Boris Johnson seems absolutely determined to resist calls for him to step down. He is in good company. British prime ministers – with the exception of Harold Wilson and David Cameron – don’t tend to “go gentle into that good night”, preferring instead to cling on, limpet-like until their party is removed from office at the ballot box or, like Johnson’s immediate predecessor Theresa May, they are effectively forced out by colleagues hoping (not altogether unreasonably, it turns out) that a change of leader may persuade the public to forget their failings and give them a second chance.
As post-war political history shows us, even serious ill health hasn’t been enough to prevent previous prime ministers trying hard to bag and then hang on to the top job for as long as they can – although it has, for at least a couple of them, eventually furnished a convenient excuse for bowing out earlier than they might have wished.
Winston Churchill , for instance, was already in pretty poor shape by the time he regained the premiership in 1951 at the age of 76, and many of his colleagues – not least his ambitious foreign secretary, Anthony Eden – hoped he would retire after a year or so. But, in spite of an array of medical problems and an increasingly evident decline in his powers, he refused to relinquish the prize. And such was the Conservative Party’s concern not to be seen to be ditching the country’s iconic wartime leader that, even after he suffered a massive stroke in June 1953 that left him incapacitated for months, his colleagues connived in keeping the full story from the public.
Things might have been different for Churchill had Eden, ironically enough, not been ill himself as the result of a botched operation earlier that year. So serious were its consequences, in fact, that by the time Churchill was prevailed upon to reluctantly call it a day in the spring of 1955, Eden, too, was already long past his best. Even though his premiership got off to a superb start – he called an election almost immediately after taking over and increased the Tories’ overall majority from 17 to 60 – he was soon driving his ministers to distraction with what many of them regarded as his unwarranted interference in the running of their departments.
Naturally, their irritation pales into insignificance with the cause of Eden’s eventual departure in early 1957 – his responsibility for the doomed attempt to snatch back the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1956 and the knowledge among his colleagues that he had misled Parliament in denying any collusion with Israel and France in the build-up to the operation.
The episode emphasises the role (one reprised half a century later under Tony Blair) that a major miscalculation in foreign and military affairs can play in bringing down a premiership, especially when combined with a prime minister being seen to have been less than honest with the public on the issue. But it also risks blinding us to the equally important role played by far more mundane domestic considerations.
Because Suez looms so large in the story of Eden’s undoing, we forget that soon after the election, his chancellor, Rab Butler was forced to introduce a humiliating emergency budget just months after he had helped win the 1955 election with something of a giveaway before it. We forget, too, that – partly as a result – less than a year into his premiership Eden was being called on (by a disappointed Daily Telegraph, no less) to demonstrate “the smack of firm government”.
Indeed, it was those domestic difficulties, even though they weren’t reflected in a particularly significant loss of support in the polls (which came out far less frequently in those days anyway), that led Eden to reshuffle both Butler and Macmillan, much to the chagrin of both – one reason, along with their transparent desire to succeed him, why they did little or nothing to help their boss out over Suez and its aftermath.
In the event, it was the 62-year-old Macmillan who, after Eden resigned (not altogether unreasonably) pleading ill health, “emerged” as his replacement following “soundings” of the parliamentary party taken by senior Conservatives. And like Eden, he began well, turning things around after Suez and aligning the political and economic cycle to ensure that voters had “never had it so good”, resulting not only in a third consecutive election victory for the Tories at the general election of 1959 but yet another substantial increase in their Commons majority.
Again, however, a combination of economic difficulties at home and policy controversy abroad (not least his embrace of the end of empire and his failed attempt to join the EEC), soon saw his government run into trouble. Moreover, the sharp increase in the commissioning of opinion polls made its unpopularity even more glaringly obvious for all to see, as did a series of stunning by-election reverses – probably the first time, but by no means the last time, that such defeats would play a role in putting a premature end to a premiership.
The same can be said for another key factor in Macmillan’s early departure (which, like Eden’s, was officially put down to ill health) – namely the appearance of an opposition leader who appears more in touch with the public’s mood and priorities and who they can imagine standing on the steps of No 10. The Profumo affair in 1963, along with 1962’s infamous Night of the Long Knives, during which a panicky Macmillan sacked half his Cabinet, may have confirmed voters’ suspicions that he was past it. But Wilson did a fair bit to help them toward that conclusion.
Whether Labour’s Neil Kinnock played as big a role in Margaret Thatcher’s departure in November 1990 is rather more doubtful. But, in truth, he didn’t really need to. All the other elements were there: major policy failures and controversies (the Poll Tax and Europe); economic difficulties (the return of inflation worries); alienated, ambitious and seriously worried colleagues (Howe, Heseltine and Major); the party’s declining support revealed in poll after poll and dramatised by one or two spectacular by-election defeats (most obviously Eastbourne); an obvious waning (possibly due to incipient illness) of the premier’s powers; and a sense, overall, that they had done the job the party had needed them to do and that, since they were no longer trusted by voters and had gone from being an electoral asset to an electoral liability, it was time to spin the wheel and move on.
A look at that list – and at the history books more generally – should surely worry Johnson, especially now that Labour (probably for the first time since Blair) can boast a leader of the opposition who, for all his lack of charisma, probably passes the proverbial ‘blink test’ as a potential prime minister. Just as they were under Theresa May, most, if not all, of the criteria for an early exit would appear to be met. And if Johnson does eventually go, then, unlike some of his predecessors, the current occupant of No 10 won’t be able to plead infirmity – except, his critics would say, moral infirmity – as even the flimsiest of excuses.
oris Johnson beware. Ever since Britain first became a democracy in 1928, its prime ministers have been booted, or winkled, out of Downing Street rather than departing purely of their own free will. The only clear exception to the rule is Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 announced his retirement, having won a massive majority two years earlier and then ridding the country of its scandal-ridden, pro-German monarch.
Every one of Baldwin’s successors, apart from Macmillan (who quit owing to ill-health) and Wilson, who might have been able to hang on longer had he not quit before illness and exhaustion overwhelmed him, has resigned after losing a general election (Churchill, Attlee, Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown) or losing the confidence, or at least testing the patience, of their parliamentary colleagues (Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May).
Given, then, that ejection from within rather than from without is by no means uncommon, Johnson surely has cause for concern. Never as stunning as many imagine, his standing with the public is not only lower than it has ever been, it is lower than that enjoyed by many – indeed, quite possibly all – of his predecessors.
The PM is not widely trusted. He’s not considered competent. He’s not even that well-liked anymore. And we would find pretty much the same were we to scientifically survey Tory MPs at Westminster. They will be compulsively reading polls that, as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite, show Labour moving into a sustained lead not just on voting intention but on some of the key issues that help decide elections. Website ConservativeHome’s invaluable temperature-taking of the party’s grassroots suggests they are considerably less impressed with Johnson than they used to be and considerably more impressed with many of his colleagues.
Since so many of the underlying factors associated with a party getting shot of a prime minister would seem to be in play, one might have been forgiven for assuming that Johnson being issued with a fixed-penalty notice over partygate would have lit the blue touch paper.
And yet. And yet. Nothing to see here. At the last count, around 80 Tory MPs had voiced their support for the PM, apparently seeing nothing wrong with him breaking the laws he himself had made and misleading parliament about doing so. So far, only three MPs have called on him, in terms, to go since news of him and his chancellor being fined broke last Tuesday, while the only member of the government to quit in protest sits in the Lords not the Commons.
True, all that leaves well over 250 Tory MPs who have chosen to keep schtum, including many who, whether as junior ministers or lower-level bag-carriers, make up the “payroll vote” whose members are obliged to toe the party line. But anyone hoping that their silence is ominous, as opposed to simply spineless, is likely to be disappointed.
The reasons for this, according to the majority of Westminster-watchers, are mainly circumstantial. But is that the whole story? We’re informed, for instance, that even the most jaded of Johnson’s colleagues are having second thoughts after seeing him strutting the world stage once more, with Ukraine providing the party in the media (the columnists and the editors of the Tory-supporting press) with the “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” logic for keeping him in place. Yet, as others have pointed out with reference to two world wars and one Gulf war, that spurious logic hasn’t stayed MPs’ hands before now.
We’re also told that Rishi Sunak’s recent fall from grace, combined with lingering doubts about his keenest rival, Liz Truss, makes a leadership contest less likely since, the argument runs, there is no consensus as to who would take over. To which the obvious rejoinder is: when has such a consensus ever been required previously? If you’re stuck in a burning building with only one fire exit, you don’t wait to find out what’s on the other side before pushing open the door.
Then there’s the argument that, especially now that we’re fretting about our household finances, partygate is old news. It’s even suggested that we’ve all spent so long discussing whether or not the police would eventually fine Johnson, his breaking the law is effectively “priced in”, just as so many of his other fibs, flaws and foibles have been over the years. The problem with this argument is that for every survey cited to claim that the public wants to “move on”, one can find another that shows they’re still very angry about the whole thing and, by a substantial majority, want the PM gone.
And now there’s Rwanda. Apparently, only an out-and-out radical rightwing populist like Johnson could contemplate something so bold, all the more so if the liberal left falls headlong into such an obvious war-on-woke elephant trap. But is that the case? Take it from someone who’s spent far too long studying the issue: Tory governments have always stooped to conquer on immigration. It’s what they do.
We need, then, to look beyond pure contingency at the deeper reasons – some rational, others less so – behind Conservative MPs hanging on to Johnson in spite of what polling, their consciences, and some of the braver souls on their own side, might be telling them otherwise.
We could, for starters, look to “rational choice” approaches to politics. For example, one of those braver souls, the Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein, thinks Johnson should go but doubts he will, citing what he calls “a market failure in political coups” due to the fact that, although the majority of a party’s MPs might benefit from such a move, the costs, should it fail, are concentrated on the minority courageous enough to mount it.
Another explanation rooted in rational choice would focus on the fact that Johnson, since he has few, if any, fixed opinions and is now severely weakened, is relatively easy to push and pull in whatever direction most suits his colleagues and the media. Planning reform that might actually see enough houses built where they’re most needed? No thanks. Additional measures to combat Covid? I don’t think so. Net zero? Not so fast. Spending enough to really sort out social care or the NHS backlog or the chronic shortfall in local authority finances or the grave blow dealt by the pandemic to children’s education? Forget about it. Any new leader, by contrast, would, by dint of being given a fresh mandate, be far less easy to manipulate.
Then there’s the cognitive biases beloved of behavioural economists, in particular the sunk cost fallacy, which sees us carry on investing in projects (and people) into which we have already poured resources even when the possibility of a payback grows increasingly remote, a tendency exacerbated by the worry that giving the whole thing up as a bad job, especially if we’ve previously publicly defended our initial choice, would be tantamount to admitting we’ve been a bit of an idiot.
Perhaps, though, the explanation is even more psychological? Gratitude to Johnson for helping the Tories win a big majority back in 2019 is one thing, but gratitude is normally one of the most perishable quantities in party politics. “What have you done for me lately?” is normally the question to which leaders need to provide a persuasive answer. And in any case, does that gratitude really entitle the PM to exploit and abuse his supporters’ trust time and time again?
There is arguably, then, more than a whiff of co-dependency in the way that Johnson’s ministerial colleagues, by publicly defending him and prioritising his interests over their own dignity and conscience, effectively enable him to continue to behave in a manner that, from the outside anyway, would seem to be harmful to them. What’s more, keeping him there, whatever your politics, is surely trashing the idea that accountability needs to exist not only at elections but between them too. Ultimately, however, it seems to me that the ability of an utterly compromised prime minister to retain the confidence of his colleagues, in spite of his losing the support of the public and becoming a deadweight drag on his party’s popularity, must involve a degree of magical thinking.
Indeed, I would argue that like Churchill and Thatcher before him, Johnson has become what we might call a talismanic leader, one who, possessed by powers that sometimes seem superhuman, even supernatural, to his friends and foes alike will, whatever the current evidence to the contrary, supposedly see their party through the very worst of times and into the sunlit uplands.
A word of warning, however. As Churchill and Thatcher themselves learned the hard way, magic wears off. In an allusion that the prime minister himself may appreciate, talismanic amulets worn in Roman times occasionally bore the Latin inscription utere felix – “good luck to the user”. As we move towards local elections and a byelection in Wakefield, both of which could spell serious trouble for the Tories, Johnson and his parliamentary and media fan clubs are probably going to need it.
Europe’s centre-right political parties used to be seen as both dependably dull and dependably stable. Not anymore. The continent’s Christian democratic, conservative and market liberal parties – each of which can be said to belong to three distinct ‘party families’ that together constitute the mainstream right – are undergoing significant and fascinating transformations, not least as they confront an ever more serious challenge from the populist radical right.
Moreover, because they continue to play a part in governing so many countries, their role in preserving the liberal order in a continent struggling with the changes brought about by, for instance, the gradual erosion (and subsequent demand for re-imposition) of national borders is not one that we can afford to ignore.
To see what is at stake, one need only glance across the Atlantic, where Donald Trump’s presidency, and the apparently unquestioning support given to him in Congress by his co-partisans even after the storming of the Capitol, casts doubt on whether the Republican Party can be considered a mainstream right party anymore – something that has consequences for the future of democracy in the United States.
We should note right at the outset that portrayals of the political situation in Western Europe tend to focus more on the travails of the mainstream centre-left rather than the centre-right. This is because social democratic parties are struggling to hold on to their traditional voters and find it hard to attract enough newer, progressive voters to fully compensate, not least because some of the latter prefer to support alternatives belonging to the Green and radical/far left party families (see Figure 1).
Rightly or wrongly, the decline of social democracy is also linked by commentators to the rise of populist radical right parties. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without the media across Europe making at least some mention of the latter, many of which now regularly win between 5% and 15% of the vote.
“Social democratic parties are struggling to hold on to their traditional voters and find it hard to attract enough newer, progressive voters to fully compensate”.
Moreover, these parties are not necessarily treated as pariahs – as unfit for government – by their competitors. In fact, they have been in office in Austria, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, and have provided regular and reliable parliamentary support to minority governments in Denmark – and all this in spite of research showing that they have not, as some naively hoped, become more moderate over time.
Now, one might have assumed that the corollary of the decline of social democracy would be the rise of parties belonging to the mainstream right – in other words, the conservative, Christian democratic and (market) liberal parties that have always sold themselves as strong supporters of capitalist economies and, certainly in the first two cases, of ‘traditional’ values.
Partly because those difficulties have not generally been quite as serious as the ones faced by their centre-left counterparts and partly because they often have more coalition options, these parties seem, for now, to be better able to hang onto office. But that should not blind us to the problems they face – even when it comes to some of the continent’s hitherto strongest performers such as Spain’s conservative Partido Popular and Germany’s Christian democratic CDU/CSU.
“The comparative lack of attention paid by scholars and media commentators to the decline of these centre-right parties across Western Europe is striking”.
As Figure 2 shows, while the populist radical right party family has been able to establish itself and expand its electoral appeal and while the liberals have held relatively steady, both the conservative and Christian democratic party families have experienced declining support.
The comparative lack of attention paid by scholars and media commentators to the decline of these centre-right parties across Western Europe is striking. But it may be explicable: as Figures 1 and 2 show, the decay in support experienced by Christian democrats and conservatives has been much more gradual than that which has afflicted social democrats. And that decay is therefore easier to overlook.
What is the mainstream right?
The mainstream right encompasses a group of three party families – Christian democrats, conservatives, and liberals – with two main attributes. On the one hand, they all believe that inequality is natural and not something which the state should spend too much time worrying about.
On the other hand, they not only adopt fairly moderate policies but also support existing norms and values (including the rule of law, minority rights, media freedoms) that are intrinsic to liberal democracy – support which distinguishes them from the far right, which not only adopts hard-core positions but also rejects some or all of those norms and values, whether explicitly (the extreme right) or more subtly (the populist radical right).
This is not to suggest that the mainstream right constitutes some kind of essentially homogeneous bloc.
For instance, Christian democrats like the CDU/CSU are characterised not only by the promotion of European integration, class compromise, accommodation and pluralism, but also by the development of a fairly comprehensive welfare regime that, amongst other things, privileges families over individuals and is based on the principle of subsidiarity.
Conservatives such as the British Tory Party, on the other hand, generally promote a rather more residual welfare state, and take a more nationalistic line, being noticeably less enthusiastic, for instance, about European integration.
By contrast, liberals, such as Venstre in Denmark or the Dutch VVD, are generally more internationalist as well as more concerned with the promotion and protection of pluralism and individual rights (and not just property rights) rather than the preservation of traditional values.
These differences help determine the scope and scale of their responses to the challenges they face and, indeed, the extent of the electoral trouble in which they find themselves.
The double whammy – the silent revolution and the silent counter-revolution
To better understand the current political situation and fate of the mainstream right in Western Europe, and to appreciate quite how daunting a challenge it faces, one has to acknowledge an important transformation that has shaken up West European politics.
Effectively, two revolutions have shaken the continent, which have made possible the emergence of two new party families – a ‘silent revolution’ which, among other things, fostered the appearance of the Greens and a ‘silent counter-revolution’ which helped give rise to the populist radical right.
“Effectively, two revolutions have shaken the continent, which have made possible the emergence of two new party families”.
The sustained economic growth that characterised the three decades after the Second World War permitted the emergence of a robust middle class that began to worry less about material needs and started to place more emphasis on post-material concerns.
This was not an abrupt transformation, but rather a slow-motion development that was championed first by younger generations who cared about issues such as fair trade, international peace, respect for the environment and women’s rights.
By the 1980s, this generation was able to trigger a shift in the political agenda of most Western European societies, putting pressure on the existing political parties to adapt to this new scenario – one marked by the growing relevance of post-material values and thus the declining strength of traditional class voting.
Increasing support for progressive values by the middle-class implied a major challenge to the mainstream right, because the left looked set to expand its base of support beyond the traditional working class.
This was hard enough by itself but, from the 1980s and 1990s onward, the mainstream right also faced a challenge from new parties on its right flank which were in part a product of a similar socio-cultural backlash against progressive values, particularly against multiculturalism and immigration – a backlash labelled the silent counter-revolution by Italian political scientist Piero Ignazi.
As a result, mainstream right parties have found themselves experiencing a tension between, on the one hand, the need to continue to appeal to well-heeled (and often well-educated) voters, many of whom express the liberal and progressive values associated with the silent revolution; and, on the other hand, the need to appeal to often less-educated and less affluent (male) voters who sympathise with the authoritarian and nativist ideas associated with the silent counter-revolution pursued by the populist radical right.
Immigration – responding to the silent counter-revolution
The shoe pinches most, perhaps, when it comes to migration and multiculturalism. Widespread anti-immigrant and ethnocentric sentiment is particularly problematic for the mainstream right – not just because, generally speaking, it approves of business-friendly labour market flexibility but because, ideologically, it is all about defending right-wing ideas yet adopting moderate policy positions and adhering to liberal democratic values. So while it can to some extent ape and work with the far right, there are limits to this approach.
As well as posing a threat to the immediate economic interests of some businesses, the adoption of overly harsh positions on immigration can hurt the image and reputation of mainstream right parties among voters who, generally speaking, approve of markets but not authoritarianism, and might therefore withdraw their support.
Moreover, since the populist radical right has in many countries effectively seized ‘issue ownership’ of migration and multiculturalism, trying to match them policy for policy risks driving up their electoral salience, thereby doing those radical right parties a huge favour.
If immigration represents a challenge to the mainstream right, we might expect it to affect its three party families in dissimilar ways. In the case of the Christian democrats, for instance, the adoption of harsh anti-immigrant positions is clearly at odds with core Christian values.
For Conservatives, opening the economy to immigrants can be seen as something positive for the free market but equally something that potentially conflicts with their belief in national sovereignty.
“For Conservatives, opening the economy to immigrants can be seen as something positive for the free market but equally something that potentially conflicts with their belief in national sovereignty”.
Liberal parties, however, should face no such philosophical difficulties since they are in favour of both the free market and tolerating different cultures, although, by presenting Islam as a religion at odds with pluralistic values, radical right parties may disrupt that logic.
And yet, and yet: as Figure 3 shows, parties from all three families have actually moved in pretty much the same restrictive direction on the issue, albeit, as one would expect given the above, with different start- and end-points.
Moral issues – responding to the silent revolution
Of course, immigration is only one area where mainstream right parties have felt obliged to alter their stances – on that issue in response to the pressure created by the silent-counter revolution. They have also had to respond to the silent revolution.
Western European societies have become more liberal on issues such as abortion, divorce, gay rights and gender equality. This has forced mainstream right parties to rethink their programmatic positions and the policies they pursue in government – not always an easy task, particularly for conservative and, even more so, Christian democratic parties, as both David Cameron and Angela Merkel found when it came to gay marriage.
Nevertheless, as Figure 4 shows, although liberal parties have become even more liberal, conservatives and Christian democrats have done so too, albeit without ever quite catching them up.
However, the critical point is that none of these shifts in position – whether they be in response to the silent revolution or the silent counter-revolution – are risk free. By adopting harsher positions on immigration, for instance, mainstream right parties risk alienating their core constituency, which is traditionally and strongly pro-business.
On the other hand, surveys which measure ‘propensity to vote’ for other parties reveal that many current and former mainstream right voters will be tempted to defect to the far right if they don’t see its mainstream counterparts offering at least some token resistance to the social and cultural changes migration brings.
They are similarly uncomfortable – even if they are far from being ‘culture warriors’ advocating some kind of ‘war on woke’ – with the dilution of what they see as common-sense, traditional morality.
Which mainstream right parties are faring better or worse?
Clearly, as their electoral decline since the 1980s suggests, things have been hardest for Christian democratic parties – at least across Western Europe as a whole.
The silent revolution brought with it a decline not just in religiosity but in adherence to the traditional values associated with it, both of which are associated with support for the Christian democrats.
Meanwhile, the silent counter-revolution – and in particular the nationalism, xenophobia, and antipathy to immigration associated with it – represents a direct challenge to Christian democracy’s support for internationalism (typified by its role in encouraging European integration) and its traditional commitment to charity and ‘turning strangers into friends’.
Certainly, it would appear that the Austrian, Dutch and German Christian democrats have suffered as expected. They have lost support over decades and have found it increasingly difficult to appeal to a broad range of voters.
In spite of this, however, their desire to hold on to office – even if that involves sacrifices on policy – means they have been able to form governments on several occasions, either as junior partners (the Netherlands) or the main partner providing the premier (Austria and Germany).
Of course, whether this has been a sensible strategy for these Christian democratic movements in the long-run is debatable. The difficulties of Germany’s CDU/CSU were for a long time somewhat disguised by the personal popularity of former Chancellor Angela Merkel and the weakness of its traditional centre-left opponent.
Now that she has departed and the SPD is the largest force in the new ruling coalition, what is to stop the Christian Democrats going the way of their much diminished counterparts in other countries across the continent?
One response, of course, is to follow their Austrian sister-party in its willingness to partner up in government with the far right. True, the AfD is, for now, regarded by the CDU/CSU as beyond the pale – at least at the federal level.
But how long will that attitude last, notwithstanding the understandable reluctance of many in the Union to do a deal with a party that for some voters conjures up memories of a dark and deeply disturbing past?
“As the Austrian example shows, the idea that, by inviting the far right into coalition, the mainstream right can somehow shame or tame its partner is a convenient, comforting fiction”.
As the Austrian example shows, the idea that, by inviting the far right into coalition, the mainstream right can somehow shame or tame its partner is a convenient, comforting fiction. Any electoral and reputational damage done by the frequent failure of populist radical right parties to convert simplistic promises into workable policies soon seems to heal.
That said, the alternatives – maintaining some kind of cordon sanitaire against the far right or else adopting some of its rhetoric and priorities (particularly on immigration) – show little sign of working either. The former approach rarely lasts and anyway only serves to prove the pariah party’s accusations that ‘the elite’ or ‘the political class’ is conspiring to shut out the true tribunes of ‘the people.’
Meanwhile, as we have already observed, ‘closing down the issue space’ by, for example, cracking down on immigration, asylum and crime often increases the salience of the issues and thereby boosts support for the insurgents.
Let us turn to the conservative parties. Even if campaigning against immigration risks rubbing up against their commitment to business- and market-friendly economic policies, Western Europe’s conservatives should have been better able to cope with the silent counter-revolution: after all, nationalism, as well as, for instance, a penchant for ‘law and order’, is already very much part of who they are.
On the other hand, their respect for traditional hierarchies and so-called ‘family values’, has made the silent revolution a slightly trickier prospect, even if looser links with the church have offered them a little more flexibility in that respect than is allowed to their Christian democrat counterparts.
The UK is a good example. Save for a brief (albeit electorally costly) hiatus during the early years of David Cameron’s leadership between 2005 and 2016, the British Conservative Party has found little difficulty in moving to the right on the cultural dimension, in particular by tapping into ‘welfare chauvinism’ and politicising immigration and the issue of national sovereignty.
“Western Europe’s conservatives should have been better able to cope with the silent counter-revolution: after all, nationalism, as well as, for instance, a penchant for ‘law and order’, is already very much part of who they are”.
Some, however, would argue that the strategy was taken too far in response to the rise of the populist radical right party, UKIP, and its successor, the Brexit Party, resulting in the UK leaving the EU – not something that the majority of employers (or indeed employees) wanted.
When it came to the gradual but seemingly unstoppable growth of social liberalism, however, the Conservative Party initially found things trickier: what was acceptable up until the early 1990s (such as its lack of support for equalities legislation covering race, gender and sexuality) became far less so as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first.
What Cameron billed ‘liberal Conservatism’ enjoyed relatively narrow support among the party’s grassroots. Still, there seems little chance that its headline policy consequences will be reversed: after all, both equal marriage and at least a superficial commitment to environmental targets enjoy widespread support among voters – to the evident consternation of right-wing Tory MPs who have established parliamentary groups in order to stem the tide of ‘wokery’ and ‘greenery’.
But by no means every West European conservative party has coped as well as the UK Tories with the challenges posed by the two revolutions. Perhaps predictably for a Nordic outfit, Sweden’s Moderates, have proved – more than most conservative parties – relatively comfortable with the silent revolution.
But, as anxiety about immigration has mounted, the Moderates have suffered losses to the far right Sweden Democrats, prompting a move on the party’s part to the authoritarian right in order to stop these defeats.
This rightward shift by the Moderates has been largely ineffectual, so far anyway, and may have ceded ground to liberal parties on the other flank, reminding us once again that, for Europe’s mainstream right parties, there are no easy solutions, only trade-offs.
A similar but probably more dramatic tale is unfolding in France. For a long time, the Gaullist right, in its various formations, did little to adapt to the silent revolution but proved more alive to the concerns of the silent counter-revolution, especially when these concerns led voters to switch to the Front National (FN).
As a result, Jacques Chirac and especially Nicolas Sarkozy talked (and sometimes acted) tough on immigration and integration as a vote-seeking strategy.
Arguably, however, their successors overshot, doubling down on a conservative cultural agenda that extended beyond migration and multiculturalism to issues like equal marriage – a move that caused liberal voters (and politicians) to become alienated from the party. Nor, in any case, did it do the Gaullists much good: working class, authoritarian voters to whom that cultural agenda may have appealed were put off by the so-called neoliberal, austerity policies advocated by them in response to the global financial crisis and were instead attracted by the anti-globalist, welfare chauvinist appeal of the FN.
On the other flank, and as a consequence of the increasing adoption of tougher positions on the cultural dimension of competition, many liberal mainstream right voters defected (along with some politicians) to Macron’s En Marche, which (at least initially) took more liberal positions on both sociocultural and socioeconomic issues, effectively stranding the Gaullist Les Républicains between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
Whether the Republicains’ chosen candidate for this year’s presidential elections, Valérie Pécresse, will be able to escape that fate remains to be seen. True, in the battle to become the party’s presidential candidate, she beat off internal rivals who ran further to the authoritarian right than she did.
But if she is to reach the second round run-off against Macron she will have to outbid two far more strident right candidates without losing Les Republicains’ moderate supporters. It may prove an impossible task.
In most of Western Europe, of course, mainstream right voters have long had an alternative to conservative and Christian democratic parties – namely the liberals. Indeed, should Macron’s experiment endure and entrench itself in the French party system, it may become a success story for the liberal party family and a role model to be imitated by its counterparts across the continent.
The same goes, perhaps, for the German Free Democrats (FDP), often written off but now back in government and aiming, like Macron, to combine (albeit in coalition) the defence of the values of the silent revolution with the endorsement of relatively pro-business positions.
In the Netherlands, however, the liberals have effectively ditched those values – at least as they relate to migration and multiculturalism if not to, say, questions of sexuality – in an attempt to retain sufficient support to stay in government and further stem the flow of Dutch voters to the far right.
In fact, under the leadership of Mark Rutte, the VVD in the Netherlands has, at least for the moment, succeeded in picking up votes and holding on to office, but at the cost of supporting ideas and policies that are at odds with key aspects of the silent revolution and therefore the agenda that, in theory at least, one would expect from a liberal party.
Seen in this light, it could be argued that Rutte is following a similar approach to those adopted by the Austrian Christian democrats under Kurz and the British Conservatives under Boris Johnson – namely to build an ersatz populist radical right party.
“Western Europe’s Conservative, Christian democratic and Liberal parties can be considered mainstream not only because they take relatively moderate positions but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they are committed to respecting liberal democracy”.
This involves the acceptance and even endorsement of some of the values of the silent counter-revolution, to the point that we should seriously question the extent to which, going forward, these parties can safely be categorised as mainstream right – in much the same way as the various parties formed by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy cannot, even if they were never far right outfits in the mould of his coalition partners in Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega, be convincingly or comfortably labelled ‘conservative’.
Will the mainstream finally move to the radical right ?
Western Europe’s Conservative, Christian democratic and Liberal parties can be considered mainstream not only because they take relatively moderate positions but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they are committed to respecting liberal democracy.
But consider the increasingly illiberal tone of the Austrian Christian democrats under Sebastian Kurz (now that country’s ex-Chancellor after retiring to spend more time with his family and to defend himself against corruption allegations).
Think too about some of the aggressively populist language, constitutional short-cuts, and flouting of international law pursued by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Boris Johnson, as well as the harsh discourse on integration and immigration advanced by Mark Rutte’s liberal party in the Netherlands. Will we always be able to classify such parties as mainstream right?
It seems premature right now to group them, as some well-respected and worried liberal journalists have already begun to do, alongside the Trump-era Republican Party, Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary and Kaczyński’s Law and Justice in Poland. But in the future, who knows?
As those examples show, the far right doesn’t always start out as far right, while the literature on ‘democratic backsliding’ stresses that the slide into ‘illiberal democracy’ is often gradual rather than sudden – so incremental that, by the time it becomes undeniable, it is too late to do much about.
In short, if mainstream right parties in Western Europe conclude that the best way of arresting their decline and beating the challengers on their flanks is to effectively transform themselves into populist radical right parties, then scholars, policy-makers – and the rest of us – should start seriously worrying about the health of the liberal democracy we have, perhaps, taken for granted for too long.
Margaret Thatcher was no stranger to by-election defeats. But she’d got used to taking them in her stride. Between 1979 and 1987, her Conservative government lost seven of them – six to candidates representing either the Liberals or the SDP, the two parties that went on to form the Liberal Democrats. But that didn’t stop the Tories winning huge majorities in 1983 and 1987.
The loss of the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, however, proved fatal. Like the defeat in North Shropshire , its impact had much to do with the fact that it was considered a rock-solid Conservative seat. Indeed, it had been held by the party, with only one interruption (occasioned by the Liberal landslide of 1906) since its creation in 1885.
Moreover, the defeat was all the more spectacular because it was so unexpected. Only a week before polling day, the prime minister, speaking at the Tory Party Conference had mocked the Lib Dems (who’d finished a humiliating fourth behind the Greens at the European Parliament elections the year before) by comparing their avian avatar to Monty Python’s dead parrot.
Thatcher’s confidence was in some ways understandable. The contest had been brought about by the IRA’s assassination of the popular sitting MP, Ian Gow – one of Thatcher’s closest confidantes. Surely the voters of the small seaside town, who had returned Gow with a 17,000 majority (equating to 60 per cent of the vote) just three years previously, would do their patriotic duty and replace him with another Tory?
That they decided not to was down to a number of factors – some of which provide a marked contrast with those that led up to yesterday’s stunning result.
First and foremost was the fact that the government had become deeply unpopular as the economy ran into trouble, as its controversial poll tax began to bite, and as Cabinet arguments over Europe raged. Indeed, by October 1990 it had been behind in the opinion polls for well over a year, with Labour regularly recording the kind of double-digit leads that Keir Starmer and his colleagues have so far only dared to dream about.
But then there was the campaign itself. For one thing, the Conservatives made the mistake of picking as their candidate, Richard Hickmet, who had been ousted by the voters of faraway Glanford and Scunthorpe after four years as their MP between 1983 and 1987. If he hadn’t been good enough for them, locals reasoned, why was he good enough for what the town’s tourism-inspired postmark labelled ‘The Suntrap and Showplace of the South’? Nor, it turned out, were they too impressed by a Tory campaign that, understandably shying away from defending the government’s record, seemed to hint that voting for anyone other than the Conservative candidate would provide succour to Republican terrorists.
For another, the Lib Dems may have looked down but they were actually far from out, not least because the party (and its Liberal predecessor) had for a long time been well-represented at local level. That gave it a base from which to fight one of its classic, hyperlocal, ‘pavement politics’ by-election battles, masterminded – not for the first or last time – by its campaign guru, Chris Rennard. Added to that, the Lib Dems’ leader, former soldier Paddy Ashdown, was by then beginning to find his feet on the national stage.
The result, when it came, was quite something. The Lib Dem’s candidate, David Bellotti, won just over half of the vote and was returned with a majority of 4,550 on a swing of 20 per cent – nowhere near the swing recorded last night but still enough to shock Tory MPs, not least the 160 or so sitting for constituencies where the Lib Dems were presumed to be in second place whose majorities were smaller than Ian Gow’s had been.
Had the party only just begun to lose its opinion poll lead to Labour, as is the case now , perhaps the fear of losing their seats might not have been enough to panic so many of Thatcher’s troops. But their unhappiness with her leadership had been growing for some time, and they had given up hope of her changing her style or her policy stances. Maggie, they felt, was finally past her sell-by date. Can the same be said of Boris?
Facing a rebellion over new COVID restrictions, a potential inquiry into undeclared donations from a Tory peer to pay for improvements to the prime minister’s Downing Street flat and revelations over lockdown-breaking Christmas quizzes and parties, the season of goodwill appears to have bypassed Number 10.
The Tories also face the embarrassment of losing the near 23,000 majority in Thursday’s North Shropshire by-election, a seat the party has held for all but two years since 1832.
But while it’s tempting to blame most – maybe even all – of the party’s current problems on Boris Johnson himself, simply ditching its current leader and replacing him with any of the current frontrunners won’t necessarily see an uptick in the party’s fortunes. Indeed, it might even make things worse.
Johnson, believe it or not, has never been a particularly popular prime minister – not overall anyway. In fact, as research for our recently published book, ‘The British General Election of 2019’, makes clear, his predecessor, Theresa May, was more popular with the electorate as a whole during the disastrous 2017 campaign than he was in the weeks leading up to the Tory triumph two and a half years later.
What Johnson had over May, however, was that many of those voters who did like him, really, really liked him. That, and the fact that many of them were precisely the kind of voters that the Conservatives needed to earn them a comfortable majority – white, not particularly well educated, patriotic Leave supporters, prepared to give his government the benefit of the doubt when it came to ending austerity.
We need to be careful, however, not to allow the prime minister’s outsize personality to blind us to the fact that support for his party in 2019 was, for most voters outside its core support (which runs at around 30%), pretty conditional. Brexit by all means, but with a purpose – that purpose being to allow the government to get on with delivering on rescuing the public services that were struggling badly. Forget bread and circuses. Think bread and butter.
Now, obviously, the Tory manifesto didn’t go too far. It made a few eye-catching headline commitments to spend more on health and policing in particular, but the then chancellor, Sajid Javid, nevertheless managed to persuade Johnson that that needn’t mean junking the government’s ‘fiscal rules’. The economy was seemingly in safe hands – an important factor (along with the fear that Jeremy Corbyn was an indecisive and incompetent spendthrift) in helping to persuade Conservatively inclined Remainers not to desert to the Lib Democrats.
That said, there was no sense in which the manifesto built on the blueprint for a dynamic, deregulated economy laid down a few years ago by the ambitious co-authors of ‘Britannia Unchained’, two of whom (Dominic Raab and Liz Truss) would like to think they have a chance of succeeding Johnson and one of whom (Truss) actually does.
And there’s the rub. Truss’s problem is not so much that she’s taken to performing something of a Thatcher tribute act by riding around in a tank and talking tough on Russia. (Even if some of her colleagues might see it as trying just a little too hard, it probably tickles the tummy of those ordinary party members who are either old enough to remember Maggie Thatcher or else young enough to worship her as some kind of icon.) No, her problem is that her kind of Conservatism – revolving around the supposedly eternal verities of what political scientist Andrew Gamble famously labelled “the free economy and the strong state” – might well mobilise the base. But in so doing it would risk sending many of the voters won (not least in the so-called Red Wall) skedaddling back to a Labour Party that seems, at long last, to be coming to its senses.
The same almost certainly goes for chancellor Rishi Sunak – surely still the front-frontrunner. Sure, he’s associated in the public’s mind with spending squillions, despite doing his best to reassure his party that ‘COVID made me do it’. And that certainly beats swanning around the world doing trade deals most people haven’t heard of. It might also mean that he’s in a better position than his main rival to downplay his ideological drives. However, if Sunak runs for party leader, he won’t find it quite so easy to hide.
One potential advantage Sunak has over Truss, however, is that he comes from an ethnic minority and may therefore help the Tories address their long-term problem with the UK’s people of colour – although whether his appeal will go beyond the Indian diaspora, which is one of the few minority groups already increasingly inclined to vote Conservative, who knows?
Neither of the two frontrunners, though, looks set to do much – in both senses of that phrase – for younger (and, to some extent, better educated) voters, with whom the Tories have completely lost touch over the past decade or so.
Choosing to use National Insurance rises to pay for desperately needed funding for the NHS and social care, along with talk of adding to the burden of those with student loans, won’t help Sunak in this respect. And few millennials, paying through the nose in rent without too much hope of getting on the housing ladder until their parents pop their proverbials, are likely to appreciate Truss’s characterisation of them as “airbnb-ing, deliveroo-eating, uber-riding #freedomfighters!”
So, although the Tory party is famously, as historian John Ramsden once put it, “an autocracy tempered by assassination”, its current ‘world king’ may have some life left in him yet. And even if what is now no more than a trickle of letters to the chair of the 1922 Committee calling for a confidence vote in Boris Johnson eventually becomes a flood, Conservative MPs might want to pause a while and recall Hilaire Belloc’s warning to “always keep a-hold of Nurse/For fear of finding something worse”.
Boris Johnson might be in a whole heap of trouble right now but two years ago almost to the day he was master of all he surveyed. That December, he achieved an overall majority of 80 seats on a vote share of 43.6 per cent — barely six months after the Conservatives had crashed to an all-time low of 8.8 per cent in elections to the European Parliament, forced on Theresa May by her failure to leave the EU.
Few realised at the time — and maybe don’t even now — that the Tory majority could have been even bigger. Our research for the latest in the long-running Nuffield studies of British general elections suggests that, by attracting the support of former Labour and Ukip voters who might otherwise have backed him, Nigel Farage’s Brexit party may have saved up to 25 Labour MPs, denying Johnson a landslide majority of about 130 seats.
Intriguingly, the same research suggests that, owing to the overall swing to the Conservatives in most seats, Farage’s decision in 2019 not to stand candidates in Tory-held constituencies had far less impact.
All this points to an unnerving truth for the Conservative party — namely that, although one of the keys to its victory was the ability to “unite the right” with a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, it nevertheless remains vulnerable to a populist radical right insurgency.
These days, that insurgency comes in the guise of Reform UK — the successor to the Brexit party led by Farage’s former right-hand man, Richard Tice. As with the Brexit party (and Ukip before it) the Tories’ fear is not that their latest rightwing rival will take seats off them. But by attracting support both from those who would normally vote Tory and those who might do so for other reasons, it might help Labour and the Liberal Democrats win them instead.
That is a distinct possibility in the upcoming by-election in North Shropshire occasioned by the resignation of Owen Paterson — now just one episode in a spate of scandals that, along with rising concern about immigration in the Channel and antipathy towards anti-Covid measures, may trigger a significant anti-Tory protest vote.
Paterson didn’t have to worry in 2019 about the Brexit party denting what was, in any case, a massive Conservative majority. But rewind to the 2015 election and you find Ukip coming from practically nowhere to take nearly 18 per cent of the vote.
In some ways, that should come as no surprise. After all, North Shropshire is a solidly pro-Brexit seat, with 60 per cent of its voters estimated to have voted Leave in 2016.
True, it makes it into the 200 most affluent parliamentary constituencies in the UK and boasts relatively few of the “left behind” supporters of the radical right. But Remain’s defeat in the EU referendum owed every bit as much to the comfortable Leavers of middle England as to their less well-heeled counterparts in more deprived areas. And in contrast with some European countries, voting for radical rightwing populists in the UK is a pastime mainly for the elderly or middle aged, of which North Shropshire has more than its fair share.
All this makes the seat a test bed of sorts for the radical right. But in the end, Reform UK can only help cost the Conservatives the seat in the event of a huge swing to either the Lib Dems or Labour. That’s not, of course, unprecedented and, after June’s shock result in Chesham and Amersham, anything is possible. But it does rely on tactically-inclined voters in North Shropshire knowing which of the two is really best placed to give Johnson a bloody nose — something that, thanks to the apparent reluctance of either party to give the other a clear run, doesn’t seem, so far anyway, to be as obvious as many advocates of a tacit “progressive alliance” hoped it might be.
A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with costochondritis – a minor and surprisingly common condition involving the cartilage that joins your ribs to your sternum but which produces chest pains that make some people suffering from it worry they’re having a heart attack.
The standard treatment is to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. For me this presented a bit of a dilemma. Like many other people, I don’t tolerate ibuprofen: it irritates my gastrointestinal tract – something I’m wise to avoid doing because I also suffer from something called Barrett’s oesophagus, which, if you’re unlucky, can turn cancerous. So, on the assumption that the costochondritis would eventually resolve itself, and given the fact that the discomfort involved was irritating but far from overwhelming, I decided just to put up with it.
I’m sharing this bit of my recent medical history not because I particularly enjoy talking about it but because it produces a useful analogy for a question that I want to ask – namely, are politicians on the mainstream right so concerned about countering the rise of populist radical right parties that they end up proposing things that risk doing more harm to society and to the polity than if they were simply to admit that those parties are now a normal rather than a pathological feature of contemporary politics?
The background to this is the book I’ve recently co-edited with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, calledRiding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis. We look at how mainstream right parties – which aren’t written about anywhere near as much as their counterparts on the left or, indeed, on the far right – have handled (or in some cases failed to handle) some of the challenges that they’ve been facing for the last three or four decades. Over that time, they’ve suffered significant electoral decline, although, as we show in the book, the extent of that decline varies not just between countries but between party families, with Christian democratic parties suffering more than conservative parties, which, in turn, have suffered more than (market) liberal parties, which have actually managed to hold pretty steady.
We argue that the difficulties they’ve faced are partly down to their having to cope with something of a double whammy.
On the one hand, they’ve had to deal with what the late Ronald Inglehart called the ‘Silent Revolution’ – the gradual spread of progressive, liberal and postmaterialist values which are particularly attractive to younger and well-educated voters but which are inimical to some of the nationalistic and socially-conservative values held and advocated by mainstream right politicians.
On the other hand, they’ve had to deal with the backlash against all that – what Piero Ignazi has called the ‘Silent Counter-Revolution’ – that has helped fuel the rise of populist radical right parties which, because they espouse (albeit in more extreme fashion) some of the values espoused by their more centrist counterparts, may well tempt some of those who traditionally vote for the latter to jump ship.
In the book, which contains country case studies (including one of the British Conservative Party by Leeds University’s Richard Hayton), as well as a couple of chapters looking at both the demand side and supply side of European party politics, we focus on how all this has impacted on the stances adopted by the mainstream right on welfare policy, on European integration, on moral/social issues and on immigration. And it’s on the latter two where the impact is most obvious, with mainstream right parties becoming more socially liberal in many ways but not when it comes to immigration, where they’ve become noticeably more restrictive, even hard-line.
But the book is also a jumping-off point for talking about the broader strategic responses to the rise of the populist radical right by its mainstream counterpart. Essentially, these boil down to four approaches.
The first is to resist it by huddling together with other mainstream parties, to try and freeze out populist challenger parties by refusing to have anything to do with them, even if that means (as in Germany, at least at the federal level) going into or staying in ideologically uncongenial coalitions.
The second approach – the most popular one across Western Europe, particularly on migration and multiculturalism – is for mainstream right parties (and some on the left as well) to adapt to, and even to some extent to adopt, the policies of the populist radical right. We are seeing this in real-time in France but we’ve seen it almost everywhere.
The third approach taken by mainstream right parties is to actually get together in government with populist radical right parties – either in full-blown coalition or using them as support parties for minority mainstream administrations. This has happened in Austria, Denmark and the Netherlands.
The fourth option is for mainstream right parties to, in effect, become a kind of ersatz populist radical right party, adopting not just its policies, but its rhetoric and its ‘strongman’ approach to governing – so much so that observers begin to voice concerns about the erosion of constitutional and political norms we might (perhaps complacently) have taken for granted. The most extreme contemporary examples of this kind of ‘democratic backsliding’ on the part of parties previously considered (rightly or wrongly) to be part of the mainstream right are the United States and, in Europe, Hungary and Poland.
Arguably the UK, too, is heading in that direction, governed by a Conservative Party so determined to ‘unite the right’ and supress support for a challenger party like UKIP, the Brexit Party, and ReformUK that it risks transmogrifying into a populist radical right party.
Taken together, these ideas and measures raise the possibility that the UK may indeed become another example of democratic backsliding, as suggested in a recent Constitution Unit blogpost, in which the authors point out the part played in the process by polarisation and a legislature rendered acquiescent by an overwhelming government majority – both of which clearly apply in the UK case.
In the government’s defence, of course, one can argue that not all of these ideas have come to fruition and that we haven’t had enough time to allow us to come to a judgement as to whether, in sum, they constitute a ‘pattern of behaviour’.
The problem with this argument, of course, is that – much like the situation with COVID-19 – if you wait to act until you’re absolutely certain something’s wrong, then you’re bound to be too late to do much about it. There are (as books by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and Runciman recount) so many examples from history and from around the world which remind us that democracy all too often ends not with a bang but a whimper.
All of which brings us back to the question raised by the analogy with which I began and which can be traced right back to Virgil’s Aeneid: if the only way to effectively stymie the rise of the populist radical right is to ape it, and in so doing undermine and erode liberal democracy, at what point does the cure become worse than the disease?
As many opinion polls have attested to over the past year, Keir Starmer has found it difficult to make his mark as Leader of the Opposition. Notwithstanding the twin economic impacts of Brexit and the pandemic, Labour continues to lag stubbornly behind the Conservatives in most polls, while Boris Johnson still holds an advantage over Starmer on the question of who would make the best prime minister. While the Conservatives do not seem to be much loved by the average British voter, Labour does not yet seem to be trusted to govern, especially when it comes to managing the economy.
This is not to suggest that Labour has made no headway at all under Starmer. In purely electoral terms, it has to be said that the change of leadership alone places Labour in a stronger place with voters, even if he has not yet won them over. Starmer’s willingness to tackle internal party issues such as the anti-semitism crisis and procedures for electing leaders might have stoked a critical backlash from the party’s left-wing, but it may have done him no harm overall with voters to be seen to be tackling the Corbynite left.
Political scientists often cast the strategic game of party competition in terms of the ideological positioning of parties. From this perspective, Labour’s challenge since the electoral nadir of 2019 has very broadly been to shift its position so that is generally regarded by voters as less left-wing and socially liberal. A perceived or actual shift to the right on matters of taxation, spending, and economic management is likely to be especially significant. As we have shown in our book The Modern British Party System, while Labour occupied similarly liberal territory to the Liberal Democrats, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens in 2019, it also shifted significantly further to the left than any other party (see Figure 1, compiled from data found here).
This is where Labour was most obviously out on a limb, with manifesto commitments to increase NHS spending by 4.3%, eliminate NHS outsourcing to the private sector, nationalise rail, mail, water and energy companies, raise the minimum wage, stop pension age increases, compensate Women Against State Pension Inequality, introduce a National Care Service (for England), increase education spending, abolish tuition fees, and build 100,000 new council homes per year. As we can see from Figure 2, this constitutes an even more left-wing Labour manifesto than the notorious ‘longest suicide note in history’ of 1983, which produced an almost equally disastrous electoral performance for the party.
This is especially important since the ‘left-authoritarian’ quadrant located to the south-west of Figures 1 and 2 is the richest in terms of the electoral market: we estimate that some 60% of voters can be identified as locating somewhere in this sector of the market (nearly three times as many as in any other sector) – and only the Conservatives, with their well-resourced polling operation, seemed to grasp this in 2019. It is also obvious from Figure 2 that Labour was situated firmly in this quadrant when winning elections from 1997-2005.
The message for Labour is reinforced by evidence suggesting that those voters who deserted to the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in 2019 (who constituted the party’s biggest net losses) were notably more right-wing on questions of political economy. So, while much has been made of the social liberal-authoritarian dimension of British politics in recent years – not unreasonably, given that it is closely connected with the issue of Brexit which has plainly generated a major electoral realignment – the left-right dimension probably remains key to Labour’s hopes.
From Labour’s perspective, then, the prospects for regaining lost ground at the next general election seem more likely to depend on battles fought on the familiar territory of left-right politics. This makes even greater sense given the potential for growing material insecurity in the wake of a decade which has brought austerity and pandemic lockdowns. The trick will be to convince voters that Labour can deliver greater social justice and security without risking the economy. This is a challenge which will inevitably be complicated by the strategic manoeuvres of their opponents, of course. Under Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, the rhetoric of ‘levelling-up’ and the hard economic facts of rising taxation, expenditure, and infrastructural spending imply a leftward movement by the Conservatives after 2019.
Seen in this light, policies recently announced by Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves committing any future Labour government to balance the current expenditure budget, while out-investing the Tories on infrastructural investment, signal an attempt to reassure voters and businesses about the party’s economic competence – a rightward shift, as it were. However, in order to carve out a distinctive appeal to voters, Labour cannot and should not allow a reassuring emphasis on greater managerial credibility to crowd out a rather more inspiring narrative about fairness. Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, as well as positioning their parties in the sweet-spot between liberty and authority, left and right, did exactly that – Wilson in the 1960s and Blair in the 1990s. So far, anyway, Starmer has yet to prove he is in their league.
In the run-up to the COP26 summit in Glasgow, a group called CAR26 persuaded the Daily Telegraph – one of the UK’s best-selling, Conservative-supporting newspapers – to run a story on a recent poll it had commissioned. The poll revealed that four out of ten adults ‘support a national referendum to decide whether or not the UK pursues a Net Zero Carbon policy.’
This may, of course, turn out to be, as many suspect, an ‘astroturf’ campaign – one set up to look like a grassroots effort but in reality funded by special interests. But it is a reminder that there remains a significant portion of the Tory milieu who don’t accept climate change as real; or at least who don’t believe there’s much point in the UK trying to do much about it when big carbon emitters like China, Russia, India, Australia and Saudi Arabia don’t seem to want to bother.
Liberal Democrat supporters, for example, are normally pretty keen on measures to tackle global warming. The fact that some 46% of them said they supported a net zero referendum (as opposed to 45% who did not) suggests that by no means all Brits backing a vote do so because they think climate change is nonsense or something no-one can do much about.
Still, it is noticeable that net support for a referendum is strongest among Conservative Party supporters (46 vs 33% opposed) but much weaker (39 vs 35%) among Labour supporters. It is also noticeable that those who voted to leave the EU in 2016 are considerably more supportive (47 vs 28%) than those who voted Remain (41 vs 39%).
To some extent, this will be tied up with the demographics of both Tory and Leave (pro-Brexit) voting – something that becomes obvious when you look at support for a net zero referendum among different age groups. There is a big contrast, for instance, between the enthusiasm shown for such a vote among those 65 and older (who support a referendum by a 47–35 margin) and the relative lack of enthusiasm (the margin is 35–27, with 37% saying don’t know) among those aged 18–24.
Notwithstanding all those caveats, however, there is good reason to think that some of the differences between the reactions to the idea of a net zero referendum among the supporters of different parties reflect differences in underlying values – values which are often linked to their partisan preferences.
Materialists vs postmaterialists
Those values can be summed up in all sorts of ways, but one of the most enduring is to differentiate between materialists and postmaterialists. The former prioritise (among other things) economic growth and security; the latter put more emphasis (again among other things) on the environment and solidarity with the developing world.
Materialism and postmaterialism in the UK
In our new book, The Modern British Party System, Paul Webb and I explore UK party politics using the tools of comparative politics. And we note that (as in many other Western liberal democracies) the balance in Britain is shifting toward postmaterialism, although we also emphasise that the majority of the population continue to display a mixed orientation. See Figure 1 above.
This, and the fact that some 41% of those classified as ‘mixed’ (and 44% of those classified as ‘materialist’) explicitly say they prioritise the economy over environmental protection are two reasons why the Johnson government (and its successors) will have to continue to work incredibly hard to persuade people of the necessity of sometimes expensive and disruptive change if the UK really is to reduce its emissions.
However, as we also note, there is an obvious connection between people’s value orientations and their choice of party – see Figure 2 below. All of which poses a dilemma for a Prime Minister with normally supportive newspapers nipping at his heels on net zero – especially if one of them, the Telegraph, is read by a third of ordinary Tory party members (as revealed by another recent book of ours, Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century, co-written with Monica Poletti).
Much as he might have liked to, Edmund Dell, a cabinet minister in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, never came close to being appointed chancellor of the exchequer. But he did write what remains the best book ever written about the post-war occupants of that office and their relationships with the prime ministers at whose pleasure (which, all too often, turned swiftly to displeasure) they served.
Of Harold Macmillan, who, very unusually it must be said, moved straight from Number 11 to Number 10 when he replaced Anthony Eden as PM in 1957, Dell wrote that, in his six or so years in charge, he got through chancellors more rapidly than Henry VIII got through wives and “with even less satisfaction”.
Macmillan lost his first Downing Street neighbour after just a year, when Peter Thorneycroft resigned over the Cabinet’s failure to reign in public spending in order to combat rising inflation. Macmillan’s second chancellor, Derick Heathcoat-Amory, stepped down only two-and-a-half years later to be replaced by Selwyn Lloyd, whose pre-emptory dismissal in July 1962 became legendary, not so much on its own account but because it was one of seven spectacularly simultaneous Cabinet sackings in what was quickly dubbed “The Night of the Long Knives”.
To understand why Macmillan’s move earned such a sobriquet, one has to imagine Boris Johnson getting rid of the following in one fell swoop (for once, the cliché is entirely appropriate): Dominic Raab, Nadhim Zahawi, Ben Wallace, Alister Jack, Michael Gove, Oliver Dowden, and, of course, Rishi Sunak.
Amputation at such a scale would surely make last month’s relatively wide-ranging reshuffle look like keyhole surgery. Which raises the obvious question: why did “Supermac”, having won a 100-seat majority three years earlier, suddenly become ‘Mac the Knife’ – the premier of whom Jeremy Thorpe so marvellously quipped: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life”?
There is an easy answer and a more complicated one. On the face of it, Macmillan simply panicked: a string of bad by-elections culminating in the loss of Orpington, a safe Tory seat next to his own in Bromley, plus the fact that the press had got wind of his plans for a reshuffle in the autumn, persuaded him he had to act sooner rather than later in order to stop the rot.
But underpinning Macmillan’s decision was his dissatisfaction with a chancellor who’d delivered an unpopular budget just a few months earlier and who disagreed with him on the need to prioritise economic growth over spending restraint.
Yet, as Boris Johnson might well find if he were ever to essay something similar, be careful what you wish for. By appointing the less phlegmatic, more carefree (and careless) Reggie Maudling, Macmillan got his “dash for growth” – only to pile up more problems as a result. Within 15 months he’d resigned as a Prime Minister, pleading ill-health, and a year later Labour, after more than a decade in the wilderness, was back in power.