As the results of the EU Referendum became clear in the early hours of 24th June 2016, a fault line in British society was laid bare and the actions taken by the governing Conservative Party moved to cement those in the following months. Quickly the political parties and the commentariat of the media looked for simple, explanatory narratives of the left behind and marginalised. The referendum counting was not recorded on a parliamentary constituency basis but rather counties and districts to be aggregated into a single UK-wide result. This presented an analytical challenge for the psephologists as the results could not be directly mapped onto parliamentary constituencies, although some models were later developed to help in the process. Knowing what the results meant about the intentions of particular voters and how it related to the political geography of the UK became not about data but about narratives of causation. Quickly, in the press a narrative of rural leave/urban remain came to the fore, especially after protests in pro-Remain London.
If we consider the shifting electoral geography of the south-west then the questions about UKIP and the role of those who are left behind becomes more complex. The region has offered a three-way split in voting patterns, with Labour voting cities – Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth and some of the post-industrial parts of Cornwall, and the Liberals then Liberal Democrats and Conservatives disputing many rural areas with smaller towns. Adding UKIP to this complex mix also assumes that the trajectories of the other parties are understood. Whilst New Labour won a landslide victory in the 1997 Parliamentary elections, the Liberal Democrats found the region to be their ‘heartlands’. As well the Party leader, Paddy Ashdown representing Yeovil there were Liberal Democrat MPs in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset and a considerable presence in County and District Councils, boosted in part by widespread tactical voting by erstwhile Labour voters. Liberal Democrat policy was to back the prospect of coalition government as part of a wider move to proportional representation and a new bi-partisan way of conducting politics. In 1992, during a speech in the market town of Chard, Ashdown had signalled that he would be prepared to work with Labour to defeat the Conservatives, leading to the formation of the ‘Chard Group’ of left-leaning Liberal Democrats working to achieve that goal. By 2004 the new Liberal Democrat leadership group were cohering around the ‘Orange Book’, committed to a Liberalism based on competition and choice. A key actor in this group was David Laws who had taken over Ashdown’s seat in 2001 and was to take up a cabinet post in the Conservative-Liberal government of 2010-15.
The verdict of the electorate on the role of the Liberal Democrats was apparent in the second order election for the European Parliament. In the 2014 elections in the South West regions, UKIP won the popular vote with 32.29% of the vote (2 MEPs) 28.9% for Conservatives (2 MEPs), Labour 13.75 % (1 MEP) and 11.1% Green (1 MEP). The Liberal Democrat’s got 10.7% of the vote, a drop of 6.5% whilst the Labour vote had risen by +6.1. In the general election of 2015, the Liberal Democrats lost 49 of their seats, leaving the party with only 8 MPs, and in the region, they lost all their parliamentary representatives.
As early as 2014 polling organisations were pointing to a shift of voters directly from the Liberal Democrat’s to UKIP. If we consider voting patterns to be a proxy for ideological positioning or beliefs then this is very hard to understand, a direct movement from the most pro-EU, most liberal party to the most anti-EU and socially conservative one. But if the voters’ intention was to vote for neither of the major parties, to act as an embuggerance to politics as usual then voting for this parties can be seen as a form of protest vote. This also suggests that much of the vote for the Liberal Democrats has been a tactical one by Labour voters, looking to frustrate the Conservatives. In 2015, many of these voters clearly felt that such a tactical vote had no purpose.
If we then turn to the EU referendum, outside of the major cities and Labour seats which were campaigning to remain, the rural seats were represented by the various factions within the Conservative party and areas with a heavy UKIP presence. In the region, the average leave vote was 52.39% and the average remain vote was 47.62% not far from the national result.
A recent academic paper from Johnson and colleagues suggests that they are not able to identify any geographic effects in the Brexit vote but rather it is a reflect of the two factors of education and age (sometimes seen as a proxy for social class) as identifying likelihood of voting, older people with fewer educational qualifications more likely to vote leave, while younger, more educated people voting to remain. Demography explains the vote rather than any localised effects. This might appear to be confounded in the case of Gibraltar and it would be worth testing this against results in places such as ‘South Hams’ and ‘Mendip’ which voted to remain but in the broad sweep, this would appear to be a valid conclusion (see graphic on this post).
From a rural perspective, this suggests that we are entering a post-rural period. On the new fault line of British politics location is not a significant factor in voting intention. In the immediate future, this suggests that a Liberal Democrat revival is unlikely as their previous electoral alliance has been shattered. In the longer term is suggests that there will be new opportunities to create electoral alliances in the South West region.