The UK has gone to the polls this week for the first time since the snap election last year. At the time of writing the results are still unknown and based on the results of the 2017 vote, it would be unwise to make any specific predictions. With that in mind, I’ll resist the temptation and focus on the climate this election is being conducted in.
Attendees of our monthly Trends Breakfasts or regular readers of these pages will know that polarisation and fragmentation have been central themes of our analysis in recent years. From the effects of the economic downturn over the last decade to the drivers of the Brexit vote or Trump’s election in 2016, these trends have proven hugely impactful.
This polarisation is often expressed in the form of a dichotomy: two opposing sides with very different views and behaviours. This was evoked in Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech (not her most famous one) where she found a distinction between patriots and ‘citizens of nowhere’, in David Goodhart’s pithy division between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’ and Professor Sir John Curtice’s analysis of the British Election Study, in which he found not just Labour and Conservative voters, but social liberals and social conservatives.
This dichotomy – however it is expressed – is so profound because it cuts across party lines, social grades and the usual socio-economic suspects. Instead, where we fall depends on our deep seated self-identification, our view of who we are and where the UK’s place is in the wider world. In this week’s local elections, no party will adequately reflect these identities in its pitch to the nation.
Our latest wave of opinion data – collected just a couple of weeks ago – sheds some light on this polarisation. While 45% agree that life in the UK is better today than it was 50 years ago, 36% disagree – voters, perhaps, in search of a better yesterday.
There are similar divides on identity – 42% see themselves as a citizen of the world, leaving 58% reluctant to commit themselves to such a view.
Another powerful finding from this latest wave of data is the grim economic mood the nation is in as it goes to the polls. Consumer confidence and spending expectations are at their lowest ebb since 2012, meaning that despite the economic recovery (since 2014) a recessionary mindset prevails (we’re only missing the recession).
You will know by now how this polarisation has played out in the polls. The local elections by their very nature provide only a partial, fragmented view of the mood of the nation, and if I am to hazard a prediction it is that there are different narratives of success and failure emerging from each region; Labour doing well in major cities, the Conservatives doing well in other English areas, and smaller parties struggling for relevance.
What will remain certain for the rest of this year and 2019 is the political fragility caused by this attitudinal polarisation; at the start of the year those who bet on politics reckoned an election before the end of 2019 was more likely than not. This itself – three general elections in less than four years – would be an occurrence not seen since the 1920s. For as long as these dichotomies remain, we will have unprecedented political uncertainty.