One of the least well-known stories about Boris Johnson’s time at Oxford involves an incident one Easter when, as he was pondering suicide, a stray dog followed him home. When Boris returned to his study, the animal transformed into Mephistopheles and there offered to make everything he wants in life come true (with one tiny catch).
How else do we explain the Prime Minister’s incredibly good fortune, which now seems likely to carry him to another election victory in a couple of years’ time? Barely 12 months after almost imitating his hero Pericles by dying of the plague, Boris is unassailable, credited not just with the successful vaccine programme, but more bizarrely, ending the European Super League, thereby making him the saviour of English football on top of everything else.
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But fortuna has most favoured Boris with his timing; he’s leader of the Tory Party at a time when political changes beyond his control are acting to make it invincible. Ten years ago, its primacy wouldn’t have been possible, and neither will it be in another ten.
While the Government has no doubt benefited from the vaccine effect, the underlying cause of last week’s Hartlepool result is the Great Realignment of politics: in short, the political divide is no longer about economics but values.
There are various reasons for this shift, but globalisation is the central theme; a process that has been speeding up since this epoch began in December 2001 with China’s admission to the WTO. That Hartlepool, or Blyth Valley or Don Valley are now to be found in the Conservative camp isn’t inevitable, but it is highly probable; neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Keir Starmer nor Attlee himself could have stopped it.
Following last week’s results, UnHerd featured voices from the three wings of the former Labour coalition, which you might call the Corbynite, Blairite and Blue Labour factions. This realignment is taking place partly because the latter has dropped out of the coalition, or been pushed out; as Paul Embery argued, the two other wings essentially have a great deal in common, as much as they like fighting on social media.
They are a logical coalition, broadly sharing an internationalist and socially liberal worldview. The problem is that, without Blue Labour, they don’t have enough voters to win, a problem aggravated by the fact that progressives tend to self-segregate geographically, which is extremely unhelpful in a first-past-the-post system.
On top of this, the radical Left, often too interested in politics and their own moral purity, are very off-putting to a large number of voters and bad at compromise and coalition-building — more fortuna for Boris.
Yet if current demographic trends continue, these two groups will have enough voters to win. Not by the next election, but maybe the one after. For despite Johnson’s victory last week, Labour now has a coalition designed for winning in the Britain of 2040. They have strong support among the young, unmarried, renters and ethnic minorities — all the groups which are demographically ascendent.
In particular, the age gap is the most worrying thing for Conservatives. The idea that most people start off as excitable socialists who want to change the world and darken into cynical conservatives is historically exaggerated. Thatcher did very well among 18-24-year-olds, for instance, and the under-30s aren’t anywhere near as rebellious as popular culture wants them to be. Most in fact tend to be quite conformist, following the prevailing culture noises around them – which is exactly what should worry the Tories. Crucially, their values aren’t shifting as they age; unless that changes, then at some point the demographic balance will tip towards Labour, and quite heavily.
This was the underlying theme of my book, Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, published with rather unfortunate timing just months after Boris’s huge election victory. For the time being, however, this trend won’t win elections because it is concentrated among certain professions, the university-educated, and the metropolitan. That’s a minority of people, in an even smaller minority of seats, but history shows that populations tend to adopt the belief systems of high-status members over time. Twitter isn’t Britain, but in a generation or so it probably will be.
I’ve often read the comforting argument that the young will rebel against the “woke wave” — but there is little evidence of that, except in small clusters. Few of us are naturally non-conforming or rebellious, because most of us don’t want to be unpopular and having unpopular political beliefs take a toll on wellbeing. Young people won’t rebel against wokery anymore than young people in late 4th century Rome rebelled against Christianity. And the new religion is stronger and more powerful, so much so that it can successfully dictate what society’s taboos are, and what is beyond the pale to say. No ideology can compete with that.
At some point, the “woke” worldview which has come to the fore in the United States since 2013, will start to spread enough to become electorally significant in Britain, and there will be a tipping point where liberals and progressives together will win. This will happen not long into the future: just as the Tories won an overwhelming majority in the Tees Valley last week, and even made gains in Durham, so they lost Tunbridge Wells and Cambridgeshire, a sign of things to come as the disappearance of younger Conservative voters in the professions begins to turn south-east England red.
Yet while much of this is to do with values and identity, there are also more banal material explanations. Recounting the awful conditions facing Russia’s urban underclass before the revolution, Orlando Figes described in A People’s Tragedy how Moscow landlords were able to prevent the authorities from building more homes for the desperate workers: “Such was the demand for accommodation that workers thought nothing of spending half their income on rent.” Only half their income, a twenty-something Londoner would complain, like the proverbial Monty Python Yorkshireman: When I was growing up, we paid 60%!
There is a noticeable link between high housing costs and voting for Left-wing parties, partly because affordable housing encourages people to start families, which makes them more conservative for a whole array of reasons: everything from a declining belief in the blank slate — a cornerstone of progressive thinking — to support for more traditional gender roles to economic conservatism.
Voting also maps on to population density; the more people per square mile, the more Left-wing people become on average. Meanwhile, urban people adopt more of the character traits associated with being progressive; they’re more likely to be mentally ill, for example, which correlates with liberalism, more likely to be sexually progressive, innovative and open to new experiences, and trusting of a wider circle of people.
There is also the effect of people’s social milieus; if everyone around you believes something, most people come to adopt those beliefs. Anti-Toryism is almost a social norm for young people — something accelerated by housing costs — but at some point the social network becomes so anti-Tory that even home-owning does not flip a person’s politics.
The trend I’ve outlined is, of course, Londoncentric — for now — but then things are different outside the capital; for all the chatter about the North being deprived, the sort of people who vote Tory in the Red Wall (and even more so in the Midlands) are doing okay. They can afford their own home and car, with enough income to afford a decent holiday and gym membership, while their university-educated contemporaries in London are living in squalid flat shares in their 30s, without any prospect of affording a family, their politics getting redder and their hair bluer.
Both these cultural and economic trends are going against the Conservatives; house inflation continues to rise and fertility continues to fall — yet despite this Britain’s population is growing and therefore becoming more urban.
And here is another long-term advantage for the Left: immigration and its longer-term effects. While modern progressivism is increasingly repulsive to a lot of minority voters, in every western democracy the Left have a plurality or majority among non-white populations (although this varies from Canada at one end, where it has been very narrow, to France, where the gap is huge). This is because the Left-Right divide is essentially about the conflict between national and global identities, and there is little that conservatives can do to overturn that advantage (although they can, and should, reduce it by being moderate).
To put it simply, demographically Britain under 30 is very different to Britain over 50. It’s going to be more diverse, more urban, more single, more university-educated and more impoverished by rental prices. Its values are completely different.
So, unless something is done about housing costs, this wave of disappointment will wash away today’s Tory advantage. So far, the best proposal has been Policy Exchange’s Street Votes, which would potentially create millions of new homes without touching the Green Belt, while also making lots of suburban homeowners immensely rich. That one idea, more than any other, might lay the ground for a future Tory home-owning majority.
In the meantime, as housing inflation sadly denies more people the chance of a decent life, we will see the Tory desert in overpriced London constituencies start to spread outwards. And when the time comes, Labour will almost certainly capture once-unimaginable areas of the Home Counties and Thames Valley, just as the Democrats win almost all the most expensive ZIP codes in the US.
But for now Boris can kick around and enjoy his great advantage, with an enfeebled opposition whose values repulse much of the country, knowing that he truly has the luck of the devil. But Mephistopheles, and demography, will come for him and his party eventually.