Volatile Voters and Volatile Political Times JAne Green

UK politics is going through a tumultuous period of change. In just a five year period, we’ve had two referendums (the Scottish independence referendum and Brexit referendum), two general elections (2015 and 2017), and we’re about to have the third Prime Minister in a matter of weeks (as Inspires goes to print in early July). More voters have been switching their support between elections than ever before. The 2015 general election saw the greatest amount of switching between parties (since the previous election, 2010) and the highest vote share for ‘other’ parties on record. Just two years later, following the dramatic EU referendum and vote for Brexit, the 2017 general election delivered the highest two party share since 1970 and the greatest amount of Conservative-Labour party switching (from the election before, 2015). The recent UK European Parliament elections saw the lowest two party share since the UK has held elections to the European Parliament, and the Brexit Party rose from inception to topping that poll in a period of only months.

How should we study this incredible amount of volatility, and how can we explain these changes?

The best data available come in the form of the British Election Study (BES). The BES surveys people immediately after general elections in the form of nationally representative in-person surveys, considered the ‘gold standard’ in survey research. These data have been central to our work understanding, for example, the 2015 opinion polling miss, and the contested 2017 ‘youthquake’ (a supposed surge in youth turnout for Labour which our analysis subsequently refuted), as well as providing over-time comparisons of post-election BES surveys going back to 1964. We also run a large internet panel study, following the same people’s attitudes and vote choices over time. BES data have been central to identifying and explaining the large amount of switching that is taking place between elections, and explaining the causes of voting behaviour for parties over this tumultuous and fascinating period. It is central to our forthcoming book, co-authored with the BES team (Electoral Shocks: Understanding The Volatile Voter in a Tumultuous World), in which we explain why British politics is becoming so much more unstable and volatile, and in which we give a novel account for volatility and the reasons British voters opted for different parties in the two most recent general elections; 2015 and 2017.

I have been fortunate to be a Co-Director of the BES since 2013, and we are really delighted that the Economic and Social Research Council has recently awarded us the 2019-2023 study as well. As part of a team collaboration between the Universities of Manchester and Oxford, myself and Professor Geoffrey Evans (Department of Sociology) represent the University of Oxford’s contribution to the study.

BES data are used internationally and domestically, by a wide range of academics, and are also highly valued and widely used by a range of important non-academic audiences. I use BES data, for example, to inform election-night coverage for ITV News, and was honoured that our most recent election night programme (in 2017) was nominated for a BAFTA. It would be quite something if we could pull that off again.

It is a huge privilege to run the study, especially at a time in British politics when rigorous social science data and analysis has so much to contribute to public understanding, political debate, and academic analysis that will be used for decades to come to make sense of the historic moment in which we find ourselves in. Though none of us knows what will happen in the current British political saga, the BES will be ready to analyse its impact.


Jane Green is Professor of Political Science and British Politics, Professorial Fellow, Nuffield College, and Co-Director of the British Election Study

Follow Prof Green on Twitter @ProfJaneGreen


Photo credits: Shutterstock

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