Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Brexit Vote and Changing Electoral Divides


This was my most recent column at Vocal Europe:

The outcome of the British EU referendum will shape developments in the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU) for years to come. The nature of the campaign and the patterns of voting in the referendum have hinted at the social and electoral changes occurring in the UK and throughout most Western democracies.

One of the most notable developments that the EU referendum campaign has exposed is the deep divisions within both mainstream parties. Among leading Conservatives, Prime Minister David Cameron has led the Remain campaign, while Justice Minister Michael Gove and former London Mayor Boris Johnson have been leading voices of the Leave campaign. This division was reflected at the mass level, with election day polling suggesting that 55-60% of Conservative supporters voted Leave. That division has not been as visible at the top levels of the Labour Party, but nonetheless about one-third or more of Labour Party supporters voted to Leave. Of Britain’s larger parties, only the UK Independence Party—which makes Euroscepticism a core part of its identity—is unified at the elite and mass level.

What does this mean? Consider what I wrote in my previous column about the results of Austria’s presidential election:

The core of radical right support in Western Europe are those voters who feel ‘left behind’ by the social changes driven by immigration and European integration. By offering a clear message opposing these changes, radical right parties have succeeded at attracting voters who feel threatened that the old social order is disintegrating.”

This trend is reflected in the EU referendum. The core of the Remain camp’s support is relatively younger, educated, and social liberal voters in large cities. In large part, these voters support and benefit from the cultural and economic changes that European integration has driven. The Leave camp gets its support from older, less educated, and more authoritarian living in smaller cities and towns. These votes see immigration and European integration as a threat to their way of life.

The strong support that these outlying areas provided for the Leave option may filter further into electoral politics. Consider as an example the northeastern city of Sunderland. UKIP polled close to 20% in Sunderland during the 2015 general election, well above its 12.7% vote share nationally, even as Labour won each constituency. Leave won 61% of the vote in Sunderland comfortably despite Labour supporting Remain, indicating that many Labour supporters effectively abandoned the party to vote Leave. Now that they have broken with the party over this issue, will they come back to Labour in the next election?

This pattern of results points to a broader shift occurring in Western Europe and North America. Increasingly, the major dividing line between supporters of rival political parties (or attitudes) is no longer traditional social cleavages such as economic class or religious denomination. Instead, a worldview divide has been emerging with one side being more nationalist and authoritarian, embracing measures to preserve national identity and to maintain social order. The other side of this divide is more multicultural and libertarian, more willing to embrace social change and individual liberties. These are the divides animating the British EU referendum and the Austrian presidential election. They are also at the heart of US politics, predicting who supports Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Part of the challenge that this new worldview divide creates is finding the common ground necessary for democratic politics to function. The notion of a different worldview implies that people on other side will perceive and respond to social and political phenomena very differently. Consider the Syrian refugee crisis as an example. One side sees refugees as a security and cultural threat to Western societies, and they support proposals to restrict or ban refugee inflows. The other group tends to see refugees as victims deserving equal treatment, and they have supported plans to welcome more refugees. The former see the latter as naïve in the face of a potential cultural and security threat; the latter see the former as xenophobic and indifferent to the suffering of others. The same worldview divide extends to issues such as immigration, free trade, cultural change, and European integration.

Mainstream parties in many West European countries are struggling to keep up with these developments. Center-left parties are suffering, because their traditional support base is divided between those two new worldview groups. How parties respond to these developments will determine how electoral politics unfolds in each country in the coming years.