The next election won't be just about Brexit

For the majority of low-income voters Brexit wasn’t the main thing on their minds at the last general election. They were more worried about being trapped by economic inequality and pulled under by austerity. Frank Soodeen looks at what might come up at the next one.

The call for Boris Johnson to hold an early general election has started. The motives of people like Lord Finkelstein and Nigel Farage are different but the argument is the same: the PM has a parliament rejecting every Brexit option, and an unsteady majority. His only hope is to get a strong mandate for his own plan from the electorate.

But as Theresa May discovered in 2017, no matter how hard politicians and their teams work to set the political debate, they can find that the public want to talk about other things. This is especially true at general elections, which are different from other types of polls. So, what might come up?

For several years JRF has tried to understand better what the 8.8 million voters living in low-income households think about their lives and prospects. We do this for two reasons. First, to persuade those running the country to pay more attention to the needs and aspirations of this key demographic and second, to guide our own policy and campaigning work.

In the next few days we’ll be releasing the results of an extensive focus group exercise, carried out among leave- and remain-voting low-income British people living in marginal seats. Confirming the dictum that ‘all politics is local’ the main concerns reported by participants related to the lack of vibrancy of their local economies, manifested in the decline of high streets and the proliferation of low-paid, insecure work threatening to sweep people into poverty; and scarcer opportunities to improve their skills through training and quality apprenticeships. Cutting across all of these was a pervasive sense among respondents that too many decisions about their lives are made elsewhere and that in effect they are locked out from the opportunities available to others.  

Like their better-off counterparts, focus group respondents are immensely frustrated by the Brexit stalemate and the distraction it poses. But for the majority of low-income voters Brexit wasn’t uppermost in their minds at the last General Election and there’s no guarantee it will be next time round. New research for JRF by noted political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Oliver Heath shows that though the Conservatives attracted many low-income voters through a direct appeal to their support for Brexit and greater immigration controls at the 2017 election (growing their support among the group by five percentage points to 33%), ultimately Labour drew in the majority through appealing to voters’ concerns over being trapped by economic inequality, and being pulled under by austerity (growing their support by 13 percentage points to 53%).

Numbers of low-income voters are rising, and they are more open to being persuaded to switch sides; this mean that all the major parties have scope to make inroads with this group if they can speak to their concerns. But that means going well above Brexit to set out plans for transforming how our economy works, so everyone - regardless of where they live – has the chance to build a better life. Helpfully, answers for how to do that abound across the political spectrum as these special JRF-funded investigations by CapX and Prospect magazine indicate. This is a theme that JRF will be returning to over the coming months.