Hostility between voters over Brexit feels hopeless, but our research may show a way to bridge the divide
Almost half of British citizens say they would resent having to pay more taxes to benefit citizens who suffer economically as a result of voting for a party that they did not support themselves
In recent months, many British voters have experienced something intense about electoral politics – hostility not just towards political elites but between voters themselves.
It is a huge problem, and it goes a lot further than fractious Brexit discussions at the dinner table.
We study this phenomenon across 27 countries through the Electoral Psychology Observatory (EPO) at the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is part of our project “the age of electoral hostility” (ELHO). We have launched a “hostility barometer” (jointly with survey company Opinium) which will report monthly for the UK and will track the negative feelings British people hold toward those who vote differently from them.
Simply put, people are now less willing to pay taxes to protect those who voted differently from them. It is a troubling finding. After all, when a government gets elected, there is a tacit agreement that everyone will fund the policies it enacts regardless of their vote.
But right now, almost half (47 per cent) of British citizens say they would resent having to pay more taxes to benefit citizens who suffer economically as a result of voting for a party that they did not support themselves.
More than a third of respondents explicitly state that those who voted for a party they disagree with should suffer the economic consequences of that party’s policy, with the same proportion also suggesting those voters should be the ones who suffer from any deterioration in public services.
And critically, the proportion of people who begrudge the idea of paying more taxes to bail out those who fall victim to the electoral outcome that they supported increases to 51 per cent among those who voted to Remain.
This is particularly noteworthy since Remainers are significantly more likely to come from younger and wealthier categories of population that are more likely to be net contributors to the fiscal system. It clearly ties in with the assumption that economic hardship which might follow from a messy Brexit would disproportionately affect those Leave-voting areas which are already struggling economically.
This could endanger the concept of national solidarity as citizens question or even resent paying taxes designed to help those who voted differently from them. A political system is reliant on the solidarity and goodwill that citizens entrust it with. If people are not willing to accept sacrifices to protect others in the community, it calls into questions the fabric of democratic society.
Electoral hostility has also had a significant effect on how citizens identify and relate to one another on an inter-personal level. The sense of growing hostility between individuals or groups can make people feel increasingly alienated from each other.
A considerable proportion of British citizens could imagine insulting others due to electoral differences (16 per cent), and 11 per cent can even envisage having a physical fight with them. This underlines an increasing distance and aggression between citizens based purely on electoral preferences.
Unsurprisingly, the question of Brexit encapsulates this problem. Almost a third of Remainers feel that recent elections have made them feel more alienated from other Brits (and only 20 per cent feel closer to them). Brexiteers are as likely to feel closer to as more alienated from fellow citizens.
The outlook for reconciliation is not bright. Nearly two thirds of respondents to our study believed the gulf between citizens would grow. Only 27 per cent of people think their children and grandchildren will live better than them. It looks a little like hopelessness. And at its heart lies Brexit and the socio-economic conditions that brought it about.
A new Conservative Party leader and prime minister, whoever that might be, will have to face the fundamental issue this hostility has created.
That simmering resentment over the paying of taxes might however prove a powerful motivation for all British parties to address the underlying fractures that have stoked pessimism and driven people apart.
Sarah Harrison is deputy director of the newly created Electoral Psychology Observatory at the London School of Economics and Associate Professorial Research Fellow in the department of government, LSE.