For some time there has been a profound political gap between the excitement of the UK politically engaged and the indifference or rejection “out there” beyond the Westminster bubble. For those willing to take a closer look, the attitude of the latter towards the Brexit crisis, and its origins, goes a long way to explain why the crisis is evolving as it is now. This detachment from, and in some parts of the country an outright rejection of, liberal democracy, can help explain Johnson’s current belligerent and almost anti-democratic tactics.
Johnson is firing up his base
To many in the Westminster bubble and the politically active sections of society, there is a massive struggle going on over Brexit, in which Johnson has recently prorogued Parliament to, it is assumed, limit debate and reduce the chances of Parliament obstructing his strategy to threaten a No Deal Brexit. The prorogation has produced a huge outcry from his opponents and accelerated a split in his party, completing a right-wing shift to effectively become the Tory Brexit party. Yet Johnson and his coterie led by Cummings at No. 10 feel able to do this in the knowledge that there is actually support for what he is doing, incredible though that may seem to outraged liberal democrats.
One only has to take a look at the current opinion polls, where Johnson not only has a lead that could win him a sizeable majority in Britain’s flawed electoral system, but that his lead is increasing just as the prorogation and the reaction to it has been taking place. He can traduce constitutional norms knowing that his base are unconcerned, if not supportive. Thus too, he is making a play for a “People versus the Politicians” election campaign and manipulating events towards this end.
To understand what has been going on amongst the electorate helps explain the apparent drift towards a populist authoritarianism in British politics.
The revolt on the right
The reality is that there is a reaction going on “out there” against Liberal Democracy in sections of the voting public, as explained in the article on this site. To understand this, one needs to look at the political gap between politicians and the politically active and engaged on the one hand, and the “left behind” depressed former industrial communities in the midlands and north of England and in South Wales.
There is a widening gap taking place between these two parts, and between liberal democracy and the voting public. This gap is, for example, evident in education, in the difference between the former who are increasingly highly educated and many voters who have not benefitted from our education system(s). It is also evident in the disparities in wealth, increasingly emphasised as our society becomes more and more unequal. One can see it in the reaction to “political correctness” and what is called “identity liberalism”. Also it is suggested that there is an “exclusion bias” in policy making, that directs initiatives away from the “left behind” communities and towards the educated and wealthier.
Thus the consequence of this gap is that liberal democracy is no longer seen as representing “ordinary people”, as populists style them. Indeed there are a lot of signs that a distrust of democracy has developed in parts of the general population and that a shift away from the post-war liberal democratic consensus is under way. People feel they no longer have a voice, especially among the “left behind”, such as those without college degrees. In an IPSOS-MORI survey in 2017 58% in UK thought that traditional politicians “do not care about people like me”. It is therefore not surprising that the idea of direct democracy as advocated by populists has had an appeal, since it can be presented as a way that their voice can be heard, such as a greater use of referendums.
Particular recent studies have been illustrating this clearly. New polling by Hanbury Strategy shows a general shift away from a post-war “freedom consensus” to a post-Brexit consensus shaped by a desire for “security and belonging” and a support for a “strongman” style of leadership. The respected Hansard Society annual audit of political engagement also reported in April that, among other things, 54% agreed with the view that Britain needs a “strong ruler willing to break the rules”, while 23% disagreed.
A breakdown in traditional party alignments
The post-war two party system in elections is breaking down and new alignments amongst voter support for parties is emerging. Formerly the two major parties, Tory and Labour, enjoyed mass support and formed majority governments. Yet since 2010, under the impact of the Great Recession and Labour’s loss of its Scottish fiefdom, there has been a shift to a multi-party system. Voting has become far more volatile and unpredictable. The old class-based voting pattern, working class Labour and middle class Tory (stated very simply), has been in part replaced by a values-based pattern. This is emphasised by the Brexit divide, Brexiters being more “closed” in their values and Remainers more “open. This is part of a much broader change in British society, a story of a shift to large conurbations, rising education levels for many, a fragmentation in the class system, growing affluence but also growing inequality, and a decline in old tribal party loyalties. While at the same time, the “left behind” communities continue to lack support and investment to regenerate and diversify away from old, decayed or disappeared industries. The shift of the blue collar vote away from Labour has made it look more a party of the cosmopolitan, liberal, city culture. In 2017 two-thirds of Labour MPs represented Leave seats.
Many observers comment on the arrival in Britain of US-style “culture wars”, now between Brexiters and Remainers. A context is a “post-materialist” liberalism amongst educated city-dwellers but a backlash against developments in cultural liberalism as in concern about immigration, European integration, Islam, or the refugee influx, a broad alliance of traditional conservatives and white people with low education levels.
Other political trends also help confirm these new orientations. One is the long-term decline in membership of the traditional parties. While Labour saw a big increase around the 2017 election, its membership is still half that of the 1950’s. The Tories’ membership had been languishing around an estimated 120,000 before the latest leadership campaign that elected Johnson. Voter turnout in elections is low, having also steadily declined, with bumps, since the 1950’s. The low turnout is especially so amongst the young and the poor, two groups most likely to vote Labour. By 2015, almost half of all working class and non-degree holders had stopped voting. By then, nearly 40% of workers who ceased to vote felt that Labour no longer represented them.
However, they turned out in large numbers for the 2016 referendum. Nearly 2m who had previously abstained voted, while millennials in the middle-class voted far less. The disadvantaged seized their opportunity to vote against liberalism and for lower immigration, regaining powers from EU and claiming back their voice.
Democracy under challenge
While observers still think that democracy in Britain is safe, there are signs around that should be warning bells for those that look beneath the surface of the storm to the swirling and powerful undercurrents in the political gap. There is a worrying gap between the Westminster bubble and the politically engaged as against the wider population, and many consider that they lack a voice under current arrangements. It is not surprising therefore that populism has its attractions, that direct democracy can bypass MPs in Parliament who are perceived as blocking desired change and that a “strongman” style of leadership that breaks the rules to get the results wanted can be seen to offer something to a coalition of traditional nationalist conservatives and the blue-collar white working class disadvantaged.