[Blog] How close are the top British politicians to the electorate?

By Andrei Zhirnov, Michele Scotto di Vettimo & Susan Banducci (all University of Exeter).

How close are the top British politicians to the electorate?

Democratic elections are meant to ensure politicians promote the interests of voters – keeping them in office when they do and voting them out when they do not. Standard political science wisdom says that an astute politician will not advocate or make unpopular policies at the risk of being kicked out of office or otherwise jeopardizing their and their party’s political survival. However, the recent developments in British politics seem to suggest that it is not the case, and, at least according to the popular narrative, the current government has moved quite far from the public.

The data collected by a team of university researchers at Exeter, Münster, VU Amsterdam, Birmingham, and Rome – collectively known as PRECEDE – can help us assess how well the leading UK politicians represent the British electorate and the policy similarity we should expect in the near future.

In July 2022, around the resignation of Boris Johnson and the subsequent Conservative leadership contest, the PRECEDE consortium launched an online tool (Who Is Your Leader?) that allows internet users to answer a few questions about their attitudes to the political system and policies. In the end, they see their position in the political landscape along with those of the Conservative leadership contenders and other prominent contemporary and historical British political figures. Politicians and portal users are placed along two axes: the traditional left-right scale, which represents economic and cultural policies, and opposition to the political establishment. Politicians’ positions were estimated using a survey of experts in British politics.

Figure 1. Distribution of Users from the “Who Is Your Leader” Tool.



Figure 2. Distribution of Users that voted for the Conservative Party in 2019.


The tool also allows the researchers to take a bird’s eye view of the electoral landscape and see where most potential voters are sitting. Our early analyses of this data indicate a visible gap between the users of our tool and the Conservative leadership. Most of the users are further to the left than the Conservative party leaders. The distance is shorter for Rishi Sunak, but even he is quite far from the majority of the electorate.

If we focus only on the respondents who said they had voted for the Conservative Party in 2019, the distance becomes, as expected, smaller. Nevertheless, even in this case, the Labour leadership is almost as close to many Conservative voting users as the Conservative leadership.

This result is consistent with a YouGov study conducted around the same time as our data collection and a more recent one (October 20-21). Both report a lead for the Labour Party. In mid-August, 28% of decided voters intended to vote Conservative, and only 19% as of the 21st of October. The spatial voting approach, which assumes that the voters are more likely to vote for the parties closer to them spatially, seems to reconcile our observations about the policy landscape and vote intentions quite well.

However, something is puzzling about this current distance on the policy landscape: not long ago, in 2019, the Conservative party won a landslide, and it is hard to believe that it could be that far from the electorate at that time (or was it?). We have come up with a few possible explanations without giving any definitive answers.

  1. The pandemic and the cost of living crisis have left many people poorer, and even more, with a realization that the government needs to offer more support to those in economic distress. Consequently, voters have moved further to the left.
  2. The key issue of the 2019 campaign – the relationship between the UK and the EU – underpinned the attractiveness of the Conservative Party’s policies at the time but has lost its salience, and voters have drifted away.
  3. Voting is driven by affective support for a party label and specific candidates at least as much as voters’ policy attitudes. The parties occupied roughly the same quadrants of the policy landscape during the 2019 election as they do today. However, the respect for the “Conservative” label and the likeability of their leaders was much higher in 2019 than now.
  4. Tool users are systematically different from the electorate– they are more liberal. During our estimation procedure, we applied sampling weights to try and bring the distribution of user positions closer to the voting-eligible population. However, this cannot make our sample perfectly representative.

At this point, we have more questions than answers and hope that the outcomes of the new Conservative leadership contest and the next election will shed some light.