My home town of South Shield in the northeast of England last elected a Tory as its member of Parliament in 1834. Now the conservative Tory party is likely to make historic gains in the national elections on December 12. If that happens, it will be a testament to the rise of cultural identity and nationalism as a driving force in British politics. As has been the case in other countries, including the United States, it could mean rough waters ahead for believers in free markets.
The Brexit saga has pushed nationalism and regionalism to the fore in British politics, ahead of economics. The neoliberal consensus that has guided British economic policy for the past three decades is now deeply unpopular. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has issued a radical socialist economic manifesto that is popular across the country. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have countered with promises of more government spending and an “industrial strategy” to direct markets. Either would have been unthinkable in 2010. Today, the free market is under attack from all quarters.
Yet, Labour’s populist economic manifesto is unlikely to win votes. Instead, Labour might lose ground in its northern heartland, where the renationalization of industries favored by Corbyn is popular. That’s because swing voters’ chief concerns have shifted from economics to cultural identity. The northern Labour heartlands broke with Labour Party leaders and mostly voted “Leave” in the Brexit referendum. Voters there felt that the European Union had sucked away their opportunity and killed traditional industries like fishing, and resented how much wealth had gravitated to London. In many ways, they identify as much not-London as not-EU.
This gives the Conservatives, the major pro-Brexit Party, a historic opportunity. In the Victorian era, conservatives used to talk about “One Nation” conservatism, and the Tories appear to have reverted to that principle, aided by Boris Johnson’s engaging personality. As ITV News journalist Paul Brand reported from his conversations with northern Labour voters, they view “Boris” as different from the Tory party they have long despised. Johnson’s popularity might outweigh the unpopularity of the Tories in Labour’s heartland.
The Tories have also sought to break with Thatcherite orthodoxies. Theresa May tried to do this in 2017, with an industrial strategy and higher spending, but her instincts to balance the books led to some policies that seemed hard on older people and the countryside (all natural Tory voters). Boris has simply proposed much higher spending on the National Health Service, police, and public services, while canceling a tax break for corporations. The party will also restrict low-skilled immigration after Brexit. So far, this seems to be doing the trick.
Labour has already seen its once-stable coalition—a big-tent alliance of northern working-class voters, affluent well-educated urbanites, and ethnic minorities—begin to fracture. As the northerners seep away, the Labour party looks more and more like a party of London university lecturers and recent immigrants, further alienating the northern working class from the “People’s Party.”
The bellwethers of the coming election could be old coal mining towns like Sedgefield in County Durham. Like the rest of the Durham coal fields, it has voted Labour since the party’s founding, and was the safe seat occupied by Prime Minister Tony Blair. If it returns a Conservative, or even if the result is close, that will almost certainly spell doom for Labour.
The Liberal Democrats’ play at establishing themselves as the Remain party—with the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit!”—appears to have failed, and Remainers have largely rallied to Labour. As they do so, the divide between Labour’s northern and southern coalition partners grows even greater, and the party leadership is already paralyzed over Brexit.
If Labour avoids disaster, we may be headed for another hung Parliament, and more delays to Brexit that are likely to sharpen the identity divide further. If the Conservatives win, it will be a victory for Boris Johnson’s soft form of nationalism and regionalism. Either way, the British election will present a historic challenge to defenders of free markets and open societies.
Originally published at The Hill.