Britain’s Political Clans and Brexit
A new study by BMG research and researchers at the University of Manchester, suggests that it is possible to group the UK electorate into 10 distinct values based “clans”, and that these “clan” identities provide a better explanation of voting behaviour in 2015, 2017 and the Brexit referendum, than traditional left/right, social class or demographic factors. The research is based on survey evidence from 27,000 people, who responded to 27 values based questions.
The argument is that values, which may be unconscious, and which are linked to people’s emotions, serve as decision-making shortcuts or standards for evaluating actions, policies, people and events. They are thus the underlying drivers of voting behaviour, perhaps taking precedence over “rational” weighing of costs and benefits.
This fits with the widespread observation that voting behaviour in the EU Referendum, and much of the subsequent political debate on Brexit, is emotional, and that attitudes to Brexit and subsequent developments are surprisingly uninfluenced by changing evidence. It has also been observed that, while 31% of the electorate say that are not supporters of any political party, only 10% do not define themselves as “leavers” or “remainers” on the Brexit issue (and 44% say that they are “very strong” “remainers” or “leavers”).
The paper also argues that the “clan” approach more accurately represents the political realities, which are masked by traditional binary analyses. For example, “left v right” misrepresents a much more complex reality, where, for example, people may simultaneously hold left wing economic, and right wing social, views. They demonstrate that in the 2015 and 2017 elections and the Brexit referendum, clan membership was a more accurate predictor of voting behaviour than socio-economic group.
Six clans, which account for two thirds of the electorate, are strongly associated with leave or remain positions. Because their positions are rooted in fundamental values, they are the least likely to change their views.
- “Remainers”: In three clans the clear majority of members voted remain (by 39, 67 and 82%). These three clans represent 30% of the electorate, and their values are international, broadly left wing on social policy and relaxed/positive about migration.
- “Leavers”: In three clans a clear majority voted leave (by 50, 66, and 69%). These three clans represent 33% of the electorate, and support a small state, feel strongly about British institutions and are conservative on social issues. Some have socialist views on the economy, but they are opposed to migration and multiculturalism.
In terms of future policy, it is the other four clans whose positions are most interesting, although they are the least interested in politics. Nevertheless they form the battleground for any new referendum campaign:
NHS – “Notting Hill Society” (10% of the electorate: 52:48% for remain).
The most pro-business of all clans. Mixing a modern form of conservatism (associated with Cameron and Osborne) on the environment and society, with traditional views on family life and British institutions. Relatively positive on migration and multiculturalism. This is the oldest of these four clans (the leave associated clans are all rather older).
For the NHS clan, the key issues probably relate to the impact of Brexit on business and trade, and the impact on environmental regulation.
MWL – “Modern Working Life” (7%: 52:48% for remain))
Strong believers in the value of hard work and social mobility, supporting the view that it is always possible to achieve your goals, so long as you work hard. They tend to adopt left-of-centre economic values, but on balance they believe individuals, not others, should be responsible for their own financial well-being, and tend to hold liberal views on the environment, LGBT rights and gender equality. They are also moderately positive about immigration. This is the youngest clan and the one who swung dramatically from Conservative to Labour in the 2017 election (by 21%).
For the MWL clan, the key arguments are likely to be around social (and perhaps geographical) mobility, the opportunities to work and issues of environment and equality.
SAR – “Strength, Agreeable & Respect” (9%: 58:42% for leave)
These tend to favour authority and discipline, leaning in favour of a ‘just desserts’ approach to crime and punishment, and a tendency to favour authority and discipline in various areas of public policy, including defence, human rights and the justice system. They have a preference for a strong and often uncompromising state, which extends to areas such as defence and Britain’s place in the world. Mixed views on most other areas of social and economic policy.
For the SAR clan, the key arguments are likely to be around defence and security, and Britain’s place in the world.
APY – Apathy (10%: 52:48% for leave)
Generally uninterested and disengaged from politics, with very few strong views on many issues. They are unlikely to have given much thought to most economic, political and societal questions, either because they are simply not interested, or because they feel alienated by the current state of our politics.
This clan are least likely to turnout for any future referendum, and it is difficult to identify what issues might change this. However, they should not be ignored since, in the 2016 Referendum, a significant number of people who had never voted before chose to do so, perhaps because in a referendum every vote counts (unlike most votes under the normal UK “first past the post” electoral system).