British politics was relatively stable in the post-war decades, and voters’ strong party loyalties were influenced by their place in society. More recently, there has been a marked decline in the number of people identifying with a political party, and in the strength of that attachment.
Now, our new research for a report on Brexit and Public Opinion by the UK in a Changing Europe research group, shows that Brexit has quickly and dramatically replaced the traditional party allegiances of Conservative and Labour in the hearts and minds of voters. While this “Brexit identity” has reinvigorated political involvement, it has come at a cost, cementing divisions in society at the moment when the prime minister has professed a desire to heal them.
We wanted to find out whether Leave versus Remain is now a more prominent source of identity than Conservative versus Labour, and the impact the EU referendum had on this. We did this by asking respondents in all waves of the British Election panel study undertaken since spring 2016 whether: “In the EU referendum debate, do you think of yourself as closer to either the Remain or Leave side?” We then asked the same questions about respondents’ thoughts and feelings towards all of the political parties.
At the start of the referendum campaign in April 2016, the idea of being Leave versus Remain was, unsurprisingly, not prominent, especially for Remainers. Leavers had already developed a sense of their distinctiveness, perhaps because they were clearly outside of mainstream politics – no major party had endorsed leaving the EU. However, the number of Remainers expressing an identity grew following the referendum result and vice versa for Leavers.
Tellingly, even in mid-2018, two years after the referendum, only just over 6% of people did not identify with either Leave or Remain. Compare this with party political attachment, where the percentage with no party identity increased from 18% to 21.5% over same period – in part due to the decline of UKIP. Only one in 16 people don’t have a Brexit identity whereas more than one in five have no party identity.
Remain identity strengthening
At the beginning of the referendum campaign, Leave supporters tended to identify with the Leave campaign more strongly than Remainers did with the Remain one. From the last month of the campaign onwards, however, the extent to which people said they strongly identified with either side increased markedly. By the end of the campaign the two sides had almost equal strengths of identity. Most striking, however, is how the strength of the Remain identity increased dramatically following the referendum while the strength of Leave dropped slightly. Since then the average level of identification with Leave or Remain has remained higher than the strength of identification with any political party.
The way Leave and Remain has become embedded became even more pronounced when we looked at the social and psychological markers of identity – and we found a polarisation of identities after the referendum.
When asked whether: “When I speak about the Remain/Leave side, I usually say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’”, the proportion of Leavers agreeing leapt from 44% to 65% after the referendum. The proportion of Remainers agreeing rose even more substantially, from 35% to 70%.
By comparison, when this question was asked about Labour and the Conservatives, only around 25% of people agreed with it.
When asked whether, “When people criticise the Remain/Leave side, it feels like a personal insult”, we saw a large increase in agreement by people on both sides following the referendum – from around 20% up to 45%, remaining stable for much of the time since. For the parties, only around 20% of Conservatives and 25% of Labour identifiers tend to respond in this way.
When asked whether, “I have a lot in common with other supporters of the Remain/Leave side” agreement among Leavers tends to hover around 78% and Remainers 85%. Immediately after the referendum, agreement with this statement reached no less than 93% among Remainers. For parties, the percentages agreeing with this view were only in the 60s and 70s.
The EU referendum seems to have resulted in a classic “in-group” versus “out-group” response of distancing and negative stereotyping, especially from Remainers. The social and emotional intensity of these Brexit identities – held by almost everybody – is far higher than those found for political parties.
While party identity increased a little during the 2017 general election, especially for Labour, it then subsided. Yet Brexit identities remained prevalent and consequential even two years after the referendum. This is a long way removed from the idea that the UK “has come together” to face the challenge of Brexit. The social polarisation over the UK’s relationship with the EU is pronounced and shows no sign of diminishing.
The UK is likely to experience a re-shaping of politics as a result, because positions on Brexit cut across the positions of the main political parties. Both Labour and the Conservatives are beset with tensions caused by the presence of large groups of pro-Leave and pro-Remain supporters in their ranks. Some Labour MPs in northern and Midlands constituencies are nervous at the thought of Labour promoting a second referendum, while many of those in London welcome it. Some Conservatives want to address the concerns of rural voters in areas with an influx of workers from the EU, while others take an internationalist position of big business and the CBI.
To the degree that a Brexit identity drives voters’ political attitudes and choices, there will be increasing pressure put on the old, left-wing versus right-wing, two-party politics of Labour versus the Conservatives. As political identities are usually far more enduring than attitudes towards specific issues, it’s likely that Brexit identities will be a stable source of realignment in a political world characterised by volatility.
A version of this article was published by the UK in a Changing Europe.