With electoral events paused for 12 months, Britain’s pundit class had little to chew over to understand how voter behaviour had been changed by the pandemic, the post-Brexit period and the new leadership of the Labour party.
It was inevitable then that the recent election results would be pored over for clues to the future of British politics. Would “Super Thursday”, as it was dubbed, be a first indication that the movement of voters away from the Labour party seen in the 2019 general election had halted, a suggestion that, having “got Brexit done”, politics could occasion a return to “normal”? Or would it be a warning that 2019 was part of a more lasting realignment of the political system and not merely the “lending” of votes to deliver what parliament had failed to?
In the event, the local election results in England, including the Hartlepool by-election result that dominated the national headlines, are much more akin to a continuation of the politics of late 2019 than a reset of it. They are the sort of results we might have expected had elections been held in early 2020, as if the pandemic simply pressed pause on the evolution of voting preferences rather than forcing a radical rethink.
The patterns of results are a continuation of those seen in December 2019. More affluent areas moved away from the Conservatives (though the beneficiaries of this vary) while less affluent areas continued to move away from Labour, with the Conservatives making the most gains. Places with high levels of graduates also continued to move away from the Conservatives but demonstrated the pincer movement Labour was caught in, where the Greens and Liberal Democrats made gains on one side while the Conservatives pushed against the other flank.
The 2019 general election was the worst defeat for the Labour party since 1935, and many within the party believed that this was the result of either Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, or both. It is little wonder then that evidence that this may not be the whole story has led to so much turmoil within the party and its wider commentariat. There is a quest-like search for the one true answer to the question of why voters have turned from Labour in what were once its “heartlands”, but it is a quest doomed to repeated failure. The causes are more complex.
Academic models of voting behaviour relied for much of the post-war period on the idea that voters were connected to parties by a form of loyalty – a party identity. This lies behind the old adage that in some places you could “put a red rosette on a donkey and it would win”; people voted for the party they always voted for and often the one their parents and grandparents had supported before them. But this connection to parties has weakened in Britain, as elsewhere; the electorate has become more volatile, with fewer voters reporting strong attachments to political parties. Party identity itself was theorised as having its roots in social class groups, with other factors “embellishment and detail” (as the professor of government Peter Pulzer famously put it in 1967).
After any set of elections, attention is turned to the patterns of results and how they relate to demographic groups in local areas. For Labour after the 2021 elections, this has manifested itself as a concern with how the party can reconnect with the “working class” in parts of England, and a debate about how class should be defined – narrowly, in a quasi-Marxist account of ownership of the means of production, or more widely as economic interest, which also takes in home ownership.
At the same time, data about places can be unreliable for telling us about the people in those places, especially when turnout is low. The problem is, for example, we might find places with students have a higher Labour vote, but that, in reality, all the students stayed at home and it was instead people living next door to students who voted Labour. This is especially so for local elections where turnout is often low, and we do not know the relationship between turnout and demographics. In Doncaster, for instance, fewer than one in three in the electorate turned out to vote. Debates over definitions and data often miss how politics has been changing, gradually at first but then quickly after the Brexit vote, and so much more rapidly since 2016.
What is distinctive about the voters who have turned from Labour to the Conservatives is the way their social positions, political values and identities combine. As with definitions of class, there is a tendency for different parts of the Labour movement to focus on the aspect that best suits their preferences for the direction the party should take. Some focus on economics, others worry about socially conservative (ex) Labour voters, and some stress the need for the party to connect with those who identify as English. Trying to distil these elements from each other is a fool’s errand, the result inherently unstable. They are intimately interwoven in people’s lives, and how they engage with politics and parties.
What makes groups of voters distinct is how these elements combine. The voters who have moved from Labour to the Conservatives tend (on average) to have left-leaning economic views, though are not usually in precarious economic positions; they tend to hold more conservative views on cultural issues and are more likely to have a sense of national pride (often expressed interchangeably as English or British), but none of these alone defines the group. There are those with left-leaning views and without a sense of national identity; there are cultural conservatives who are economically rightwing.
The pattern is one of fragments rather than the large “tribes” implied by the Brexit or class binaries. The fragments are defined by multiple sets of values, neither wholly economic nor entirely “cultural”. The path to electoral success is to create a mosaic of these groups of people, one that a skilled leader can create by joining cohorts with overlapping interests, values and identities together, while mindful that rebuilding from fragments will always leave structural vulnerabilities along the joins. Fragments have jagged edges; they do not form shapes that are simple to re-assemble into the whole they came from, but new forms can be made from the pieces with imagination and an understanding of how to fill the gaps.