In the Brexit Era, a "Normal" UK Election?

Focus is on socioeconomic issues ahead of December 12 vote.

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On Thursday, UK voters will head to the polls to vote in a general election pitting Prime Minister Boris Johnson against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. Ever since June 2016 when voters decided to withdraw from the European Union, Brexit has sucked up all the political oxygen in the UK. However, Predata signals show that in this general election campaign Brexit appears to have surprisingly little salience. Rather, after a brief spike in online attention toward terrorism in the wake of the London Bridge attack, the electorate appears to remain primarily focused on socioeconomic issues, such as health care and housing. 

All year, major UK political events were closely linked to Brexit. But this election may be a notable exception. When Boris Johnson became prime minister in July, he pledged to take the UK out of the EU by an October 31 deadline, “do or die.” At the end of August and into September, Johnson attempted to circumvent Parliament by having the Queen dismiss the body via prorogation. After courts ruled that maneuver illegal, Johnson spent October trying to quickly pass his new withdrawal bill through a resistant Parliament; at the end of the month, after requesting a deadline extension from the EU, Johnson called for a general election. As the chart below shows, each of these three events caused online interest in Brexit and the issues surrounding it to spike. And yet interest has been muted during the election campaign. Brexit’s dominance over British politics appears to have dwindled as voting day approaches.

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Instead, patterns of online attention suggest voters are focused on more typical domestic affairs. Attention toward socioeconomic issues, such as health care, housing, and poverty, has remained elevated throughout the campaign period. Terrorism received little attention until November 29, when a terrorist stabbed five people, two fatally, in central London. The attack caused interest in the subject to spike, but the signal is now trending downward, a sign that UK observers have moved on.

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With voters turning their attention away from Brexit for a moment, the upcoming vote is looking like something few may have expected in British politics these days: a pretty normal campaign.