Unpicking the thinking behind votes

24 Jul 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 24 Jul 2019

New Prime Minister Boris Johnson
New Prime Minister Boris Johnson

A new PM will – ultimately – mean elections. Low-income voters are energised, having re-engaged in UK politics. This is an opportunity for politicians who support their interests. It could be the downfall of those who don’t.


Uncertainty is a lot like possibility.

We live in uncertain times. Politics is flailing and dysfunctional – in Northern Ireland, the UK, and the entire west.

Those are the difficult circumstances that helped Boris Johnson into 10 Downing Street this week. They are also the difficult circumstances he is now tasked with dealing with.

The Prime Minister leads the country but is also its ultimate servant. Voters retain the power to drive change. This power is not always exercised, nor is it always felt – one vote amongst millions can seem like a raindrop in a river.

One vote might not change much by itself but when it is part of a tidal shift many things are possible.

To understand our current uncertainty, and so to look at possibilities, it is important to understand why people vote as they do.

In mid-July the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) released a report looking at voting patterns of low-income voters in the UK, and the reasons behind these patterns.

The research found that people with lower incomes are now as plugged into politics as at any time in the past 30 years and, moreover, that their votes are less set in stone than at any time in that period. The question is what, ultimately, will win those votes at the ballot box.

“It’s the economy, stupid” is one of the most famous political mantras of our lifetime. It is a paraphrase of James Carville, campaign manager for Bill Clinton ahead of the 1992 Presidential election in the USA. Mr Carville played a key role in seeing Clinton elected by beating the incumbent President George H. W. Bush.

That phrase has become ubiquitous in western politics. It’s also not quite right – according to the JRF research – but it sure isn’t far wrong, either.

The JRF’s findings all the more important because there is likely to be a general election in the near(ish) future. At some point, Boris Johnson will want to fully legitimise his premiership. He will also try and choose the most opportune moment to call such an election. Mr Johnson might opt for the day before Brexit, or something like that.

A general election will put huge pressure on Stormont to reform (and, by now, another election there seems almost necessary, given it has been years since the last one).

Elections give voters power – and we are set for several.


Between the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the participation of low-income voters increased by seven percentage points. The latter election saw these citizens turn out in the highest proportions since the 1980s.

Their votes are in play like never before. It may sound strange, but at the 2017 election both the Conservative Party and the Labour Party enjoyed their strongest support amongst low-income voters since Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

The JRF report found further that these voters have become more politically “volatile” over time – they are less loyal to one particular party than ever before, so those votes are there to be won (and lost).

Per the report: “Low-income voters are feeling squeezed by changes in the economy. Today, they are just as likely to say that their households are struggling financially as they were during the 1992 and post-2008 crises. Furthermore, they are not sure who to blame for the current situation, which underlines how both Labour and the Conservatives could benefit by making a clearer case about how they will improve the economic situation of low-income voters…

“All of our findings reveal why Britain’s main parties need to focus on this key group and refresh their offer. For Labour, this is necessary to retain their historic lead over the Conservatives, which in recent years has been declining. For the Conservatives, reviving their offer to low-income voters could help them build and expand upon their recent gains. To do this, Britain’s main parties will have to appeal to low-income voters’ desire for greater economic redistribution, as well as be sensitive to their values preferences. These voters are ‘cross-pressured’; they lean to the left on economic issues but often lean to rightwards on issues like law-and-order, migration and Brexit.

“Our findings suggest that amid a volatile and divisive Brexit debate concerns to do with economic fairness between rich and poor are once again at the fore of voters’ decision-making. Older ‘left-right’ divides have re-emerged and are once again important. In terms of winning over low-income voters there are very good reasons for the main parties to redouble their efforts to offer more redistributive policies, especially amid Britain’s ongoing Brexit debate.”


It is impossible to talk about voting and the power of the ballot box in the UK right now without looking at Brexit.

Right now, Brexit presents a pressure in a certain direction for low-income voters.

It is one of the issues where – in the broadest terms – they preferred the Tories to Labour in the 2017 election (indeed, support for Brexit might go hand in hand with a desire for less immigration).

The report notes: “Given that people on low incomes tend to be more left-wing than average, but also somewhat more authoritarian and Eurosceptic –the 2017 general election presented low-income voters with a clear and compelling choice for the first time in a long time: Theresa May’s socially conservative vision of a ‘hard Brexit’ versus Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity platform and populist cry to represent the ‘many not the few’. The clarity of this choice is no doubt one reason why both turnout among low-income voters increased and also support for each of the two major parties increased…

“The picture with respect to Europe among low-income voters is much less pronounced than it is among the electorate on the whole. Although there is some evidence that people on low incomes with a negative view of Europe are more likely to vote Conservative than people with a positive view of Europe, the difference is not great.

“This may be because their preference for left-wing economic policies acts as a buffer against them voting for the Conservatives on this issue, even though the party is closer to their views on the matter. Nonetheless, there is some evidence that support for the Conservatives increased in 2017 among people on low incomes who held a negative view of Europe.”

A vote for Brexit was a vote for change. That seems to be the consistent factor driving low-income voters. They are dis-satisfied (in particular, they are dis-satisfied economically) and want to see this addressed.

What our political parties have done is present them with different visions of change. In a simplified sense, this is economic redistribution (Labour) vs. less migration/Brexit and a tougher stance on crime (Tories).

If Brexit serves these people economically, support for Brexit, and the change it presents, will grow.

If Brexit tanks the economy and therefore the folk who are already struggling are hit even harder (as always happens), it could be political Armageddon for people who have presented Brexit as a way of tackling the great squeeze of the past decade or more.


The JRF analysis is extremely important in trying to predict what might happen to Northern Ireland over the next few years.

Unlike many areas studies, transposing the voting trends identified from Great Britain onto Northern Ireland is invalid.

Voting in Northern Ireland is unlike voting in the rest of the UK. It is not simply that we have different political parties. Ballot boxes here still creak under the weight of green-and-orange tribalism. This factor is far too significant to ignore and it is not replicated in GB at large.

Nevertheless, whether or not Stormont is functioning – and, post Brexit, there will be enormous pressure put on politicians to have an Assembly in place – Westminster still sets the tone for politics in Northern Ireland.

The eyes of many swing voters are on Westminster, swing voters determined to see and feel an upturn in the circumstances for themselves, their families and their communities.

This could be good news for Northern Ireland, sort of.

Compared with GB in general, NI has a high proportion of low-income households. Policies that benefit them would be welcome.

However, the push for change is often proportionate to the need for change. A look at the JRF research will show that.

If Brexit (and, in the case of NI, welfare reform and health reform) proves a curse for low-income families in the short term this might herald upheaval but at a price not worth paying.

Uncertainty is a lot like possibility. It might not be easy to see exactly where the UK is going over the next five years – but the political price of ignoring a reinvigorated stratum of low-income voters is much clearer.

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