Is electoral reconciliation in sight?

Labour and Tory voters are “disgusted” by one another, according to latest ‘Hostility Barometer’, writes Sarah Harrison (LSE). The latest survey from the Electoral Psychology Observatory at the LSE and Opinium shows 47 per cent of those intending to vote Conservative feel some “disgust” towards Labour voters, while over two-thirds (68 per cent) of those intending to vote Labour feel some “disgust” towards Conservative voters. Two thirds (66 per cent) of UK citizens found the atmosphere of the UK general election “frustrating”, with over 60 per cent seeing it as divisive or hostile. Is electoral reconciliation in sight, she asks?

The public have spoken, and after weeks of fluctuating electoral predictions, the election of 12 December will be returning a strong conservative majority in the British Parliament, ending a second single-party-majority-less parliamentary term in less than a decade. The Prime Minister and his partisans will undoubtedly hope that this clear Parliamentary majority will make it easier for them to unite the country on their proposed policies, but is this likely?

A few days before the election, with our survey partners Opinium, we conducted the fourth wave of our British Hostility Barometer. This new survey found that UK citizens held extremely negative perceptions of the atmosphere of the election, and also that they show high levels of hostility towards politicians, parties and other voters alike.

First, let us look at UK citizens’ characterisation of the atmosphere of the 2019 General Election. On the whole, their perception was that it was best described as frustrating (66%), uncertain (65%), divisive (62%) and hostile (60%). By contrast, only 13% of citizens characterised the atmosphere of the election as pleasant and 15% as friendly. In fact, none of the positive adjectives proposed to citizens to characterise this electoral atmosphere intuitively convinced more than a small minority of respondents.

Perhaps even more worrying, however, citizens tend to hold very negative feelings towards those voting for parties that they dislike. For instance, 48% of Conservative voters said that they felt some disgust towards Labour voters, 49% some contempt and 57% felt distrust.

Conversely, 65% of those who intended to vote Labour and 57% of those who planned to vote Liberal Democrat felt angry towards Conservative voters. 68% and 51% respectively even felt disgust towards those Conservative voters.

The clear seat majority delivered by the election should also not detract from the complex balance of vote share between largely incompatible support groups. For example, of all major parties competing for the election, the greatest gain in vote share was achieved by the Liberal Democrats (+4.2) despite losing their leaders and failing to gain most of their target seats in London and other large cities, followed by the Brexit Party (+2) despite an even more disappointing seat performance, not to mention a choice not to run in any of the seats held by the Tories (and thus effectively running in less than half of the country’s constituencies). By contrast, the winning Conservative Party merely increased its vote share by 1.2, ie barely more than the Greens (+1.1) and the SNP (+0.8, but that is effectively a very large increase in the national vote share considering that their candidates only compete in Scotland). By contrast, the only parties to lose significant vote shares are the DUP and even more spectacularly Labour (-7.8). Moreover, these loses are set upon the background of a turnout that declined for the first time in four consecutive General Elections (67.2%, -1.5). This fracture of the public also means that the pro-Remain parties (Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP) and the most radically pro-hard Brexit (Brexit party) progressed most in votes, whilst the leading Tories benefited from a modest vote increase which only translated into a large vote swing due to the collapse of the main opposition and arguably most “Brexit-ambiguous” political party in the country.

The levels of hostility expressed by citizens also threaten the way people live together. 23% of those intending to vote Conservative could imagine insulting someone because they are voting Labour. This was even more obvious in the other direction with 38% of those intending to vote Labour who could imagine insulting someone because they vote for the Conservative party. 25% of citizens who planned to vote Labour said that they would also refrain from inviting people for dinner if they knew them to be Conservative voters.

Even more critically, our findings also demonstrate that large proportions of people in each camp feel that those voting for a given party should be the ones suffering the potentially negative consequences of their economic and social policies, thereby underlying a sense of criticism towards the requirements of national solidarity in a pan-national, non-partisan manner. Indeed, strong majorities of citizens suggested that they would resent paying taxes to “bail out” opposite voters should they become the victims of their preferred parties’ economic and social manifestoes.

All in all, it seems unlikely that the election result can be interpreted as the beginning of a process of reconciliation. Instead, the continuous process of increasing acrimony and personalisation of electoral hostility to not only target politicians and parties but also voters themselves currently remains well and truly unstoppable [Bruter and Harrison, 2020. Inside the Mind of a Voter. Princeton University Press]. We will test this briefly with Hostility Barometer 5 which will be run in the days following the Election.

Notes: The Hostility Barometer’s data tables are available here. The Hostility Barometer consists of 6-10 questions and runs approximately 8 times a year. It tracks levels of hostility amongst British citizens, perceptions of electoral atmosphere, levels of democratic frustration as well as their expectations about the future. The Barometer will also be launched in the US in the coming months. Wave 4 of the Hostility Barometer was run 26-28 November 2019 with a sample of 2,006 UK adults (weight to be nationally representative) using an online questionnaire.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. Image Public Domain.

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