Longer Term Drivers


Longer Term Drivers

  • The immediate issues of this election accelerated and crystallised a worsening disconnect between Labour and key groups of voters
  • Party loyalty has declined, and vote switching has increased
  • Deindustrialisation, de-unionisation and widening geographic inequalities have strained the solidarities that Labour once relied on
  • Political engagement among less skilled and educated workers has fallen, driven by political alienation
  • Austerity and stagnation have had uneven effects on different groups of voters and places
  • Cultural divides have increased in salience at the expense of economic and distributive issues
  • Online media has transformed the public sphere within which political views are formed
  • Some of these trends are global

The immediate issues of this election accelerated and crystallised a worsening disconnect between Labour and key groups of voters

Behind and beneath the immediate issues that harmed Labour in this election lie a number of longer-term political and sociological shifts, some of which have been in train for decades.

A poll conducted after the election found that, among voters whom Labour lost, the third most important reason (after dislike of Jeremy Corbyn and disbelief that Labour’s promises were deliverable, but ahead of Brexit or dislike of Labour’s actual policies), was: “The Labour Party no longer seems to represent people like me”.[22]

Academic assessments of the result have concluded that Conservative Party gains had been “a long time coming”, the result of Labour’s weakening relationship with parts of its historic voter coalition: “As such, 2019 is not a critical election but a continuation of longer term trends of dealignment and realignment in British politics.”[23]

The economic, sociological, cultural and political dynamics involved here are complex and inherently harder to measure or track over time than simple election or survey results. There remains much debate around the relative importance and impact of these developments, none of which can be reduced to simple, causal stories.

However, available data and independent studies suggest that the key strands or layers in this history include:

  • from the 1960s, a generalised fall in party loyalty and increase in voter switching
  • from the 1980s, deindustrialisation, falling union density, and widening regional and sub-regional inequalities
  • from the 1990s, an apparent fall in political engagement among lower income and less educationally qualified voters
  • after 2010, a period of austerity and stagnation that had an uneven impact on different parts of the country and elements of Labour’s coalition
  • in 2016, a referendum which crystallised an emerging trend for voting choices to be organised more around cultural values than an economic “left-right” divide
  • in very recent years, an accelerating transformation of the ways in which most voters receive news and exchange opinions, as news and debate shifts from traditional media to online platforms

Party loyalty has declined and vote switching has increased

There is evidence that for many decades voting has become less an expression of duty or affiliation and more individual and transactional. 

Since the 1980s, the proportion of voters that can be characterised as “strong” partisans has fallen from around half to a third, while those with no identification at all have risen from less than a tenth to almost a quarter.

The last decade has seen unprecedented voter switching between every election. Upwards of 30 per cent of voters switched parties at each election from 2010 to 2017, peaking at around 40 per cent in 2015.

Cross-cutting voter flows between the parties have become very complex and turbulent over the past four elections. Some of the larger movements have been the fragmentation of the Liberal Democrat vote between 2010 and 2015, the transfer of UKIP votes to the Conservatives between 2015 and 2017, and the sizable flow of previous non-voters to Labour in 2017 and the Conservatives in 2019. [24] 

The British Election Study has shown that the percentage of voters choosing a different party from the previous election stood at just over 10 per cent in 1966, but reached 43 per cent in 2015. [25]

Ahead of the 2019 election it was thought that as many as half the electorate might vote for a different party than they did just two years previously.[26] In fact early findings from the latest British Election Survey are that, although the volatility index remains much higher than fifty years ago, this measure has fallen from that peak, suggesting that “support appears to be settling into a new pattern as a result of Brexit”.[27]

The British Election Study found that switching during the campaign (the proportion of voters switching parties during the campaign) was at its highest level they had ever seen (looking at campaigns from 2005-2019). Datapraxis found that a large proportion of voters were undecided until very late.

Deindustrialisation, de-unionisation and widening geographic inequalities have strained the solidarities that Labour once relied on

Many of the seats taken by the Conservatives in this election were particularly badly hit by the unemployment impact of the early 1980s recession, which was concentrated in industrial areas of the North and Midlands.[28]

Since then there has been a strong shift of employment away from older industries, in which traditions of collective solidarity were strong, into expanding service sectors, both professional and “precarious” that have been seen as more fragmented or fluid. Recent academic work has pointed to the decline of manufacturing employment as a strong factor in the decline of traditional social democratic parties across Europe.[29]

Trade unions have often been seen as a key link between the Labour Party and working people. In the post-war era, surveys indicated that unionised manual workers were three to four times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative, while those not in unions were evenly split.[30] In 1997 union members were still three times more likely to vote Labour than Conservative.[31] However, since 1979 union membership has fallen from around half the workforce to less than a quarter, and to just 13 per cent outside the public sector.[32] Trade Union membership density has also fallen across all regions of the UK between 1995 and 2018.

Political engagement among less skilled and educated workers has fallen, driven by political alienation

Academic studies of the 1997 election noted “a tendency for past and potential Labour supporters to stay away from the polls in larger numbers”.[33] Subsequent elections confirmed a trend of declining turnout that was most acute among less skilled or lower income voters, linked by some studies to the professionalisation of politics and increased focus of political debate and media coverage on “middle class” issues and concerns.[34]

Data shows that the share of voters saying there was “no difference” between Labour and the Conservatives rose sharply between the late 1980s and the early 2000s.[35] These trends may have been exacerbated by events such as the 2008 financial crisis and the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal, which provoked anger against “elites” that might be seen as particularly damaging to Labour’s legitimacy and ability to differentiate itself from the Conservatives. 

In 2013 the British Social Attitudes Survey reported that “a number of important British institutions have fallen in the public’s estimation over the last thirty years, including the press, banks and politicians”. Just 18 per cent of citizens trusted governments to put the nation’s needs above those of a political party, down from 38 per cent in 1986.[36] Research into how British people view the economy has revealed a strong sense of the system being “rigged”,[37] a common phrase being that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.

This rise in cynicism and fatalism about both politics and the economy among many voters has been pointed to as a challenge for progressive politics.[38] Furthermore where there is energy for change on the ground, it has been argued that Labour has often been disconnected from it.[39] 

Clearly, the erosion of Labour membership and organisation in key areas has both reflected and exacerbated these problems. On-the-ground contact and campaigning by all political parties has focused much more narrowly on swing seats and voters - between 1987 and 2010 the proportion of voters (across all seats, whether seen as “safe” or “swing”) who said they had received a house visit from a party canvasser in the run-up to the general election fell from 47 per cent to 11 per cent (in 2017 this recovered to 25 per cent). Even within target seats, total voter contact rates declined: in 1992 Labour canvassed 53 per cent of the electorate in their target seats; by 2010 this had fallen to 29 per cent. [40]

Some data suggests that the fall in turnout among workers in traditional “working class” occupations disproportionately affected Labour and was a key factor in the long-term fall in its support from the turn of the century onwards. Professors Geoffrey Evans and James Tilly conclude that 

“After the war, there was around a 30 percentage point gap between the old and new middle class groups and the "working class” in Labour support. From 1997 onwards that gap was more like 10 percentage points. The BES data shows that, at the most recent election, that difference has completely disappeared.”[41]

YouGov data suggests that in 2001 Labour’s support fell particularly sharply among C2DEs and has continued to decline since then. 

In more recent elections, the fall in turnout among lower income and lower qualified voters has been partially offset by their growing support for other parties such as UKIP; this revival in turnout was accelerated by the 2016 referendum, and much of it has now been successfully captured by the Conservatives.[42]

In Scotland, a report of focus groups conducted in 2017 with a group of voters who had switched from Labour to the SNP found it was:

“scathing in its assessment of the Labour Party: from being a “shambles,” to “totally duplicitous”; a “shower of career politicians,” who “have lost their way” and no longer represent the “working class”. The reasons for this palpable sense of hostility towards the Party were varied: unsurprisingly, some referred to the Blair era and the feeling that the Party had lost touch, with the specific issue of Iraq being mentioned, while others raised the issue of the independence campaign and its fallout.” [43]

Academic studies point to a big jump in support for the SNP among manual and routine workers from 17 per cent in 2010 to 42 per cent in 2015.[44]

Austerity and stagnation have had uneven effects on different groups of voters and places

Economic data suggests that the diverging experiences and priorities of different parts of Labour’s electoral base have been widened further by the spending cuts and earnings stagnation of the past decade. Despite this being a critical front in Labour’s campaigning against the incumbent Conservatives, it has not been an automatically unifying experience for the Party’s electoral coalition. 

Analysis by the Resolution Foundation has revealed that, as well as suffering relative economic decline since the 1980s, parts of the country where Labour lost seats in 2019 have seen particularly low growth in employment and pay since 2010, at the same time as being particularly exposed to cuts to tax credits, universal credit and disability benefits.[45]

However, they have not faced the same challenges and pressures that have been salient to other parts of the electorate over recent years - property prices in these areas are comparatively low and home ownership widespread, for example. 

Meanwhile younger and more city-based voters have, on average, found it easier to find work, albeit often precarious, but are more likely to be carrying student debts and struggling with the costs and insecurities of renting, as house price inflation takes home ownership well out of reach.

The average house price in seats gained by Labour from the Conservatives over the past two elections is £200,000, with private renters making up an average 20 per cent of the population; while the average house price in seats gained by Conservatives from Labour is £143,000, with private renters making up an average 13 per cent of the population. 

These differences suggest that the salience or priority given to different policy issues is likely to vary significantly across different voters - campaigning around student finance or the rights of renters will have less resonance in areas where key issues are stagnating wages and cuts to benefits. This may help to explain why Labour is consolidating its support among one set of voters with a particular experience of austerity, while Conservatives are gaining traction with groups that have had a different experience.[46]

Cultural divides have increased in salience at the expense of economic and distributive issues

Divides in values and outlooks have been playing an increasingly important role for several elections. Responses to questions of culture and identity - which have always been more variable across Labour’s electoral coalition than the Conservatives - have begun playing a more important role in influencing voters’ choices, while views have become polarised, often along generational and educational lines. 

Datapraxis analysis for this Labour Together Review found that Labour has been losing “socially conservative, anti-immigration and pro-Brexit voters” for some time. Four in ten of those who voted Labour in 2010 and Leave in 2016 had already been lost by the Party in 2015.[47]

The British Election Study highlighted recent research indicating that “second dimension” (socio-cultural) values have become as important as “left/right” values in predicting party support in recent elections.[48] Their data shows that, in 2019, the average Labour voter was even more socially liberal than in 2017, which may reflect both changes in the attitudes of its consistent supporters as well as shifts in its support composition. 


To take one symbolic issue as an example, the share of voters naming “immigration” as one of the most important issues rose from under five per cent in 1997 to peak at over 45 per cent in 2015. (After this, it declined to levels of early 2000s, perhaps because it had to some degree been subsumed within the Brexit debate.) 89 per cent of non-graduates aged over 65 think there are “too many immigrants”, against 44 per cent of graduates aged under 40. 57 per cent of graduates under 40 think immigration “enriches cultural life”, against just 17 per cent of non-graduates over 65. 

Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath argue that, while on economic issues “people on low incomes tend to hold much more left-wing attitudes than people on high incomes” and “there is not much evidence of any long-term change in these values in one direction or another”, on a “liberal-authoritarian axis” there has been a marked shift since 2010, with people on lower incomes now “much more socially authoritarian than they were at the beginning of the new millennium”.[49]

As Paula Surridge puts it, although the proportion of the electorate with broadly “left” leaning views on economic issues has been broadly stable at around 55 per cent since 2005, over the same period Labour has found it increasingly difficult to win electoral majorities, as this base of potential support has become “increasingly opposed to each other on more ‘cultural’ issues”.[50]

In recent years, an explicit backlash against “politically correct” or “woke” views has been increasingly aired and arguably accelerated by the interplay between traditional and new media.[51]

Online media has transformed the public sphere within which political views are formed

The share of the electorate interacting daily with online and social media platforms has soared in a very short space of time, at the same time as consumption of newspapers and linear broadcasting has declined. 

Though younger generations have embraced this transformation fastest, it is increasingly mainstream. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University found in 2018 that online media (including social) are now more important sources of news than print for every age group (though social media considered on its own is still less important than print for those aged 45 and over).[52] Ofcom reported that the number of 65-74 year-olds with a social media account rose from 28 per cent in 2012 to 48 per cent in 2016 - and the number of over-75-year-olds from 13 per cent to 41 per cent.[53]

This poses huge challenges to the ways in which parties seek to organise or communicate with people and opens up political debate and preference formation to new influences and forces that can be seen as either creatively anarchic or worryingly unaccountable. 

An illustration of how fast this environment is moving is given by the rapidly increasing importance of closed group discussions on Facebook. Place-based forums can be hugely influential – in Merthyr Tydfil for example a group, whose membership amounts to a third of the adult population, has been credited with helping to end Labour’s control of the council and building support for the Brexit Party ahead of the European elections.[54] During the election, social media reporters suggested that “a huge proportion of the national conversation was happening in these often more localised groups, far from public scrutiny”.[55] 

Some of these trends are global

Many of these developments and dynamics - including declining party loyalty, industrial restructuring, voter disconnection and cultural divisions - have had an impact on social democratic and “centre-left” parties across the world. 

A recent academic survey of trends affecting European social democratic parties confirmed that 

“Measured by the total share of the electorate … support for social democrats declined in the late 1980s and then fell precipitously in the 2000s, so much so that, as a proportion of all voters, social democratic parties’ support in 2017 was down to the same level as it was in the early 1920s”.[56]

Similarly, an analysis of European social democratic parties’ vote share by Professor Chris Hanretty of Royal Holloway shows that both the simple average and population-weighted average (which gives larger influence to larger countries) have declined sharply over the past two decades.[57]

Looking at more recent specific results, in legislative elections over the past three years the Swedish Social Democrats, French Socialist Party, German Social Democratic Party and Dutch Labor Party have all recorded their worst results since the Second World War, with “centre-left” parties in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Spain all near historic lows.[58]

In the UK, these trends can be seen as having divergent impacts in different parts of the country and electorate:

  • In Scotland, many of these factors fed into the sense that Labour was out of step with its voters, that crystalised in the wake of the 2014 referendum and resulted in the loss of both more traditional and younger voters to the SNP
  • In England and Wales, they manifested themselves in declining turnout and increasing support for other parties, including UKIP and the Conservatives among some voters, especially outside cities and the South East; while in other areas, Labour faced a growing competitive struggle for voters increasingly ready to switch between it and the Liberal Democrats, Green Party or in Wales Plaid Cymru

In short, Labour has increasingly struggled to prove its relevance in a world where workspaces are not organised, where community and family ties are fragmented, and where political perceptions and preferences are often formed in chaotic and fast-moving online spaces.

Unfortunately, instead of reversing this story, this election continued it.


  • The roots of our 2019 loss stretch back over the last two decades. In that time, we have seen a steady realignment of our politics through long-term changes in the relationship between our party and voter coalition, including political alienation, demographic change and cultural shifts.
  • Across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, the Conservatives have steadily increased their vote share and seat tally over this period. Labour’s vote share declined dramatically between 2001 and 2010, then recovered marginally in 2015 and increased again substantially in 2017, before collapsing in 2019. The consistent nationwide growth in Conservative support since 2001, particularly marked in some places where seats became vulnerable, prepared the ground for the significant increase in seats in 2019.  
  • Labour’s roots in many of our traditional communities have weakened, as party loyalty has declined, and trade union membership has reduced, whilst many of the structural and institutional links between our party and the Trade Union movement have declined. In the 2000’s, we saw a move away from Labour in our working class communities driven by a perception that there was little difference between the major parties, as well as deindustrialisation and demographic change. This showed itself in abstentions, or protest votes for other parties exacerbated by crisis points such as the financial crash of 2008 and the expenses scandal in 2009.  
  • Cultural divides have accentuated the drift away, leaving some voters with the view that Labour no longer represents them, and are not listening to them.
  • Labour has failed to renew our bonds with older voters, resident in many of the town seats in our (former) heartlands. These areas have experienced demographic aging and an exodus of younger voters. Labour has done badly with older voters who have lower levels of qualifications.  
  • Labour has experienced substantial losses amongst voters, who went on to support Leave in the referendum, for over a decade. Labour had already lost significantly more of these voters before the referendum than it did in the 2019 election. Four in ten of those who voted Labour in 2010 and went on to vote Leave in 2016 had already defected from Labour by the time of the 2015 election. In 2019, 25 per cent more of this group were lost, leaving Labour with only a third of its 2010 ‘Leave minded’ voters.
  • Voter volatility has been high throughout the last decade. It peaked in 2015, when around 40 per cent of 2010 voters switched to different parties. This helped Labour in the 2017 election. In 2019 high levels of voter volatility worked against us, with more voters swinging to the Tories, Brexit Party, Lib Dems and nationalists in Scotland and Wales.
  • Many of these trends are global and have had similar and negative impacts on social democratic and centre-left parties around the world.
  1. Lord Ashcroft, ‘How Britain voted and why: My 2019 general election post-vote poll’, Lord Ashcroft Polls, 13 December 2019:
  2. David Cutts et al, ‘Brexit: the 2019 General Election and the Realignment of British Politics’”, The Political Quarterly, Vol 91, Issue 1, February 2020:
  3. Datapraxis analysis of YouGov data for Labour Together
  4. [1]The British Election Study Team, ‘Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World’, British Election Study, 13 December 2019:
  5. Jessica Frost, ‘Nearly half of voters will switch parties at next general election’, The Times, 22 October 2019:
  6. British Election Study submission note to Labour Together, 2020
  7. Charlie McCurdy et al, Painting the towns blue: Demography, economy and living standards in the political geographies emerging from the 2019 General Election, Resolution Foundation, February 2020:; George Bangham et al, Intergenerational Audit 2019, Resolution Foundation, June 2019:
  8. Giacomo Benedetto et al, ‘The Rise and Fall of Social Democracy, 1918-2017’,forthcoming, American Political Science Review:
  9. Jean Blondel, Voters, Parties and Leaders – The social fabric of British politics, Pelican, 1963.
  10. ‘How Britain Voted in 1997’, Ipsos MORI, 31 May 1997:
  11. Trade union statistics 2018, Departmebt for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 20 May 2019:
  12. David Denver and Gordon Hands, ‘Turnout’, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol 50, Issue 4, 1 October 1997, pp. 720-732:
  13. Oliver Heath, ‘Policy Alienation, Social Alienation and Working-Class Abstention in Britain, 1964–2010’” British Journal of Political Science, Vol 48, Issue 4, October 2018, pp. 1053-1073:; Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, Oxford University Press, 2017
  14. Professor Rob Ford, forthcoming
  15. Alison Park et al (eds), British Social Attitudes: the 30th Report, NatCen Social Research, 2013:; see also Robin Bowman, ‘Three quarters of people think the system is rigged against them’, World Economic Forum, 17 August 2017:
  16. Framing the Economy, NEON/NEF/FrameWorks/PIRC, 2018:
  17. For example: Paul Mason, After Corbynism: Where Next For Labour?, December 19:; James Meadway, ‘Labour’s Economic Plans: What Went Wrong?’, Novara Media, 17 December 2019:
  18. John Harris, ‘A Labour revival must tap into the energy for change on the ground’, The Guardian, 15 December 19:
  19. British Election Study data quoted in Rob Ford, forthcoming
  20. Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, Oxford University Press, 2017
  21. Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, ‘The New Politics of Class after the 2017 General Election’, The Political Quarterly, Vol 88, Issue 4, 5 October 2017:
  22. Scott Dickson and Bridget Phillipson MP, “Labour in Scotland”, Labour Together report
  23. Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley, The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class, Oxford University Press, 2017:
  24. Charlie McCurdy et al, Painting the towns blue: Demography, economy and living standards in the political geographies emerging from the 2019 General Election, Resolution Foundation, February 2020:
  25. Luke Cooper and Christabel Cooper, The Devastating Defeat: Why Labour lost and how it can win again; Part 1: Britain’s new political divides in the Brexit election, Europe for the Many, 2020:
  26. Datapraxis analysis of YouGov data for Labour Together, 2020
  27. The British Election Study Team, ‘Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World’, British Election Study, 13 December 2019:
  28. Oliver Heath and Matthew Goodwin, ‘Briefing: Low income voters in UK general elections, 1987 – 2017’, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, July 2019:
  29. Paula Surridge, ‘The fragmentation of the electoral left since 2010”, Renewal, Vol. 26, No. 4, November 2018:
  30. Ellie Mae O’Hagan, ‘The “anti-woke” backlash is no joke – and progressives are going to lose if they don’t wise up’, The Guardian, 30 January 2020:
  31. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, ‘Where do people get their news?’, Oxford University, Medium, 30 May 2017:
  32. ‘Rise of Social Seniors revealed’, Ofcom, 14 June 2017:
  33. Centre for Countering Digital Hate submission to Labour Together review, 2020:
  34. Amol Rajan, ‘Five lessons from the “social media” election’, 13 December 2019:
  35. ‘Rose thou art sick’, The Economist, 2 April 2016:
  36. Professor Chris Hanretty, ‘Electorally, West European social democrats are at their lowest point for forty years’, Medium, 5 October 2015:
  37. Kyle Taylor, ‘Swedish election highlights decline of center-left parties across Western Europe’, Pew Research Centre, 12 September 2018: