05 Nov The impact of returning UKIP voters on Conservative foreign policy
The Homecoming: what the return of UKIP and Brexit Party voters would mean for the Conservative Party approach to foreign policy
Earlier this year, we surveyed Britons about their views on the UK’s foreign policy activities and objectives. At this time, the Brexit Party – which burst to life in the European elections in May – did not yet exist. As such, we captured the spread of parties as they stood at that time in the pre-Brexit Party landscape, including the Conservatives, Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and UKIP.
In the European elections, nearly 70 per cent of UKIP voters switched their vote to the Brexit Party, with a quarter remaining as UKIP voters and another sliver voting directly for the Conservatives[i]. The Brexit Party’s largest vote share overall came from former Conservative voters. As Britain’s 2019 General Election approaches, it is unclear as to whether the Brexit Party will once again secure a large representation of Conservative voters, and whether UKIP voters will remain loyal to this new party, or will return to the distant homelands of the Conservative Party – as 45 per cent of them did in the 2017 election[ii]. Recent analysis of voting intention surveys had suggested that UKIP voters would largely gravitate towards the Brexit Party, with a substantial chunk repatriating to the Conservatives[iii]; however, the ‘squeeze’ of the UK’s First Past the Post system also indicates that voters may respond to the existential nature of the vote, and consolidate around the two major parties.
Much has been made of the potential for the Brexit Party and the Conservative Party to join forces in some form of an electoral pact, to prevent both parties cannibalising the others’ vote share. Beyond the election, or the formation of any governing coalitions, however, there are important questions about how the tremendous degree of voter volatility is reshaping the voting bases of the largest parties. In this analysis, I consider what the expressed preferences of UKIP voters towards foreign policy could signal about the challenges facing the Conservative Party, should these voters (and their counterparts in the Brexit Party) find themselves ‘coming home’.
We find that UKIP voters (now largely Brexit Party voters, and referred hereon in as ‘UKIP-BP voters’) are utterly distinct in their views about foreign policy, compared to Conservative voters. This suggests that any homecoming of these voters to the Conservative Party would create a more substantial faction within the Tories instinctively hostile to many of the grounding principles of its ambitions for ‘Global Britain’.
1. UKIP/Brexit Party voters are less likely to be interested or knowledgeable about foreign affairs than Conservative voters.
When asked about their degree of interest in the UK’s international affairs, Conservative and UKIP-BP voters are 20 points apart in their level of engagement. Just 57 per cent of UKIP-BP voters report being interested in our role in the world, compared to 77 per cent of Conservative voters.
The gap increases further when asked about their level of knowledge of the UK’s foreign affairs, with just 37 per cent of UKIP-BP voters describing themselves as ‘informed’, compared to 59 per cent of Conservatives. A full quarter of UKIP-BP voters describe themselves as ‘uninformed’, compared to 13 per cent of Conservatives.
2. UKIP/Brexit Party voters are distinguished from Conservative voters by their relatively narrow focus towards international affairs, and distinct amongst all voters in their preoccupation with immigration.
Significant disparities of opinion can also be observed between their global issues of interest, with Conservative voters much more likely to share common concerns with Labour and Lib Dem voters than UKIP-BP voters. For example, Conservative voters are around 10 percentage points more likely to be interested in climate change and international trade than UKIP-BP voters, and somewhat more concerned about international terrorism and global wars.
UKIP-BP voters, however, are distinct in their outsized preoccupation with immigration: at 81 per cent, they are almost 30 percentage points more concerned about this issue than Conservative voters, and more than 50 percentage points more concerned than Labour voters.
3. UKIP/Brexit Party voters are uniquely hostile to multilateral organisations and institutions, and diverge particularly from Conservative voters on these issues.
UKIP-BP voters are distinctive in their opposition to Britain’s membership of international organisations and institutions – an especially stark contrast with their Conservative counterparts. Compared to Conservative voters, they are nearly 20 percentage points less likely to support the UK’s membership of the WTO, and more than 20 percentage points less inclined to back the UK’s membership of NATO. They are also utterly unique amongst all British voters in their antipathy towards the UN, and their special hostility towards the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. The only organisation for which their support falls within the scope of the median voter is in their general favourability towards the Commonwealth, which in fact exceeds (75 per cent to 70 per cent) that of Labour voters.
Multilateral organisations are clearly regarded with deep suspicion by UKIP-BP voters, who consider them to be instruments of globalisation of little constructive purpose for the UK. These attitudes put them at distinct odds with Conservative voters, who, as we discussed in the previous article, lead the country in their emphatic level of support for international governance.
4. UKIP/Brexit Party voters preference defence spending over trade, and actively de-prioritise international aid.
UKIP-BP voters are the most likely of any Britons to favour a reduction to UK Government spending on foreign affairs, with only 16 per cent of them supportive of increases to the international budget, compared to a quarter of Conservatives, and a majority (53 per cent) in active favour of reductions, compared to 31 per cent of Conservatives.
There are three areas of the UK Government’s international expenditure in which UKIP-BP voters are clearly distinct in their spending preferences to Conservative voters. The first is in the preference they afford to defence spending – with 57 per cent of UKIP-BP voters prioritising this as their principal funding priority, compared to 44 per cent of Conservative voters. In turn, Conservatives are 10 percentage points more inclined (47 per cent to 37 per cent) to prioritise trade as a spending priority. Thirdly, UKIP-BP voters are more likely to actively deprioritise aid spending, with 83 per cent ranking this as their lowest funding priority, compared to 68 per cent of Conservatives.
5. UKIP/Brexit Party voters want Britain to ‘put its interests first’, condemn military interventionism and are disinterested in the UK leading on democracy and values.
UKIP-BP voters are aligned with Conservative voters on their preference for the UK’s foreign policy to preference ‘economic and strategic interests’ over values such as human rights and democracy, and indeed are somewhat more likely (58 per cent to 55 per cent) to emphasise this prioritisation.
When asked as to how they would like the UK to be seen in the world, UKIP-BP voters overwhelmingly favour (76 per cent) being regarded as ‘a country that puts the interests and welfare of its citizens first’ – more than 10 percentage points more strongly than Conservative voters. UKIP-BP are also significantly less likely to choose being a leading nation in the Commonwealth (32 per cent, to 46 per cent of Conservative voters), and being a leader on global political issues such as human rights, climate change and world poverty (17 per cent, to 34 per cent of Conservative voters).
Significantly, UKIP-BP voters are also twice as likely (35 per cent, to 17 per cent of Conservative voters) to want the UK to be known as a country that does not intervene in foreign conflicts.
Even a cursory glance at this data underscores the fundamental distinctions between UKIP/Brexit Party voters and Conservative voters, across a range of crucial foreign policy dimensions. They are less supportive of multilateralism and interventionism, less interested in Britain investing funding and resources towards promoting democracy, values and human rights abroad, and regard immigration as almost the singular international issue of any importance to their lives.
We can therefore conclude, that should these voters – who have wavered between smaller parties over recent election cycles – choose to realign themselves with the Conservative Party, which largely shares their views on Brexit, they will bring with them a unique antipathy towards many of the foundational principles of the ‘Global Britain’ ambitions that have been so important to the Party since the 2016 Referendum.
The challenges the Conservative Party may subsequently face in bringing their voter base along with them on their foreign affairs platform and spending priorities could be made even more acute if the homecoming of UKIP/Brexit Party voters coincides with the exodus of the more liberal, internationalist wing of the Conservative Party towards the Lib Dems and Labour.
As we can see from this data, and in light of the previous analysis of the distinctions between Labour and Conservative voters, the Conservative Party is currently a relatively broad church in terms of its foreign policy priorities and preferences. There is a risk that this election may produce voting dynamics that could see the Conservative voting base become increasingly narrow, more homogenous and – ultimately – less instinctively internationalist in its views.
Foreign policy does appear to be an area in which the general public turns to politicians more receptively for leadership; however, it is always simpler and more effective to govern when your own voting base, at least, trusts your instincts. With enormous political debates looming on the nature and scope of our international footprint after Brexit, a governing Conservative Party will naturally wish to ensure that their most pernicious battles are with the opposition, not their own voters. Should former UKIP voters help them across the line in December 2019, and especially if this comes at the expense of their internationalist former heartlands, the challenges the Conservative leadership will face to persuade the country to fall behind their vision for a more open, global future will exponentially escalate.
Survey Sample: 1,514 British adults aged 18+. Fieldwork conducted online by BMG Research, between 8 – 11 January 2019.
The data used in this analysis is based on self-declared voting intention, as of the time of the survey. Evidently, the political landscape has shifted dramatically since the time of this survey – most notably, with the emergence of the Brexit Party, the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, and a wide series of defections and expulsions from the major parties.
The forthcoming annual survey of British public opinion on foreign policy will be published by the British Foreign Policy Group in 2020.