If my previous paragraph on the British election is correct — and for once I am expressing the majority view — then millions of disillusioned working-class Labour voters are about to be dumped onto the political marketplace. Which other party is most likely to succeed in winning them to its cause? The election result will hang on the answer to this question.
The lazy assumption is that they will mostly end up voting Liberal Democrat because the Lib-Dems and Labour are both “center-Left” parties. The fact that this assumption is lazy does not make it wrong. Some voters undoubtedly drift back and forth between Labour and Lib-Dem as hope or betrayal pushes them one way or the other. In the 2005 election, Labour lost several percent of its total vote to their semi-centrist rivals over the issue of Blair’s war in Iraq. This time, the Guardian’s columns and letter pages are full of anguished debates about whether to choose Lib-Dem purity over Labour pragmatism at the risk of allowing the Tories to let loose a plague of frogs, a plague of blood, the slaying of the first-born, etc. on the nation. So the Liberals will probably make some gains at Labour’s expense as a result of Brown’s gaffe.
Those gains, however, could be disappointingly small. The problem for the Lib-Dems is that the voters disillusioned by Brown’s snobbish dismissal of Gillian Duffy as “bigoted” are the wrong kind of Labour supporters. They are people like Mrs. Duffy herself — working-class, worried about immigration, hostile to social-benefit fraud, and anxious about high spending and its consequence, debt. Only a few of these voters are likely to be attracted to the Lib-Dems. On the other hand, those Guardian readers who shuttle back and forth between the two parties in the “progressive consensus” are the rank and file of political correctness. If asked, they would probably agree with Brown that Mrs. Duffy is bigoted. They won’t be driven to the Lib-Dems on this issue. Sure, some of them may calculate that their votes would be more effective at stopping the Tories if they were given to the Lib-Dems rather than to a declining Labour party. Again, however, not many voters think in quite so cold-bloodedly calculating a way.
So most of the ex-Labour votes will go somewhere else. Might they go to the Tories? Once upon a time that would have been a racing certainty. The Tory party used to win about a third of the working-class vote with its conservative social values and patriotic instincts. For the Tory modernizers, however, these Labour voters are the wrong kind of voters too. David Cameron has spent most of the last few years resolutely refusing to highlight the issues of immigration, Europe, and national solidarity that appeal to them, lest such brutish policies alienate “soft center” votes. Just recently, the Tories have begun to talk about such things, but too little and maybe too late. Cameron will probably get a boost from these voters — and probably a larger boost than that going to the Lib-Dems — but still below what the Thatcherite Tories got in the despised 1980s.
That leaves two so-called “fringe parties” — the United Kingdom Independence Party and the British National Party. If these two parties were movies, the BNP would be Triumph of the Will and UKIP an Ealing comedy. Both parties will gain some of the former Labour supporters — the BNP because of its crude ethnic nationalism and UKIP because of its decent old-fashioned tweed-and-spats English patriotism. There is a well-established pattern in continental Europe of former socialist voters switching all the way across the political spectrum from discredited left-wing parties to fascist ones such as the Front Nationale in France and Jobbik in Hungary. Some analysts think that, on this basis, the BNP will win quite a large chunk of these votes. I doubt it. My guess is that — except in a handful of unusual constituencies — UKIP will win about four ex-Labour votes for every one gained by the BNP. A party that is identified with the wrong side at Britain’s “Finest Hour” is never going to win many patriotic votes. BNP’s share will be tiny by any standard therefore; UKIP’s share, by contrast, may be small as a percentage of the national vote but quite large in relation to its own initial level of support.
So the Labour voters driven out by “l’affaire Gillian” — just imagine what such a headline might signify in France and weep for Britain — are likely to make their way to four different points across the political spectrum. My highly unscientific guess is that the Tories will get the largest single tranche of them, UKIP the second largest, the Lib-Dems the third (though usually a repository of protest votes, the Lib-Dems tend to get fewer of them when small fringe parties are available for the same purpose), and the BNP the smallest.
That said, the main underlying truth of this campaign — freshened up by this latest development — is that the Tories ought to be winning easily and by a landslide. That is what has happened in other countries where a Left government has collapsed as completely as Labour. Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary has just won more than two-thirds of the popular vote and the right to redraw the country’s post-communist constitution in exactly these circumstances. Orban in fact has just re-fashioned Hungary’s fractious opposition into a broad conservative coalition on the British Tory model by uniting patriotic, free-market, and social conservatives under a single standard — at exactly the moment when the Tories had broken up their own original and successful coalition in pursuit of “progressive” voters with many other places to go.
The original Cameron strategy has driven away natural supporters and helped the Lib-Dems by validating their social-democratic values and disavowing conservative ones. Until two days ago, the Tories were fighting desperately not to win a majority but for the lesser goal of emerging as the largest party. Brown’s gaffe has shaken up the political kaleidoscope one more time, however, and allowed the Tories to rethink and advance. The lovely Gillian Duffy — who might have been accused of a hate crime if an election were not being held — has performed the signal service for conservatives of making conservative issues such as immigration and Europe not merely respectable but popular. Cameron might think of her for his Cabinet — as a former working-class Labour voter she’s far more Tory than most of his colleagues, and she has done far more than any of them to help him win the election.