How Brexit Changed British Politics Forever

By MARCUS STEAD

BREXIT was only the beginning of a far wider political realignment across the United Kingdom. Things are now in an astonishing state of flux. The old assumptions of ‘safe seats’ no longer applies – that much is certain. What we do not yet know is where we are heading.

Five years have now passed since the Brexit referendum. A good, though imperfect deal, negotiated by Boris Johnson’s team, was implemented at the start of 2021. The absurd prophecies in the Remain campaign’s ‘Project Fear’ have not come to pass.

A trade deal with Australia has been agreed, which shows promise of being a catalyst to wider opportunities with the region. Large numbers of lives have been saved across the United Kingdom as a result of the speedy Covid vaccine programme, made possible because the country was not part of the EU’s botched central procurement. There’s already a lot to be thankful for as a result of Brexit.

The general election of 2019 saw red wall seats, namely constituencies that Labour had won with ease for generations, fall to the Conservatives. The recent by-election in Hartlepool demonstrated that this process is continuing.

To put events into perspective, in the era before Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives came to power in 1979, general elections were fought along clear class-based politics. The Conservatives portrayed themselves as the party that loved the country. Labour portrayed themselves as the party that loved the poor.

A solid 40% block of working class voters could be relied upon to routinely vote Labour. A solid 40% block of middle class voters could be relied upon to vote Conservative. Elections were won and lost depending on how floating voters in the remaining 20% behaved in key constituencies.

This assumption began to break down during the Thatcher years. Heavy industry and the influence of trade unions in the political process declined massively within two electoral cycles. Supermarkets and retail parks stood where there were once coal mines. Working class people were given the opportunity to become home owners by purchasing their council houses on a massive discount.

Parsonage Retail Park in Leigh stands on the site of the former Parsonage Colliery

The concept of class became less important. Was a person less ‘working class’ because they swapped their miner’s helmet for a hairnet as they packed airline meals in a factory where the coal pit once stood? Is the school leaver who now goes to work in a call centre selling car insurance rather than a steel works less ‘working class’ as a result? Erm, you decide.

It took the Labour Party until 1989 to begin to fully acknowledge the extent to which society had changed in the previous decade. A process began with the controversial Policy Review of that year, and a process of modernisation continued into the 1990s. Labour fell short of gaining the electorate’s confidence in the general election of 1992, and Labour still struggled to adapt to the changes in the way people lived and worked. Under the leadership of John Smith, the old ‘Clause IV’ in Labour’s constitution, committing the party to common ownership of industry, was scrapped. Following Smith’s untimely death in 1994, the start of Tony Blair’s leadership saw the party rebranded ‘New Labour’, which Blair himself said was a ‘new political party’.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock in 1989

The Blair manifesto of 1997 saw Labour support enterprise, self-reliance, anti-statism, the liberalisation of the market economy, the privatisation of nationalised industries, utilities and public sector companies, the divestment of public housing, the introduction of market liberalism to both the public and non-market public sector, as well as the Thatcherite constraints on trade unions and local government.

New Labour had effectively parked its tanks on the Conservative Party’s lawn. New Labour managed to maintain the support of what remained of the working class electorate, but it also gained the backing of the new, swollen middle class, which led to it winning a 179 seat majority in 1997, against a Conservative government that appeared tired, weak and riddled by sleaze by that stage.

The reality of the New Labour years was hugely disappointing. A short list of New Labour’s failings, includes, but is not confined to:

  • Uncontrolled mass immigration, particularly in its early years, which transformed the demographics of many towns and cities. Civil servant Andrew Neather admitted years later that this was a deliberate ploy to ‘rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date’.
  • Chancellor Gordon Brown selling off huge swathes of gold reserves when gold was at the bottom of its cycle.
  • Gordon Brown raiding the private pensions of people who had wisely planned properly for their retirement.
  • Gordon Brown’s disastrous private finance initiatives, which saw old Victorian hospitals replaced by gleaming new buildings, which nevertheless saddled the NHS with huge debt burdens for many decades afterwards.
  • Gordon Brown introducing 157 new taxes, many of them sneaky and found ‘in the small print’ of his Budgets.
  • Gordon Brown borrowing more money than all previous Chancellors in British history combined.
  • The decommissioning of Royal Yacht Britannia, upon which events held helped raised more than £3 billion for the Treasury between 1991 and 1995 alone.
  • Constitutional vandalism with an ill-thought-out and half-baked devolution project which has led to duplication, confusion and tension between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.
  • The politicisation of the police and the education system with the doctrines of ‘diversity’ and ‘political correctness’.
  • Signing up to the EU Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon, as well as the Social Chapter, all of which undermined the United Kingdom’s sovereignty and national independence.
  • Ill-conceived military action in Serbia and Kosovo.
  • Ill-conceived military action in Afghanistan.
  • An illegal war in Iraq based on a lie told by Mr Blair at the despatch box of the House of Commons about non-existent weapons of mass destruction, which led to the deaths of British military personnel and countless innocent Iraqis.
  • Tuition fees, and the target of getting 50% of young people into universities. This achieved the cynical objectives of making youth unemployment appear far lower than it actually was, as well as saddling young people with debts that would take decades to pay off. Many were also studying for degrees that would be of little worth in terms of forming a sustainable career.

There’s lots more, but the sheer damage done to the country during the Blair years is only just beginning to be understood.

It took the Conservative Party a long time to regain the support of those who had supported it in 1992, as well as the millions of potential voters who had joined the electoral register in the intervening years. David Cameron’s dubious ‘modernisation’ of the Conservative Party from 2005 saw it accept large swathes of the New Labour project, just at the time when Blairism was falling out of fashion.

The recession of 2008 should’ve handed the 2010 general election to the Conservatives on a plate. Labour went into it having already raided the national piggy bank and saddled the public finances with huge debt during the ‘boom’ years (which themselves were more down to luck than Gordon Brown’s judgement as Chancellor), but when they finally lost power, Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, left a note on the desk for his successor Philip Hammond, which said ‘I’m afraid there is no money.’

Despite Labour’s recklessness with the public finances, the Conservatives were unable to gain an overall majority and a coalition with the Liberal Democrats was needed to form a government. Cameron modelled himself on Blair, who he and George Osborne referred to as ‘The Master’ during their time in Downing St. Indeed, such was his admiration for Blair that when Blair left the despatch box as Prime Minister for last time in 2007, Cameron led the Conservative benches in a standing ovation. This is hardly an appropriate way to bid farewell to a war criminal who had wrecked the economy and committed gross acts of constitutional vandalism.

So what of the referendum of 2016? It is a myth that the Leave vote was based largely in former industrial areas in the north.

In the aftermath of the referendum, Lord Ashcroft Polling found that in terms of demographics, 59% of all Leave voters came from the:

A ((Upper middle class) Higher managerial, administrative or professional).

B ((Middle class) Intermediate managerial, administrative or professional), and

C1 ((Lower middle class) supervisory or clerical and junior managerial, administrative or professional) demographics. In other words, 59% of all Leave voters were middle class, and came from ‘white collar’ backgrounds.

Of those, 34% were A and B. Meanwhile, just 17% were from C2 (white van man, to use a cliché/caricature).

Therefore, we now know that the vote to leave the EU was largely due to the ‘Middle England’ vote.

It’s true that Ashcroft also found that professionals were the only social class group to vote majority Remain, 57% across the UK, but they were such a large group of voters, and turnout among them was so high, that they also constituted the largest group of Leave voters.

The cliché that the Leave vote was largely due to the North of England is also untrue. Picture a map of the UK in your head. Now draw a line, beginning at The Wash in East Anglia and ending at the Bristol Channel. 52% of all Leave votes came from BELOW that line.

There are a few hotspots in the South, such as London, Oxford and Cheltenham, that are the exception to this rule, where the majority voted Remain. In these areas, house prices and rents are high, and you have to be ‘doing well’ to live there, but across the rest of the South of England, a narrow majority voted Leave in almost every place.

Nevertheless, the Leave vote was to have a long-term and profound effect on voting habits, and its implications are only now beginning to be understood.

People voted Leave for a variety of reasons. For some, concerns about uncontrolled mass immigration were paramount. This links in with another key reason, which is an oversupply of cheap labour leading to the suppression of wages. For others, there were legitimate and well-founded concerns about the lack of democracy and accountability within the European Union. But the overriding factor is that for so many people, life in this country just isn’t very good, with poor public services, poor job security, and it being nigh on impossible to save money and get paid interest for it, or to make sufficient provisions for retirement.

The identity of the Labour Party changed radically during the entryism of the Corbyn era, and that continues to this day. It is now a party made up of, and with a mindset of the middle class, white collar, public sector worker and the university student. It is worlds away from the ideology of northern working class communities, and this is reflected in voter behaviour.

Modern general elections are won and lost in medium-sized towns. The large cities, populated to a significant extent by white collar university educated public sector workers, are mostly seats held by Labour. Rural areas are held by the Conservatives (though there is evidence that this may be beginning to change – more on that later). It is those medium-sized towns where elections are won and lost, ie ‘red wall’ seats that once routinely voted Labour, but do not do so anymore – Bolsover, Sedgefield, Bridgend etc.

Evidence shows that how people voted in the referendum significantly impacts on how they vote in subsequent elections. Older people in medium-sized towns who voted Leave are far more likely to vote Conservative than recent graduates living in cities.

Many of those who have broken the habit of a lifetime in recent years by voting Conservative do so for reasons of culture and identity. In Sir Keir Starmer, they see a leader who not only did all he could to try to frustrate, water down and preferably block the Brexit the voted for, but they see a leader who is far more interested in ‘identity politics’ than the issues that directly affect their lives.

In Sir Keir, they see a man who posts pictures of himself on social media ‘taking the knee’ and getting into endless debates about pronouns and transgenderism, but doesn’t spend much time talking about jobs, inward investment, housing, public services, crime and all the other issues that regular, everyday people living in red wall seats are concerned about.

Despite the impact of the pandemic and a number of blunders by Boris Johnson’s government, Sir Keir’s Labour Party is still 20 points behind in the polls. At the upcoming by-election in Batley and Spen, formerly a safe Labour seat, it’s entirely possible that Labour will finish  third behind the Conservatives and patriotic, old-school leftist George Galloway, standing for the Workers Party, a man who understands the concerns and issues of people living in areas such as this far better than the modern-day Labour leadership.

For Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, no seat in the post-industrial north is now ‘off limits’, but what do the voters there expect in return? These are not laissez-faire Thatcherites. They welcome a somewhat more interventionist role for the state. They are likely to be in receipt of state benefits, and will want that to continue. They are likely to welcome ‘big ticket’ infrastructure projects, improving transport and inward investment to the areas in which they live, improving standards of living and levels of employment.

But the issues of identity are also important. They voted Leave, and they meant Leave. They voted Conservative in 2019 on the back of Mr Johnson’s pledge to ‘Get Brexit Done’, and on that, he has delivered, but come the next general election, they will want to see the tangible benefits of Brexit in their lives.

The new Conservative voters in these areas are also likely to be patriotic and highly unimpressed with woke culture and excessive political correctness. Phrases like ‘white privilege’ appear ghastly to them, when they have spent decades with a lack of jobs and poor-quality schools in their areas. They are fed up of being lectured and preached at, as well as being told what they can and can’t say, and being condemned as ‘racist’ when they are nothing of the sort. They are sick and tired of endless pandering to people with obscure agendas based on identity and performance offence takers. One example is of police offers painting their faces and fingernails with rainbow flags for ‘Pride’ marches, yet are nowhere to be seen when people report anti-social behaviour on their run-down estates. There are many others similar examples.

To be somewhat overly-simplistic, to maintain the support of red wall voters and to capitalise on opportunities to expand their appeal, the Conservatives will need to lean to the left economically and to the right on issues of culture and identity.

At present, the Conservatives are benefitting from goodwill expressed by the deliverance of the Brexit these people voted for five year ago, and a Labour Party grossly out of touch with their needs and concerns, as it obsesses about ‘identity politics’ and not much else.

The entryism of recent years has seen a nasty attitude develop, particularly among its younger, university-educated members. There is a lack of nuance with many of them, and this is amplified by their behaviour on social media. We’ve all seen it. They have a Twitter account where they put their pronouns next to their name, followed by a rainbow flag. Anyone who is just one step to the right of them is labelled ‘far right’. Anyone who is two steps to the right is labelled ‘fascist’. Sir Keir has done little to quell this or to try and re-engage with the voters whose trust he lost due to his stance on Brexit and his obsession with ‘identity politics’.

There have been small victories for Labour as a result of this. In the recent local council elections, they made substantial gains in leafy southern areas like Witney and Chipping Norton, which can, to an extent, be put down to substantial demographic changes with younger, university-educated people working in the public sector moving to the areas from cities within commuting distance. This may be reflected in areas which are similar in terms of appearance and demography in southern England, though it will not be substantial enough in number to make up for the ground Labour has lost in red wall seats.

Indeed, the recent by-election in Chesham and Amersham provided disturbing news for Labour. It had been a very safe Conservative seat since its creation in 1974, yet concerns over local issues, especially the damage the proposed HS2 railway line will do to the constituency, led to voters seeking an alternative this time around, and the Liberal Democrat candidate was duly elected. Labour, which polled 21% in the constituency as recently as the 2017 election, managed a miserable 1.6% on this occasion, finishing fourth behind the Greens.

Furthermore, Labour will need to regain many of the Scottish seats it has lost to the SNP over the last decade if it is to have any realistic hope of a House of Commons majority. That currently appears a very long way off.

The recent round of elections showed the main successes for Labour were in areas where the party had a track record to defend, especially where there was a known personality at the helm. In London, Sadiq Khan was returned as Mayor with a substantial majority, as was Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester. In Wales, Mark Drakeford was returned as First Minister with an increased mandate, as Labour won 30 of the 60 seats in the Welsh Parliament.

Andy Burnham was a rare success story for Labour in the elections of 2021

Khan, Burnham and Drakeford all succeeded in putting distance between themselves and Sir Keir Starmer’s leadership. The Labour parties of London, Greater Manchester and Wales all operate as semi-autonomous bodies from UK Labour, and this was to the benefit of the respective candidates.

A shining example of the paradox Labour now faces is in Wales. At the 2019 general election, the red wall phenomenon was every bit as real in medium-sized towns in Wales as it was in northern England and the Midlands. Constituencies like Bridgend and Wrexham went blue for much the same reasons as Don Valley and Workington. If there was a general election any time soon, the Conservatives would likely hold these seats and gain Newport East, which they narrowly missed out on winning in 2019 due to a substantial Brexit Party vote.

Yet at the recent Welsh Parliament elections, Labour held its seats and even made one constituency gain from Plaid Cymru. So what has happened?
The first thing to point out is that turnout in Wales at the general election of 2019 was substantially higher than in the Welsh Parliament election of 2021 (66.6% compared to 46.6%), suggesting that a large number of people in Wales don’t take a huge amount of notice to what goes on in the devolved institution, or consider its work important enough to go out and vote. Or, an alternative explanation is that  at the 2019 general election of 2019, a total of 557,234 people voted Conservative, yet in the Welsh Parliament constituency vote in 2021, just 289,802 voted for Conservative candidates. So 267,432 Conservative voters across Wales in December 2019 very often decided to stay at home in the Welsh Parliament election, while Labour persuaded a larger number of its support base to go out and vote.

Therefore, the question for the Conservatives in Wales is why did so many of those 289,802 voters consider it worthwhile voting for the party in relation to non-devolved matters for which Westminster is responsible such as the Treasury, foreign policy, defence, law and order and work and pensions, but did not consider it worthwhile endorsing the party for devolved matters such as health, education and housing?

The answer is likely to be that the Welsh Conservatives didn’t have the right policies, or the right people selling their policies to their potential voter base, whereas the UK Conservatives DID have the right polices and people selling them at  the 2019 general election.

Yet on such a miserable turnout of 46.6% (actually a record high in the 21 years of devolution), Drakeford’s victory cannot be considered a ringing endorsement of Welsh Labour by the electorate.

Whether one is a supporter of the Conservative Party or not, we should not be too triumphalist with the current state of affairs. Democracy only works effectively when there is an opposition party that effectively holds the government of the day to account, and itself looks like a potential government in waiting.

These are the main purposes of the opposition, and Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party is failing miserably at both.

There is no easy solution to this conundrum. Replacing Sir Keir with the more credible Andy Burnham would only go a small way towards solving the problem, as the lack of available talent to make up a strong Shadow Cabinet team would hold him back. He would also be hindered by the demographic of the party membership which would steer its policies: Middle class, university-educated, southern, woke, obsessed with identity politics. In other words, worlds away from the needs and aspirations of those medium-sized towns in the Midlands and North he would need to gain the support of to win an election.

There is no going back to the assumptions of old in British politics. A journey of radical realignment is underway, but it is still far too early to determine what the final destination will be, or how long it will take to get there.