The 2017 general election – the much overlooked rebalancing of British democracy

The British Election Study has been issuing data concerning the 2017 election based on their “face-to-face” process. They maintain, for example, that the much-acclaimed “Youthquake” of 2017 was in fact a myth.

But I was very interested in this graph, tweeted by James Kanagasooriam:

There are a number of conclusions to be drawn from this graph. Much has been made of the fact that the Tories had quite a chunk of Remainers voting for them – particularly in the South of the country.

But there was one thing which was quite noticeable for me.

According to the BES data, as collated by James Kanagasooriam, of people who voted in the 2016 referendum and the 2017 election, there was a 50/50 split between 2016 leaver and remain voters in 2017, as shown in my table below:

So, 31% of the 2017 electorate voted remain in 2016 and also voted in the 2017 general election. Also, 31% of the 2017 electorate voted leave in 2016 and voted in the 2017 general election.

We hear a lot about the results of the 23rd June referendum, and the “will of the British people” expressed on that day, as if it should be set in aspic forever.

A lot of people seem to forget that the “British people” also expressed a democratic choice on 8th June 2017, and that expression should, of course, be added into the mix.

The 2017 result showed some interesting contrasts to the 2016 referendum. About 5.5 million people who voted in the 2016 referendum and were eligible to vote in the 2017 general election, didn’t vote in the 2017 general election. There were about 3.7 million people who didn’t vote in the 2016 referendum, but did vote in the 2017 general election (mostly for Labour).

All this leads one to understand why the British Parliament is believed to be broadly in favour of a “soft Brexit”. That is a fair reflection of the 2017 general election votes.

What I find a little outrageous is that there are claims, repeated daily, that the “will of the British People” was expressed on 23rd June 2016 and that this was a vote for a hard Brexit, with no membership of the single market or the/a customs union full stop. Apart from all the arguments about only the EU membership being on the ballot paper in 2016, there is the obvious point that it was, surprise surprise, the British people who elected our current House of Commons and it is very clear that the “soft Brexit” House is a reflection of the “will of the British people” expressed on 8th June 2017, which, it should be emphasised, was just short of a full year after the referendum.

You can access the British Election Study data for their 2017 general election face-to-face survey here.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist and member of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Malcolm Todd 4th Mar '18 - 2:12am

    It’s not entirely clear what you’re trying to argue here, though it sounds rather like a version of the slightly distasteful “Leavers are older so they’re dying off and won’t be in a majority soon” refrain. Really, we need to move on from that argument. If there’s a majority for Remain now, why aren’t you arguing for another referendum now? Never mind this “Referendum on the facts” claptrap. We never do and never can vote on “the facts” pure and simple – we can only ever vote on what we think will and what should happen next.
    Arguing that the House of Commons, elected under the appalling FPTP system, represents “the will of the people”, is in any case orders of magnitude more ridiculous than claiming it for the result of a single vote on a simple proposition.

  • Graham Evans 4th Mar '18 - 8:13am

    The Brexit mess is the result of politicians of all parties, including the LDs, failing to defend the principle of representative democracy. They turn to referendums to paper over divisions within their own parties. Inevitably referendums essentially involve a binary choice, whereas life is seldom so simple. While general elections under FPTP based on party manifestos might superficially also offer an essentially binary choice, the key difference is that the resulting governments are more easily able to adapt or change policy as the difficulties of the original manifesto commitment emerge. There may be a political price to pay for doing so, but it is the party which potentially suffers as a result, not the country.

    The problem for Remainers is that we have become sucked into a system which we should never have supported, and only some sort of referendum will be perceived as a legitimate way of getting out of it.

  • If 10% of registered voters (scaled to 13% of all people voting in the referendum) are happily voting Tory and another 16% (21% of the referendum turnout) are voting for a Labour party that said the referendum must be honoured, isn’t the conclusion to be drawn from this that most people who voted Remain are over it and there is no “the 48%” and the party should get back to what made it successful in the past.

  • Peter Martin 5th Mar '18 - 9:15am

    @ Richard S,

    I’d say you were right. Around 30% of Leave voters were Lib Dems too. The Labour Party, in 2017, was skillful in pulling in support from both leavers and remainers. Whereas the Lib Dem campaign was a flop. Most voters, remainers and leavers alike, had had enough discussion about the EU and didn’t want the 2017 election to be a rerun of the leave/remain referendum.

    That was the previous year’s argument. They wanted it to be about jobs, the NHS, education and the economy etc. In other words all the stuff that usually decides elections.

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