A Latter-Day King Canute: The British Election
I wasn’t intending to comment on today’s British election, but, well, such is life. Different people will have different interpretations of what amounts to a comfortable victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party – there are those who will vilify Jeremy Corbyn, while I see Chris Trotter is already musing on the power of the Establishment to circle the wagons and crush democratic socialism. Me? I won’t say I’m not disappointed by the outcome – I am – but to be honest, I think both interpretations are missing a fundamental sea-change in Western politics. A sea-change that renders Corbyn, or any other Labour leader, as helpless as King Canute before the rising tide.
The sea-change in question is the replacement of class and economics-based voting with culture-war based voting. And the cruel fact is that the Left is now finding itself on the opposite side of the divide from the working class. The US Democrats can get away with this, because they have never truly been a class-based party, but for a party that still styles itself Labour, this is now an existential crisis that extends beyond whichever poor bastard sits upon King Canute’s throne.
Put it this way. UK Labour in 2019 won Canterbury – a seat it had never held before 2017 – while losing Dennis Skinner in Bolsover. If you could go back to 1970, and tell people that this new Skinner chap would be the last Labour MP for Bolsover, they would think you insane, and for good reason. Similarly, the idea of the Tories winning a comfortable majority without a well-off seat like Canterbury would be equally silly. Back in 1970, the working class voted Labour, and the well-to-do voted Tory. It was class-based voting. Now? Labour does well in urban, liberal, well-educated places… and terribly in its ancestral homeland in the old mining seats. If that reminds you of anything, it probably should… this UK election represents the Americanisation of British politics, to a degree hitherto unthinkable, with British Labour now playing the role of the US Democrats. It’s all about the Culture War now, with Brexit really being a stand-in for different ways of viewing the world.
To be horribly honest, the sea-change has been building for some time. In 2017, Corbyn’s surprisingly strong showing masked something deeper: the 40% of the British public who voted Labour in 2017 was far more middle-class than the 44% who voted Labour in 1997. Corbyn (unintentionally, and almost certainly against his will) achieved what Blair only dreamed of, in terms of electoral coalitions. While Corbyn’s impending vilification will contrast his “unelectable socialism” with Blair’s “successful pragmatism” (something I need to put in inverted commas, because some of us can actually remember Iraq), Corbyn didn’t lose because he failed to appeal to Middle England. He lost because ancestral Labour voters in the old industrial heartlands switched over to Johnson. Such voters had already stopped voting during the Blair years… and now they’re gone. It’s a realignment in action, and Corbyn (himself, ironically, a Labour Leaver) could no more hold back the tide than anyone else. Corbyn, if nothing else, tried. The Blairites would have embraced the realignment, gone after the Tory Remainers, and discovered to their dismay that Tory Remainers are still loyal in a way that Labour Leavers no longer are.
So, where does the Left go from here? I think there are two options. The first is to basically acknowledge the permanency of the realignment. US Democratic Presidential candidates no longer bother with West Virginia, because the primacy of Culture War voting has (in the space of a generation) turned it into a lost cause. US Democrats focus on building a coalition of the educated, ethnic minorities, and so on. UK Labour might try such an approach – 48% of the country did vote to Remain in 2016 – but there is one major fly in the ointment, and I don’t mean the (similarly crisis-ridden) Liberal Democrats. I mean the tyranny of electoral geography. Leave won about two-thirds of constituencies in the 2016 referendum, while Remain voters are all packed into the cities. A realignment of British politics along American lines basically confronts UK Labour with an electoral gerrymander… and, to be honest, if the British Left had any sense, it would seriously consider throwing its weight behind proportional representation. Sure, it goes against the instincts of a lifetime, but it ain’t 1970 any more (except for the Liberals…).
The other option – which may actually be impossible in a post-industrial age without powerful unions – is to somehow restore the primacy of Class and Economics to political discourse. I have no answers on how to do this, but I would suggest that until this particular alchemical marvel is achieved, the future in Western democracies does look like a struggle between the far-right and centre-right for the next generation or more. Between (right-wing) Populists appealing to the baser side of our nature and (liberal) Establishment defending the interests of managerialism. My optimism from 2017 has vanished: left-wing heterodoxy has failed, and however much I feel sorry for Jeremy Corbyn, he was ultimately unable to hold back the tide. I think no-one could have, try though they might. This wave was a long time coming.