Emran Mian is the director of the Social Market Foundation.
The SMF’s strapline is ‘ideas and analysis from the radical centre’ and after one of the most eventful spells in recent British political history – which seemed to bring to an end a period in which what might often have been termed the broad centre had held sway in British politics – it felt like a good time to check the state of public opinion
Working with the research and insight firm Opinium, we looked at the views of the electorate, how they perceive themselves on the traditional left-right political spectrum and where they placed prominent politicians. Opinium then used a technique known as cluster analysis to group voters together based on their policy preference and attitudes e.g. their openness to other countries and how optimistic or pessimistic they feel.
The research for the resulting report, ‘Dead centre‘, was carried out in late August, at a time when many voters would still be learning about their new Prime Minister, so perhaps the fact that slightly fewer voters saw Theresa May as right-wing than thought that of David Cameron was to be expected – just as fewer saw Philip Hammond as right-wing than saw George Osborne in such a way.
Perhaps more signifiant is the eight ‘political tribes’ which Opinium’s cluster analysis revealed.
It found that 50 per cent of the country falls into two tribes – we have termed them ‘Our Britain’ and ‘Common Sense’. The first is strongly represented among the older working class and retirees, living mainly in Northern England and the Midlands. Broadly isolationist in outlook, its members have a fairly closed perception of what Britishness is, they are anti- immigration, and think government should put British people first, at all costs.
The second is well-represented among older southern English people, either advanced in their career or retirees. They don’t think of themselves as having particularly strong political opinions, despite supporting similar policies to the ‘Our Britain’ segment. They have a clear preference for a low tax economy and are opposed to immigration.
In addition, there are other groups which, on the face of it at least, might be open to overtures from the Conservatives. These include ‘Swing Voters’, who make up seven per cent of the electorate, according to Opinium’s analysis; ‘Free Liberals’, again seven per cent, who are optimistic, anti-welfare, free-market capitalists; and even ‘New Britain’, a tribe comprising just six per cent of voters with views which might best be described as Cameroonian, or perhaps neo-Blairite.
In contrast, the centre, centre-left and left are split, notably on issues relating to openness and immigration. As the headline to a piece in The Observer by Opinium’s Adam Drummond puts it, immigration divides the left but unites the right. Labour might not be blessed with especially deft leadership at the moment but it would take a miracle worker to be able to find a way of uniting those disparate groups.
Of course, this doesn’t mean our new Prime Minister doesn’t face dilemmas and challenges. Politics isn’t simply a matter of stacking voting blocs one on top of another in isolation. There are decisions to be taken in government which define your electoral appeal, and right now those decisions go to the heart of the issues which the two ‘right-wing’ tribes care about most. Moreover there is competition to worry about, in the form of UKIP.
But this research provides a hint about the route Theresa May will take to keep UKIP at bay and – in time – win her own electoral mandate. It’s a route which will take Britain out of the single market, building a strong fence against immigration behind it.
Both of the main groups on the right see reducing immigration to five figures as their most important policy and are equally vehement in their desire to see Britain out of the single market. In a sense these policies match, though the degree to which the single market response has been coloured by the immigration debate around the EU referendum is unclear.
As a result, our cautious Prime Minister may decide proceed on the basis that her safest route to political security is to give these groups, the bedrock of any enduring Conservative majority, what they want, with Labour’s disarray and difficulties over immigration and lack of economic credibility, among others, being enough to convince voters from other tribes on the right, centre-right and centre, at least, to support her party at a general election.