Although foreign policy is not often the most important election issue for many voters, there nevertheless exist clear distinctions in the ways in which many Conservative voters and Labour voters believe the UK’s international relations should be conducted. Research by us at Redfield & Wilton Strategies indicates that these two sets of voters have clear partialities towards and against particular countries that sometimes differ from one another, revealing intriguing patterns on how partisanship relates to Britons’ views of the world.
Firstly, the most-selected option when respondents were asked to identify the UK’s most important ally is the same for 2019 Labour and Conservative voters, but to substantially varying extents: 59% of Conservative voters and 35% of Labour voters view the United States as the UK’s most important ally.
The greater preference for the US held by Conservative voters over Labour voters is clear, as 65% of Conservative voters view the US as more of an ally, compared to 48% of Labour voters. Conversely, a fifth (20%) of Labour voters consider the US to be more of a threat, a perspective held by just 9% of Conservative voters.
As our data from July 2020 shows, the proportion of both Conservative and Labour voters who view the United States as more of an ally has increased in the time since Joe Biden was elected President of the United States—from 58% to 65% for Conservative voters and 33% to 48% for Labour voters. This suggests that the UK is more open to closer relations with the United States now that Donald Trump is no longer in power, though some Labour voters continue to oppose this prospect regardless.
Conservative voters (68%) are also more likely to view Canada as an ally to the UK and its interests than Labour voters (53%) are. The same is true with respect to Australia, a nation which 70% of Conservative voters and 54% of Labour voters view as more of an ally. These results indicate that respondents who voted Conservative in the 2019 General Election have a more favourable view of the UK’s relationship with its non-European, Anglo-Saxon allies.
2019 Labour voters, in turn, appear to view the largest European nations more favourably than Conservative voters, which may be a result of Labour voters’ greater tendency to hold pro-EU, anti-Brexit stances. To this point, 43% of Labour voters say they view France as more of an ally to the UK, compared to 30% of Conservative voters.
However, both of these figures have seen substantial decreases since July 2020, a likely consequence of the way in which the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine rollout has strained the UK’s relationship with some EU nations. The UK’s recent dispute with French fisherman over fishing rights around Jersey also may have altered perceptions of the British-French relationship. In July 2020, 53% of Labour voters viewed France as more of an ally, a result that is ten points greater than our latest research found. Further still, the proportion of Conservative voters who view France as more of an ally has decreased by 30 points since July 2020, when 60% expressed this view. In our latest poll, a plurality (32%) of Conservative voters now say France is neither an ally nor a threat.
A slightly greater proportion of Labour voters (41%) than Conservative voters (36%) also view Germany as a UK ally. Overall, our research indicates that in the post-Brexit world, voters of the Conservative Party are more likely than voters of the Labour Party to view these major European nations as neither allies nor threats, while Labour voters largely continue to view them as allies.
Meanwhile, 2019 Labour voters are more likely than 2019 Conservative voters to view certain Middle Eastern countries as threats: a plurality of Labour voters consider the United Arab Emirates (32%), Saudi Arabia (37%), and Israel (38%) to be more of a threat to the UK and its interests. By contrast, a plurality of Conservative voters rather view the UAE (35%), Saudi Arabia (32%), and Israel (33%) as neither allies nor threats. With respect to Israel in particular, 27% of Conservative voters say Israel is more of an ally to the UK, compared to 18% of Labour voters.
British voters’ views of these Middle Eastern countries—Israel in particular—evidently differ considerably based on partisan affiliation, with Conservative voters appearing more open to friendly relations with the nations than Labour voters. However, this is not the case for Iran: a majority (63%) of Conservative voters say Iran is more of a threat to the UK and its interests, compared to 46% of Labour voters.
A similar pattern emerges for other countries that are often viewed as adversaries of the UK, as Iran is—Conservative voters are also more likely than Labour voters to view Russia and China as threats. While a majority of both groups of voters consider these powers to be threats, the proportion of Conservative voters who view Russia (70%) and China (71%) as threats is significantly greater than the proportion of Labour voters who view Russia (54%) and China (51%) in this way.
The results of this poll provide insights into how Britons’ party affiliations and their views of other countries may influence one another, with major implications for how these voters may respond to certain foreign policies. It seems as though the Conservative Party would be wise to pursue closer relations with countries outside of Europe like the USA, Canada, and Australia to appeal to its voter base. Conversely, the Labour Party may benefit from promoting greater post-Brexit cooperation with the EU, whereas a policy of more distanced relations with countries like Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia may also be strategic. Most Britons on the whole consider Iran, Russia, and China to be threats to the UK and its interests, but this position is particularly prominent among 2019 Conservative voters, which implies that a hard stance towards these nations would be welcomed by this demographic.