The hidden wiring behind modern politics and where it gives UKIP a chance to beat Labour

Posted 30 December 2016

A version of this article previously appeared in the Daily Telegraph [3]

Other features in this series: Introduction to 2D Politics, Plot my 2D Position, and 2D-Vote on Public Figures

The old labels of "left" and "right" are not enough to describe modern politics. There has been a growth of new parties and movements such as UKIP, Donald Trump in the United States, and various "populist" movements in Europe. These groups do not fit neatly into the old left-right spectrum, and that makes analysis of political trends and attitudes difficult. Political science, like any "hard" science, needs to be able to measure and quantify. It needs a new metric for modern political attitudes.

But the terms "left" and "right" are still meaningful, particularly on economic matters. People and parties disagree over the size of the state, levels of taxation, welfare spending, business regulation, and so forth. Those issues have not disappeared, but they are not the whole story. Modern politics has a range of new issues which do not fit onto that one-dimensional economic spectrum — such as the environmental agenda, gender and identity politics, authoritarianism versus liberalism, defence and foreign affairs.

But the biggest fault-line of the new politics is between internationalism and nationalism. In the British context, Internationalism is broadly pro-immigration, in favour of the EU single market, multiculturalism, welcoming immigrants, and for an engaged global Britain in the world. On the other side, Nationalism wants to limit immigration, dislikes EU freedom of movement, believes in British-born Britons first, wants Britain to take its own decisions and be more isolationist.

We can get an exciting and clear view of previously half-glimpsed politics, by combining two measures. The first is the traditional left/right split on economic questions. The second is the new internationalism/nationalism axis. Using opinion surveys, we can ask people questions to discover their position on each of these two separate spectrums. At the simplest, there are four categories based on all the possible combinations. The key to understanding this two-dimensional classification is that "left wing" and "nationalist" are not opposites. You can be a left-wing nationalist. You can be a right-wing internationalist.

This two-by-two table shows the four possibilities, along with a brief description and broad geographical location:

Nationalist Left-wing nationalist

Traditional working class, hostile to immigrants and globalization.

Strength: Newcastle, S.Yorks, Midlands
Right-wing nationalist

Believes in the British way-of-life, doesn't like generous welfare benefits or trade unions

Strength: Essex, East of England
Internationalist Left-wing internationalist

Middle-class liberal, likes welfare state and EU freedom of movement

Strength: Scotland, Wales, east London
Right-wing internationalist

Free marketeer, likes globalization and low taxes

Strength: London, South of England

We can add more precision to this simple scheme. For each axis, we can quantify someone's distance from the political centre. The result is not a single number but a pair of numbers (and directions), very much like geographical latitude and longtitude. On the economic axis, someone is either left or right of centre, and we can quantify the distance as a number of "degrees", where 1° is very very close to the centre and 100° is the maximum possible distance from the centre. So someone measured as 50° Left would be fairly left-wing, but someone else who is measured as 20° Right is relatively mildly right of centre.

And on the national axis, each person has a new distance from the centre, in either the internationalist or nationalist direction. Again we use degrees of either Internationalism or Nationalism from 1° to 100°. For example, a position of 60° National is strongly nationalist, and a position of 35° International is quite internationalist.

Any person has a political position which is given by the two co-ordinates. For example, someone might be located at 10° Right, 20° International.

Ukip is not very Right-wing economically

This places him or her very mildly right-of-centre and mildly internationalist. Someone else with a location of 75° Right, 60° International is in the same quadrant of right-wing internationalism, but more extreme.

You can see full details of this method, plus your own 2D position and the 2D position of your local council ward on other pages of Electoral Calculus.

If we survey many people we can take the averages of their political positions to build up a political map of Britain.

A very useful study [1] by the Social Market Foundation with opinion poll survey [2] by Opinium lets us see the political position of supporters of the major parties. Each party is represented by a sphere which is centered on the average position of the party's supporters. The size of each sphere is proportional to the number of that party's supporters.

Electoral Calculus 2D Political Map by Voting Intention
Chart 1 : 2D Political Map by Voting IntentionSource: Electoral Calculus, and SMF/Opinium survey of 2,037 adults 12–18 August 2016

Let's look at UKIP first. UKIP is sometimes described as a right-wing party, and sometimes as "far right" by its opponents. But that is not particularly accurate. If we look just at the economic axis only, then UKIP appears as only a mildly right-wing party, and to the left of the Conservatives. UKIP supporters are not really pro-market tax-cutting libertarians. But the real truth is in the other dimension. UKIP is a strongly nationalist party, located more than 50° from the centre in the Nationalist direction. In summary, UKIP is not particularly right-wing economically, but it is strongly nationalist.

The Conservatives are more centrist on the national axis, reflecting known tensions between euro-philes and euro-phobes. Whilst Labour and the smaller parties on average are clearly left-of-centre and internationalist.

Let's look at Britain at a more detailed level. The smallest political unit in Britain is the local council ward, whose councillors are elected every four years or so. Using advanced statistical techniques, coupled with detailed electoral and census data, Electoral Calculus has estimated the political position of each of the 8,700 wards in the country. The chart below shows one dot for each ward, with the colour of the dot representing the party affiliation of the ward (the party who won most votes in the ward at the 2015 general election).

Electoral Calculus Wards 2D Political Map
Chart 2 : GB Wards 2D Political Map by Party AffiliationSource: Electoral Calculus

The main band of wards runs at an angle from the internationalist left to the nationalist right, passing through the political centre at 0° – 0°. Unsurprisingly, Labour wards tend to be left-wing, and Conservative wards tend to be right-wing. The Lib Dem wards are mildly left-of-centre but clearly internationalist. UKIP wards are economically centrist, but clearly nationalist. On the national axis, both Labour and Conservative wards straddle the centrist 0° axis — Labour has many nationalist wards, just as the Conservatives have many internationalist wards. The "Other" parties are mostly SNP wards in Scotland which are left-wing and internationalist.

Right-wing and internationalist Londoners

There is also a secondary band of wards below the main band which is much more internationalist. These wards are mostly in London and are generally more right-wing and internationalist than the main group of wards. In the EU referendum, London voted 60pc to Remain and this is reflected in these wards' political positions.

Let's see what this means for the future of British politics, the Labour party and UKIP. Many Labour MPs in England are already nervous about UKIP eating into their support. But how realistic are those fears and which regions of the country are most vulnerable?

We can now answer this question quantitatively. Using the ward data we can categorise each ward into one of the four categories: "Left-wing internationalist", "Left-wing nationalist", "Right-wing internationalist", "Right-wing nationalist", plus a fifth category of "Centrist" for those wards around the political centre. And we can plot these wards by category on a geographical map of the country.

Electoral Calculus Wards by 2D Category Geographical Map
Chart 3 : GB Wards by 2D Political Category — Geographical viewSource: Electoral Calculus

Let's remember that the red, blue and purple colours do not indicate party preference, but the political attitudes of the various parts of the country in terms of our two political dimensions. We see that:

This map is Labour's problem and UKIP's opportunity. Labour's political problem is that its current membership and leadership is strongly in the left-wing internationalist category. But this appeals only to relatively small parts of the country, like London, Wales and Scotland. And of those, Scotland has already rejected the Labour party for the SNP. This leaves a dangerously narrow base of support for the Labour party nationally.

The voters who have been left "abandoned" by the Corbynite Labour party are mainly the left-wing nationalists. They are hard for the Conservatives to reach since they are opposed to right-of-centre economics. But they could be reached by UKIP.

We have already seen that UKIP supporters are not very right-wing economically. The party's main political profile is nationalism. UKIP could continue to keep that nationalist element whilst moving in the economic direction back to the centre or left-of-centre.

Electoral Calculus London Wards by 2D Category as Geography
Chart 4 : London Wards by 2D Political Category — Geographical viewSource: Electoral Calculus

It might also make political sense to soften their hard-line nationalism somewhat. UKIP's target 2D political position should be around 25° Left, 25° Nationalist compared with their current position of 13° Right, 58° Nationalist.

That could potentially let UKIP attract large numbers of disillusioned Labour voters in the north and the midlands. The platform to achieve that would include hostility to immigration, scepticism about free trade, and relatively generous welfare spending for Britons (but not foreigners). They would be deliberately taking advantage of Labour's structural weakness in these areas, and looking to win Westminster seats. Around a third of all current Labour MPs are in regions which have more left-wing nationalist wards than left-wing internationalist wards.

Already Paul Nuttall, the new UKIP leader, already appears to be following this strategy. On election he said "I want to replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people. We will be focusing on the issues that really matter to working-class people on doorsteps - immigration, crime, defence, foreign aid, ensuring that British people are put to the top of the queue in the job market." That statement needs no decoding as a declaration to fight Labour in the left-wing nationalist quadrant.

UKIP is moving, and it is moving left heading for Labour voters. It is a mistake for Labour to think of UKIP as a "far right" party. It is much closer to their heartlands than that. If Labour do not react, they may suffer another "Scotland" in the north and the midlands. The stakes are very high.

But for the Conservatives, this trend is broadly positive. A left-leaning UKIP reduces competition for right-of-centre voters. They need to keep their free-trading nerve and maintain position while UKIP and Labour fight it out.

Appendix: What UKIP supporters really think

Some commenters have wondered whether this data really reflects how UKIP supporters think. Some UKIP supporters are keen internationalists who want free trade and a Britain engaged in the world, only with Britain outside the EU. This is clearly a valid political position, but it is not shared by the majority of UKIP supporters.

The poll by Opinium [2], commissioned by the Social Market Foundation [1], provides strong evidence of this. Opinium asked UKIP supporters (those respondents who gave UKIP as their voting intention) six questions about internationalism/nationalism. For each question, UKIP supporters were clearly more nationalist than internationalist.

Political Attitudes of UKIP Supporters
Chart 5 : Political Attitudes of UKIP SupportersSource: SMF/Opinium survey of 173 UKIP supporters sub-sample within 2,037 adults 12–18 August 2016

The six questions asked by Opinium were in the form of opposing statements. Respondents were asked to pick the statement which comes closest to their own view. Percentages do not add up to 100pc, because some respondents were undecided between the two options.

QInternationalistUKIP pcUKIP pcNationalist
6AImmigration is generally beneficial for society582Immigration is generally a burden on society
6BBritain must be open to investment and trade by staying in the European single market even if that means we cannot reduce immigration from the EU678Britain should prioritise reducing immigration from the EU even if leaving the European single market is bad for our economy
6I"British" is a civic identity that can be held by anybody who lives here, pays taxes and wants to be part of this country2755"British" is an ethnic identity that you can only have if you were born here
6JEveryone is a human being and the British government should treat everyone equally, regardless of whether they were born in this country or not1266The British government has no obligation to help anybody except British citizens
6KBritain should be a force for good in the world, helping to uphold international law, justice and protect those in danger wherever possible2945Britain has no business intervening beyond our own borders
6MAs a society, Britain has much to learn from the rest of the world1647As a society, Britain has much to teach the rest of the world
Table 6 : Questions and responses of UKIP SupportersSource: SMF/Opinium survey of 173 UKIP supporters sub-sample within 2,037 adults 12–18 August 2016

Since the survey sub-sample size is only 173 UKIP supporters, the margin of error of this poll is higher than usual. Normal polls have a margin of error of around 3pc, and this sample size would have a margin of error of around 7pc. But given the majority for each question is larger than even this margin of error, this should not affect the conclusions.

We see from these responses of UKIP supporters that a majority of them are hostile to immigration, believe that "British" means British-born, and that the British government should only help British citizens. More agree than disagree that Britain should be more isolationist and should teach rather than learn from the rest of the world.

It is this survey response data which leads to UKIP having a nationalist position of 58° National, since all these responses are on the national side of the internationalist/nationalist axis.