David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
Are we seeing a fundamental realignment of British politics? It is a question that has often been asked in the wake of last year’s general election in which Boris Johnson won an 80 seat majority on the basis of winning traditionally Labour seats in the midlands and northern England.
During the last two weeks, we have seen three pieces of evidence suggesting that we are seeing such realignment.
First, a report by Matthew Goodwin and Oliver for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation studying the election . Goodwin and Heath make the case that in 2019 the Conservatives established a 15-point lead over Labour among people on low incomes (the first time in recorded history that the Conservative Party has outpolled Labour among people on low incomes); the Conservatives are now more popular among people on low incomes than they are among people on high incomes, whilst the Labour Party is today just as popular among the wealthy as it is among those on low incomes; consequently, both the Conservatives and Labour have inverted their traditional support base; and that Labour must improve its offer to low income voters and the Conservatives must work hard to retain their support.
Second, a report by UK in a Changing Europe which was discussed by its Director, Anand Menon on this site
This report compares the attitudes of MPs, party members and voters, by asking each group a series of questions about fundamental ideological attitudes on a left-right spectrum for economic issues and a liberal-authoritarian spectrum for social issues.
It reveals that, on social issues, the Conservatives at all levels are relatively united (MPs are a bit more socially liberal than Conservative voters) but, on economics, there is a much bigger divide, with Conservative MPs are a long way to the right of Conservative voters.
But perhaps most interesting of all (if not altogether surprising), were the survey responses for those voters who switched from Labour to Conservative at the last election. These are the people who decided it and, in all likelihood, will decide the next one.
On social issues, these voters were slightly more authoritarian than Conservative voters as a whole and a lot more authoritarian than Conservative MPs; on economic issues, they were to the left not just of the typical Conservative voter (who, remember, is somewhat to the left of Conservative MPs) but of the average voter.
The lesson for Labour from both analyses is straightforward. If it wants to win back the support of those Red Wall voters who switched to the Conservatives in 2019, the party should avoid the culture wars. When the Left go woke, their voters walk. It is lesson that Keir Starmer, who is trying to steer through the Black Lives Matter controversies with caution, appears to have learnt.
What about the positioning of the Conservative Party? This brings me to the third piece of evidence of realignment in British politics – the recent rhetoric from senior members of the Government embracing Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal. First, Michael Gove and then Johnson went out of their way to endorse FDR’s approach to an economic crisis, provoking free marketeers like Daniel Hannan and Ryan Bourne to point out (correctly) that the US’s economic record in the 1930s was much worse than that of the UK’s, and that many of the President’s policies were deeply flawed.
Of course, one can simply shrug off the talk of being Rooseveltian as a rhetorical flourish (the measures announced by the Prime Minister were limited but perfectly sensible), and there is a strong economic case to the effect of there being a vital role for active Government in the current circumstances.
Nonetheless, the references to FDR are consistent with a Government that is essentially tacking Left on economic measures. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that it is tacking Right on social measures. And if it wants to retain those low income, Red Wall, Labour switchers who delivered the Prime Minister his Parliamentary majority that seems to be the sensible approach. Hug those voters close and give them what they want. It was an electoral strategy that worked in 2019 and, the argument goes, should work again in 2024.
There are, however, risks.
When it comes to pursuing a socially authoritarian agenda, this may well appeal to the new Conservative voters, but it could come across as divisive and mean-spirited to the wider electorate. For younger and better-educated voters, it can contaminate the brand. One shouldn’t carry the parallel too far, but being a cultural warrior doesn’t look as though it will guarantee Donald Trump re-election in November.
On the economy, Conservative MPs are more right wing than the new Tory voters not out of spite or contrariness, but because they believe that the best way to create wealth is to have a flourishing private sector, that the market is generally more efficient at allocating resources than Government, and that one person’s prosperity does not cause another person’s poverty.
This raises two problems. Either Conservative MPs ‘do not want to meet the losers of globalisation halfway’ (to use Matthew Goodwin’s phrase), which causes a political problem, or they will accommodate the views of these voters, which will cause economic problems.
Economic nationalism, a hard Brexit, high levels of Government borrowing, and more taxes on the wealthy and big business may well be popular with these voters, but it is not consistent with a dynamic, open and enterprising economy. As many of us used to argue against Labour politicians who themselves argued in favour of some of these measures, pursuing left wing economics makes working class voters poorer.
Then there is the question of competence. People decide on how they vote on the basis of a combination of factors. Partly it is economic self-interest, partly about values. But there is also a sense of whether the individuals concerned are trusted to be up to the job. Politics has changed a lot in recent years but there has traditionally been reluctance in the British voter to trust social authoritarians or economic left wingers. Politicians that just reflect back the views of voters can, ultimately, be perceived as insincere and insubstantial. And when it comes to competence, Keir Starmer will set the bar much higher than Jeremy Corbyn.
Those are the risks. But what choice does the Conservative Party have? The nature of the coalition of support it created in 2019, built on the basis of ‘getting Brexit done’ and successfully capturing large numbers of northern and midland low-income Labour voters, means that a return to a more traditional, liberal, middle-class Conservatism would doom dozens of newly elected MPs. If Boris Johnson wants to retain the Red Wall (or, if he prefers, consolidate the Blue Wall), the war on the woke and Rooseveltian economics is the way forward.
If you are a small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal, it is a depressing conclusion to reach. But when it decided to be the Party of Brexit, when it decided that it should focus on Red Wall voters, the Conservative Party made its choice. I fear it is too late to turn back.