James Kanagasooriam

Chief Research Officer

Bi_Focal #1

November 4, 2022

This first issue examines the prime minister’s popularity, a quick analysis of the growing diversity of the House of Commons, and a challenge to the consensus on how ethnic diversity interacts with voting patterns.

Welcome to the first issue of Focaldata's new newsletter Bi_Focal.

Who am I again? I'm James. I joined Focaldata last month as our chief research officer. I've worked in polling and analytics for the past 10 years, including as Head of Analytics at Populus. I've advised clients like the BBC, as well working on several election campaigns in the UK and US (and along the way coined the phrase the "Red Wall"). Beyond my client and campaign work, I'm an Associate Researcher in the Policy Institute at King's College London, and I also write for the Times regularly about politics, society and public opinion.

This first issue examines three themes:

  1. The new prime minister’s popularity and the difference between his leadership ratings and the Conservative party’s current vote share
  2. A quick analysis of the growing diversity of the House of Commons since 1979
  3. A challenge to the consensus on how ethnic diversity interacts with voting patterns

Not every issue will be about politics or nearly as detailed but reporting on recent events have already thrown up a bunch of assumptions that need challenging.

1. What voters think about the new prime minister

Last week British Hindus celebrated Diwali and the country took in the news that Rishi Sunak was to become the UK's first non-white and first Hindu prime minister. As fireworks exploded across Britain’s city centers, a lot of ink has been spilled on this moment having huge cultural, religious and historical significance. While that may be true, it’s been lost on the public who, according to our snap polling, have mostly shrugged it off. That doesn’t mean that first impressions of him aren’t interesting. There are a couple of themes emerging.

Firstly, the Labour 30 point leads have disappeared over the last week or so – with the party hovering 20 points or so above the Conservatives. This is still a massive reversal of the 11.5%/11.8%/12.3% lead the Conservatives held over Labour at the last election in UK/GB/England and Wales. The decline in the Conservative vote is most acute amongst Leavers and those aged 50+, where the majority of the party's voters come from. Also notable from the YouGov cross-break comparison below is the collapse in support in the North of England for the Conservatives vs other regions and home nations.

The Conservative party have arrested their decline but have yet to rebound


Source: Mark Pack monthly polling tracker

The drop in Conservative support amongst Leavers/65+ is most acute


Source: YouGov polling. Fieldwork: July/October 2022.

The arrival of PM Sunak has stemmed the loss of votes but the Conservative vote share is still at a large discount to where the Conservatives were in the middle of this summer where they were 5-10 pts behind.

But what’s most striking about the new PM is a radical reversal on the best PM question where Sunak holds a 8 point lead vs Keir Starmer. The difference between the vote share gap (-20%) and Leadership rating (+8). This is predominantly driven by Sunak’s differential appeal to more Liberal and Remain voters on the best PM question. Also noteworthy is the commanding lead Sunak has over Starmer on the economy (+16). It’s clear from the numbers that substantial parts of the UK public are willing to give Sunak a hearing and will to see what he delivers – particularly in regards to the upcoming Autumn Statement which could well cause the numbers to fluctuate again further.

The British public have mixed feelings about the election of Rishi Sunak


But voting intention figures reflect a much worse story for the Conservatives


Sunak’s lead vs Starmer on best PM makes a strong contrast with voting intention...


…and this is best explained by Sunak's cross-party appeal when comparing best PM preference with vote intention


Starmer trails Sunak even more on the question of who is best to run the economy


Source: Focaldata polling, n = 1,000. Fieldwork: 31 October 2022.

Looking at polling Focaldata did back in July for the think tank British Future it’s clear that the election of PM Sunak hasn’t fundamentally changed views on the relevance of the ethnicity of the prime minister. Back in July, 74% of Brits either didn’t care about the ethnicity of a PM or believed it was a positive thing, and today that figure is 85%.

The British public don’t care about the ethnicity of their PM


…and Sunak and Starmer share a number of characteristics


Source: Focaldata polling: Fieldwork October 2022

Another less top-line observation that comes out quite strongly from the polling is how there’s an overlap in brands between the PM and the leader of the opposition. I wrote more about this dynamic for the Times this week (sorry, paywall). Broadly the atmospherics of both leaders are managerial and professional – and this is backed up by the data which suggests the voters most likely to support or like both leaders are ABs, those on high incomes and with a graduate education. The key question now is what happens amongst low income voters – previous work I’ve done on this topic (with Labour’s Claire Ainsley and JRF’s Frank Soodeen) is here.

2. A diverse commons?

If the rise of Rishi Sunak appears unremarkable to the public it isn’t to historians. Since 2005 there has been a huge shift in racial representation within the Conservative party. Sajid Javid became the first BAME Great Office of State holder, followed by Priti Patel, then followed by three BAME chancellors – including Sunak himself. By 2019 the Conservative party had 74 BAME candidates out of 365 MPs, up from a mere 16 out of 166 in 2001. In terms of elected representatives there were no Tory MPs of colour in 2001, and by 2019 there were 22 Conservative BAME MPs – still half that of the Labour party at 41. Whilst the frontbench representation is striking it’s worth noting how the number of Conservative BAME MPs still doesn’t match the population at large.

The diversity of the commons has increased steadily over the last few cycles


Source: Internal research by Focaldata.

…but as a % of Con MPs still doesn’t match the population at large


Source: Internal research by Focaldata.

3. Center-right voting + ethnic minorities = potentially disruptive

One of the more interesting papers I’ve read in the past couple of years is Thomas Pinketty et al's magisterial paper on the Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right. Broadly the thesis is that the new cheerleaders for the right are those who have a proportionately high level of income given lack of graduate education (“The Merchant Right”) and the left’s biggest cheerleaders are those with proportionately low income given their high levels of education (“The Brahmin Left”). (Graphs from the paper are below.) This “rotation” is a defining feature of Western politics.

A vital footnote in the paper is how ethnic minorities have been more impervious to this rotation, and that minorities within western democracies continue to be more right wing for higher levels of education than trends for white voters – where not having a university education is now predictive of having more center-right attitudes.

Center-right ethnic minority voters are a symbol of the future – of the growing diversity of western democracies. They are also suggestive of an old coalition of the high income and high education right vs the low income and low education left.

None of this would be at the forefront of our minds, except that the Conservative party very neatly encapsulates Piketty’s paradox: the right is increasingly made up of skilled, prosperous white working class voters (and to a lesser extent MPs) and high education minorities (both in terms of voters and MPs). Multiple leadership elections and cabinet reshuffles in the UK should surely suggest Piketty was one to something and that this tension and paradox is likely to remain for some time.  

Meta analysis of where average position of center-right vs center-left 1960-1980s/2000-2020


The growing ethnic diversity around the cabinet table and in the Commons belies the extraordinary problems that ethnic minority voters have with the Conservative party. Below are some choice graphs from a recent Onward paper I helped contribute which uses a method called MRP (a technique Focaldata specialises in) to estimate how right / left wing economically each seat was in the UK and how authoritarian/liberal each seat was using the below questions (basically a political compass).


What’s most striking is that, in general, economically right wing, and socially authoritarian seats are Conservative leaning, and economically left wing and socially liberal seats are Labour or SNP leaning. What’s fascinating is how approximate the map below is. The patterns are fairly clear, but there are significant numbers of “outlier” seats which are won over by parties that you wouldn’t expect given the views on economics and social issues by seat.

The right/left and SNP occupy particular value spaces on 2x2 of social/econ views


Source: Onward MRP modelling, 2019 General Election vote shares

In trying to work what else drives our votes, other than on the main axes of the political compass I built a toy model for England and Wales, which suggests that in those 573 seats the Conservative vote can broadly be estimated with an R2 of 78% using only social and economic scores – that’s pretty predictive, for reference using demographics the figure usually caps at 87%.

It’s also instructive how much more predictive economic views are to voting Conservative (see scatter below) vs cultural/social issues – something that’s at total odds with media coverage of politics. This is visible by seeing how much closer the economic right_left map is to the UK politics map vs the social liberalism axis map which is a cleaner fit for the EU Referendum.

Right/left-wing economic views look more like the political map of the UK (Red) vs authoritarian views (Blue)


Source: Onward MRP modelling

So what’s the unexplained variance in predicting centre-right/left voting behaviours? Graphing each seat as a triangle if the level % of ethnic minorities is greater than 13% (i.e. the mean at the 2011 census) it becomes clear that ethnic diversity is (a) unrelated to levels of authoritarianism but that (b) for given levels of ideological belief that suggests centre-right representation having a significant non-white population in a seat creates a substantial discount to their vote. This is clear when looking at all the highly authoritarian seats with broadly median economic views which still return Labour MPs. The gap we can strongly hypothesise is related to ethnic diversity.

Looking at the econ/social space but with BAME overlay tells us the criticality of diversity in voting patterns


Source: Onward MRP modelling, 2019 General Election vote shares.
NB Triangle shaped observations are seats where the BAME population is >13%  

This hypothesis – that levels of diversity are a factor in voting behaviour above and beyond key ideological beliefs is partially validated by regressing the residuals of the toy model (i.e. amount of Tory voting driven by social and economic beliefs) vs the % of each constituency which is Asian and Black and observing quite how so many negative Conservative residuals are related to ethnicity.

The % of Asian and Black voters vs the residuals of a model driven only by social and economic views underlines the importance of ethnic diversity in estimating vote shares


Source: Onward MRP modelling, 2019 General Election vote shares

Adding back into the model the % of a seat which is Asian and Black then improves predictive power of forecasting the Conservative vote up to 82%.

Why this matters

No 10 is occupied by a centre-right ethnic-minority leader. If centre-right parties can learn to deal with their massive brand issues with minority voters, they have the opportunity to create electoral map chaos. It resonates with the Red Wall thesis I posed three years ago in disruptive potential. There are huge numbers of “should be” Conservatives – it’s fairly clear what happens to the map if the U.K. Conservatives ever have a similar moment amongst minorities, but given where the polls are today these differential trends don’t matter nearly as much as the national picture.

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