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The economically insecure voters behind the 2024 election outcome

Economic insecurity will play a vital role in voters’ electoral choice in the 2024 General Election.

Written by:
Nuffield Politics Research Centre
Date published:
Reading time:
14 minutes

For most voters, the 2024 general election will focus on economic concerns. This suggests that income inequality might re-appear as an important explanation of voters’ behaviour, as it has so often been in the past. In this comment we show there is a feature of modern life that will play a more important role in the voters’ electoral calculus: economic insecurity.

Economic insecurity affects a larger group in Britain today than the proportion in poverty. Those who feel economically insecure, some 39% of the electorate, equivalent to 18.5 million potential voters, are a key group determining the outcome of the election, and are especially prevalent among the working-age population. 

Labour has been more successful in picking-up support from insecure voters who opted in 2019 for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, or chose not to vote at all, than in attracting their more economically secure counterparts. Among working-age people who voted Conservative in 2019 but no longer intend to do so, Labour and Reform UK have both made crucial gains; however, Reform UK have picked up the lion’s share of insecure defectors of retirement-age.

Economic insecurity also predicts being still undecided among former 2019 Conservative voters, making insecurity even more crucial in this particular election. There is, then, a challenge for both parties to find ways to improve people’s economic security, beyond focusing on household incomes. For the Conservatives, it is about winning back support. For Labour, it is about meeting the needs of its electoral coalition.

Our new survey on economic security

The findings presented here are based on a large, original nationally representative survey of over 8,000 people conducted by the Nuffield Politics Research Centre for JRF, in March 2024. The survey is the first deep-dive project into economic security of its kind, and is the first of 3 waves of a panel study (following the same people) to be undertaken in 2024 and 2025, with a focus on economic security and its broader consequences.

What do we mean by economic insecurity?

Economic insecurity is the subjective feeling about one’s broad economic circumstances. It reflects feelings about the balance of money going out and money coming in, financial commitments, the degree to which people have a safety net, and expectations about what may happen in the near future. It is likely influenced by care-giving responsibilities, savings, borrowing, homeownership, rent costs, financial security through work and other incomes, and out-goings. Crucially, it explains more of people’s political choices and intentions than their income alone. 

How widespread is economic insecurity?

Feelings of economic insecurity are widespread. Figure 1 shows the most insecure as 39% of the eligible voting population in Great Britain. Here we use a 10-point response scale to the question ‘How worried are you about your personal economic security?’, where lower values mean being more worried. 

We then divide this scale into 3 roughly even-sized groups: insecure (0-3 on the scale), neither, or ‘middling’ (4-6), and secure (7-10). Only 24% of our survey respondents reported feeling economically secure in March of 2024 – an ominous background for a government fighting an upcoming election. 

The 39% who feel economically insecure provide a large electoral constituency for policies that address financial concerns, such as those concerning cost of living pressures and fears of not making ends meet which flow from them. This is a far larger group than just those who are in poverty. It thus provides a larger constituency for policy appeals to address insecurity, and will likely provide a key test of any incoming government’s ongoing support. In real terms, this 39% of the electorate in Britain are equivalent to roughly 18.5 million potential voters in the election.1 

Insecurity is much more than just income

A great deal of government policy is focused on people’s incomes, through cutting levels of taxation, maintaining or safe-guarding pensions, providing benefits, or through job creation and wages. This is not providing a solution to large numbers of people’s feelings of insecurity. The relationship of a person’s personal household income level and their feelings of insecurity is actually quite modest. 

Figure 2 shows the relationship between feelings of economic insecurity and a person’s position on the income distribution, from the bottom 10% of earners to the top 10%.2 There is more insecurity among those with the lowest incomes, and less insecurity among those with the highest incomes, but this relationship is very far from a perfect correspondence. Over 1 in 8 of those with the lowest incomes feel secure, and more than 20% of those with the highest incomes feel insecure. Among the middle category, those who feel neither secure nor insecure, there is no relationship to income. Clearly, insecurity is a product of far more than just one’s current earnings. 

The imperfect relationship between income and a sense of security holds up even when we focus directly on those of working age (18-65), which we show below, in Figure 3. Amongst the top 10% of working-age income earners, 1 in 4 feel economically insecure, with that number reaching 1 in 3 amongst those of the relatively high earning 8th and 9th deciles.

The relationship between income and security seems somewhat stronger for those of retirement age (Figure 3b), although it should be noted that there are relatively few retirement-age adults in the 9th (7%) and 10th (4%) income deciles to begin with. However, even among those of retirement-age, there is still a non-negligible amount of ‘secure low earners’ and ‘insecure high earners’ and, as we discuss below, overall there are fewer retirees who feel economically insecure compared to those of working age.

Figure 4 clarifies that not having a low income is neither sufficient nor necessary for economic security,  by highlighting 4 key groups of people: those who do and do not feel insecure, and those who are, and are not, in the lower income group.

Here we have combined those who, in Figure 1, felt ‘secure’, ‘neither secure nor insecure’ and the small group who didn’t know their level of security into a ‘not economically insecure’ segment, and contrast this against the group who felt ‘insecure’ (7+/10 for worry). We then similarly categorised income, taking all those in the bottom tercile (33%) of income earning households as our ‘lower income group’ and all others as their ‘not lower income’ counterparts.

We see here 2 critical groups; those in the lower income group who do not feel insecure (17% of our sample), and the group who do not have lower incomes but who nevertheless feel economically insecure (22%). Greater insight into what differentiates insecurity from income can be gained from comparing those who do not have the lower incomes yet still feel insecure from those who do have lower incomes, but do not feel insecure (17%).

The insecure, but not in the lowest (third) of incomes

Among the 22% who feel insecure, yet do not have the lower incomes we might expect to define this group, we see evidence for the crucial influence of pre-committed expenditures that are difficult to adjust in the short-term (for example, in response to economic shocks).

There is an over-representation of those in the private rental sector (31% of whom fall into this group) as well as mortgage holders (32%), especially those on a variable rate or with less than a year left on a fixed-rate (35%). Similarly, those with non-mortgage debts (28%) and childcare responsibilities (28%) are over-represented in this group, as are Londoners (29%), which could reflect the generally higher cost of living in the nation’s capital.

 Those of prime working age (25-65) are also over-represented in this group (25%), with representation being much lower among younger adults (19%) and those of retirement age (13%). This could reflect the role of future prospects in buttressing the security of the very young (many of whom will still be in full-time education), and the steady and reliable incomes provided by pensions among those in retirement.

Finally, we see a clear role for household savings, with those in the bottom-quartile of our sample in terms of cash savings (those having roughly under £500) being significantly over-represented in the ‘not low income but insecure’ group (25%) compared to those in the top quartile, those with over £50,000 of savings (15%).4

The secure, in the lowest (third) of incomes

Fewer committed expenditures, as well as state assistance and greater wealth buffers (such as savings) help explain the 1 in 6 (17%) of our sample who are ‘lower income but not economically insecure’. Amongst this group, there is a clear over-representation of those who own their home outright (20%) as well as those in social or subsidised housing (28%).

Those with no debts (excluding mortgages) are also disproportionately concentrated in this group (22%), as are both those of retirement age (24%) and those under 25 (21%), possibly for the same reasons discussed before.

Economic insecurity and the 2024 General Election

The economically insecure, even those who are not on lower incomes, have reasons to feel worried about, and motivated to support a change in, their economic circumstances. We now look at how economic insecurity is likely to be an important factor in the upcoming general election.

Figure 5 presents the vote intention of those who we classified as economically secure, insecure and neither. As we might expect, in general, more economically insecure voters intend to vote Labour and more economically secure voters intend to vote Conservative, with support for other parties (as well as being undecided or intending to abstain) showing little relation to insecurity.

Economic insecurity and Labour gains

More importantly, we can also see that economic insecurity underpins the gains that Labour have made from the 2019 General Election to our survey at the end of March 2024. Figure 6a shows, among those that are both economically secure and insecure, the percentage of 2019-era Labour supporters that the party have held on to (in grey), rather than lost to rival parties, abstention or undecided, as well as the percentage of those that supported rival parties in 2019 (or did not vote at all) that they have gained.

While Labour successfully retained almost 7 in 10 of both their secure and insecure supporters from the previous election5, they have clearly been more successful at picking-up insecure voters that did not back them last time than secure ones. Labour gained the support of 1 in 5 of the former group, but only around 1 in 7 of the latter.

Figure 6b then shows the percentages of 2019-era supporters of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and other parties, as well as non-voters in that election, that Labour had gained by Spring 2024, and whether that differs by economic insecurity.  We can see clear evidence that insecurity matters.  Labour gained 8% of 2019-era Conservative supporters and 31% of 2019-era Liberal Democrat supporters that currently feel economically secure. However, they gained 13% of insecure 2019-era Conservatives and 37% of insecure Liberal Democrats.

The difference is also very striking looking at abstainers. Labour gained the support of 15% of those who did not vote in 2019 (including those who were ineligible) but feel economically secure, but 1 in 4 previous non-voters who feel insecure.

In fact, when we consider all of the supporters that Labour have gained since 2019, from all sources, we find that 42% feel economically insecure versus only 21% feeling secure (which compares to 39% and 24% of the population in general, and 36% and 26% of those not supporting Labour). In summary, voters are returning to Labour, or voting for the first time because of fears about insecurity.

Economic insecurity and Conservative losses

In Figure 7, we look at those people who voted Conservative in 2019, and for whom they intended to vote, if at all, by the end of March 2024. We include Liberal Democrats under ‘other’ due to the very small numbers (less than 3%) switching from Conservative to Liberal Democrat. We provide data separately for those 2019-era Conservatives who currently feel secure, insecure and neither. Loyalty to the Conservatives falls precipitously among those who do not feel economically secure. Almost half of ‘secure’ 2019-era Conservatives have stayed with the Conservatives, but only 28% of those who felt economically insecure have done so.

Overall, more 2019 Conservatives are moving to Reform UK, but among those who feel economically insecure, the percent intending to vote Reform UK was as high as a quarter (26%, as opposed to 23% overall, and 19% among the secure). This is also before Nigel Farage boosted Reform’s appeal by standing for them. Labour support among 2019 Conservatives, which is arguably a more difficult switch for those voters who were associated so strongly with Brexit and Boris Johnson in 2019, increases from 8% among the most secure to 13% among the insecure (as opposed to 10% overall).

Finally, we also see that greater insecurity is associated with a greater likelihood of being undecided among 2019-era Conservatives (24%, as opposed to 18% of the secure, or 22% of all 2019-era Conservatives). This could account, in part, for the apparent failure of the Conservative campaign to win these voters’ support if economic insecurity is indicative of a deeper sense of worry that has not been addressed by the campaign.

We note that these relationships, as with the statistics on Labour’s post-2019 gains, are robust to using regression modelling to control for the competing effects of income, age, employment stats, gender, housing tenure, ethnicity, education and region, on vote choice, as well as attitudes to immigration and general self-declared tendency towards anxiety more broadly.

Conservative voters splitting on the left, or the right

The degree to which economic insecurity influences the decision to defect from the Conservatives to Labour, or to Reform UK, can be explained in part by age. The following figures split the electoral destinations of 2019 Conservative voters between those of working age (65 and below, Figure 8a) and retirement age (66 and above, Figure 8b).

Overall, more working-age 2019 Conservatives are either intending to defect or undecided (69%) than their retirement-age counterparts (58%), but the level and direction of these defections vary by age and subjective economic insecurity. Among the working-age subsample insecurity is clearly associated with a higher probability of defection to Labour (15% v 11% of secure 2019-era Conservatives), as well as Reform UK (25% v 18%) and indecision (23% v 17%).

Interestingly, among those 2019 Conservative voters of retirement age, the increase in likelihood of supporting Reform UK is even higher; increasing from 20% to 29% when one contrasts the economically secure to the insecure. The strong pattern between economic insecurity among 2019 Conservative voters and those who remained undecided by the end of March 2024, is also pronounced among those who are of retirement age, but there seems to be little increase in the (generally low) numbers defecting to other parties (including Labour) among this cohort.

Since so many Conservative voters are also, on average, older, the fact that the insecurity-defection relationship also exists among those of retirement age means that this issue is pivotal for Conservative vote defection and the potential of the Conservatives to win back these voters.

Conclusion

The election is taking place following a prolonged cost of living crisis, which has not only made abject hardship more pronounced, but which has contributed to so many people, 39%, or 18.5 million, feeling economically insecure, a larger proportion than those in poverty. Catering to the concerns of these economically insecure Britons is a key imperative for the incoming government. Parties would do well to focus on policies which speak to the cost pressures and fears of not making ends meet which flow from them. 

Economic insecurity is an important electoral dividing line for the current UK General Election.

Labour’s electoral coalition has grown, in significant part, due to winning more support among people who feel economically insecure; from more economically insecure Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and among people who did not vote in 2019. The Conservatives have lost more support among those people who feel economically insecure; with insecure working-age 2019 Conservatives moving to both Labour and Reform UK (as well as being undecided), and their retirement-age counterparts moving most strongly to Reform UK.

We would not understand the role of economic insecurity in this election were it not for specific survey measures, fielded right before the election, in this new, in-depth 8,000 person survey. They show, for the first time, the level of insecurity before the election and its relationship to electoral behaviour. Our study, which will continue with two further survey waves in 2024 and 2025, will continue to bring new insights to bear after the election, with a comprehensive picture of the causes and consequences of economic insecurity in Great Britain.

Notes

  1. This figure was arrived at by multiplying the unrounded estimate of the proportion of the British population (our sample excluded Northern Ireland) that feel economically insecure, 0.3873, with the total number of registered voters in Britain in the December 2023 edition of the Office for National Statistics’ ‘electoral statistics’ dataset (47,637,756). This gives the estimated number of economically insecure potential voters as 18,450,102.
  2. We use gross household income, and equivalise this figure based on the size of the household (with adults weighted differently to children).
  3. Even when controlling for housing tenure.
  4. What about those who are generally economically insecure, regardless of income? Among this group, 39% of the population at large, we see a clear overrepresentation of part-time workers (43%), the unemployed (56%), as well as other working-age non-students outside the labour market (52%). Those with a disability are also over-represented (47%), as are those with care duties for young children (43%), mortgage-holders on a variable rate or 1 year or less of a fixed-rate (46%), and private renters and council tenants (50% each). Londoners again appear to be more highly concentrated in this group (44%), as do those of an Asian (45%) or Afro-Caribbean (44%) background. Finally, as discussed previously, rates of insecurity are higher among working-age adults (42%) than those aged- 66 and over (28%). Future reports will clarify the relative importance of these factors (and potential interactions between them), as well as other factors such as job type, educational background, and other assets and liabilities.
  5. Labour have lost 10% of their 2019-era supporters to the Greens, 12% to indecision (those yet to make up their minds about who they will support), 3% to abstention, and the remaining 5% to other parties. There is no notable relationship between insecurity and the specific direction that Labour defectors have gone to.

About the authors

This was produced for JRF by Jane Green, Geoffrey Evans, Zack Grant and Gaetano Inglese from Nuffield Politics Research Centre, Nuffield College, Oxford University.

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