A Global Lesson from Britain’s Crumbling Conservative Party

“We did it,” Boris Johnson, Britain’s new prime minister, announced to a rapturous crowd of supporters on Dec. 13, 2019. “We pulled it off.”

Johnson was referring to the Conservative Party’s landslide electoral victory, which gave it an 80-seat majority in Parliament. But it seemed at that moment that the Conservatives might have also pulled off a trickier maneuver, one that many other parties of the mainstream right had struggled to land: consolidating a broad-based conservative majority despite an insurgent far right.

The unity of the Conservatives, often known as the Tories, had for years been threatened by an anti-E.U., anti-immigration movement that prioritized social concerns over economic ones. Britain’s vote for Brexit in 2016 was in many ways a triumph of the hard right over the center, and it led to the resignation of David Cameron, a more centrist Conservative prime minister.

But on that December day, it appeared that the Tories under Johnson, a Brexiteer who promised to crack down on immigration while also pledging to boost public services, had managed to fend off the threat.

Less than five years later, things look very different. Last week’s local elections in England suggested the 2019 coalition has shattered, and many analysts believe the Conservatives could be headed for a wipeout in a general election expected in the fall. What happened?

The answer offers lessons not just about British politics, but also about the dynamics that have fueled the far right in the U.S. and elsewhere.

One reason Johnson won was his uniqueness as a candidate, whose charismatic, outsider persona appealed to an unusually wide swath of the population. He made “getting Brexit done” the central issue of his 2019 campaign, and managed to win 74 percent of voters who had voted to leave the E.U. In doing so he not only clawed back support from anti-Europe, anti-immigration voters, but also drew socially conservative voters away from Labour, Britain’s mainstream left party, in part by adopting a more progressive economic stance.

But there is another important factor, experts say — something they call “identity polarization.” This the force that has helped Donald Trump retain robust support among voters despite the violent Jan. 6 uprising, multiple criminal cases and years of norm-shattering rhetoric and actions.

In the United States, identities have become increasingly “stacked,” with race, religion, geographical location and education all aligning with partisan identity. With so much on the line, voters on one side easily come to see the other as their enemy. As a result, partisan affiliations are very sticky: American voters rarely switch sides. Elections tend to be decided by a small number of swing voters and by turnout levels.

British voters are different. “When I compare the U.K. and the U.S., the biggest difference within the electorates is there’s much less of a sort of stacked identity in the U.K.,” said Luke Tryl, the U.K. director of More in Common, a nonprofit that tracks social and political divides in both countries. “From what the average Brit thinks about immigration, it isn’t always that possible to read across what they’re going to say about, I don’t know, taking the knee,” he said, referring to the antiracism gesture adopted by many sports people, or about other contentious issues like transgender rights or taxation.

As a result, British political support is much more fluid. The 2019 Tory coalition proved fragile: Only 43 percent of 2019 Conservative voters plan to vote for the party in an upcoming general election, according to a recent YouGov poll. Things look even worse for the Tories among voters who had supported the “Leave” side in the E.U. referendum: Their top choice today is Reform U.K., a new hard-right party co-founded by the arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage, and their second choice was Labour. The Tories scraped into third place with just 27 percent of Leave voters’ support.

Some of that arises from widespread dissatisfaction with the state of life in Britain. Families have been hit hard by inflation and increases in the cost of living. The health and education systems, along with other social services, are crumbling after years of austerity policies from Conservative governments. For most voters, multiple polls show, those issues are more important than immigration or social change.

But the breadth of the 2019 Conservative voting coalition may have obscured how weak many new voters’ support for the party was, said Jane Green, a professor at Oxford University and one of the lead researchers on the British Election Study, a long-running survey of voter beliefs and behavior.

Swing voters who once lent their support to “the party of Brexit” under Boris Johnson were always likely to be the first to switch to another party if they became dissatisfied with the government’s handling of issues like the pandemic, inflation or health care, she said.

“These people are just weaker conservatives,” she said. “And a party, in ordinary times, is likely to lose first the people that identify with it the weakest.”

The Labour Party is deliberately courting these voters by pursuing cautious, centrist policies. That approach is frustrating its more left-wing supporters, but appears to be a pragmatic attempt to build the broadest coalition possible — and win a majority.

If one lesson from Britain is that identity polarization — or its absence — matters, another is that political systems do, too. Britain’s “first past the post” voting system, in which the top vote-getter in each district wins office, means that small parties can act as spoilers: If the vote on the right is split, for example, it becomes easier for the center-left Labour Party to win. But the system also makes it very difficult for small parties to get into Parliament at all.

In systems based on proportional representation, like most of those in mainland Europe, it is much easier for smaller or more extreme parties to win seats. That means mainstream parties have less incentive, or even ability, to be “big-tent” coalitions that represent a diverse range of groups.

Britain’s electoral system leaves the country partway between Europe and the United States. Like those in the U.S., Britain’s elections will tend to be a contest between two main parties rather than among coalitions of smaller ones. But its citizens’ less “stacked” political identities and looser party affiliations mean that those big-tent coalitions are more fragile and fluid.

The result is likely to be political volatility, said Tryl. On the one hand, all parties need to be responsive to the concerns of a broad part of the electorate if they want to retain power. That could help build consensus. On the other hand, he added, there is a risk that parties will struggle to maintain broad enough support for a long enough time to pass difficult but necessary reforms. And that may hold a lesson for Labour, if they do become the next government.

“It could mean very short honeymoon periods,” Tryl said. “People won’t go, ‘Oh I voted Labour, I’m going to stick with them, give them time.’”

“Even if Labour end up with quite a large majority,” he continued, referring to the general election that must be held by January next year, “they could still find it quite hard to manage, because the electorate is restive.”

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