For some years, Labour has struggled to win support among key voters who identify as English. One reason may be because voters who identify as strongly English are more likely to see Labour as a ‘far-left’ party than the electorate as a whole.
In our new analysis of recent survey data, these voters do not see themselves as particularly right wing compared to the general population. They are also open to progressive policies on many welfare and economic policies. But their ‘extreme’ perception of Labour may explain why they are reluctant to support the party, even if they are in step with its social and economic message.
As recently as the 2001 General Election, there was little relationship between how people voted and whether they described themselves as English, British or a mix of the two. But by the 2015 and 2017 elections polling showed that English identifiers were more likely to vote to the right (UKIP or Conservative) and British identifiers were more likely to vote to the left or centre (Labour or LibDem).
This same pattern of voting also correlates with differences in age, education, social class, ethnicity; factors often associated with how strongly someone identifies as English or British (or whether they tend to be ‘more English’ or ‘more British’). For this reason, many people have ignored the influence of national identity on political behaviour on the assumption that factors like demographics or education are more important. But our study suggests that national identity plays a role in its own right. It shapes how people see politics and how they chose to vote, even after taking factors like age and education into account.
When asked what they think about how left or right wing are political parties, most voters quite consistently place Labour as ‘centre-left’, Conservatives ‘centre-right’, and UKIP further to the right still. However, strong English identifiers have a markedly different view of Labour: they see Labour as ‘far left’, while placing other parties in similar positions to voters as a whole. There’s plenty of evidence that voters reject parties they see as distant from themselves, and few people think of themselves as holding extreme views. Centre-of-the-road voters who see Labour as an extreme party are unlikely to vote for it.
Our study is based on data from the British Election Study 2016. This was gathered after Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, but it would be a mistake to assume that it is Corbyn who has driven a far-left perception of the party. The influence of national identity on voting patterns was well established before he became leader. It’s probably more significant that many of these strong English identifiers also describe themselves as feeling powerless, and are amongst those most concerned about the cultural impact of immigration. The think tank Centre for Towns has used BBC/YouGov data to show how those living in the most ‘English’ towns feel least well represented in Westminster. This suggests that English identity is emerging strongly among communities who have undergone rapid social and economic change that they feel has worked against their interests. These are often communities that have experienced de-industrialisation and economic decline.
At least some of these English identifiers were strong Labour supporters in the past. Labour is unlikely to win again in England unless it can regain ground amongst them, particularly in some key marginal constituencies. The study points to strong evidence that, immigration aside, these voters are by no means on the right politically. They are often supportive of strong public services, redistribution in taxation and interventionist economic policies.
In truth, we need a lot more than one snap shot set of data to understand the gap between Labour and these voters. But, as a minimum, Labour needs to make it clear that it wants to represent them by reflecting English identity in its language and campaigning. Beyond that, Labour must understand how a combination of powerlessness and a sense that Labour ‘isn’t for people like us’ is alienating voters from the party. Labour policy needs to enable voters to become actors in changing their own communities, not just be passive recipients of well-intentioned public policy. On immigration, Labour’s actual policy may be less important than Labour showing that it understands the basis of these voters’ concerns. By doing so, Labour will increase its chances of closing the gap between its politics and the way it is seen by English-identifying voters.