The UK Election: a Postmortem

The various statistical analyses of the UK general election result have been coming in, and they allow some interesting and perhaps important observations to be made.

The perception that it was Leave voters switching from Labour to Tory en masse who cost Labour the election has to be qualified by the fact that Labour lost (an estimated) twice as many Remain voters to other parties than it did Leave voters.

A Datapraxis post-election survey reports: “In total, we therefore estimate that over 1.3 million of Labour’s 2017 voters switched to other Remain parties, while something like 700,000 to 800,000 of its Leave voters and 300,000 of its Remain voters switched to the Conservatives”.

The conclusion here has to be that Corbyn’s “constructive ambiguity” approach over Brexit did not please voters– whether they be Remainers or Leavers—looking for parties to have cut-and-dried positions on Brexit.

If immigration was an issue that drew Leave voters to the Tories, it did so in areas with fewer immigrants.

Many of the heaviest Leave voting areas had fewer immigrants, both EU and non-EU.

The North-East (58.03% voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, 52% being the national average) had 1.6% foreign-born voters. In the North-East the Conservatives increased their vote share by +12.8% over the 2017 election result, while Labour’s fell by -18.1%. The Tories gained 5 seats in the process, including the one formerly held by Tony Blair.

Conversely, areas with a strong immigrant presence voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, and voted for Labour in this election, albeit with reduced majorities.

London (59.9% voted Remain in the 2016 EU referendum, 48% being the national average) had 38% foreign-born voters. In London Labour held 49 of the 73 constituencies, the Tories 21 and the Lib Dems 3, with the Tories gaining 2 but losing 2, and both Labour and the Liberal Democrats gaining 1 but losing 1.

So paradoxically the areas with the fewest immigrants had Leave voters (immigration being a significant issue for pro-Brexiters) boosting the Tory vote, while the areas with the most immigrants voted Remain in 2016 and enabled Labour to keep its strongholds in 2019.

Looking at the data on class demographics, the Tory vote was strongest among the upper working-class aged 50+ (C2 in the UK’s Census classification). C2s are people with low levels of educational attainment, working in sectors not requiring specialist qualifications, but making a “middle class” income.

C1s are the lower middle class, but since the C2s often match the C1s in income levels, they are divided not so much by wealth, but the job categories by which this wealth is acquired.

These C2s were Mrs Thatcher’s original base. Typically having left school at 16, they pushed themselves into physical work until in a position to become self-employed businessmen in one- or two-person enterprises (salvage and scrap merchants, handymen, chimney cleaners, bricklayers, house painters, and so forth), invariably in small cities or towns.

Brits often refer to these individuals as “white-van men”, after the vans they usually drive in the course of their work.

When Thatcher sold-off social housing, white-van men could exercise their “right to buy”. With gentrification, these properties escalated in value, and by their 50s many C2s were quite well-off.

The tabloid press—unrelentingly pro-Brexit but owned by billionaires domiciled in foreign tax havens– has these C2 “self-mades” as its target readership.

At the same time, the majority of working people under the age of 50 backed Labour.

These under-50 workers are different from the older C2s described above. They typify in many ways the “feminization” of the workforce— i.e., they are call-centre operators, home-care assistants, supermarket inventory checkers, direct-marketing salespersons, dog walkers and pet-sitters, or delivery riders (though these tend to be male), thereby constituting a new and different “working class” in contrast to the older C2s.

The Tory vote relied on this older, increasingly retired C2 working-class, whose influence stems from the sheer numerical superiority of postwar baby-boomers. 67% of over 70s voted Tory, 14% of over 70s voted Labour. But of course this older generation is being snared by the coils of mortality with each passing year.

The new, emergent working class that voted Labour is very different from their older C2 working-class counterparts.

Much less wealthy, indebted (mainly by student loans), often living in over-priced but substandard accommodation, working on flexible-hour and non-guaranteed contracts, they have moved to bigger cities simply because there is no work in their “left behind” rust-belt hometowns.

Even so they’re viewed as part of the “metropolitan elite” because they probably have a university degree, speak a version of received English, and when required show-up to work in a suit.

The demographic irony is that these denizens of the “metropolitan elite”, voting for Corbyn’s Labour in this election, may be the children or grandchildren of the older C2s who voted for Boris Johnson’s Tories back in their hometowns.

Andy Beckett, who has written perceptively on Thatcher and her project, is worth quoting here:

“According to the Conservative pollster Michael Ashcroft, last week Labour received almost three times as many votes from the under-35s as the Tories. In 1983, the Tories led Labour comfortably in this group. Then, Margaret Thatcher’s party often seemed more modern than Labour, offering a vision of an individualistic, competitive country, which many young people liked. There was an intellectual ferment on the right, which for years had been producing fresh policy ideas.

Few people would say these things about the Tories now. In 2019, their almost content-free manifesto, and massive reliance on older voters, were highly effective as election tactics. Yet, like the airy promises to increase state spending in today’s Queen’s speech, they are also signs of a party with questionable long-term prospects. By contrast, Labour’s youthful support, and policies addressing what are by common consent the biggest contemporary issues – the climate emergency, the inadequacies of the modern economy and Britain’s proliferating social crises – suggest a party with the potential to do much better at future elections”.

Labour’s capacity to use this “potential to do much better at future elections” will depend on two factors: (1) finding a successor to Corbyn who can reverse the party’s electoral fortunes; and (2) finding ways to reclaim voters who were “loaned” to the Tories this time round.

Where (2) is concerned, Labour is not the only major left-of-centre European political party facing problems with a dwindling base.

Labour’s counterpart in Germany, the SPD (the party of the two great Chancellors Willi Brandt and Helmut Schmidt) used to get about half the votes in elections, but now gets around 12-18%.

So where have these “lost” SPD voters gone?

Educated metropolitans have shifted their allegiance to the Green Party. Poorer people have moved to the far-left Linke. However, most of the SPD’s traditional voters have gone to the neo-fascist and anti-immigrant AfD.

Brexit created a parallel situation in the UK.

To win, Boris Johnson propelled his party to the hard-right from its traditional centre-right orientation (and stealing the clothes of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the process), while the traditional Labour voters who cast their lot with him seemed to have no qualms about this shift.

I can’t think of any Labour strategist who has a clear idea of what their party needs to do in this situation, apart from the opportunistic bunch who are saying the election result is a repudiation of Corbynism and a clear signal that the party needs to return to the “New Labour” politics of Tony Blair.

Blair himself entered the fray on this issue, saying Labour lost because it had become a “glorified protest movement” with Corbyn as its “cult leader”.

The debate over Corbyn’s successor pivots on this issue, with the 6 or so potential candidates divided over it, although only 2 (Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis) are committed to a repudiation of Blairism.

Long-Bailey represents the greatest continuity with Corbyn’s agenda, and I shall be voting for her in the leadership contest next month.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.