the same time, these results pose a major challenge for the Conservative Party and the incoming prime minister. The Conservatives have won the last two elections by building a coalition of economically right-wing voters and culturally conservative left-wing voters who supported Brexit. But it appears that they’re losing the latter and prospects for cementing Johnson’s winning 2019 electoral coalition look weak.
Whichever candidate wins the leadership election, they will have strong reason to shift their focus and to rebuild their winning general election coalition. How might they try to do this? One possibility is to try to raise the salience of cultural dividing lines, as we see in the US, perhaps around climate change or race and gender issues.
But it is far from certain that this would work. Polling shows that most Conservative voters don’t want the party to abandon its climate goals. Nor is it clear that the party can win over culturally conservative voters by trying to increase the salience of hot button culture war issues surrounding race and gender. The Conservatives have been the more conservative party on these issues throughout and this hasn’t prevented them from losing support among culturally conservative voters.
Brexit, with its focus on taking back control and sovereignty, may have been a sui generis source of support for the Conservative Party among culturally conservative, left-wing voters. In the absence of more potent alternatives, the new leader may to try to increase its salience, perhaps by stoking further conflict with Europe as rows over the Northern Ireland Protocol rumble on.
But as disillusion with the Brexit project sets in, risking further economic damage from a deepening dispute with Europe in the teeth of an unprecedented cost of living crisis would be a dangerous electoral game to play. In any case, the Conservatives appear to have run out of road on their previous electoral strategy and will likely either have to change their strategy or update their tactics to win the next general election.