‘Identity politics are a risky strategy for both Labour and the Tories’, Financial Times, 2 October 2021.

Corbynites soundly squashed. New policies floated. And voters encouraged to take another look at the party leader. Labour’s annual conference in Brighton finished on a high. So should the Conservatives be worried as they get together this weekend in Manchester? Probably not. But there’s no room for complacency.

To be brutally honest, whatever it does between now and then, Labour has probably already lost the next general election — primarily because it lost the last one so very badly.

Admittedly, Keir Starmer can take some hope from the fact that voters these days are fairly footloose: somewhere between a quarter and a third of people switched parties between each election in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Fewer than 20 per cent think of themselves as very strong supporters of a political party, with the so-called core vote for both the Tories and Labour now not much above 25 per cent each. Voters make up their minds later and later, as well: nearly a third of us these days don’t decide who to vote for until the election campaign proper gets going.

Sadly for Starmer, however, that doesn’t mean that ‘there’s still all to play for’. Most of us who study elections have given up on the idea of ‘uniform swing’ (where all constituencies shift the same way). There are, after all, more parties with support in different parts of the country than there used to be.

But it still bears repeating that Labour would need a swing of over 10 per cent simply to pull off what would pass for a miracle in two or three years’ time, namely an overall majority of just one seat.

That kind of Tory-to-Labour surge has only happened once in the past 75 years, in 1997. And the fact that it gifted Tony Blair a majority not of one solitary seat but 179 of them only heightens the pessimism surrounding his successor’s chances — even his chances of forming some kind of progressive coalition government.

As well as reflecting Labour’s loss of Scotland, it’s a reminder that the Conservative party’s predominantly English support is now so much more efficiently distributed than that of its main rival. While Labour piles up votes in seats where it doesn’t really need them — increasingly in urban Britain, with its younger, better-educated and ethnically diverse electorates — the Tories are winning in the suburbs and in smaller towns where voters are more likely to be white, a little older and to have left school without going on to university.

Those voters are less likely to warm to the identity politics which seem to strike such a chord with the socially liberal members of the Labour party — particularly when it comes to issues like race and immigration, law and order, and Britain’s place in the world, not least its relationship with the EU.

Boris Johnson’s recent decision to appoint Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary, as well his retention of Priti Patel as Home Secretary and David Frost to handle Brexit, suggests that he intends to carry on punching that particular bruise in the hope that it will guarantee him the continued support of voters in the so-called Red Wall of former Labour seats in the Midlands and the North.

But that strategy may be riskier than it looks. For one thing, polling shows that voters — even those political scientists would file under TAN (traditional-authoritarian-nationalist) as opposed to GAL (green, alternative, liberal) — are far less interested in culture wars than Tory politicians and newspapers wailing about ‘wokeness’ seem to think.

For another, a fair few voters are actively turned off by it. And some of them live in the so-called Blue Wall — seats around London and the home counties, some of which are credible opposition targets, especially as it is becoming increasingly obvious which party (Labour or the Lib Dems) people should back if they want to unseat their Tory MP.

In truth, however, Johnson probably doesn’t need to lose much sleep on this score — not for a few years yet anyway. What should worry him and his party far more is that his relationship with many of the voters who switched to the Tories in 2019 is, at root, transactional rather than romantic.

The switchers wanted a government that would ‘Get Brexit Done’ but mainly so it could move on and deal with the bread-and-butter issues they care about most. Indeed, when it comes to their economic values, many of them still have more in common with Labour than the Tories, most of whose MPs (not least Chancellor Rishi Sunak) are still (perhaps awkwardly for the PM) very much Thatcherites at heart.

Any failure, then, to tangibly ‘level up’ and to genuinely end austerity so as to improve public services, along with any loss of confidence in the government’s economic management, could still prove costly, if not fatal, to the Conservatives. Manchester: memento mori.

Originally published at https://www.ft.com/content/28e94b6a-fd64-445f-a258-7ec5c5a6b1cd

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