Brexit – who cares? Part 1

Over the next ten weeks the UK will be seeing and hearing a great deal about a referendum that has been generated by an issue at the heart of the ruling Conservative Party - much loved by the UK media as a source of a story on slow news days, but generally met with indifference by the general public.

This political discourse within the Conservative Party – on its agenda since the days of Margaret Thatcher - has repeatedly been framed in terms of Europhiles and Eurosceptics; and to such an extent that it has led to real fissures within the Party. That fissure became more than an ideological difference of opinion with the rise, fall and rise again of UKIP and the desertion of Conservative grassroots support at constituency levels. Ideological differences originally confined within the walls of Westminster had escaped into the outside world.

If 'Europe' was only an issue for the Conservative Party the opposition Labour Party could have sat on the ideological side lines and watched as the Conservatives tore themselves apart and the minority appeal of UKIP continued to erode the Conservative base. In such a scenario Labour would be likely to stride to victory in the next elections - possibly forming a coalition government of some stripe in 2020.

But …

Unfortunately for Labour they are also losing core supporters on issues that were originally raised by Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party. The stresses produced within the Labour grassroots have been explored in other articles on this site.

It is the 'Blue Labour'/Settler segment that has been receptive to Eurosceptic arguments. Many in this older group have either changed their support to UKIP or have reluctantly and passively maintained support for the Labour Party. Blue Labour supporters, traditionally the most 'loyal', can no longer be counted on for support come hell or high water. The alienation of this core has had a quite significant effect on the ability of Labour candidates to rally support and mobilize supporters to get out the vote in formerly safe constituencies - or if they do mobilize and win, candidates are experiencing reduced support, both numerically and emotionally.

So it is clear there are issues in the real world as a result of an ideological war amongst a minority of Parliamentarians within a wing of a single Party.

Is this an issue just for politicians? Or is this an issue for the people they are supposed to represent? Or is it both?

Let’s see what values research suggests, and what CDSM measures.

Values research helps us find out what is really important to people in general; and then, specifically, within different values groups and values modes. It also helps us understand which factors/issues are likely to produce strong emotions when an opposite view is posed, and which issues are really 'ho-hum' issues - something that people may or may not have opinions or thoughts about but don’t produce a lot of emotion one way or the other.

Generally, when looking at a culture, high percentages of people agreeing or disagreeing about a factor/issue leads researchers to understand if the issue is something that:-

  • needs addressing, or upon which they can build a political position; or
  • whether this is a ‘non-issue’ that most people don’t care about one way or the other and there is little political capital to be gained by taking a position on it.

Within specific factors/issues the nature of support or disagreement is a function of the support or disagreement between different values systems of individuals with the populace.

This is where values research differs from other forms of behavioural and attitudinal research. In behavioural research people are often clustered in terms of a range of demographics (age, gender, income levels, geographical areas and so on) and a single behaviour (drinking coffee, buying a car, window shopping, voting, etc.).

Big Data techniques can crunch multiple behaviours but the basic principles are the same – correlations between demographics and behaviours. Values research can use this type of correlation methodology to produce insights. But the very nature of values as a variable in a complex correlation brings a new dimension and provides a deeper understanding of why groups of people – and individuals within the groups – choose the measured behaviours. Other tools and research techniques can be added to even further deepen understanding of why people behave as they do, and as a result provide robust strategies to change or reinforce their behaviour.

Segmentations of groups, based on individual shared values, creates strong understandings not available with the more standard and simple correlations.

Using this methodology, one of the first things to ask is "How likely is a group or individual in the UK to have strong emotions about coming out of the European Union?"

Brexit supporters would love it if citizens in the UK had a strong aversion to remaining in the EU; or if many 'supporters' of the 'Remain' campaign felt this was a 'ho hum' issue that inspired so little enthusiasm that they wouldn’t bother to turn out on the day of the referendum. In both cases committed 'leavers' could turn the election their way if they turned out to vote. This would be a clear case of strong emotions driving high engagement behaviour and low or no emotions actuating low engagement behaviour – in this case, being a voter or a non-voter.

We know that the maintenance of personal identities is a huge psychological factor in determining emotional behaviours in social situations. Threats to or loss of personal identity can cause real feelings of loss and negative emotions. To quantify the present state of 'cultural self identifiers' we have a list of 31 variables, or factors of self-identity, that are measured in every British Values survey.

One of the factors measured is how much people feel Europe is a part of their personal identity - in other words if the UK left the EU how much of a personal effect would this have on people’s perceptions of themselves.

The results of the complete survey vary little from year. 'Being a Parent' or 'My values and principles' and 'Being British' almost always score in the Top Five within the general population.

The sense of being British is important to a lot people, and the loss of it can produce feelings as strong as a sense of loss in a family or the denial or suppression of a person’s values and principles.

This is important to know - but just as important is that less than 50% will choose any single factor when asked to pick from the whole 31 factors. And even fewer (between less than 1% up 28%) choose one specific when asked to prioritise the list into their top three.

When election turnouts are high, often because of highly engaging issues, even high involvement individual factors can be swamped by competition from many others. But when turnout is low, it is more likely that single high-involvement factors, that produce strong emotions, can sway the result.

Political capital is created when politicians link varied factors , or ‘planks’, into a platform that appeals to different values sets and the sub-identities within them.

The most simple, direct, and easy to understand platform is historically what wins elections. Self-identification holds out the offer to be a significant raft of planks within a platform. But which variety of self-identification to choose from?

First, the bad news - for politicians generally and especially the Remainers.

Out of CDSM’s list of 31 self-identification factors respondents were asked the three factors most important to them. The two least selected were a) 'My political orientation', and b) 'Being European'.

In a sample of 3594 nationally representative adults aged 16-85 only 22 (0.6%) chose ‘Being European’ as one of their top three self–identifiers and only 97 (2.7%) chose ‘My political orientation’.

All of these groups were too small to provide reliable measures of values and the types of emotions that would be generated by the satisfaction or denial of the factor. But respondents were also asked to tick as many factors as they felt applied to their self-identify – up to all 31. This created a larger base as respondents chose more than three factors that they felt related to them. For example, the factor ‘My body, face and hair’ was selected by 180 (5.0%) respondents as one of their top three and by 790 (22.0%) respondents as one of their (unrestricted) 31.

Contrast these numbers and percentages with more overtly political factors and it can be seen clearly how irrelevant much of political discourse is to most people, most of the time. It illuminates why the Daily Mail online swamps the paper-based Daily Mail in terms of readership. Or why the Sun is more popular than the Guardian.

As a final look at the very low potential of creating high involvement with this political frame – political orientation and being a Remainer – let’s take a look at those who picked either one of the factors in their general selection rather than the top three.

These maps demonstrate in the starkest terms that people who claim as self-identifiers 'Being European' and 'My political orientation' have very similar values sets. This indicates that a platform based on these planks would have a limited appeal to the overall electorate and be very narrow in its scope – it would only really appeal to Pioneers. Looking at the demographics of respondents it is also clear that the appeal is to upper and upper middle class, older male voters, which sounds like a profile of a typical MP – of almost any party.

Other articles in the ‘Future of Labour’ series on this site also show this Pioneer profile more nearly matches the Labour Party Heartland than it does the Conservative. Any platform with these planks would be liable to produce high dissonance among supporters if the campaign was led by a Conservative government – which was the state of play in the first week of the campaign.

Follow up articles will look at the numbers of Brexit supporters and of Remainers and their values splits measured seven months before the referendum. This will be followed by further insights into potential planks that could be used by Brexit supporters - and why the campaign may see the UK experiencing Trump-style, issues-based emotional politics.