Brexit

U.K. Voters Are Still Worrying About Brexit

Theresa May didn't think Britons cared much about the terms of an EU divorce. A study of her June election debacle proves her wrong.

Cause for concern.

Source: British Election Study

The best thing to do with mistakes is learn from them. So as part of her vacation reading, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May might want to glance at the just-released British Election Study showing what was foremost on voters' minds as they cast ballots in the 2017 general election: Brexit.

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The election was supposed to be a walk in Hyde Park for May and her Conservative Party government. She announced it in April, when her approval ratings exceeded the opposition Labour Party's by over 20 percentage points. By the time of the vote in June, that margin had shrunk to a statistical tie.

QuickTake Brexit

An analysis of voting patterns released by the market-research firm YouGov after the election showed that Labour seemed to be taking votes that would previously have gone to the Conservatives. At the start of the campaign, voters were more likely to favor Labour up to the age of 34, after which they were more likely to vote Conservative. By the time of the vote, the age at which voters were more likely to go Conservative had risen to 47. Labour's youth vote included plenty of not-so-young voters.

That suggests that younger voters are not frightened away by Labour policies that include nationalizing industry and raising taxes. In fact, these might be selling points for a generation that has no recollection of the economic turmoil that Britons endured when Labour last pursued a socialist agenda in the 1970s.

But that's hardly the whole story of the surprising 2017 election result. The large-scale study released this week helps us understand why voters behaved as they did. Two major lessons come through -- one obvious, the other more surprising.

The obvious lesson is that the tactic of focusing attention on May's stiff-if-dutiful personality failed spectacularly. That was already pretty clear from the narrowing polls and the anti-Tory bent of most social media stories shared about the campaign.

While May's campaign faltered, Labour's Jeremy Corbyn was running effectively, the survey shows. His likability scores improved steadily over the course of the campaign, while May's dropped. And Corbyn's ratings improved most among those who had been newly recruited to the Labour ranks, those voters who, before May called the election, were unlikely to give him a second look.

The more surprising lesson from the survey is the fact that so many Britons rated Brexit as the most important issue going into the election. More than 30,000 respondents were asked during the campaign to answer this question: "As far as you're concerned, what is the single most important issue facing the country at the present time?" More than one in three people mentioned Brexit or the EU; fewer than one in 20 cited the economy.

Here's a chart showing the words used most frequently in response, with the size of the word representing the number of times it appeared.

Source: British Election Study; Ed Fieldhouse and Chris Prosser

Worries about the complex Brexit negotiations may have been a proxy of sorts for economic worries. But that still comes as a surprise to those (ahem) of us who argued that Brits had reconciled themselves to the 2016 vote to leave the European Union, and thus considered the negotiations over the terms of the departure to be a technical matter instead of an issue of compelling concern.

"One of the reasons Labour did so well among Remainers is that by the time the election was called, the Brexit debate was not so much about Leave or Remain but about how to leave," wrote Ed Fieldhouse and Chris Prosser of the University of Manchester, members of the team that produced the electoral survey.

That's important. Brexit had seemed to be a side issue in a campaign focused on personalities. Corbyn had made his peace with the Brexit referendum, which he opposed officially but hardly lifted a finger to prevent. His campaign focused instead on old-style socialist increases in government spending.

May was busy being "strong and stable," and dealing with various policy reversals. And the one party that had thrown all its eggs in the Remain basket -- staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats campaigned on a promise for a second referendum -- picked up only four seats.

But it turns out that the U.K.'s relationship with the rest of Europe remained the elephant in the room. Even though Corbyn has been, at best, ambivalent about retaining post-Brexit access to the EU single market (which allows the tariff-free movement of goods, capital, services and labor), voters who saw that as a priority were more likely to vote Labour, as this chart shows:

Source: British Election Study; Ed Fieldhouse and Chris Prosser

Voters, it's now clear, sensed that the Brexit negotiations, which have since begun, have the potential to hurt them. Labour looked more likely to strike a deal that preserves quite a bit of cooperation with the EU.

The BES survey is an indictment not just of the style of May's election campaign, but of her core decision, made at the beginning of her term, to side with the hard-line members of her party and cabinet who seemed to want a clean break with Europe at almost any cost to trade and other ties. Many voters disagreed and voted for Labour; too many for May and her party to ignore if they want to continue to govern. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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