Walls keep tumbling down, first red and now blue. The scale of the Lib Dems’ upset victory in Chesham and Amersham suggests an intriguing possibility: that the realignment that saw traditionally Labour seats fall to the Tories in 2019, and which won them Hartlepool just last month, might now deliver once rock-solid Tory areas to their opponents. Could it be that what the Brexit gods giveth with one hand, they taketh away with the other?
It’s a heartening thought, but not a reliable one. For one thing, the south is hardly a coherent political bloc, about to shear off from the Tory glacier. For every Chesham, there is a Southampton or Swindon, pro-leave redoubts that have more in common with the north-east and the Midlands than they do with the Bobo – bourgeois, bohemian – metropolitan outskirts. It will take more than a blast of byelection dynamite in the affluent commuter belt to bring down the supposed “blue wall”.
Even so, a realignment of sorts is under way, its most obvious UK manifestation still the Brexit referendum, which convulsed British politics five years ago next week, and in which education was the single best predictor of a vote for leave or remain. But this is not about the UK alone. The same shift is happening all over the world.
Plot it on a graph and the change stares right back at you. Fifty years ago, parties of the left fared best among those with the least education and the lowest income, while the right flourished among those with the most of both. These days, the right still does well among the affluent, but on education the two camps have swapped places: these days, and far too crudely put, if you’re a graduate you vote left; if you’re not, you don’t.
That’s as true in Germany, Canada or France as it is in parts of Sussex and Surrey, where college-educated ex-Londoners have fled high house prices and are making bits of the home counties look, and vote, like liberal north London: less “gin and Jag”, more “£3,000 road bike and trips to the Everyman cinema”, in the words of the political consultant Gabriel Milland. In that light, the byelection result offers a prospect to make progressive mouths water. With these demographic shifts accelerating in the post-Covid era thanks to the Zoom-enabled exodus of graduates from the cities, and now that anti-Tory tactical voting has proved it can bag a win even in bluest Bucks, surely a nationwide progressive alliance would sweep Boris Johnson from power.
Not so fast. Take a look at the place where polarisation by education is most marked: the US. “I love the poorly educated,” Donald Trump once said, and with good reason: the poorly educated loved him back, breaking from the Democrats in their millions to send him to the White House in 2016 and come within a whisker of keeping him there in 2020. Joe Biden racked up 52.3% of the two-party vote, courtesy of a coalition of the young, the educated and America’s minorities, but had that vote dropped by just a fraction – to 52% – Trump would still be president. Indeed, most observers reckon that, given the shape of today’s US electorate, Republicans will retake both the House and Senate in 18 months’ time.
Enter David Shor, a 29-year-old data wizard currently making waves in Democratic politics with a jolting analysis of where his party is going wrong, not least in its reliance on, and dominance by, the well-educated. What makes his views especially arresting is that he is on the party’s left, a self-described socialist who voted twice for Bernie Sanders.
In Shor’s view, the Democrats are too influenced by people just like him: young, hyper-educated ultra-liberals whose views are massively out of step with the median US voter they need if they are to win elections. (He reports that half the people who give money to Democratic campaigns have not one but two degrees.) The issues that interest those activists and the way they talk about them are simply out of sync with non-college educated working people. He reserves particular fury for the slogan “defund the police”, which, his numbers show, alienated not only blue-collar white guys, but significant numbers of black and Hispanic voters. Democrats lost enough of those to make last November a photo-finish, saved in large part by the offsetting fact that Biden himself – not young, not hyper-educated, not ultra-liberal – defied the Democratic archetype and appealed to the less educated.
Shor makes one crucial point. It’s not only political candidates who help create this vote-losing impression. It’s the wider world of progressive activists, journalists and people sounding off on Twitter. When they take up some fringe position, says Shor, regular people lump “the entire movement into this one big blob and say, ‘This whole group of people is crazy.’”
Part of the problem is language. “If you go out and start talking about ‘racial justice’ or ‘social justice’ or ‘climate justice’, you just sound like a super-educated weird person,” says Shor. It’s not that working people don’t care about racism or the climate, they just don’t speak about it in the same way. It means dialling down the ideology and the jargon – note that Hispanic Americans reject the Twitter-approved term “Latinx” to describe themselves – and focusing instead on the kind of unfairness and human suffering that even those whose instincts are socially conservative cannot ignore.
I confess that when I spoke to Shor I felt a shudder of recognition. Here in Britain, Labour is lumped in with a “big blob” of its own. Too often a loud part of that blob sounds like either a select priesthood, speaking to itself about questions that would strike most people as abstract angels-on-a-pinhead theology, or a self-appointed police force dispensing constant, scolding judgment, wagging its finger at the latest supposed infraction of progressive standards. It’s exhausting and so unappealing that even a serially dishonest and incompetent government – but one that seems to accept you, your country and your way of life without pursed-lipped judgment – seems preferable by comparison.
That’s not the only reason why a strategy centred on graduates and cities is doomed. There are just not enough of them and their votes, says Shor, are not distributed with the necessary geographic efficiency. That’s true of Britain and the US: remember, remain may have come close in 2016, but it won a mere third of Britain’s parliamentary constituencies.
Thursday’s byelection result will prompt a lot of excited talk of what educated, progressive voters might do if they join together. But it will never be enough. The harder truth is that those who want change will have to speak to voters about the things they, the voters, care about, and in a way that makes sense to them. It will require discipline and coherence, even from those who think they’re doing noble work “widening the debate” or “raising awareness”, when in fact they’re just making progressives look weird. There is no short cut – via Chesham and Amersham or anywhere else.