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“Open vs. closed” is dividing the left but uniting the right


This post was written by Adam Drummond, Research Manager at our partner Opinium. You can contact Adam directly here.


The most notable result from Opinium’s work on “political tribes” is that open vs. closed is as important a political divide as left vs. right and the two largest and most homogeneous tribes are both firmly at the “closed” end of the spectrum.

What we’ve called the “Common Sense” and “Our Britain” tribes are the most right wing of the eight groups we identified and, while they occupy different places on the left-right scale, they are united in wanting a more closed society. Both of these groups voted Leave in the referendum by significant margins and, together, make up 50% of the voting public.

In contrast, other groups that support restricting welfare, low taxes and a small state are at the opposite end of the openness spectrum. What we have called “Free Liberals” and “New Britain” differ slightly in terms of how far they want to go on each of these areas but are broadly united in seeing immigration as a benefit rather than a burden and favouring single market access over immigration controls. However, these groups make up only 13% of the UK even if the approach of the governments led by David Cameron were largely aligned to them.

What was unique about the EU referendum was how, Britain-as-Singapore advocates aside, it placed open and closed clearly on opposite sides of the debate instead of coexisting within larger party coalitions and in the groups above we see such an uneasy coalition. At the moment, the Conservatives have a significant lead among “Common Sense”, the “Free Liberals” and “New Britain” but are virtually tied with UKIP amongst “Our Britain”.

Yet “Our Britain” and the two more pro-immigration groups have utterly opposing views on what Brexit should look like.

Despite this, Theresa May arguably has an easier job than Jeremy Corbyn or any Labour leader would. Outside of “Our Britain” and “Common Sense”, the rest of the country, particularly what we would call the left, are scattered across six different groups with none constituting more than 11% of the population.

The steep challenge for any centre left leader is that while these groups all voted Remain in the referendum, they are badly split on many other issues. The “Progressives” and the “Democratic Socialists” both want a generous welfare state and to remain in the single market, but differ strongly on whether people should be allowed to earn as much as they want as long as they pay their taxes or whether the state should do more to create an equal society.

The more soft-left “Community” group agree with the Democratic Socialists on an equal society but strongly believe that immigration is a burden on society and that “British” is an ethnic identity rather than a civic one, in contrast to the other two groups.

The groups that would be needed to form a centre left coalition are more numerous and more divided than their equivalents on the centre right. Traditionally, economic concerns have been the priority for forming political allegiances and we see that in the party affiliation of the various political tribes in Britain. But globalisation is giving ever greater salience to whether society is open or closed to the outside world and the EU referendum may be just the first manifestation of this divide.