A Changing Identity

It is exceedingly dangerous to extrapolate too greatly from limited data points. However, there are times where small doses of surprising information can reveal an ongoing trend well before it becomes generally obvious. This blogger is of the opinion that last Thursday’s British general election revealed such a scenario.

For generations, the Labour Party dominated politics in the midlands and north of England. Working class constituencies reliably returned Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) regardless of the national outcome. Labour – the leftist party of workers’ rights and trade unions – was seen as part of the fabric of the people that lived in these locales, and an affinity for Labour was passed down from generation to generation. Even as the conservative icon Margaret Thatcher and her party dominated British politics from the late 1970s until nearly the turn of the century, the Labour-loving midlands and north offered a “red wall” of vicious opposition to Thatcherism.* That “red wall” served as a comfortable base for Tony Blair’s Labour revival in the late 1990s, and did not crack even when David Cameron’s resurgent Tories won back power in 2010 and strengthened their hold on it in 2015.  This voting consistency even survived the precipitous decline of the trade unions whose rise initiated the formation of the red wall.

In effect, being a Labour man (or woman) in the northern half of England constituted a core part of one’s identity.  You were Labour, your neighbors were Labour, your community was Labour, your region was Labour, and no one really questioned it.  Effectively, being Labour was central to both individual, local, and regional identity.

In 2017, on the heels of Brexit, the then-Conservative prime minister Theresa May called a general election hoping to bolster her Tory majority.  She planned to breach the red wall, as she believed that the northern half of England was prepared to cast off its Labour identity and support the party favorable to Brexit.  (For clarity’s sake, Brexit itself was a non-partisan referendum in which British voters were asked whether they preferred to remain in or leave the European Union; the Labour-friendly north was very favorable to the leave option despite the Labour Party’s official position opposing Brexit.)

May’s gambit utterly failed, and the fabled northern red wall held despite this region being pro-Brexit.  In fact, the Conservatives picked up only five seats from Labour in the 2017 general election (all located in the northern half of the country), and lost their overall majority in Parliament, only retaining nominal control via an alliance from a small Northern Irish party.

Two years later, under a new and more dynamic Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, the Conservatives called another early Parliamentary election to break the Brexit deadlock, again hoping to crack the red wall.  And this time it fell, with the Tories gaining 50 seats directly from Labour, almost all in the northern half of the country.

Moreover, once the “Labour identity” died, it came crashing down.  In the five long-held Labour seats won by Conservatives in 2017 (Middlesborough South and East Cleveland, North East Derbyshire, Stoke-on-Trent South, Walsall North, and Mansfield), the average Conservative gain in 2019 was 25.4%, hugely above the roughly 9% gain seen across Britain.  Swings of this size are indicative of a political realignment in which the identity of northern Englishmen are no longer tied to Labour in any meaningful way.

The reader may understandably ask why this is of any importance for this blogger’s American-based audience.  First, the parallels between US politics and UK politics are eerie.  Margaret Thatcher had her Ronald Reagan, Tony Blair had his Bill Clinton, and Brexit had its Donald Trump.  Second, there is an American political constituency almost directly parallel to the northern English working class – the white working class voters in the industrial American Midwest a/k/a the Rust Belt.  Both groups are located in the country’s heartland, both thrived with the rise of heavy industry and resource extraction, both found homes in politically-left trade unions, both saw their regions gutted amidst the decline of high-paying blue collar manufacturing and related employment, and both lack of clear ideological fit with the economically right-of-center conservative parties and the urban-based leftist parties predominant in their countries.  So, looking in retrospect at Donald Trump’s surprise 2016 win, it should come as no surprise that the biggest swings favorable to him emanated from Rust Belt towns and cities once exceedingly favorable to Democrats, where a decline in manufacturing employment and trade unions has resulted in the waning of a formerly “solid Democrat” identity.

Assessing this phenomenon more deeply, the decline of the “Labour man” and the “Democratic worker” should give great pause to the parties of the left in the UK and US.  It has been some time since these voters have been ideologically well-aligned with the left-of-center parties for which they largely voted until the last five years.  In fact, it could be well argued that the primary reason for these regions remaining Labour or Democrat was the entrenched political identity of individual voters, rather than the ideology of the parties themselves.

To replace these heartland voters, it is a near certainty that Labour in the UK and Democrats in the US must improve their position amongst middle and upper middle class, economically-ascendant voters (in the UK, located mostly in the southern half of the country in relatively close proximity to London; in the US, spread throughout the nation in leafy suburbs).  However, it is much harder to argue that such voters are largely motivated by identity – these are your policy based voters who see politics through a more ideological prism, particularly when it comes to government involvement in the economy.  In both countries, such voters have found historical homes on the political right because of this side’s commitment to the free market and resistance to taxes.

While the right must now formulate a strategy that appeals to the economic concerns of both its working class and free market voters, the left faces a far bigger conundrum: how to square a solidly left economic agenda with the free-market inclinations of the more upscale voters it now needs to win elections.  In 2019 Britain, the Labour Party utterly failed to do so, making almost no inroads with “professional class” voters in the south of England while suffering massive declines in the historically industrial north.  In the United States, while suburban disdain for Donald Trump may alleviate this problem in 2020, such disdain for the right among suburban voters is quite likely to wane almost immediately after Trump’s departure from the Presidency, and these suburban voters are unlikely to swallow consistently voting for a big government economic agenda over the long term.

In fact, the next generation of politics in the UK and US may well be determined by two questions: (a) how much has the political identity of heartland working class voters actually shifted; and (b) how effectively can urban leftist parties revise their economic policy to appeal to economically more successful voters.

* For an uninitiated American, in British politics, Labour (the party of the left) is represented by “red,” while the Conservatives (the party of the right) are represented by “blue.”