An abiding myth of UK politics — if viewed through the prism of Westminster — is that the Midlands and the North of England are hotbeds of reaction. Once “Labour heartlands,” they are, so the story goes, ready and waiting to be taken by the Right. All that’s required is for Boris Johnson to don a Union Jack cape and mutter the words “get Brexit done” at every media appearance and stage-managed rally, and Labour seats in the region will fall like dominoes.
The politics of Brexit is key to all this. The Tories have geared their campaign almost entirely toward Brexit, while Labour’s latest Brexit policy will include a second referendum to vote on a new deal. With a third of Labour’s support having voted to leave the European Union in 2016, the Tories believe they have a real wedge issue that can get them a hearing in places they would not ordinarily dream of taking.
The city where I live typifies this. Stoke-on-Trent — halfway between Birmingham and Manchester — has ritually returned Labour MPs since the 1950s. At the same time, in 2016, it voted by two-thirds to leave the EU. It’s for this reason that when the Labour MP Tristram Hunt stepped down in 2017, the newly minted leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Paul Nuttall, made an attempt to take the seat at the ensuing by-election.
As the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, Stoke-on-Trent had all the ingredients for a major upset according to the Westminster recipe book: a city battered by the chill winds of globalization, the migration of traditional pottery jobs overseas, a city council under Labour and then an Independent–Tory coalition that implemented George Osborne’s cuts, and, between 2000 and 2011, the stubborn persistence of the fascist British National Party in the council chamber. Add into the mix Labour’s by-election candidate who, the summer before, publicly branded Brexit “a pile of shit” — and it was as if the fates had conceived a set piece by-election for UKIP’s benefit.
Nevertheless, UKIP failed in Stoke-on-Trent. Though Labour’s majority was slashed at that by-election, when the general election came around fewer than four months later, the UKIP vote evaporated, and Labour improved its position, albeit with the Tories in a creditable second place.
Though Labour held on in 2017, back then it was still committed to seeing through a Brexit of some description, and so it arguably neutralized the Tories’ Brexit wedge on that basis. Now that Labour has committed itself to a second referendum, is this still the case?
Stoke-on-Trent is something of a microcosm of the way that Brexit politics play out across Labour-held seats in the Midlands, the North of England, and Wales. It’s in the Tories’ best interest to run a campaign centered around Brexit. The party’s manifesto, weighing in at just sixty-four pages, is as thin as its policy offer. Thanks to two decades of media coverage more befitting a celebrity than a politician, Boris Johnson has a certain comedic appeal for some that no Tory leader before him has had. And with his “get Brexit done” mantra, the Tories believe they have an issue that can cut through years of antipathy toward their party with the simple proposition that they will complete the democratic mandate of the EU referendum. As long as the campaign is dominated by Brexit, and with the remain vote split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Nationalists, the Tories assume their pitch can win a majority.
Boris Johnson’s strategy is tried and tested. In 2017, the campaign under Theresa May similarly fought to mobilize the core vote through fear of a Corbyn-led Labour government while monopolizing the Brexit vote. And, after a fashion, it worked. Winning 42 percent of the vote share, the Tories equaled the electoral performance of Thatcher at her height. The problem was that by running a polarizing campaign, the Tories helped shore up Labour’s support as well. By repeating the same strategy, Johnson is exposed to the same risk.
The Tory approach is also a partial admission of defeat, or at least resignation — a sign they have given up trying to win over whole swaths of voters. As poll after poll indicates, the clearest predictor of voting intention is age. The older you are, the more likely you are to vote Conservative (and support Brexit). By the same token, younger Britons are far likelier to vote Labour.
Since older people are more likely to turn out and vote, this confers the Tories with an advantage. It also, of course, speaks of a long-term problem that successive leaders have kicked down the road: the problem of their party’s decline. Relying on older voters is a viable strategy for a party, provided those who pass away are adequately replaced by new cohorts of younger older people and new retirees. The problem for the Tories is that in Britain, the conservatizing effects of old age are breaking down.
Toryism in Decline
During the Thatcher years, the Conservatives actively tried to construct a permanent Tory advantage among the electorate. This entailed the creation of a popular capitalism based on masses of small shareholders owning a piece of the privatized utilities. But even more central was boosting home ownership, which the Tories managed through the introduction of their right to buy policy. This gave tenants in council housing the ability to purchase their own home — and millions did.
Problematically, the receipts from these discounted purchases went back to the Treasury as opposed to local authorities who, in turn, were forbidden from replenishing sold-off housing stock. The result was a stoking of a house-price asset bubble that, despite the financial shock of 2007–08, is still inflating off the back of an acute housing shortage.
With policies like this one, the Tories have locked rising generations out of property acquisition. The market has not delivered adequate provision, and yet the Tories are permanently wedded to maintaining this state of affairs. In the long run, then, because so many younger people are prevented from setting foot on the housing ladder, the material base of popular Toryism is undergoing severe erosion. At the same time, the Tories are making no comprehensive offer to young people elsewhere in their manifesto. After nine years in government — that is, nine years of actively blocking the property-owning aspirations of the young — it is highly unlikely that they would be rewarded by this demographic at the polls.
The Tories are caught in a trap of their own making: they cannot make the necessary offer to cohorts of younger voters without risking their existing support. Therefore they cling ever tighter to older voters, even though this bloc is diminishing without being replaced. In an attempt to cohere them, they offer nothing but the status quo with lashings of ideological gruel.
In times that are fundamentally uncertain, the totemic value of Brexit cannot be overstated: here we have a national project reasserting British independence that will, magically, give the country the freedom to flourish again — as well as kick out foreign undesirables. Even though their record has left millions in poverty and hundreds of thousands accessing food banks, the Tory reassertion of British values (however defined) offers the promise, or more properly the delusion, of permanence and certainty, of knowing where you and yours stand in the world.
This is especially crucial for understanding the Conservatives’ appeal in Scotland. In 2017, they won thirteen out the available fifty-nine seats, twelve more than in 2015. This result was not just due to Brexit, but moreover because of the stress the Scottish National Party (SNP) placed on an independence referendum. In Scotland, unionism has traditionally enjoyed a mass base and was filtered primarily through Scottish Labour; the Tories and the Lib Dems were repositories of its support to far less of an extent.
Thanks to canny positioning over the course of the last five years, the Tories go to the polls as the party opposed to Scottish independence — a position in part aided by the perception of Labour’s equivocation on the topic. Nonetheless, Scottish unionism is also in long-term decline, attracting older voters who won’t be replaced in the future. At this election, however, with the SNP placing independence at the center of their manifesto, they are, in turn, strengthening the Tory vote in Scotland.
When Boris Johnson took office, he not unreasonably concluded that an early election would suit his interests. With Brexit, he has the advantage of a cut-through issue. He is backed by the majority of the press, the deep pockets of British capital, and, for the most part, a supine broadcast media. He also has a mass constituency previously assembled by his predecessors, and the relatively simple task of holding them together against a Labour Party committed to the Bolshevization of Britain, if you believe the rhetoric.
And yet Labour’s long march upward in the polls is a fact. Johnson is promising nothing beyond Brexit, no doubt because the Tories believe they came unstuck in 2017 because they pledged too much, including a hubristic promise that would force tens of thousands of pensioners to fund their own care needs in old age. This manifesto has been steam-cleaned to ensure bombshells like this do not feature. And yet it stands in stark contrast to the needs of the moment: homelessness has proliferated, food banks have mushroomed, house prices and rents are spiraling, millions are trapped in dead-end, insecure work, and the fate of the NHS hangs by a thread. In regards to the climate emergency, the Conservatives have shown no interest.
Labour’s program, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive plan to pull Britain out of the mire, address these problems, and restructure British capitalism to tackle its historic productivity crisis and chart a more environmentally sustainable way forward.
Among Labour’s plans are measures aimed at expanding the electorate by enfranchising sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds and granting voting rights to resident EU citizens. A Labour government means extending democracy to the running of utilities, supporting cooperatives, and putting workers on the boards of big companies — the beginning of a process threatening management’s right to manage. After a term of Labour government, the idea the Tories could recover and win a majority again diminishes. And, as Labour’s position in the polls continues to improve, what we might be witnessing in this election is the Conservative Party’s last gasp as a real contender.