Matthew Goodwin and Eric Kaufmann
Britain has been rocked by eight major electoral contests in the last nine years. Four general elections, two referendums on Scotland’s independence and European Union membership and two sets of European Parliament elections have pushed one of the world’s oldest and historically most stable democracies into a period of churn and change.
Realignments in British politics have been generally rare: Most recently, infighting on the left in the 1980s led to a breakaway party and, eventually, the rise of New Labour and Tony Blair. Today, Britain is in the grip of another realignment, one that is rooted in something else entirely: a new cultural divide.
The cultural issues — related mostly to immigration and ethnic change — are also reconfiguring American politics.
In Britain, rather than focus on just the Conservative and the Labour Parties, let’s first step back and look at two broad blocs, which we’ll call left and right. The left encompasses the main opposition Labour Party and the progressive Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The right encompasses the Conservatives and the populist right, which has been represented by the far-right British National Party, the UK. Independence Party of Nigel Farage and, more recently, the Brexit Party.
The left and right have been fairly stable and evenly matched over the past decade, a picture that looks a lot like American politics.
But what has changed for each bloc is the social and ideological composition.
The Brexit culture wars have not only shaken up Britain’s political map but are now pushing the country into a more polarised state. Why is this happening? The popular answer on the left is that this is about economic insecurity, economic globalisation and imports from China. But when you zoom in to look not just at areas but individual voters, attitudes toward immigration are in fact the strongest predictor of support for Brexit.
Britons’ anxieties about the pace and scale of immigration, something that Boris Johnson pledged to restrict, lie at the heart of Britain’s political realignment; many voters are now putting their cultural preferences ahead of their once-tribal party political identities.
Minorities are increasingly diverging from white Britons, though the effect is not as pronounced as in America, given that racial minorities represent less than 15 per cent of the British population. Together, the 2011 ethnic composition of a region and the level of support for Brexit in 2016 predict over 40 per cent of the variation in 2010-19 shifting between the left and right blocs.
If, as research from the Voter Study Group showed, the average American voter is left on economics and right on culture, then this zone is the sweet spot for both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Yet as the political scientist David Goodhart notes, Labour, like many Western left parties, finds it much more difficult to speak to the identity anxieties of the median voter over immigration, family and national identity.
Conversely, the right is generally able to shift toward higher public spending. Under President Trump, for instance, the deficit has skyrocketed to approach a staggering $1 trillion. In Britain, Johnson promised higher expenditure on public services, raising the minimum wage and offering more state aid for failing businesses.
Since 2010, Labour has consistently failed to match the Conservative Party’s capacity to capture the votes of their respective ideological blocs. A less doctrinaire Labour Party would either need to moderate enough on socialism to woo well-heeled social liberals — as Blair did in the 1990s — or shift right on immigration, like the Danish Social Democrats, to win back the white working class. But for now, Labour’s electorate has become structurally unsound.
Yet there are risks for the Tories. With a more working-class, socially conservative and anti-immigration electorate, Johnson and the Conservative Party are increasingly vulnerable to a resurgence of rightist populism (like Ukip in 2014 or the Brexit Party in 2019).
American politics is being reconfigured along similar lines as Britain. Historically, the Democrats have effectively consolidated left voters behind them, but many of the parties’ candidates have moved toward more progressive positions, especially on immigration.
It is not hard to see a 2020 Trump campaign making further inroads into the American equivalent of the “red wall.”
Alternatively, his unwillingness — or at least his party’s — to drift further left on economics, like Johnson, could yet prove to be his Achilles heel in 2020.
Matthew Goodwin is a professor of politics in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent, and Eric Kaufmann is a professor of politics, Birkbeck University of London.
— New York Times News Service