The fragmentation of the electoral left since 2010.

AuthorSurridge, Paula

The left in British electoral politics has become more fragmented, particularly in the past decade; those with economically left values are increasingly divided by cultural attitudes. It will be vital for Labour to find ways to bridge this growing divide if the party is to be electorally successful.

The shape of electoral politics in Britain has been changing over the past decade, with those with 'left-wing' economic values becoming fragmented by their positions on other issues. This article considers how the 'left' in British electoral politics has been changing, by considering the values, attitudes and socio-economic positions of those within the electorate who are positioned on the 'left' as defined by their economic core values. It draws on data from British Election Study face-to-face surveys between 1992 and 2017 in order to look at how the 'left' has evolved over the last 25 years.

To measure who is economically 'left', four survey items are used, based on responses to the following statements:

Ordinary people get their fair share of the nation's wealth There is one law for the rich and one for the poor There is no need for strong Trade Unions to protect workers' rights Private enterprise is the best way to solve Britain's economic problems. In each case people are asked to express how much they agree or disagree with the statement on a five-point scale. The responses to the items are averaged to form a scale, with low values representing the 'left' of the scale and higher values the right (the scale runs from one to five, with a notional mid-point of 3, the score that would be achieved by answering 'neither agree or disagree' to each item). Those with scores on this scale between i (the most 'left-wing' position) and 2.5 are defined as economically 'left-wing'.

Using this scale, the proportion of the electorate on the 'left'--and it is important to stress that in this article the term 'left' is being used to refer to individuals whose views are economically on the left as defined above--has been broadly stable at around 55 per cent since 2005. Yet at the three general elections since that date the parties of the left have not been able to secure an electoral majority. My argument is that by further understanding the social positions, values and identities of this group of the electorate, as well as their voting choices over this period, we are able to think more clearly about who 'the left' are and where they may be divided by social positions and values beyond the economic.


Much writing on the left (broadly conceived) in recent years has identified 'two lefts', one defined by economic values and one by cultural values. (i) This second cultural set has been given various names and labels over time but here we discuss values in terms of a 'Liberal-Authoritarian' spectrum, following the labelling of those who first developed measures of it in the UK. (2) Five items are used to measure these values:

Young people don't have enough respect for traditional values Censorship is necessary to uphold moral values We should be tolerant of those who lead unconventional lifestyles For some crimes the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence People who break the law should be given stiffer sentences. The scale again runs from one to five, with low values being liberal and high values authoritarian. It is divided into three parts, a 'liberal' part (values 1 to 2.6), a 'centre' part (values 2.61 to 3.40) and an 'authoritarian' part (3.41 to 5). We can then identify three fractions on the 'left' and compare their social locations as well as their political behaviour over time.

Key to understanding the evolution of political behaviour on the 'left' over this twenty-five-year period are the positions these voters take on other issues not reducible to the debate between the economic left and right. As Figure 1 shows, the position of the 'left' on this second dimension is deeply divided and has changed over the last twenty-five years...

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