One and a half nations, how a longstanding trend has for now been checked

June 30th, 2017

Picture: The current political map of the UK (via the BBC)

Britain is a geological seesaw.  After the last ice age retreated, the release of the weight of the ice has resulted in the bedrock on the northern half of the island rebounding, forcing the southern half of the island as a consequence to sink.

It also has a longstanding political north-south seesaw.  The timescales are not quite as long term as the geological seesaw but they have proved enduring and over the last two generations the divergence had steadily increased.  In 1992 the Conservatives secured 161 out of their 336 seats in the eastern, south eastern and south western regions, just under half their tally.  By 2015 those same three regions accounted for 181 out of 330 Conservative seats (55%).  A mass of blue weighed down on the rural south, while Scotland and urban England had headed leftwards.

2017 was a bit different.  The Conservatives’ stranglehold in the south was significantly weakened, losing 12 seats (net).  At the same time, the Conservatives achieved big swings further north, taking seats like Derbyshire North East, Mansfield and Middlesbrough East & South Cleveland, and still bigger swings in Scotland, taking 13 seats, their best performance there since 1983.  53% of their seats are held in the three southern English regions, a small reversal of the previous trend. 

The converse is true of Labour.  They were net gainers of seats and did so in wealthier southern areas.  Seats such as Brighton Kemptown, Canterbury and Stroud are all held by Labour MPs.  After the 2015 general election 55% of Labour’s seats were in London and the English Core Cities (the next eight biggest English cities after London).  That has dropped to just over 50%.

This small move for the country from swathes of red and blue into a more patchwork affair has one conspicuous exception.  In the largest urban centres, the Conservatives continue to be driven out.  They lost Battersea and Kensington, came close to losing Putney and even the Cities of London & Westminster constituency has become semi-marginal.  This new incarnation of the Conservatives has accelerated their extinguishing in London.

This illustrates that this reversal of the previously widening divide isn’t just some form of reversion to the mean.  Both main parties are also becoming less class-based.  Labour continue to improve their support levels among ABC1s, as the Conservatives continue to improve their support levels among C2DEs. 

Ironically, this shift has taken place while both main parties have leaders who embody the stereotypes of their parties.  Theresa May embodies middle class middle England woman.  Jeremy Corbyn is every inner London right-on instinct incarnate.  Neither seems remotely well-suited to taking their parties into new terrain.  Yet under their stewardships, both parties have done exactly that.

That suggests that the shift is bigger than either of them and reflects a deeper realignment.  Brexit is the obvious candidate.  By seeking to own Brexit, the Conservatives captured the support of many voters who sought to ensure that Britain would be represented in negotiations by an able leader.  The price, however, was to drive many of those who were appalled by Brexit into the Labour column, Labour having shrewdly courted such voters with a smart retail proposition.

It also suggests that the opportunity exists for both parties to continue to progress in their new directions if they so wish (in both cases probably under new leadership).  As in the USA, the two main parties are becoming primarily values based.  Their names have long been misnomers.  In 2017, the Dreamers Party (anthem: Imagine) faced the Provincialist Party (anthem: If I Could Turn Back Time).  Both propositions have very obvious defects, to which each set of supporters seems utterly blind.  If those defects are to be addressed, the parties will both need a substantial rethink, Neither party since the election has as yet shown any interest in this.  Perhaps that will come with time.

The very fact of having new MPs in seats with different problems from those faced by the most traditional party base should assist the parties in their rethinking.  Astute party leaderships will listen to their new MPs.  They have much to learn from them.

Why should they do this? Well, the most successful governments since the Second World War have remade the governing party coalitions.  Tony Blair led Labour to make common cause with the English middle classes rather than to seek to subdue them.  Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives into alliance with the skilled working classes against corporatism and the monopolists of the public sector.  Clement Attlee matched full-blooded socialism with full-blooded patriotism.

If successive recent elections have shown anything, it is that the public are restless for a new direction.  They have rejected bloodless managerialism on every occasion that it has been offered to them.   The parties would therefore do well to offer them something else.  Time to start looking for it in earnest.

Alastair Meeks