In my pre-election analysis of British politics yesterday, I suggested that Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former district in the Durham coalfields, where I grew up, would test my thesis that British politics had realigned around identity rather than economics. As I suspected, it returned a Conservative MP — its first since 1931. Boris Johnson’s Conservative majority now includes many members of Parliament from formerly safe Labour working class districts. The question for Boris is: Can he keep them happy?
To do that, he must deliver Brexit, which he is now well placed to do. Yet many analysts, including at The Economist, believe that these identity voters simply “loaned” him their votes. If that’s the case, and they go back to voting Labour, then there has been no realignment. Brexit was simply a one-off.
There are reasons to think that is not the case. While much of the electoral analysis pointed to Jeremy Corbyn as a liability for Labour, not enough attention has been paid to why. In many cases, people asked about their antipathy to the Labour leader, many saw Corbyn as deeply unpatriotic and pointed to his ties to international leftist groups and the IRA. Others pointed to his affinity for “woke” identity causes (which may have also led to the defeat of Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson). And, of course, there was the toxic issue of antisemitism within his party.
The question is whether the Labour Party can shake off this image. Electing another Corbynista as leader won’t change things much. Moroever, the Party is now clearly the party of the college-educated local government worker or university lecturer, a segment of the population about as globalist and woke as you can get. It may not be able to help itself.
This means there is a very good chance that Boris can keep his working-class voters. This will be made easier as he will have actual members working with these constituents and reporting back their concerns. The question is whether the constituents’ economic demands can be met.
As Kyle Smith points out, Boris’s “One Nation Conservatives” have junked old rules on fiscal policy. Boris promised this morning to spend massive amounts on the National Health Service, for instance. Many have taken this as evidence that Thatcherism is dead.
However, I suspect there is life in the old dog yet. Thatcherism was above everything else a supply-side philosophy. To deliver what the new Tories really want is going to take a lot of effort on the supply side.
For instance, polling shows that working class swing voters actually like tax cuts. They also detest the compulsory BBC “TV license” fee. Given the persistent anti-Tory bias of the BBC, changing the way it’s funded should be a no-brainer (although the woke literati will fight tooth and nail). These voters are also somewhat in favor of deregulation in enterprise zones. And they are not at all keen on new nanny-state restrictions on lifestyle. Given the Prime Minister’s personal social libertarianism, this may be one area where we see some improvement quickly, focusing the NHS on providing more actual medicine than moral hectoring (although the public health establishment could stymie that hope).
Then there’s the promise of new infrastructure. It is vital to the “One Nation” vision that new infrastructure gets built in neglected areas of England and Wales, which have seen the Southeast get the lion’s share, thanks in part to the pull of the EU. To do this quickly will require bypassing environmental regulations. That might conflict with the Tories’ current green tinge, but if it’s a choice between delivering promises and another report on the effect of infrastructure on emissions, I’m willing to bet Boris will opt for the promises.
So, if there’s any hope for economic Thatcherism in this new Tory party, it’s on the supply side. In fact, it might be essential for Boris to deliver on his promises.