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Nine lessons from the election: Boris was lucky – but he also played his hand right

24 December 2019

6:39 PM

24 December 2019

6:39 PM

The 2019 general election will be remembered as one of the most consequential elections in Britain’s recent history. Aside from rejecting a more economically radical Labour Party, the British people used the election to provide what their elected representatives had been unable to provide: an answer to Brexit. For Boris Johnson and the Conservative party, the election was a triumph. They won their largest majority since 1987 and the largest majority for any party since New Labour’s second landslide in 2001. Remarkably, and despite older arguments about the ‘costs of ruling’, a Conservative Party that had been in power for nearly a decade attracted nearly 44 per cent of the vote; this was not only its highest share since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 but its fourth consecutive increase since entering power in 2010. A Conservative party leader who had been widely derided before the election became, after John Major, only the second leader in British history to lead his party to a fourth term in office. By re-aligning his party, Boris Johnson can now claim to be the only Conservative leader to have truly triumphed over the Europe question, an issue that had dogged and undermined Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May.

For Labour, in sharp contrast, the 2019 election produced a historic defeat. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour plunged to 32 per cent of the vote and just 203 seats, a loss of 59 seats on 2017 and its lowest number of seats since 1935. Despite facing an incumbent Conservative party that had been in office for nearly a decade and had presided over austerity, a prolonged economic squeeze and a divisive national debate over Brexit, Labour went backwards. The Conservatives, led by an Old Etonian Oxford graduate, captured 57 seats and took all but three of these from Labour. These included many traditional Labour heartlands in the so-called Red Wall; Great Grimsby (Labour since 1945); Bishop Auckland (1935); Bassetlaw (1935); Wakefield (1932); Leigh (1922); Don Valley (1922) and Bolsover, a seat that Labour had never lost. Labour was humiliated in the very communities that it had been founded to represent. And, as I wrote in the Sunday Times, with Brexit the Labour party has lost the first big culture war to emerge since the financial crisis – not easy for a party that has long believed it would prosper amid an economic slowdown.

For Britain’s other parties it was a night of triumph or despair. The Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats, which had both dominated the European elections only seven months earlier, now had a very different experience. Despite increasing their vote share by more than 4 points, the Lib Dems only won 11 seats, down one from 2017. Their leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat to the SNP. Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party also had a disappointing night. Despite polling well in a number of target seats, such as Barnsley, Doncaster and Hartlepool, the Brexit Party failed to cut through amidst the broader Conservative surge. Farage, however, could claim that while he had lost a battle he had won the war. By agreeing to stand down in 317 Conservative seats the Brexit Party helped to clear the path for Brexit. Meanwhile, the SNP won 48 of 59 Scottish seats, a net gain of 13 which cemented Scottish nationalism as the premier political force north of the border.

But what explains the outcome of the 2019 general election? In the aftermath of a historic defeat, many in Labour pointed to either to Mr Corbyn’s unpopularity or to Brexit. ‘Despite our best efforts’, said Corbyn himself, ‘the election became mainly about Brexit’. But was the election really shaped only by Brexit? What about the longer-term factors that had been shaping the underlying sources of support for Labour and the Conservatives over many years? Was Labour’s defeat a reply to our post-2016 divides or, more accurately, a long time coming? And to what extent, if at all, does the 2019 general election represent what academics call a ‘critical turning point’, namely a sudden break from past practice?

Critical turning points in British politics are rare; they happen when an election delivers an abrupt, large and enduring form of change whereby people reject their ‘normal’ voting behaviour and the pendulum swings decisively in a completely new direction. Examples include 1924, 1945 and also 1997, when Tony Blair and New Labour swept to their largest majority in history and the largest majority in the postwar era. Can 2019 be added to the list of critical elections, or are we instead witnessing a more gradual realignment of British politics that has been taking place over many years? These are the questions that we will explore through nine key messages about the 2019 election, some of which draw on research that I’ve been conducting with David Cutts, Oliver Heath, Paula Surridge, and also Harold Clarke and Paul Whiteley. So here is what I think is important…

1. Labour had a competency problem. One popular theory among academics is that what really matters to voters is whether or not they believe that a party is competent. These perceptions of competence are shaped, in turn, by things like leadership. What is abundantly clear is that at the 2019 general election, and on the surface, the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn had a very big competency problem. In the eyes of most voters, Corbyn was neither credible not competent. His leadership ratings in 2019 were weaker than they had been in 2017; 76 per cent of Britons felt dissatisfied with the way Corbyn was doing his job. He had the worst ‘net satisfaction’ ratings of any opposition leader since Ipsos Mori began asking the question in 1977. He failed to find unity on Brexit; two in three voters felt that Labour’s position on Brexit, the most important issue of the day, was ‘unclear’. And even when Labour tried to make the election about issues other than Brexit they still stumbled into competency problems. While many of their policies – like raising income tax on high earners, renationalising rail and utilities and reserving one-third of boardroom places for workers – enjoy strong support, Labour was simply not seen as a credible manager of the economy; only 16 per cent of voters trusted Corbyn most to run the economy (versus 34 per cent for Johnson); 57 per cent of voters thought it likely that Britain would enter recession if Labour won the election (versus 39 per cent for the Conservatives); and 67 per cent thought that Labour’s spending promises would require tax raises (versus 46 per cent for the Conservatives). The Conservatives also enjoyed ‘issue ownership’ in many areas. Not only were they the most trusted party on the economy but also Brexit, crime and, in some polls, had closed Labour’s historic lead on the NHS. In the short-term context of the campaign, all of this stacked the deck firmly against Labour. But it would also be a mistake to focus only on competency and Mr Corbyn. Labour faced many bigger problems…

2. Boris Johnson consolidated the Leave vote. Given that the election was held against the backdrop of Brexit, one of the most important elements was the extent to which Boris Johnson and his party consolidated the Leave vote. The Conservative strategy in 2019 marked a continuation of Nick Timothy’s strategy two years earlier; the centre-right party would downplay David Cameron’s more socially liberal brand of conservatism in favour of building a stronger relationship with the more socially conservative and working-class areas of the country that had not only turned out for Brexit three years earlier but had been drifting toward the Conservatives ever since. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were widely ridiculed but their strategy was very successful; between the European elections in the spring and the final polls of the 2019 campaign the percentage of Leavers backing the Conservatives surged from 36 to 71 per cent; the percentage of 2017 Conservatives returning to the fold increased from 58 to 85 per cent, and the percentage of 2017 Conservatives defecting to the Brexit Party crashed from 30 to 4 per cent.

Post-election polls confirm the story; Johnson retained 85 per cent of people who had voted Conservative in 2017 and 74 per cent of people who had voted Leave in 2016. Labour, in sharp contrast, only retained 72 per cent of its 2017 electorate (11 per cent decamped to the Conservatives) and not even half of Remainers; Lord Ashcroft similarly found that 92 per cent of Conservative Leavers and 25 per cent of Labour Leavers voted Conservative earlier this month, revealing how Johnson’s ‘strategy of consolidation’ cut through. Crucially, 19 per cent of Remainers also stayed loyal to Johnson; we hear much about how our new Brexit identities matter above all else but the fact that one in five Remainers put their party identity above their Brexit identity is really important. If this really was a ‘Brexit election’, therefore, then only one side, Leavers, mobilised accordingly.

This is partly why the Conservative campaign was able to make so much progress in Leave Land. As shown in the figure below, the change in the Conservative vote share was strongly positively related to the estimated Leave vote in 2016. Although the Conservatives suffered minor setbacks in very pro-Remain seats, they more than compensated for this by making greater gains in seats that had backed Brexit. This advantage for the Conservatives was also likely helped by a turnout problem on Labour’s side. On average, turnout fell more in Labour seats (by -2.6 percentage points) than Conservative seats (-0.9 percentage points). And in terms of Brexit turnout in Remain seats fell by 0.6 points and 1.9  points in Leave seats. It was in Labour seats that had strongly backed Brexit in 2016 where turnout declined even more sharply, by 3 points. This suggests that Labour suffered from a turnout problem in its more strongly pro-Brexit and working-class seats.

3. Geography gave Johnson an in-built advantage. By consolidating the Leave vote, Johnson and the Conservatives gave themselves another important in-built advantage. Estimates suggest that in 2016, Leave won more than 60 per cent of general election seats. The Leave vote, in other words, was spread far more evenly across England and Wales while the Remain vote was more concentrated in cities. Johnson succeeded where Theresa May struggled by fully exploiting this in-built advantage for Leavers. Of the 401 seats that were estimated to have voted Leave, the Conservatives won 73 per cent of them (292 seats). By contrast, of the 231 seats that voted Remain, Labour only won 41 per cent of them (95 seats). Crucially, the Conservatives also won nearly one-third (73) of Remain seats where they were not only helped by Farage’s decision to stand down Brexit Party candidates but their ability to retain a significant chunk of those Conservative Remainers. So, while public support for parties that backed Remain was greater than support for parties that backed Brexit, the Leave votes were not only more unified but more efficiently distributed across parliamentary constituencies, which translated into a large parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson.

This also helps to explain why the Conservatives polled so strongly in England, where they won nearly 48 per cent of the vote. Their largest increases came in the Midlands, Yorkshire and Humber and England’s North East. More than 55 per cent of their gains (32 seats) were in these regions. However, the Conservatives lost ground in London and barely made any advances across southern England; the party only won 4 seats in these regions that it did not win two years previously. It did much better in Wales, increasing its vote share by 2.5 points and winning six seats. Only the efficiency of Labour’s vote in Wales saved it from further losses to the Conservatives. Things could have been much worse for Labour. And unless it comes up with a credible plan then things could easily deteriorate further.

These geographical advantages for the Conservatives were reflected in disadvantages for Labour. Corbyn and his party hoped to revive their uneasy coalition of 2017. But, in the end, this did not happen. Labour’s support fell back by 8 points in England, 8.5 points in Scotland, where the party was reduced to just one seat, and 8 points in Wales, where Labour lost six seats in another traditional stronghold. Labour’s vote share plummeted by 13 points in the North East, 10 points in Yorkshire and 9 points across the Midlands. The uneasy coalition of its northern heartlands with southern Remain seats that Labour had managed to keep together in 2017 fell apart. Labour’s vote tanked by more than 6 points in strongly Remain seats and by more than 10 points in strongly Leave seats.

One problem for a Labour party that had drifted to supporting a second referendum is that the geography created by the 2017 election simply left too few opportunities to make big inroads into pro-Remain seats. Of the 231 seats that had backed Remain in 2016, only 78 were held by Conservatives. Labour, by contrast, held 104. And of the 95 seats which recorded a stronger Remain vote of at least 60 per cent, only 16 were held by Conservatives while Labour held 52. The knock-on consequences for Labour would be profound. Because of their failure to unite the ‘Remain vote’, as they had in 2017, and also these more limited opportunities for growth, they would have to win back lots of Leavers and hold up areas of the country that had been drifting away from them for years, if not decades. Labour was thus exposed from all angles and this was reflected in what happened in the Red Wall.

4. A two-punch combination cracked the Red Wall. Future historians will inevitably present Boris Johnson as the man who smashed the ‘Red Wall’; the mainly pro-Brexit Leave seats that stretch from north Wales over to Great Grimsby on the East Coast. But this is actually misleading. The reality is that the gains he made in 2019 were the result of a two-punch combination. In 2017, Theresa May gambled that her path to a majority ran through capturing a large number of the nearly 150 Labour seats that had voted for Brexit. But whereas May only won six pro-Brexit Labour seats, Johnson carved a much larger slice out of Labour’s territory. Of the 54 seats that the Conservatives took from Labour, 50 had voted Leave in 2016. Of the 50 seats where the Conservative vote increased the sharpest all but one had voted Leave in 2016. Johnson’s 2019 majority thus built directly on the geography of the Leave vote. But it also built on the advances that Theresa May and Nick Timothy had overseen in 2017; the first punch came from May, the second from Johnson.

Two years ago, the Conservative vote increased nationally by 5.5 points but in the Red Wall seats it surged by over 10 points. As we showed in an earlier paper, in 2017 the Conservatives had already started to make big gains in exactly the sorts of places that had previously given strong support to UKIP and then to Brexit. By increasing the Conservative vote share most sharply in these pro-Leave, less well educated, older and heavily white seats, including many in the Red Wall, May and her team had, albeit unknowingly, set the stage for Johnson’s more ambitious invasion two years later. In 2019, Johnson and his party built and expanded upon this, gaining many more votes in areas where the Conservatives had historically struggled; as shown below, they performed strongest in seats with large numbers of working-class voters, where average education levels are low, populations are older and there are few ethnically diverse communities.

Whereas in 2010 and 2015, Cameron’s Conservative party won more votes where there were more graduates, in 2017 this patten disappeared and then in 2019 it was reversed. Today, there are fewer Conservative voters in places that have more degree-holding voters. The Conservative Party has long prospered in older and heavily white seats but its breakthrough in 2019 in these strongly working-class and less well-educated seats is a more dramatic development (check out these age divides). The class effects are nothing short of remarkable. Post-election polling suggests that the Conservatives had a comfortable 10 point lead above Labour amongst ABC1 voters, with 43 per cent voting Conservative and 33 per cent voting Labour. But Johnson and his party held an even more dramatic 15 point lead amongst C2DE voters (48 per cent voted Conservative, 33 per cent Labour). What all of this means, essentially, is that the electorate that just handed Boris Johnson his big majority looks and thinks profoundly differently from the electorate that handed David Cameron his victories in 2010 and 2015. The key question that may yet come to define Johnson’s premiership is already visible: how can he sustain the loyalty of these voters? But for Labour, the question is perhaps even more profound: how can the left find a way of winning back voters who might agree with Labour on the economy but fundamentally disagree with ton questions about culture, identity and patriotism. Suffice to say that George Orwell would have had an absolute field day with this election.

5. Labour’s defeat was a long time coming. In the shadow of winning his majority, Johnson went straight to Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield, which for the first time in 84 years had gone Conservative. ‘I can imagine people’s pencils hovering over the ballot paper and wavering before coming down for us and the Conservatives, and I know that people may have been breaking the voting habits of generations to vote for us’, said the Conservative Prime Minister. But exactly how was Johnson able to make so much ground in the Red Wall? Much of the post-election commentary has focused on Brexit, the unpopularity of Mr Corbyn and what did or did not happen during the election campaign itself. But the reality is that while the Red Wall was breached in 2019, its foundations had been weakening for many years. The consolidation and surge of the Leave vote may have been the final element that cracked the brickwork, but the decay, reflected in Labour’s weakening relationship with working-class Britain, had been setting in over much of the last decade, if not earlier. We can explore this by looking at the difference in the Labour and Conservative vote share by the class composition of seats in England and Wales. The ‘falling ladder‘ in the figure below is revealing; Labour’s advantage over the Conservatives in the working-class heartlands that the left-wing party had been founded to represent gradually disappears. Although the decline of class voting is a well-studied phenomenon, even as recently as 2010 Gordon Brown and Labour still performed substantially better than the Conservatives in seats with lots of people in working-class occupations. Yet then things change; even while the Conservatives were in power, presiding over austerity, Labour’s in-built advantage in working-class seats gradually dissolved. This raises an intriguing but also devastating question for the Labour Party: is it still a working-class party?

6. Sequencing is important. To understand why Labour’s defeat was a long time coming we can go even further back. Long before anybody had heard of Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit or the EU referendum there had already been two canaries in the coalmine. The first, visible in the early 2000s, was rising apathy in Labour’s blue-collar heartlands. As noted by Oliver Heath, whereas in 1964 the difference in reported turnout between the working-class and the middle-class had been less than 5 percentage points, by 2010 this difference in turnout had surged to 19 points. One big reason why was the increasingly narrow social pool from which Labour selected its MPs. Whereas in 1964, 37 per cent of Labour MPs had come from manual occupational backgrounds by 2015 this had tanked to just 7 per cent. Along the way, this growing disconnect was hammered home by episodes such as Gordon’s Brown dismissal of Mrs Duffy, who had voiced reasonable concerns over the scale of immigration, and Emily Thornberry openly mocking a working-class house that was adorned with flags. As Heath argued: ‘As the Labour party turned its back on the working class in a bid to appeal to middle-class voters by recruiting more and more candidates from the professional classes, large swathes of the working class simply stopped voting’. Many did not share the pro-immigration, pro-EU and strongly liberal views of their representatives.

The second canary was isolated pockets of support for the far-right BNP, including in many Red Wall areas. Alongside abstention, this was another sign that working-class voters did not share the increasingly liberal outlook of their representatives, including in many Labour areas. The BNP was a small party but, as Robert Ford and I pointed out in 2010, between 2001 and 2010 the far-right party was polling strongest in ‘older, less educated working-class men living in the declining industrial towns of the North and Midlands regions… [who] express exceptionally high levels of anxiety about immigration and dissatisfaction with the mainstream political parties’. The BNP imploded but between 2012 and 2019 Nigel Farage continued to cultivate the same soil, telling us in our book Revolt on the Right how he deliberately targeted areas that had given strong support to the far-right and coming to the view that he could win over socially conservative workers in Labour areas. This too was an important episode in the longer-term story. All of this helped to further disrupt tribal allegiances to Labour, break habitual voting patterns and make it more acceptable in Labour bastions to break rank by voting for another party (as we argued here and here and presented to Labour in 2014).

All of this should have deeply worried a Labour movement that still liked to see itself as a working-class party. But nor should this have come as a surprise given that quite a few academics (see herehere and here) had been pointing to Labour’s weakening relationship with the working class for many years and a growing rejection of a liberal consensus on the economy and society. In short, while the Red Wall collapsed in 2019 its foundations had been crumbling for many years. To truly make sense of what happened in 2019 we need to not only think about Brexit or Mr Corbyn but sequencing and how, over the longer-term, a number of key events served to push Labour closer and closer to a historic defeat: the long-term weakening of the Labour party’s relationship with the working class, as reflected in rising apathy and breakaway support for the far-right; then enter Nigel Farage and UKIP, who merge the issues of EU membership and immigration and mobilise the most clearly working-class electorate in British politics, performing well in lots of Labour areas; then, many of these same working-class voters and blue-collar areas, including 60 per cent of Labour-held seats, break heavily for Brexit in 2016; and then they start to break more seriously for the Conservative party under Theresa May in 2017, before all of this churn and change allows Johnson to drive a bulldozer through Labour’s Red Wall in 2019.

7. Johnson identified a new winning formula. While the collapse of the Red Wall had been a long time coming, Johnson was also helped by his party’s decision to overhaul its message for these areas. They shared Nick Timothy’s core diagnosis that Britain was ripe for a realignment, but they went further and ran a far more competent campaign. As I argued a few months ago, there was much space for a party that leaned left on the economy but right on culture. Johnson and his team stepped into this space. Strong support for Brexit was combined with a more assertive response to austerity, reforming immigration, adopting a tough approach on crime, increased spending on the NHS and infrastructure, increasing the national living wage, addressing regional inequality, and providing state-aid for failing UK businesses.

Such policies were designed to appeal to ‘cross-pressured’ Labour voters who we had been pointing to for some time, whose social conservatism had been loosening their connection to increasingly middle-class and socially liberal Labour MPs as issues like EU membership and immigration jumped up the agenda. All of this points to a demand-side and a supply-side problem for Labour. While the demand for Labour among the working class has weakened, Labour’s pitch to these voters is now being matched by a far more assertive, interventionist and paternalistic Conservative party that stands more in the tradition of Disraeli than Thatcher. Johnson has recognised one of the fundamental new rules of our political era – that it is easier for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on questions of identity and culture.

8. Labour was probably also hit by the Brexit Party. In Leave seats, it also appears that Labour was further weakened by the Brexit Party. Nigel Farage claimed throughout the campaign that his party could win in places that the Conservatives could not reach – though as illustrated above in many cases the Conservative proved to be more than capable of capturing Labour heartlands. How then did the presence of the Brexit Party impact on the other parties? The figure below shows how Labour lost support irrespective of whether or not there was a Brexit Party candidate. However, the extent to which the change in Labour’s vote share was related to the Leave vote share varies. In seats where the Brexit Party stood a candidate the change in Labour’s vote share was more strongly (and negatively) correlated with the Leave vote (r=-0.61); while in places where the Brexit party did not stand the relationship was much weaker (r=-0.14). In other words, Labour’s support declined more heavily in pro-Leave seats when there was a Brexit party candidate than when there was not. It is important to stress that we cannot from ‘aggregate data’ infer that Labour support went directly to the Brexit Party; these changes may be masking complex patterns of movement among individual voters. But it does appear that this was a further complication for Labour in its heartlands.

9. This was not a critical election but the latest episode in a longer-term realignment. Put all of this together and we are left with a view of the 2019 general election as being not so much a critical election that marks a radical departure from the past but rather an election that points to the ongoing, longer-term realignment of British politics. Brexit has reconfigured the geographical base of support for Labour and the Conservatives, as Eric Kaufmann and I explained in the New York Times. We are now at a point where lots of voters are putting their cultural preferences ahead of their traditional party loyalties. But much of this had been building over many years. Brexit has thrown our ‘new’ value divides into the spotlight but these divides were clearly visible long before the referendum took place. As I showed in earlier work, the currents of the Leave vote had been gathering strength for years if not decades before they found their expression. First, in strong support for Nigel Farage and UKIP and, second, in the vote for Brexit in 2016, and then, third, in Boris Johnson’s consolidation of the Leave vote in 2019. Brexit is only one by-product of a deeper values divide and I doubt very much that it will be the last.

We can see how these deeper changes are pushing the country toward a much broader realignment by looking at the difference in the Labour and Conservative vote by support for Brexit in England and Wales. As you can see below, which shows the difference between Labour and Conservative support by levels of support for Brexit, back in 2010 the sort of places that ended up backing Leave in large numbers did not vary much in terms of their support for Labour or the Conservatives. However, since the referendum, the balance between Labour and the Conservatives in England and Wales has intensified around Brexit. The Conservatives now do much better than Labour in the sort of seats that backed Brexit in 2016. Brexit has basically accelerated a longer-term realignment in British politics and is reshaping the country’s political geography, pushing it into a more polarised state. Amid this culture war, the Conservative party has responded far more effectively than Labour, consolidating Leavers, speaking directly to one side of the values divide and building a new coalition out of voters who felt left behind by a liberal consensus and who often agreed with Labour on the economy but prioritised their cultural preferences on Brexit, immigration and crime. What all of this leaves us with as we head into 2020 is a new culture divide at the very heart of British politics; one that will not be easily fixed and one that will be with us for a long while to come.

Matthew Goodwin is a Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and an associate fellow at Chatham House. This blog was originally published on his blog, which you can sign up to here.

 


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