So it was a Brexit election after all. Just not in the way the politicians intended.
At least, this appears to be a significant finding from the British Election Survey (BES), who have just published some results from their sampling of 30,000 voters from June’s General Election.
What they report is that Brexit was a dominant issue in the minds of many voters, and that it ran ahead of many of the domestic issues that the parties were attempting to campaign on. For instance, BES report that 33% of their sample said Brexit was the most important issue in determining their vote, as opposed to just 10% who said it was the NHS, or just 5% who said it was the economy.
The next interesting point is what did ‘Brexit’ mean to these voters? It was no longer in or out – that has been decided – but about how to exit, and what mattered most about delivering an exit.
Voters were settling on their preference at the ballot box in terms of whether they wanted a ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit, and in terms of whether they wanted immigration control to govern the outcome, or continued access to the single market.
If the preferences leaned towards hard Brexit and controlling immigration, then voters were going Tory. If they wanted soft Brexit and continued market access, they were going Labour.
And as opinion was moving on balance towards softer, Labour was scooping up voters from other parties who wanted to decide their vote on the basis of their Brexit preferences.
Hence, Labour gained steadily through the campaign. This must have been down more to the Conservatives sending out a hard Brexit message, than Labour sending a soft one. Labour’s message was vague to put it politely. But the voters decided Labour offered the best bet for a softer Brexit, and hence swung in that direction.
This analysis is certainly supported by aligning the June election results with local 2016 referendum results.
This has interesting implications for what happens at the next election.
It looks as if, in June 2017, voters set their own agenda for the election. And it wasn’t exactly the one the parties were trying to impose. There was a powerful Brexit filter at work.
If the next election comes after the conclusion of Brexit, it’s hard to see this filter still being in place. The business will be finished – one way or another. The chances are the voters will move on.
This will be a problem for Mr Corbyn. He, and his close team, believe that Labour’s advance in the June election was a vindication of his hard left policy stance. Therefore, he believes that it requires just one more heave to gain that extra handful of seats and win the election.
But that is a deception.
Strip away the Brexit filter, and the chances are we are back to a more conventional set of priorities for voters – jobs, taxes, NHS etc.
If the Labour leadership decides to double down on its 2017 manifesto, and run it again, only more so, in 2019, ‘20, ‘21 or ‘22, they could be in for a shock as far as the result is concerned.
The BES survey suggests that voters largely ignored Labour’s domestic pledges and took it upon themselves to interpret the party’s Brexit stance, and vote accordingly.
But what if, next time, in the absence of the Brexit filter, they actually think about all the pledges to spend more, tax more and borrow more?
It will be an economic head wind for Mr Corbyn; not a Brexit tail wind.
And we can assume one more thing about the next election. The Conservative party will get its act together.
Main image by Chatham House.