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Mapping across – how the Brexit vote might translate onto the next general election

March 1st, 2017


(Source: Prof John Curtice)

The referendum vote cut across party loyalties.  While Conservative supporters primarily voted Leave and Labour supporters primarily voted Remain, substantial minorities of both party supporters dissented from their colleagues.  This gives both major parties a potential headache about how to proceed in the wake of the vote, the more so because the British Election Study found in October that people were more likely to identify themselves as Remain or Leave supporters than followers of a particular party.  Stray too far from their self-identification and these voters will be off.

To date, all the discussion has revolved round how Labour should respond – not surprisingly, given their steady spiral of decline in the polls and at by-elections.  But the Conservatives have a potential problem too that they would be unwise to lose sight of.  A third of their present support comes from Remain supporters and they need to find ways to keep them on board the good ship Brexit.

Many commentators have noted that over 400 constituencies voted Leave.  The estimate of Leave/Remain seats comes from the work of Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia, which can be found here.  These estimates are not exact, as Chris Hanretty has readily acknowledged.  But they are right enough for our purposes.

As a result, many have concluded that backing Brexit is therefore where the action is.  With nearly two thirds of seats voting Leave, that superficially looks like a landslide.

Certainly, some of the most strident Labour Remain-backing MPs have constituents who take a very different view of the matter.  Ed Miliband, for example, represents constituents who voted almost 3:1 for Leave (more emphatically than Douglas Carswell’s constituents).  But it should also be noted that some prominent Leave MPs are just as awkwardly placed. Kate Hoey represents a constituency that voted nearly 80% Remain – the 10th most Remainian seat in the country according to Chris Hanretty.  Gisela Stuart represents a constituency that voted nearly 60% Remain.  They are all going to need to hope that their constituents (and, in the case of the latter two, their constituency parties) have either moved on by the time of the next election or regard other matters as more critical to their vote.  MPs on both sides of the divide are going to find themselves awkwardly placed.

But how did a vote that ended up 52:48 result in such an imbalance of seats?  And is it the right measure to be working to anyway?

From Chris Hanretty’s table we can see that the Remain vote strongly clustered in specific areas – inner London and Edinburgh, for example.  That, coupled with the fact that a lot of seats were just “won” by Leave (114 in Britain fell in the 50-55% Leave band, while only 75 sat in the 45-50% Leave band, for example), resulted in the imbalance.

So the first thing to note is that many of these “Leave” seats are only marginally Leavey.  It would be a brave candidate who completely ignored Remainers in such seats, not much less brave than completely ignoring Leavers.

But there’s an assumption being made that only needs to be articulated to be shown to be very questionable.  The assumption is that the voters in the referendum will be more or less the same as the voters in the next general election.  But since turnout was a fair bit higher at the referendum than at the last general election, this seems very doubtful.  Indeed, much has been made on other occasions of the fact that infrequent voters had turned out in large numbers for Leave.  Are they going to turn out at the next general election?  Personally, I doubt it.  At least, nothing like all of them.

If it is hard to estimate with accuracy how seats voted at the referendum, it is impossible to estimate with any great accuracy how seats would have voted in the referendum on the turnout at the next general election.  Nevertheless, that is what we must try to do.

I asked regular politicalbetting poster @AndyJS for his view (for those that aren’t aware, AndyJS produced a spreadsheet in advance of the referendum that proved uncannily accurate in its par ratings for each reporting local area, enabling many of us to profit mightily as a result).  His lick of the finger estimate is that on a normal general election turnout, roughly 350 seats would have voted Leave.  That seems entirely plausible to me.

If this is anything like correct, it means that the perceived constituency-based advantage of backing Leave is actually not all that great.  350 out of 650 is under 54% of the Westminster seats.  Other voting motivations (or, indeed, differential voting motivation among Leave and Remain voters) are likely to outweigh this particular consideration in many seats – if voters on both sides of the divide have not been alienated by their MP’s stance on the subject.

At present, Leave voters are far better catered for electorally than Remain voters, even though at a general election they will be roughly even in number.  The Conservatives and UKIP are both firmly Leave parties while Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is lukewarm Leave.

John Curtice has recently noted that Labour have been losing support not to UKIP but to the Lib Dems.  The Lib Dems have made ultra-Remain their USP for now, but with Lib Dem seats and plausible targets barely more common than lapis lazuli, ultra-Remain is going to be out of reach for most voters.  In any case, while Remain voters by and large have not revised their decision as to the correctness of their choice, many of them also believe that the referendum verdict must be seen through as a matter of democracy.

So right now a lot of potential votes are going unsolicited with no natural home at present.  Yet it is far from clear that soliciting them is a losing proposition, with a crowded field chasing Leave votes.  You would have thought that a Brexit-sceptic party that accepted the referendum vote but that keenly harried every hard Brexit choice that the Conservatives made would have good prospects.  But are there politicians willing to step into that void?

Alastair Meeks