The much-changed shape of the new Tory electorate means that PM Boris Johnson, if he wants to retain enough of its votes to secure a second term, will have to pursue some policies which are anathema to his party’s metropolitan ‘liberal’-‘progressive’ wing
Just after his victory in the Tory leadership contest last July, I suggested eight key tests by which we might judge whether Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would delight or disappoint us. Then, just before the 12 December general election, I tentatively assessed his performance against each test, and overall.
However, the largely unexpected scale of the Tory election victory – net gain of 48 seats, largest overall majority (80) since 1987, and breach of Labour’s Red Wall in the Midlands, Wales and the North – has changed the rules of this particular game. The size of the Tories’ overall majority, coupled with the markedly changed character of the Tory electorate, means that Boris’ approach to both party management and policy in the new Parliament will have to become somewhat different.
The past three-and-half-years showed starkly the problems in trying to enact the democratic mandate for Brexit with first a small, and then subsequently no, overall majority, especially with a Parliamentary party whose MPs were mainly anti-Brexit, and Opposition parties’ MPs almost exclusively so. A large majority, however, isn’t necessarily a panacea: it merely creates a different set of potential problems.
Irrespective of the size of the majority, the payroll vote remains at around 110-120; if Dominic Cummings’ plans to reduce the number of Whitehall departments by scrapping some and amalgamating others come to fruition, it may even reduce to around 100. That means approximately 265 Tory MPs, including the 109 newly-elected ones, who are destined to be mere backbenchers for the foreseeable future, with limited prospects of advancement to even junior ministerial rank.
As time goes on, the numbers of ambitious but promotion-denied, or resentful, or sidelined, or disaffected, MPs will tend to grow, increasing the potential for trouble-making. With a large majority, rebelling or abstaining to try and ensure a harder Brexit becomes politically cost-free, since it carries no risk of bringing the government down. Or, going in the other direction, Boris could pursue an ultra-soft Brexit with impunity, knowing that the votes of the clean-break Brexit ERG-‘Spartans’ were no longer crucial.
Unlike most general elections, last month’s was arguably seismic, on a par with those of 1945 and 1979 for the way in which it represented a shifting of the political tectonic plates, rather than just a normal swing of the pendulum of volatile public opinion. Millions of working class people who previously had always voted Labour, either from a combination of family and community habit stretching back generations or from tribal loyalty, abandoned the party and voted instead for a wealthy, privileged, Old Etonian Tory toff.
The awareness that one of the most momentous electoral upheavals in many decades was taking place crystallised in the early hours of Friday 13 December, as former bastions of Labour voting in the Red Wall were demolished, and swathes of the map of England’s Midlands and North turned from red to blue. This was not so much an election as an earthquake, just as The Daily Telegraph’s Sherelle Jacobs predicted in advance on BBC Question Time.
The data tells the story. Former rock-solid Labour mining-area seats like Bishop Auckland, Redcar, or Blyth Valley went Tory for the first time in many decades, in some cases in almost a century, often with double-digit swings. It’s now possible to cross Northern England, on a more or less direct route, from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, without ever setting foot in a Labour-held constituency. 24 Labour-heartland seats voted Tory for the first time ever.
Labour lost votes in no fewer than 616 seats: the biggest swings came in those where the the Leave vote in the 2016 EU Referendum exceeded 60 per cent – an intriguing symmetry with the fact that 60 per cent of all seats held by Labour in 2016 voted for Brexit. Labour’s performance was actually worse than in 1983 under Michael Foot: then, it at least retained seats and thus a presence in Scotland, whereas now it is as good as wiped out north of the Border. Overall, it was Labour’s worst performance since 1935.
The commentaries are no less persuasive. Working-class voters abandoned Labour, wrote former Tory adviser Nick Timothy in The Daily Telegraph, primarily because they recoiled from what it has become: a party almost exclusively of first, the relatively-affluent woke metropolitan ‘liberal’-left in university towns, and second, of the welfare-state dependent poor in inner cities.
The Party’s leftists’ scorn for working-class attachment to patriotism and democracy, damning it as ‘far-right’ and ‘racist’, got its just deserts, observed Dominic Lawson in The Sunday Times. Doorstep canvassers and opinion-pollsters alike were near-unanimous in citing Labour’s betrayal of Brexit and its eccentric Corbynista nonsense as voters’ quoted reasons for deserting Labour in droves, noted Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator.
This was not just a recent development. For a deeper insight into how Labour got it so wrong, and came – gradually but deliberately – to drive away its traditional working-class base, and the consequent electoral and political implications, I’d recommend two conversations: first, this illuminating one-hour discussion between political scientist Professor Matthew Goodwin and the editors of Triggernometry. . . .
. . . and second, this fascinating dialogue between Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill and Blue Labour’s Maurice Glasman. The Labour Party’s and the working-class’ mutual abandonment and disconnection was both predictable, and long predicted. 2019 was, after all, the fourth consecutive election in which the size of the Tory working-class vote increased since 2010. Growing anti-EU feeling was not the sole cause of it, but Brexit was the catalyst for the dam finally bursting electorally.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though. The Tory vote suffered considerable attrition across Remain-voting areas. They lost votes in no fewer than 254 seats, and actually lost their seats in Putney (to Labour) and Richmond Park (to the LibDems).
Furthermore, although Corbyn was emphatically rejected by the voters, that isn’t necessarily also true of some aspects of Corbynism. As one of the more thoughtful and less, euphoric analyses reminded us, some of Corbynite-Labour’s policies, like rail and water-supply nationalisation, or enhancement of workers’ rights, are still popular. And, against the background of a Tory party which has for years shied away from making the classical-liberal case for consumer-capitalism and free markets, Corbyn’s ostensibly bizarre claim that Labour had partially ‘won the argument’ can’t just be dismissed out of hand.
If I seem to have covered this at length, it’s to try and emphasise the extent of the quite dramatic and psephologically significant change which 12 December 2019 produced in the Tory electorate. As commentators observed, this election really did represent a major political re-alignment. It’s partly as if there’s been almost the political equivalent of a reverse takeover, with anti-Brexit Tory votes in the richer southern territory of Remainia leaking away to either the LibDems or (presumably) the Greens, but being replaced by working-class pro-Brexit votes in the poorer Midlands and North.
In summary, the Tories’ new electorate for the 2020-2024/5 Parliament is older, less-affluent, more blue-collar, more northern, less university-‘educated’ (?indoctrinated?), more economically statist and collectivist, but also more socially and culturally small-C conservative, than at any time in living memory.
Crucially, it’s also much more pro-Brexit than was its previous iteration during either of the 2015-2017 or 2017-2019 Parliaments, the Conservative vote appearing to benefit from 2016 Leavers’ votes to a greater extent than Labour benefited from 2016 Remainers’ votes.
But retention by the Tories of the votes of its new electorate can’t be taken as a given. Their recently-acquired voters’ future support is not guaranteed, but conditional on Boris’ government delivering what he pledged in order to get them to cast their votes for the Tories, many after breaking the habit of a lifetime. To be fair, Boris did himself acknowledge this in his victory speech, when he thanked first-time Tory voters for lending him their votes, vowed never to take them for granted, and admitted that they would have to be re-earned.
This is where tensions may arise. Assuming that Boris not only wants, but actually needs, to retain that new voter base through Brexit up to the next election and beyond, some of what he will have to do to achieve that goal may well jar with the fundamentally metropolitan, cosmopolitan, ‘Liberal’-Conservative instincts of both himself and his party’s more historic supporters – especially those acquired in its Cameroon ‘modernisation’ phase, some of whose promoters are still prominent in the Party’s hierarchy.
On Brexit, immigration, fiscal policy, multiculturalism, gender/identity-politics, and the Green agenda, to name but a few, it’s possible to see where the two discrete electorates making up the current Tory Big Tent could diverge, and where Boris could be forced to make some awkward and electorally-risky choices. The direction and success of Britain in the 2020s will depend on how successfully he is able to navigate this tightrope.
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