Politicians must now show how they will raise living standards for Brexit-backing low-income voters

Politicians must now show how they will raise living standards for Brexit-backing low-income voters

Public debate about the terms under which Britain leaves the European Union is rightly concerned with maintaining legitimacy amongst voters – most notably, what immigration policy will be consistent with the vote to leave the EU, whilst promoting Britain’s social and economic interests as an outward-facing, diverse nation.

But the drivers of the vote to leave the European Union were about much more than immigration. And new analysis of voting patterns at the 2017 General Election show that political parties need to rise to the challenge of meeting voter concerns about their living standards, as well as those on identity.

Released this week, the analysis by Professor Matthew Goodwin and Professor Oliver Heath for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that low-income voters were pulled in different directions at the General Election, by concerns over living standards and identity. We know from the 2016 referendum result data that a majority of those on less than £40,000 per year voted to leave the EU.

Income wasn’t the only divider of course, but it was a significant marker. The poorest households, with incomes of less than £20,000, were much more likely to support leaving the EU than the wealthiest, as were people who were in low-skilled and manual occupations, people who feel that their financial situation has worsened, unemployed people and those with no qualifications.

Some of these patterns played out at the 2017 General Election, but in slightly different ways. Clearly the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries from the collapse in support for UKIP. But whilst, as expected, Labour received more support amongst those on low incomes, both Labour and the Conservatives increased their support amongst low- income voters by 8 percentage points. Neither party made a dramatic breakthrough at the expense of the other. The new analysis also shows that when it came to a choice between issues of identity and living standards, their concerns over their financial circumstances were stronger even if ideally they want both to be addressed.

The implications of this for the political parties must not be missed. They cannot expect to pick up the votes of low income voters by appealing to concerns about identity, immigration or national sovereignty alone. Both of the main political parties have serious work to do to convince those on low incomes that they can address their financial worries.

Here the news is more challenging for the incumbent Conservative Government: the analysis shows that people who thought their household’s financial situation had got worse during the year before the election were considerably more likely to back Labour than the Conservatives. And whilst those who thought their household’s financial situation had got better were more likely to vote Conservative, there were fewer of them.

All this points to the Government, and both political parties, needing a strong domestic agenda of social and economic reform to truly meet the concerns behind the vote to leave the EU. There is a risk that the oxygen is taken out of the agenda outlined by Theresa May when she entered Downing Street, but it is as necessary as the immediate negotiations.

So voters need their everyday concerns addressed. But what does that look like? It means a renewed emphasis on a vision for a rebalanced economy with an industrial strategy which equips the country with the skills and prospects its citizens need; enabling people to keep more of what they earn by focusing any tax cuts on supporting low-earning families, and increasing the amount they can earn before support is withdrawn; kick-starting a new generation of affordable homes, so people can afford to rent or buy; finally, with prices rising faster than earnings, the strain of rising costs needs to be eased on families, by ending the four-year freeze on working-age benefits and tax credits.

People want and need to be heard on issues about identity, sovereignty and immigration. In the midst of negotiations on the direction the UK heads in once it leaves the EU, parties should remember that the economy and living standards played a bigger role this time around. The party that gets its offer right to low-income voters on Brexit and living standards is more likely to be the one to secure a majority at the next election.

Photocredit: Nico Hogg