Last week’s local elections went pretty terribly for the Conservatives. They lost over 1000 seats to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Green party – and are no longer the largest party in Local Government.
So how did the Conservatives go from winning a large majority in December 2019 – shattering the ‘Red Wall’ to capture seats that had voted Labour for a century – to where they are today? Partygate, Trussonomics and the cost of living are a big part of it, of course. In this post, however, we’ll be looking at the ‘Realignment’ – the theory that the Conservatives were uniquely placed to capitalise on the shift in voting patterns from traditional class to age and educational divides – and consider why that’s clearly not playing out right now, as well as whether it might come back.
Also, thank you to everyone who filled in the recent survey on what makes someone rich. The results are fascinating and I’ll be posting about them shortly.
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What is the Realignment?
In summary, the Realigment describes the fact that education and age, rather than income and class, are now the principal predictions of how someone votes. It’s been written about extensively by commentors such as David Goodhart and Matt Goodwin and is the phenomenon which saw, in 2019, the Conservatives winning seats such as Blyth Valley and Bishop Auckland, which had been Labour for close to a century, while Labour picked up Canterbury. It’s why the Greens are now the largest party in East Hertfordshire, when in 2015 all 50 councillors were Tory. It’s why Ann Widdecombe could get standing ovations in northern ex-mining towns during the Brexit Referendum.
Underpinning it is the idea, perhaps best expounded in Goodhart’s 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere, that, for decades, Britain has been run by, and on behalf of, what he terms ‘Anywheres’ – highly educated, mobile, culturally open individuals – at the expense of ‘Somewhere’ – typically less education, more rooted in their communities, less open to experiences. Policies such as mass immigration, the rapid expansion of university (and the increasing requirement of a degree for good jobs) while further education is neglected, socially liberal policies, a lack of focus on the family are all policies that disproportionately benefit Anywheres. EU membership is perhaps the quintessential Anywhere policy: Anywheres benefit as they are more likely to take advantage of free movement and schemes such as Erasmus, from cheap labour (‘Polish plumbers) and from enjoying living in diverse, multicultural cities; meanwhile, Somewheres disproportionately pay the price in depressed wages and pressure on public services. The Somewheres represent a large number of citizens who had been unrepresented by any mainstream party, who turned out in droves to vote for Brexit and who could – for a party with the right policies – propel them to No. 10 – as, indeed, happened for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in December 2019.
Related to this is the fact that the median UK voter is about as left as the typical Labour MP on economics and actually to the right of the typical Conservative MP on social issues – a fact that has led some to point out that the perfect political slogan would be ‘Tax the rich, hang the paedos, fund the NHS’.(1) A party that can tilt to the left on economics but right on culture is well-placed to win.
The final element of the Realignment is the contention that, ‘It is easier for the Conservatives to tilt left on economics than it is for Labour to tilt right on culture’. In 2019, with Labour led by Jeremy Corbyn, that seemed inarguably true. But now that’s looking a lot more doubtful.
Is Realignment Theory correct?
At a factual level – yes. Age and education have replaced class and income as the most important dividing lines in our voting patterns – as can be seen from this detailed YouGov poll looking at how people voted in 2019.
Despite the voting shares of parties being rather different last week to December 2019, this is still fundamentally true. More working class people are voting for Labour – because more people are voting for Labour – and fewer old people for the Conservatives – because fewer people voted for the Conservatives. But we still see age and education as the key dividing lines, with Labour, the Lib Dems (and Greens) taking seats in the Home Counties.
What’s changed is who is benefitting from the Realignment. In 2019, the Conservatives won on a culturally right-wing manifesto – centred upon Brexit, THE key cultural dividing line of our time – but on the most economically centrist manifesto since the 70s, with major pledges involving raising the minimum wage and investing heavily in public services. Meanwhile, although the public liked a lot of Corbyn’s economic policies individually, collectively they felt they didn’t add up – and on cultural issues, particularly around patriotism and support for our armed forces, he was badly out of step with the public. The contention that it was easier for the Conservatives to tilt left on economics seemed right.
But let’s look at some key results from last week(2):
The same story holds up when we look at university graduates:
The Conservatives are failing to hold on to their red wall voters, who are defecting back to Labour. By appearing to tack back to the centre on culture (Union Jacks, not sounding ashamed of our country, more moderate statements on gender), Starmer is reassuring them he can be trusted. Meanwhile, though Labour is gaining ground in areas of high graduates / Remain voters, the real winners are the Liberal Democrats (and the Greens, though they’re not in this chart). Less than two years after Boris Johnson squatted like a giant toad across British politics, the Tories are caught in a pincer movement from both the economic left and the cultural right.
So, what went wrong?
Before we launch into more sophisticated arguments we should take a moment to remember the self-inflicted wounds of Partygate and Trussonomics. It’s hard to recover from crashing the economy when you’re meant to be economically sensible ones. A party doesn’t recover from such devastating blows easily – indeed, Major’s government never regained its reputation for economic competency after Black Wednesday (nor Blair his shiny aura after Iraq). The simple truth is that fewer people are voting for the Tories across all demographics.
But there is something more happening here – remember that pincer movement, above? Does that mean the Realignment analysis was fundamentally flawed? Certainly some commentators who always detested it are keen to tell us so, particularly those of the Centrist Dad persuasion who always loathed the idea, and can’t wait to return to the economic and social liberalism of New Labour or the Coalition. The truth though is somewhat more complex: after all, those neglected voters are still out there.
The simple fact is that since 2019 the Conservatives have never actually managed to lean sufficiently left on economics, or sufficiently right on culture(3). It turns out it’s harder to pivot a party in substance than it is in messaging and campaigning – not least when events overtake you. So let’s look at that a bit more closely.
Leaning Left Economically
As we’ve set out, the Conservatives in 2019 ran on one of their most left-wing (i.e. centrist) manifestos ever. And, to start with, they followed through. Big investments in schools, the NHS, a major recruitment drive in the police and more. Public services took precedent over tax cuts.
Then came COVID, which brought a massive rise in spending – on furlough, on other forms of support, on bailouts and rescue packages for businesses and charities. Much of it necessary, some of it probably not, but we came out of it with near full employment, so it could have been a lot worse (I agree with Matt Yglesias that doing too little was a greater risk here than doing too much). And then the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis and an energy price spike, where the Government continued to spend, with an energy package that was one of the largest in Europe. We now have record peace-time levels of debt, with public spending and tax rates at their highest in over half a century. In terms of splashing the cash, the government has indeed leaned left.
The trouble is, people don’t feel it – because however much has been spent, the economic damage has been so severe that real standards of living have fallen. It turns out you can’t shut down half of your economy for months and then face a massive global commodity price shock without severe consequences. People don’t thank you for making a bad situation a bit less bad. Indeed, a poll in December – when Government was spending billions a month subsidising consumer bills found fewer than 1% of respondents citing it as a positive thing the Government had done. The public see falling real wages, high inflation, rising mortgage payments and workers on strike. That many of these aren’t the Government’s fault and are affecting many countries doesn’t cut much ice with the public.
What’s more, when the economy’s in bad shape, to tilt left you have to make difficult choices. In 2019, with the economy in pretty good shape, it might have been possible to ’tilt left’ by increasing spending with GDP growth rather than inflation, or by borrowing a little more, without slaying any sacred cows. But sust as Cameron was forced to abandon his plan ‘to split the proceeds of growth between public service investment and tax cuts’ by the 2008 recession, the economic impact of COVID takes easy choices off the table. It doesn’t help that high taxes and high levels of national debt aren’t exactly conducive to high economic growth.
What the Government hasn’t managed to do – due to the tensions within the party – is to take the tougher choices to pivot left: shifting the pattern of public spending from Anywheres to Somewheres. University expansion has continued ever upwards, while apprenticeship numbers languish below pre-pandemic levels. To just give one example: at £4bn, the childcare boost announced by the Chancellor at the last Budget – money that will largely to go to subsidise medium and higher income families – is around 60% larger than than the total money spent on apprenticeships in 2021-22 (£2.4bn). House building has continued to lag demand, defeated by a political backlash after the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Spending continued on High Speed 2, at the cost of new local infrastructure in the Midlands and North. The triple-lock on pensions is protected at all costs.
Now, changing any of these would require taking on powerful vested interests. That’s never easy, particularly when they are ones that a party has relied on for years – and where many MPs may have genuine commitments to the former things that needed to be done. Perhaps in 2019 those choices didn’t need to be made. But post-2019, at least some of these sacred cows would have needed to be slain in order to have even a chance of delivering a Realignment strategy.
Still, overall I think the Tories have tilted left – even if circumstances mean they don’t get credit for it.
Tilting right culturally
Other than delivering Brexit – and as Churchill would tell you, the British public will never thank you for something you’ve already done, the Conservatives haven’t managed to tilt right at all.
Hang on, some of my readers are going to say. What about the Rwanda Plan? Or the laws on protest? Or various other things regularly raised by the Guardian? Isn’t this the Most Right Wing Government Ever(TM)?
The thing is though, none of those things have actually happened. Set aside for the moment your own position on these matters – I know I have folks reading this who’ll be on either side – and let’s just think objectively over whether things have moved right or left since 2019.
We’ll focus in on immigration for a moment, as it’s one of the clearest and most salient. For all the talk of Rwanda, no-one has actually been deported to Rwanda – and may not be by the time of the next election. The number of people crossing the Channel illegally has increased for three years running and now stands at over 50,000; on legal migration, it was over half a million in 2021, and looks set to hit 700,000 this year(4). This cannot be described as tilting right on immigration.
This is possibly the worst situation for the Government. By taking the stance it has, the Government will have alienated a good chunk of Anywheres (i.e. cultural progressives), for many of whom even proposing a Rwanda plan is abhorrent, regardless of whether it works. But by not actually deporting them, it alienates those who want the Channel crossings stopped. Talking tough and not delivering pleases no-one.
We see this in almost every cultural area: on stopping extremist protestors from gluing themselves to highways and vandalising monuments; on the teaching of gender ideology in schools; on the police investigating ‘non-crime-hate-incidents’; on the ‘decolonisation’ of school and university curricula and of museums; on the general spread of equality, diversity and inclusion activies in the public sector – in every one of these, there’s been a lot of rhetoric, what’s actually happening on the ground is objectively more progressive – in some cases, a good bit more progressive – than the status quo in 2019(5). The major legal foundations that underpin these – the Public Sector Equality Duty, the Human Rights Act – have not been touched. For someone on the cultural right, ‘but Labour would be even worse’ is not the strongest incentive to vote Tory.
There is a sign that Sunak recognises the need for policies that actually work – it’s notable that on both the Channel and on Public Order he is having to pass tighter, more effective Bills in areas the Government has legislated in within the last two years – but it is likely to be too little, too late.
So, fundamentally, despite efforts, from a typical Somewhere’s perspective, since 2019, far from shifting left economically and right culturally, they’ve seen their life get worse economically, while society moves left culturally.
It’s not that the Realignment strategy was wrong – it’s that the Conservatives haven’t managed to implement it.
So, what about the future
Well, right now, the person who does seem to have taken Realignment theory to heart – albeit from the other side – is Keir Starmer. He’s already on the left economically (Labour MPs and the general public are fairly well aligned here), and has made huge efforts to move to the centre on cultural issues. Whether it’s the Union Jack at Labour Party Conference, saying he wants to stop the Channel crossings or making centrist, measured statements on gender, he’s making a deliberate effort to shed the legacy left by Corbyn – and some of his own activists.
Whether it’s genuine or not is hard to say(6) – it’s worth reminding yourself how many of these leadership pledges he’s ditched – it’s working. Both current polls (16 points ahead) and the local elections put him odds-on favourite to win the next election – I’d guess with a majority of 50 – 100.
But what then?
I suspect Starmer will find governing harder than campaigning. This isn’t 1997, with a booming economy and health public finances. Britain in 2023 has had 15 years of stagnating growth and standards of living, a mountain of public debt and deep-rooted challenges that successive governments have been passing the buck on since before the turn of the century.
I don’t see that Labour right now have credible plans – or the political will – to solve the issues that are throttling Britain(7). How will they build enough houses to exceed the growth in demand, and get prices falling again? How to start building energy infrastructure again when we’ve not build a nuclear power station in decades, it takes 12 years to build a windfarm – and this is getting worse! How to fix the skills system? Will they really ease up on the over-regulation that has caused half of childminders to quit in the last decade? Or ease up on the ever-growing bureaucracy that is driving uo costs in both the public and private sectors? Or get growth back on its pre-recession trend – somehow – yet without cutting taxes or reducing the size of the state? We need a Thatcher or an Attlee to cut these Gordian knots and deliver us a new paradigm, and with the best will in the world, I don’t see Starmer in that mould.
Simultaneously, the straitened public finances will make it impossible to spend in the way people are hoping – whether that’s investing in the NHS or delivering public sector pay rises. We’ve already seen the pledge to abolish tuition fees abandoned. In fact, to come even close to meeting expectations on spending, taxes would be likely to have to rise significantly – not easy on the back of a cost of living crisis, especially with many of Labour’s new supporters from the middle classes.
Just as the Red Wall voters who ‘lent Boris their votes’ have become disillusioned, I suspect that the hopes placed in Labour will just as quickly turn sour. Political volatility is higher than ever now, with little party loyalty and – even with a healthy victory in 2024 – Labour may find it difficult to win re-election. Rather than the decade-long hegemonies of 1997 to now, a return to the ’70s: difficult economic times with no clear solutions, leading to regular transition between parties.
And so who then do the voters turn to? A shift to more populist parties, on either the right (a new UKIP?) or the left (the Greens?) is always possible, as has happened in many countries in Europe – but our First Past the Post system means it will be harder for them to break through(8).
The fundamentals of the Realignment were true – and are still true. The fact that it was harder for the Conservatives to, in practice, tilt left economically and right culturally is a stumbling block, not a reason to abandon the model. If they use the time in Opposition productively, by 2029 the Conservatives have the chance to show they can not just campaign on Realignment terms – but govern on them also.
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(1) I can’t remember who first said this; it may be Cummings.
(2) Graphs produced for Sky by Dr Will Jennings.
(3) Yes, I’m aware that ‘True X has never been tried’ is the oldest political excuse in the book, but sometimes it actually is true, particularly when something’s being tried for the first time. In any case, I argue that the Tories did manage it, at least in messaging, in 2019 – and, as you’ll see later, that Starmer is doing it (from the other direction) now.
(4) Though it should be noted that much of this is from one-off schemes such as for Ukrainian and Hong Kong refugees, both of which are heavily supported by the public.
(5) There have been some effective actions. The new veto power for Government on listed monuments/statues has undoubtedly saved much heritage; the use of the S. 35 order on the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill halted it; the Higher Education Free Speech act has been passed. But these are all small compared to the wider shifts in the public realm.
(6) I have no doubt that Starmer would be staunch in the defence of Ukraine – and especially given Corbyn, I’m very pleased to be able to say that about the Leader of the Opposition. I’m less sure about immigration, gender, policing or may other areas.
(7) This isn’t a partisan comment: the Conservatives don’t have the solutions either.
(8) Unless it is a hung Parliament and we move to PR. But I think Labour will win outright.