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Are these the last gasps of our old political order?

Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

May 5, 2019   6 mins

It was another bleak week in the history of the Conservative Party. At the local elections, the governing party suffered its worst result for nearly a quarter-century. It shed more than 1,300 council seats and, compared with last year, saw its share of the vote fall by six points.

The Conservatives walk away with a national equivalent vote of just 28%. To put this in perspective, if it were replicated at a general election it would be a lower share of the vote than what Michael Howard presided over in 2005, and a lower share of the vote than what John Major presided over in 1997.

It would be the party’s lowest vote in history.

The results that they’ll still be poring over in Conservative headquarters reflect the continuation of trends that I first pointed to in the shadow of the 2017 general election, with my colleague Oliver Heath.

To understand the dilemma facing the Conservative Party you need to drill down into its electorate.

Ever since the vote for Brexit, the party has been polling stronger in pro-Brexit areas, among working-class voters and in communities where there are larger numbers of voters without degrees. They have been steadily losing territory, though, in economically secure, middle-class and pro-Remain areas where there are larger concentrations of graduates and social liberals.

This tension was less of a risk when it looked as though the Conservative Party would deliver on Brexit and lead Britain out of the EU. Having done so, the party and a new leader could then have gone the country with a radically revamped domestic policy agenda, with as much for Remainers as Leavers.

But, as we know, things didn’t quite turn out that way.

With Theresa May having failed, so far, to deliver any sort of Brexit, the Conservative Party is getting hit on all sides. Their biggest setbacks were in Remain areas. And among the voters, the most important were not the 18-24-year olds that are generally obsessed over, but the slightly older, 30-and 40 somethings who swung hardest against them in 2017.

These voters comprise what I call the ‘Things Can Only Get Better Generation’; they are the middle-aged and young middle-aged who came of age under New Labour and Tony Blair and who probably today have young families of their own.

In focus groups, they tell me a lot.

They say they feel squeezed on multiple fronts. They are often struggling to pay for childcare and also worry about how on earth they are going to afford to send their kids to university in the future.

The Things Can Only Get Better Generation is absolutely convinced that their kids will have a lower standard of living than they did, and that the future is going to be harder than the present.

They worry about how they will afford to look after their own Baby Boomer parents, who are retired and will soon need care.

They are probably renting or, if they are not, then heavy mortgage payments and few savings mean that their family is one crisis away from financial disaster. And they lean instinctively against Brexit, or if they voted for it then they have concluded that it is being managed disastrously. The Tories are losing them.

But most worrying of all is the fact that the party is now also losing ground among the older and more committed Leavers, albeit less dramatically than it is losing ground in Remainia. Many of those areas where the party lost council seats, or councils flipped into no overall control, had endorsed Brexit in 2016.

But their results could have been far worse.

The Conservatives were only saved from further embarrassment by Nigel Farage – and the fact that his Brexit Party decided not to contest these elections. If the populists had done so, then the Tories would have seen much more serious losses in pro-Leave areas.

Indeed, in polls for the European Parliament elections, the Brexit Party is already polling around the 30% mark, while it is taking around 14% in Westminster polls –more than enough to pave the way for Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street. Much of this vote is coming from disillusioned 2017 Conservative voters and Leavers. Farage has already won over 52% of the former and 60% of the latter.

The perfect storm that is approaching the Conservative Party is going to cause significant damage on all sides. The middle-class Remainers who are still in the party will finally jump ship or abstain, while Brexiteers will drift over to the Brexit Party or similarly decide that turning out to cast a vote at the next election is not worth it.

But nor did Labour fare particularly well at the polls. While Corbyn and his party did make some gains, their overall tally, compared with 2015, was a net loss of 82 seats.

An unwritten law at local elections is that the main party of opposition is supposed to enjoy gains not suffer losses. Nor is it supposed to suffer losses in its heartlands. That, though, is precisely what happened.

While it is true that the red Labour wave is continuing to sweep out beyond London, and into the commuter towns and parts of the South East, commentators who argued that Labour would suffer no costs for drifting toward Remain now find themselves having to explain serious Labour losses in northern pro-Leave areas – from Ashfield to Bolton, from Bolsover to Hartlepool, from Burnley to Darlington.

The weakening of Labour’s relationship with its traditional working-class voters, which started to break down long before the 2016 referendum, and which I first pointed to in 2014, continues. And there isn’t much evidence that the challenge will ease.

Blue-collar Britain, which leans heavily toward Brexit, is now being targeted by the Brexit Party, which is spending much of its time campaigning in pro-Brexit Labour heartlands, as well as seats that flipped from Labour to the Conservatives in 2017.

For Labour, this means that, once again, the party is going to have to fend off national populists in its pro-Brexit heartlands where, we tend to forget, UKIP often finished in second place at the 2015 general election.

But, for me, the most striking statistic of all from the local elections was that the combined share of the vote going to the two big parties tumbled to just 56% – the second lowest figure on record. A bad night Labour and the Tories was a good night for independents, Liberal Democrats and Greens.

In this sense, one of the peculiarities about Britain’s Brexit moment is that it is making our politics more European. Britain voted to leave the European Union but its political system is now fragmenting like many other EU member states. The old mainstream parties are being squeezed by an array of new challengers.

The weakening of Britain’s two-party system has been visible in the national polls for a while. In the past month, those challengers above alongside the Brexit Party and UKIP have been taking as much as 46% of the vote.

This is a stunning turnaround from the general election less than two years ago when ‘the others’ took less than half this figure.

It is a remarkable shift. It is also a deeply problematic one for a political system that is organised around only two, or at a maximum, two-and-a-half parties. The longer this continues, the harder it becomes for either of the major parties to win a large majority. And the longer this continues, the stronger the case for electoral reform becomes.

It is tempting to trace all this to Brexit. But the picture is more complex.

The process of fragmentation that is unfolding in Britain began long ago and is one that our Dutch, German, Italian and Spanish neighbours know well, none of whom are grappling with leaving the EU.

As we argue in National Populism, what is happening in Britain and other advanced democracies is that many of our established, older and hence less flexible parties are struggling to absorb and navigate new issues that are cutting directly across their traditional electorates.

Brexit is certainly one of them but there are many others such as immigration, terrorism, refugees, climate change, minority rights and the steady advance of social liberalism, all of which are dividing voters and often because of their values rather than because of their specific views toward specific policies.

The arrival of these value conflicts is also coinciding with a breakdown of tribal loyalty to the main parties, which is making it easier for new populists and other challengers to break through. The firewall of party loyalty is today much weaker.

Meanwhile, deeper changes in the overall structure of societies are reshaping party coalitions from below, and will continue to do so for many years to come. These drivers include the expansion and now squeezing of the new middle-class, the rise of university graduates, our collective failure to respect and support those who choose, or are forced down, other paths, and the ongoing effects of unprecedented migration and demographic change.

Our established parties enjoyed a golden era when much of this was absent or had only just begun. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they are coming undone.

British politics has been pushed into a state of partial realignment with voters facing cross-cutting pressures and our political parties facing deeply divided electorates. Whether the Conservatives, and whoever succeeds Theresa May, can win voters back and build a new coalition remains to be seen. Likewise, whether Jeremy Corbyn and Labour can cobble together a viable coalition for majority power is unknown. It’s entirely possible that the future holds a full-blown realignment.

For now, though, the only thing we can be certain of is that the fragmentation that has been working through our political system is set to continue. And as the old order struggles to cope, new challengers will take advantage of that volatility.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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