Twenty years ago this week Tony Blair came to power with a thumping majority, claiming Labour to be ‘the political arm of none other than the British people as a whole’. As a phrase it sounds mildly deranged but it wasn’t totally cut off from reality. New Labour had claimed support among a cross-section of the public, including over 60 per cent of DE voters and a clear majority of those in the C2D category. Today, the Conservatives have a 17-point lead among working-class voters, despite there being a squeeze on health and education spending, and the party offering not much in the way of optimism or charisma.
What went right, then? Of course much of it is to do with the Labour leadership, but the Tories also seemed to have, almost by accident, successfully pulled off Ukip’s ‘northern strategy’ of winning socially conservative working-class voters away from Labour. Large numbers, it appears, are going either straight from Labour to the Conservatives, or via a brief dalliance with Ukip.
It was obvious that large numbers of traditional voters would desert Labour at some point; there is a clear pattern across the western world of what’s broadly called ‘the white working class’ moving rightwards. This is part of a trend away from a left-right axis towards a global-local one. It’s what David Goodhart calls the Somewheres and Anywheres. More broadly, the centre-left is in trouble because it’s a product of high-trust, low-diversity societies. There’s a reason liberalism arose in England, the Netherlands and Scandinavia rather than the Balkans – and once Labour became the party of multiculturalism, it was always going to alienate its core vote.
Jeremy Corbyn may be empirically useless, but he isn’t to blame for everything. The seed of this major political change was brought about by Tony Blair’s government, in particular its decision to increase immigration. A former adviser famously referred to this as ‘rubbing the right’s nose in diversity’, but it was bound to blow up in their faces, to use a culturally insensitive analogy.
The only surprise is that the beneficiaries are not Ukip but the Tories, who previously were believed to be too toxic in much of the north, Wales and Scotland. Still, if the Republicans can take the south after General Sherman then maybe the north can forgive the Tories for Thatcher.
Brexit was a stroke of luck. While the Conservative party hasn’t drifted especially to the right in recent months, it has found more support from socially conservative people. Of course, whether the party can hold onto these new supporters is another question; I suspect that, even leaving aside the economic consequences of Brexit, the Tories are likely to leave many people feeling let down and betrayed. They won’t be able to get immigration substantially down, for example, and I very much doubt we will see the end of high-profile cases involving foreign criminals being allowed to stay.
And here I will make two predictions: Ukip will take a kicking at the election but will probably recover to some extent, hovering around 10 per cent, as with other populist parties in western Europe. And secondly, whatever the anger people feel right now about Brexit, Britain will over the next few years continue to have far more moderate politics than our continental neighbours: our radical parties will be smaller, and less successful. Having a party in power representing the ‘Somewheres’ will help ensure our politics are more maritime than continental, duller and less prone to extremes. Thank God.