The UK Has 14 Voting Tribes – and They Explain Why Labour Lost So Badly

Polling during the election cycle identified seven Tory-voting and seven left-leaning archetypes.
December 20, 2019, 11:52am
climate protest
Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo

"Life is shit, and then you die. But somewhere in Mayfair a rich person is drinking a cocktail and giving to charity..." That, in essence, is the doctrine of One Nation Conservatism, as proclaimed by Boris Johnson and outlined in the Queen's Speech.

But how do you create "one nation" out of an electorate so deeply divided by cultural values, national identities, age and ethnicity? According to the political strategists Datapraxis, the dreams of and allegiances among British people are now so diverse that instead of classes and nationalities, it would be better to think of us as 14 "tribes".

To understand what's changed, let's remember where the One Nation idea comes from. In 1845, after a general strike that nearly overthrew British capitalism, the young Tory politician Benjamin Disraeli published a novel called Sybil. In it, a revolutionary worker says Britain is so divided by class that it has become "two Nations, governed by different laws, influenced by different manners, with no thoughts or sympathies in common; with an innate inability of mutual comprehension".

Twenty years later, the author became Conservative prime minister. Instead of simply massacring striking workers, or jailing their leaders, under Disraeli the Conservatives actually started trying to persuade workers to vote for them by doling out better housing, municipal services and shorter hours.

Last Thursday shows the Conservatives pulled off the same trick – only, this time by promising to deliver Brexit. Using the uncertainties around Brexit, overt racism and the lingering dream that Britain can be an independent global power, Johnson persuaded an estimated 800,000 Labour supporters who voted leave to switch to the Tories.

I campaigned in some of the abandoned places where this happened – including Leigh, the town where I grew up. It's no mystery to me why Johnson's rhetoric worked. Thirty years of free market economics and decline have produced a sense of atomisation. Young people with families still vote Labour, but the former industrial workers who fill the pubs from lunchtime onwards feel like a different social tribe. Some harbour fantasies of a white-only country; many would like to reverse the social changes of the past 50 years.

If you could bear to listen to the Queen's Speech, you will understand that One Nation Toryism now means the exact opposite of what it meant for Disraeli: in the 19th century it was a means of reducing social conflict. For Johnson, it's about stoking conflict up.

The promise of a £10.50 minimum wage becomes a vague aspiration. There'll be a constitutional shakeup, in which the authoritarian right will get the chance to rip up the Human Rights Act and appoint a politicised judiciary. And voters will have to show ID – a move designed to reduce turnout among ethnic minority communities and young people.

According to Datapraxis, Johnson won the election because he created a tribal alliance of voters, ranging from a hard-right faction nostalgic for the British Empire, who hate migrants and live in Surrey, through to "older disillusioned" voters in small-town Britain, whose main hatred is reserved for politicians, "scroungers" and "middle class luvvies".

While Johnson was creating this alliance, the progressive parties – Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru – were fighting each other. All of them wanted to stop Brexit, and most of them recognise the need to fight the climate crisis with radical action. But they were happier to be defeated separately than to win together.

A glance at the tribal breakdown analysis shows why the fight for progressive votes was logical: if you look at the biggest "tribe" on the left – "progressive cosmopolitan pragmatists" concentrated in big cities – the research shows their primary allegiances are split fairly evenly between Labour, the Greens and the Libdems. These parties fought each other because the votes of the younger generation are genuinely up for grabs.

That means something stark for politics over the next five years. The right has a single project – a hard Brexit, a crackdown on law and order and the reduction of migration. And it has a tribal alliance of miserable old racists in northern England, plus golf club bores from Hampshire, to make it happen.

Those on the progressive side of politics cannot rely on long-term voter allegiance anymore: we need a single, clear project based on values – tailored so that it creates the broadest possible alliance among the "tribes" identifying with progressive values and a post-carbon future.

BRITAIN'S POLITICAL TRIBES

The analyst firm Datapraxis polled 10,000 people during the election, asking each of them 85 questions. From the answers, they distilled seven political tribal identities that led people to vote Tory, and seven identified with the parties of the left and centre. For CEO Paul Hilder, it was Labour's failure to understand the fragmentation of voters into culturally-identified groups that led to its disastrous strategy of trying to appeal to people purely on economics.

But he also has a warning for Boris Johnson: "The Conservatives won the 2019 election by dialling up Brexit polarisation and exploiting the overriding dislike of Jeremy Corbyn among the key 'swing' voter tribes. Little else holds this temporary electoral coalition together."

Like all attempts to segment voters by culture, they are of course stereotypes. But they'll be readily identifiable around the dinner tables of Britain this Christmas.

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Extinction Rebellion protesters. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

The Green Left
This group is mainly skilled and professional people, but spans the young and old. They're concentrated in London and Scotland, and 79 percent voted Labour in the general election. But in the European election they split three ways (Green, Libdem and Labour), and most of them would put the Greens as their second preference. They make up around 7 percent of the electorate and their main value is "fairness".

Progressive Cosmopolitan Pragmatists
These are again professionals, mainly over 35 and concentrated in London and the south-east. They have a strong European identity and strongly support migration. They list their favourite politicians as Caroline Lucas, Angela Merkel and Keir Starmer. At 9 percent of the population their fickle loyalty to Labour will be important in the next few years.

Young Instagram Progressives
These are people under 35 for whom Facebook is old hat. Found in London, Scotland and the big cities, they're not so strongly identified left-wing: they care about fairness a lot, but "protecting the weak" not so much. With their votes in recent elections swinging between Labour, the Lib Dems and Greens, this group – at 5 percent of the population – will be critical for Labour if it wants to rebuild.

Centre-left Pragmatists
These are the nurses, midwives, council officials and geography teachers of Britain. Though fairness is still their core value, other values like "loyalty" and "order" figure high in the mix. They want government to operate for the poor as well as the rich. Gordon Brown is just as popular with them as Jeremy Corbyn. If there’s a "core" Labour voting group, they are part of it – but according to the survey they make up just 7 percent of the electorate.

Anti-Tory Heartlands
This is the other core Labour supporting group: mainly male, mainly lower skilled and mainly middle aged. Though their values are strongly Labour, by mid November 18 percent them "didn't know" how they would vote, and 12 percent had gone Lib Dem. One of their defining features is mistrust of the mainstream media. More put Corbyn on their hate list than their list of politicians they liked.

Establishment Liberals
Three quarters of them are middle aged or older; they earn enough to have money left over every month and most of them vote Lib Dem – though their political values are close to those of the Labour-supporting pragmatists. They make up 6 percent of the population and their favourite politician was Jo Swinson, which will leave them bereft now she's out of Parliament.

Young Apathetic Waverers
This is the lad who comes up to you on election day asking how you register to vote. His mum voted, he thinks, but he's not really interested. Some 5 percent of poll respondents had no strong opinions. They're mainly under 35 years old and they don't know or care about the names of politicians, but they share one core value with all of the above: a desire for fairness.

The Younger Disengaged
This is basically the mates of the group above, but bigger and slightly more right-wing. Here, for the first time on the left-right spectrum, we find people talking about "loyalty to the people of Britain". They make up 8 percent of the population.

Leave and Remain supporters clashing at a protest

Leave and Remain supporters clashing at a protest. Photo: Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy Stock Photo

The Older Disillusioned
At 5 percent of the population, this group is not large but it is significant. They switched en masse to the Tories – but are set to get even more disillusioned if their towns, mainly in the north and Midlands, carry on declining. They want to stop all immigration, both legal and illegal. They hated Corbyn, but they also dislike Blair and Cameron in equal measure.

Older Swing Voters
Half of this group voted Labour in 2017, half voted Tory – but this time they swung right to "get Brexit done". They're not as racist as the group above, but far more engaged with Brexit. Making up 8 percent of respondents, they voted overwhelmingly to Leave in 2016, but their political values are centrist, not especially right-wing. They dislike Corbyn, Putin and Trump in equal measure – signifying support for a post-1945 world order that is, unfortunately for them, disintegrating.

Older Traditional Recalcitrants
At just 4 percent of the population, these are the mainstream Tories: white, male, over 55 and better off. They really like Boris Johnson, but are negative about Nigel Farage and actually support economic migration.

Anti-Corbyn 'Get It Done' Switchers
This is one of the newly discovered tribes in British politics, and at 8 percent of the population a significant one. They're older but not poor. They support Labour's ideas on economics, hate Corbyn and want Brexit. Three-quarters are life-long Labour voters but switched this time. Labour urgently needs to do something to get them to switch back.

Empire 2.0
This is the heartland of the authoritarian right, and big at 12 percent. Their cultural values are strongly right-wing. Though migrants are not on their Christmas card list, their real dislike is reserved for people on welfare. They see Brexit as the route to the revival of Britain's imperial glory. They're older, and mostly comfortably off.

Farageists
This is the northern English counterpart of the Empire brigade, and quite a bit poorer. Brexit, immigration and crime are their obsessions, and if you add their 10 percent to Empire 2.0's 12 percent, that's the voting bloc that switched from Farage to Johnson over the summer and gave the Tories their landslide.

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