How Brexit is realigning British politics

How Brexit is realigning British politics

The tectonic plates of British politics are shifting. Reminiscent of Thatcher’s ascendancy in 1979 or Blair’s in 1997, Brexit has triggered a realignment of the political centre ground and the territory from where political battles shall be won over the next generation is in the process of being reshaped.

David Cameron made a rare post-Downing Street intervention in April to declare that his decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU had “drained the poison” from British politics. He was half right. Brexit has drained the poison from the Conservative Party.

After decades of being hobbled by internecine splits over Europe, Brexit has reunited the Tories. Clashes over Europe of the type that brought down Margaret Thatcher, hobbled John Major’s premiership and ultimately ended Cameron’s career will now come to an end.

No longer do Eurosceptics alienated by the Conservative Party’s backing for the EU have to seek an alternative home in vehicles of populist discontent such as UKIP, a party that garnered 4 million votes at the 2015 general election. UKIP’s voters can now see a Conservative Party delivering on Brexit and controlling Britain’s borders and are moving their support in droves. Brexit has rendered UKIP irrelevant.

And it is not just UKIP voters who are changing their party loyalty to the Tories. Leave voters of all political persuasions are coalescing behind a government intent on respecting their democratic decision.

40% of Leave voters supported the Conservatives at the time of the EU referendum, a figure which has now risen to over 60%. In Wales, the Tories have increased their share of support from Leave voters from 33% to 63%, and in Scotland, from 33% to just under 50%.

By comparison, Europhile support remains split and is not consolidating behind any one party. The forecasted Liberal Democrat pro-Remain resurgence looks to be misapprehended. Perhaps, unlike the Scottish referendum, the losers of the EU referendum find it easier to accept the result and don’t feel the need to use subsequent elections to continue fighting it.

Brexit has also served to sever the fraying bonds of class allegiance that had defined British democratic politics since the early 20th century. There were deep-rooted cultural reasons behind Brexit. Britain’s working classes had grown tired of having their concerns over mass immigration ignored by a patronizing progressive establishment and used the EU referendum to rebel against them.

Globalisation has facilitated a divergence in the interests of the coalition of working class conservatives and middle class liberals that had sustained New Labour’s hegemony. The liberals who dominated New Labour embraced the increased autonomy, mobility and social change brought by globalisation but had dismissed working class concerns over threats to cultural identity and increased competition for jobs, housing and access to services.

And these concerns weren’t just ignored by Britain’s progressive establishment, for decades they were actively denigrated as racist, backwards and immoral. The result had been a rise in populism as alienated working class voters switched to UKIP or ceased voting altogether.

Evidence for the rupturing of class loyalties towards political identification is now clear. Recent polling showed the Conservatives are not just ahead of all their rivals in attracting middle class support but also registering a 17% increase in C2DE support over Labour. That the Conservative Party now has stronger levels of working class support than Labour, the very party founded to advance the interests of Britain’s working class, is extraordinary.

Over-represented within the higher echelons of politics, media and education and holding disproportionate influence in policy making and the setting of the cultural agenda, Britain’s progressives have for decades pursued a political direction many indigenous Brits found inimical. A chance for a backlash had long been simmering and Brexit was merely the opportunity for the pressure to release.

As a result of the democratic forces unleashed by the EU referendum the political centre ground is being redefined. Britain is leaving the European Union, controlling immigration, reprioritizing national citizenship and the direction of the country is tilting back towards the interests of the Somewhere majority. This new centre ground is set to be entrenched by the June election result.

21st century globalisation is a producing a world where the cultural needs of identity, belonging and patriotism are becoming increasingly important and political parties that cannot speak to these concerns will find themselves becoming ever more distant from the electorate.

A conservative appreciation of such cultural priorities means centre-right parties are better positioned to find the political terrain of the coming decades hospitable to their aims.

However it is hard to overstate just how difficult it will be for progressive parties to reconcile themselves to such an environment. Embracement of multiculturalism, mass immigration and suspicion of group identities has rendered many progressives incapable of viewing these cultural needs as anything other than bewildering. The left’s relentless progressivism is now its biggest liability.

Crucially, Brexit hasn’t resulted in a rise of populism. On the contrary, taking back democratic control over Britain’s law-making, money and borders has addressed the root causes of populism in a way that pro-EU political parties can never aspire to. European parties are now gearing up to fight populist movements by imposing on them more of the very things that are motivating these movements in the first place.

Brexit has presented the Conservatives with a seemingly insurmountable electoral position. A long term level of support for the Tories of over 40% is now a real possibility and is a frightening prospect for any centre-left party with hopes of ever being in government again. By ridding the Conservatives of the root cause of their division they have emerged from the EU referendum as one of the most powerful political parties in the Western world.

A government resolved to taking Britain out of the European Union is heading for an epoch defining majority that will transform the terms of political debate for a generation.

Much like Labour only became competitive again after the Conservative dominance of the 1980’s by accepting the new orthodoxy of the market economy, the Labour Party of today will only find a route back to power by accepting the norms of the post-Brexit political order. This process may take some time but the coming period of political wilderness will give the Labour hierarchy some time to ponder.