In the aftermath of the Brexit Party’s triumphant victory in the 2019 European parliamentary elections, it was widely anticipated that Farage’s party would split the Leave vote in any future general elections. These concerns became even more apparent when the Eurosceptic parties failed to displace Labour in Peterborough or fend off the Liberal Democrats in the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election.
Subsequently, I began working with prominent pro-Brexit individuals on the electoral history of Leave voting constituencies, especially those held by the Labour Party. I even produced some blue-prints for informal election pacts, like in a grassroots alliance, that would advise the 17.4 million on what candidate was best suited to ensure a Leave member of parliament represented a Leave-voting constituency.
I was given several opportunities after conducting my research. Firstly, I began to write articles for BrexitCentral. Over a period, a little longer than purdah, I contributed four articles to the publication. Initially, I demanded that Boris Johnson accepted Farage’s overtures and let the Brexit Party wreak havoc in Labour’s heartlands. However, I quickly realised that this was not going to happen. Instead, it became clear that the best way to get Brexit done was to challenge Nigel Farage to stand down more candidates and advise Brexiteers to back Boris.
The Hartlepool announcement safeguarded 317 Conservative constituencies won in 2017. Consequently, Boris Johnson’s party held all but ten of these seats. Nevertheless, I feared this would not be enough. My estimates suggested that around two-thirds of the battleground seats voted Leave. I feared that if the Brexit Party won even the smallest of support in the marginals, it might enable Labour or the Liberal Democrats to romp to victory, and lead to a disastrous hung parliament.
Just days before the election, I used my contributory status at BrexitCentral to plead with Brexiteers to unite behind Boris Johnson or risk being trapped in the EU forever. Against all of my expectations, it became clear that Boris Johnson’s dedication to getting Brexit done was beginning to challenge the previously held tribal affairs of British politics. Vox pop after vox pop reported that voters in the Labour heartlands were going to lend their votes to the Conservatives. And after my own, albeit less scientific, qualitative research I came to a similar conclusion.
But would there be enough support from former Labour voters? According to the last YouGov MRP poll before election day it was unlikely. The number of seats that the poll expected the Tories to win had fallen from a sixty-eight-seat majority to a majority of just twenty-eight. I began to calculate where Nigel Farage could cost a pro-Brexit candidate from winning. After sending my findings to Camilla Tominey, I was fortunate to feature in the byline of The Daily Telegraph’s article warning readers that there are 49 seats where the Brexit Party had potential to split the Leave vote and risk a hung parliament.
But did the Brexit Party cost the Tories seats?
This debate ensued during, as well as after the British people went to the polls. Faragists, including a Brexit Party candidate that I interviewed, remained adamant that they would steal voters from Labour who would never vote Conservative. For example, Blyth Valley’s Labour candidate lost 11.9% of their vote share. While the Tories share grew by 5.4%; a staggering 8.3% was won by the Brexit Party. But Johnsonians, including Christopher Howarth, claimed that the Brexit Party cost a complete redrawing of the British political landscape. Howarth contested the seat of Houghton and Sunderland South. He presumed that an overwhelming majority of the Brexit Party’s 15.5% vote share would fall behind his party and therefore he would have overturned Bridget Phillipson’s reduced lead of 7.8%.
To find the truth, I have one essential task; to estimate, or try to estimate, how Brexit Party voters would have voted. To do this, I must use opinion polling and electoral results. It may be forgotten, but the Brexit Party failed to field candidates in three Labour-held Leave seats: Dudley North, Gateshead and Liverpool Walton. Analysing the swing from Labour to the Tories in these seats will be imperative to understanding whether or not Farage did cost the Tories more seats. These seats, which spread across three separate regions of the United Kingdom, are also fairly reflective of the geographical differences within the former Labour heartlands, now called the red-wall.
As results trickled in on that late December night, it became evident that both the Leave and Remain vote had split. While the Conservatives and the pro-Brexit half of the United Kingdom was the most successful in unifying their vote share; they did not, as is the case for the Scottish National Party, form a complete, grassroots electoral alliance. In the days that followed the election, candidates and parties were able to reflect on the results. Christopher Howarth, the Tory candidate in Houghton and Sunderland South, took to BrexitCentral to voice his frustration at the perceived cost of Farage’s party. In the north-eastern constituency, the Brexit Party warned that a ‘vote for’ Boris Johnson would ensure a Corbyn government. However, this the result appears to show that it was Farage that prevented Labour’s annihilation.
The messaging from the Brexit Party appeared throughout the United Kingdom. In the Gower Street Journal’s exclusive interview with Cameron Edwards, a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Brexit Party, Edwards claimed that the Tories did not have a chance of replacing the Labour Party.
On this basis, the Brexit Party cost the Tories an additional 38 constituencies that Labour held last December. This would have increased the number of seats represented by a Conservative MP to 403, the most since Stanley Baldwin successful election in 1931.
|Constituency||Labour %||Conservative %||Brexit Party %|
|Coventry North West||43.8||43.4||4.1|
|Dagenahm and Rainham||44.5||43.8||6.6|
|Wolverhampton South East||46.4||42.7||6.3|
|Kingston upon Hull East||39.2||35.4||17.8|
|Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford||37.9||35.3||16.6|
|Oldham East and Saddleworth||43.5||40.3||6.5|
|Wentworth and Dearne||40.3||35.1||16.9|
|Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle||42.7||33.6||18.9|
|Stalybridge and Hyde||44.9||38.0||8.5|
|Houghton and Sunderland South||40.7||32.9||15.5|
|Worsley and Eccles South||45.7||38.5||7.2|
|Washington and Sunderland West||42.5||32.6||14.5|
|Sheffield South East||46.1||35.9||10.7|
|Alyn and Deeside||42.5||42||6.2|
There is an addition to the list. Plaid Cymru held the Welsh seat of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. However, the incumbent member, Jonathan Edwards saw his majority fall by 4.4 per cent. The Brexit Party, while finishing fourth place in the poll, obtained a sizeable vote share of 5.6 per cent. When bolted on to the Tory vote share the MP, who recently received a police caution, would have lost his seat.
Nigel Farage, whether as leader of UKIP or the Brexit Party, has always maintained that he had the potential to take more votes from the Labour Party than the Tories. As the 2016 referendum showed, Brexiteers formed a coalition between white and blue-collar Britons, between middle England and the former industrial heartlands.
When the result came in from Sunderland Central, Huw Edwards commented that the Brexit Party absorbed most of the collapse in Labour’s vote share across the Brexit-backing seats in the north of England, midlands and Wales. In the Sunderland seat in particular, Labour’s support fell by 13%, the Tories only increased their vote share by 2%, while Nigel Farage’s party obtained the support of 12% of constituents.
Across the United Kingdom, Corbyn’s share of the vote fell by 7.8 per cent. Boris Johnson increased on Theresa May’s 2017 performance by 1.2 per cent, while the Brexit Party won 2 per cent of the vote.
On election night, Nigel Farage told Andrew Neil that his party used their influence ‘to stop a second referendum’. He added that they took thousands of votes from Labour in seats that the Tories could not otherwise win.
This belief was also expressed in the left-leaning Guardian. Darren Loucaides argued that even in seats Labour-held, like Sunderland Central, the Brexit Party scooped up most of the lost Labour vote.
Pippa Norris of Harvard University shares Farage’s contention. She goes as far to claim that: ‘Farage played a decisive indirect role by boosting the size of the Conservatives’ electoral victory, fueling the politics of Brexit, and thus influencing the UK’s withdrawal from EU membership’.
Norris found that: ‘In seats with a Brexit [Party] candidate, the Labour vote fell on average by -8.6%, compared with -7.3% elsewhere. There was also a modest impact with Brexit [Party] taking some support from the Tories: in seats with a Brexit [Party] candidate, the Conservative vote went up 1.7% compared with 2.5% elsewhere. But my estimates suggest that the share of the Brexit [Party] vote was large enough to allow the Conservatives to slip in the back door and makeup to 20 seat gains in former Labour areas, thereby doubling Johnson’s eventual parliamentary majority. ‘
Below is a list of the pro-Brexit gains that the Tories made at the expense of the Labour Party, alongside the vote share of the Brexit Party.
|Constituency||Labour change||Conservative change||Brexit Party vote share|
|Barrow and Furness||-8.2||+4.8||2.9|
|Bolton North East||-6.1||+3.2||6.1|
|Crewe and Nantwich||-9.7||+6.1||2.6|
|Durham North West||-13.3||+7.5||6.7|
|Heywood and Middleton||-11.6||+5||8.3|
|Penistone and Stocksbridge||-12.5||+4.7||8.7|
|Vale of Clwyd||-8.7||+2.3||4|
|West Bromwich East||-15.7||+8.5||4.1|
|West Bromwich West||-12.5||+10.9||5.3|
|Wolverhampton North East||-13||+11.4||3.9|
|Wolverhampton South West||-5.1||+4.1||2.5|
*The Ashfield Independents took a vast majority of the Labour vote.
There is undoubtable clear empirical evidence to support the claims of aggrieved Tories and the Brexit Party. However, this is because they are coming at it from different angles. The Tories believe that the Brexit Party stole the Eurosceptic vote that Boris and Cummings hoped to consolidate, whilst Farage believed it was all but impossible for the Tories to win these voters anyway.
Subsequently, I have decided to delve deeper into the results on the 2019 election. Both of the arguments tend to perceive the Brexiteer in the red wall as some sort of homogenous voter. However, it is pretty obvious that this is not the case. The best way to calculate the impact of the Brexit Party in the 2019 election is to look at the results in Leave seats where Farage’s party failed to field a candidate and in some of the opinion polls.
Whether in the form of UKIP and the Brexit Party it has been estimated that approximately 70 per cent of potential Farage voters would otherwise vote for the Conservative Party.
In this situation, provided we assume that the remaining 30 per cent returned to the Labour Party, the Tories would have won an additional 16 seats.
|Constituency||Conservative + 7/10 vote share||Labour + 3/10 vote share||Brexit Party vote share|
|Coventry North West||46.3||45.0||4.1|
|Dagenahm and Rainham||48.4||46.5||6.6|
|Kingston upon Hull East||47.9||44.5||17.8|
|Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford||46.9||42.9||16.6|
|Wentworth and Dearne||46.9||45.4||16.9|
|Alyn and Deeside||46.4||44.4||6.2|
However, Paul Hilder, the chief executive of Datapraxis, found that: “In seats such as Hartlepool, Rotherham and Barnsley Central and East, between 70 and 90 per cent of Brexit Party voters said they would vote Conservative if it was a two-horse race, with a maximum of 6.5 per cent choosing Labour instead. Therefore the number of voters that Labour retained was far more limited than 30 per cent and the estimate above is one that minimises the potential effect of the Brexit Party.
Evidence from the election:
Nevertheless, recent elections have taught us that the polls are not always right. So now it is imperative to assess the limited electoral data from Labour Leave constituencies where the Brexit Party did not field a candidate. My research has found just three constituencies where this happened: Dudley North, Gateshead and Liverpool Walton.
In the West Midlands seat, the Tories made an expected gain. The outgoing Labour MP, Ian Austin, encouraged constituents to vote for the Conservative candidate in opposition to Jeremy Corbyn. Labour lost this seat for the first time since the seat’s creation, and now the Tories have a majority of 11,533.
Nonetheless, this seat is vital to calculating whether the Brexit Party helped or hindered Britain’s road to independence because of the decision made by the former chairman of Southampton Football Club, Rupert Lowe. The Brexit Party MEP was set to challenge for the seat but withdrew the day before nominations closed.
Therefore, the Brexit Party were unable to field a candidate. As such, it is clearer where and why voters voted for specific parties. Labour vote share fell by 14.9 per cent, while the Tories increased their vote share by 16.6 per cent. The extra share of the vote probably came because no other Eurosceptic candidate was on the ballot in December. However, this makes it clear that the Tories could capture all Leave voters who felt disillusioned by a Corbyn-led Labour Party.
In the other two constituencies, the Tories could not overturn centuries of the loyalty of the Labour Party. It was reported that the Brexit Party failed to field candidates in the seats in Merseyside and the north-east through error and not, as had been the case for Dudley North, tactically.
Nonetheless, Labour’s share of the vote in Gateshead still collapsed. In 2017, Ian Mearns had a majority of 17,350, as of last December it has been reduced to just 7,200. This meant that whilst Labour lost 11.5 per cent, the Tories vote share increased by 10.8 per cent.
The final seat, Dan Carden’s seat of Liverpool Walton, is slightly different. It is Labour through and through. Carden won 84.7 per cent of the vote, and in numeral terms, the seat is similar to Mark Francois’ constituency of Rayleigh and Wickford. However, the Labour vote share was down 1 per cent on 2017, and the Tories paper candidate increased their share of the vote by 1.3 per cent.
Therefore, whilst the Tories only proved successful in one of these seats, the limited evidence that they provide do suggest that those willing to vote for the Brexit Party would have also considered and probably opted to vote for Boris Johnson’s Tory candidate over returning to a Corbyn-led Labour Party. This strongly suggests that the Tory assumption that Brexit had furthered the erosion of traditional class-based voting was correct.
When one considers polling and the limited results from constituencies where the Brexit Party failed to field a candidate, it is fair to assume that Hilder’s estimation that 9 in 10 of Farage’s voters would have otherwise voted for Boris Johnson is a fair one. Therefore, the below table highlights the gains if voters followed Hilder’s model. This, in turn, means that 6.5 per cent of Brexit Party voters returned to the Labour Party. In such a situation the Brexit Party cost the Tories an additional 30 seats.
|Constituency||Brexit Party vote share||Conservative + Datapraxis vote share||Labour + Datapraxis vote share|
|Coventry North West||4.1||47.1||44.1|
|Dagenaham and Rainham||6.6||49.7||44.9|
|Wolverhampton South East||6.3||48.4||46.8|
|Kingston upon Hull East||17.8||51.4||40.4|
|Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford||16.6||50.2||39.0|
|Oldham East and Saddleworth||6.5||46.2||43.9|
|Wentworth and Dearne||16.9||50.3||41.4|
|Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle||18.9||50.6||43.9|
|Stalybridge and Hyde||8.5||45.7||45.5|
|Houghton and Sunderland South||15.5||46.9||41.7|
|Washington and Sunderland West||14.5||45.7||43.4|
|Sheffield South East||10.7||45.5||46.8|
|Alyn and Deeside||6.2||47.6||42.9|
In conclusion, the fears expressed by Brexiteers last December were not only fair but accurate. Whilst neither many of us, especially those inside SW1, anticipated the switch to the Tories in so many of the battleground seats, it was evident that the Tories could have won even more seats if the Brexit Party fielded even less candidates. Thus, the new question emerges not of whether or not the Brexit Party cost Boris Johnson seats but how many seats did Nigel Farage cost the Conservative Party.
If one based their answer to this question on the limited empirical evidence from the 2019 general election, then they would produce a sizeable list of Leave-voting constituencies across England and Wales where the Brexit Party vote share prevented the Tories from removing the Labour incumbent. Whilst this is akin to the Tories assertion the limited results justifying the almost complete move from Farage voters to Boris Johnson means that it should be treated with a degree of caution.
Instead, one must use the estimates produced by Datapraxis in tandem with the limited data from the election. Datapraxis’ top-end estimate predicted that approximately 90 per cent these voters would endorse the pro-Brexit Conservative Party, and just 6.5 per cent would return to the Labour Party. This is the most similar to the data from the election, and whilst it reduces the damage that Farage’s party pinned upon the Tories it does not take away from the fact that they did limit the scale of victory.
Nevertheless, this may have been part of the intention. In the general elections of 2015 and 2019 Farage’s hoped that his party would be a vehicle to facilitate change. In both situations, he was wrong. However, it was even more profound in 2019. Because of the scale of the Conservative victory, not even the Spartans within the European Research Group could exert pressure upon Number 10. Leavers must put their faith in the People’s Government to ensure Brexit is adequately implemented.
But what does this mean for the future? During this pandemic, the Tories have experienced a slump in the polls. However, these seats still remain fertile ground for this one nation Conservative government. As I will argue in my next research piece, the disconnect between the London-based parliamentary Labour Party and the post-industrial Labour heartlands was not a creation of the vote in 2016. Instead, the referendum exacerbated tensions that are evident in the early years of Tony Blair’s premiership. The next election may not be a ‘Brexit Election’, but there is a high chance it will be fought on the northern front again. This is partly because the electorate, unlike politicos, do not identify as right or left. In fact, I consider the average voter as politically disillusioned but slightly left-leaning on economics, and socially conservative on key issues such as crime and immigration. The Tories may be, as they proved last December, the party more capable to reconcile this and therefore equipped to merge the two together conflicting ideological standpoints together.
By J Walters