The Realignment of British Politics – by Matthew Goodwin

The Conservative Party is no longer the party of the rich while the Labour Party is no longer the party of the poor.

That is the central finding of my new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, released last week.

As I said in a talk this week, there is no doubt that Boris Johnson is a prime minister under pressure.

Public disapproval of his government is drifting upwards.

Public confidence in the economy has collapsed.

Johnson’s approval ratings have shed more than 20 points in just two months.

MPs are openly complaining about the workings of his government.

And, for the first time, when voters are asked who they think would make the ‘best Prime Minister’, Labour’s Keir Starmer is now in first place.

In fact, as I write this Starmer is enjoying the highest rating for any opposition leader since Tony Blair was transforming Labour into New Labour in 1995 and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was topping the charts.

But look beneath the surface of British politics and far more profound changes are taking place -changes that will ultimately determine not only what happens at the next election but, potentially, many elections after what.

Britain is in a state of realignment. 

As I shown with Professor Oliver Heath, things are now happening in Britain which have simply never happened before.

The Conservative Party is more popular with people on low incomes than it is with people on high incomes.

Labour, the party that was founded to speak for struggling workers, is now just as popular with the wealthy as it is among people on low incomes.

Both of Britain’s two main parties have inverted their traditional support base.

This is, put simply, remarkable. 

As recently as 2017, Labour still led the Conservatives among people on lower incomes -as it has always done.

But at the general election six months ago Boris Johnson and his party overturned this unwritten rule.

The Conservatives established a striking 15-point lead over Labour among one of Labour’s core groups. This is the first time in Britain’s recorded history that the Conservatives outpolled Labour among low-income voters.

Remarkably, the Conservatives are more popular among people on low incomes than among people on high incomes.


Much of this new support for Boris Johnson has come direct from Labour, which is why Johnson was able to tear down Labour’s Red Wall.

Six months ago, Labour lost nearly one in three of its low-income voters who had turned out to vote Labour in 2017. 

Meanwhile, Johnson and his party hoovered up votes from working-class people, pensioners and people who left school after taking their GCSE’s, at sixteen or seventeen, while they lost ground in areas that contain large numbers of young voters, graduates and people from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Johnson has been winning over the small towns and industrial heartlands but he has also been losing the cities, university towns and highly diverse areas; of Labour’s 50 strongest results in December nearly half (22) came in London while highly diverse and/or young urban areas such as Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield hosted many of the others.

And these shifts are reflected in the polls today.

Ask Brits who would make the best leader and Starmer leads Johnson by a striking 44-points among Remainers, 24-points among 18-34-year-olds, 19-points among Londoners, 12-points among people who live in cities and 3-points among middle-class professionals.

But Johnson leads Starmer by 46-points among Leavers, 19-points among pensioners, 10-points among the working-class, 6-points in non-London southern England, 5-points among voters who live in seats that Labour has lost since 2005, 5-points in rural areas and 2-points in towns.

What these numbers reflect is how broader winds are sweeping through Britain’s political system and pushing it into a state of realignment.

Why is this happening?

As we show in the report, the reality is that lots of people who live on average or lower than average incomes are ‘cross-pressured’ -they lean to the left on the economy, favouring more redistribution, but lean to the right on culture, supporting Brexit and the reform of migration. 

These voters want power sent down to the regions, not up to London and the big cities. And, by the way, they wanted a much tougher reply to the unilateral tearing down of statues. 

They do not fit neatly onto the traditional map of British politics.

Johnson tapped into this by leaning left through promises to deliver more infrastructure and help the ‘left behind’ while promising to deliver Brexit and change immigration rules.

Labour, in contrast, went in the other direction. As we show in the report, Labour’s drift to support a second referendum on Brexit damaged the party among these low-income voters who noticed the shift.

This handed Johnson the keys to the Red Wall.

Most of those who switched to him were strongly pro-Brexit and wanted to see their decision carried through and implemented by their representatives.

Johnson also had another in-built advantage – more than 60 per cent of constituencies had favoured Leave at the 2016 referendum. So long as Johnson’s strategy was focused on consolidating the Leave side he had a major advantage.

This was further underlined by the failure of Remainers to find unity, being split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

So, where do we go from here?

Johnson needs to tread carefully, for obvious reasons.

Many of the same people who switched over to him six months ago also come from those groups that have been hit the hardest by the double crisis that Johnson has struggled to manage -the Covid-19 health crisis and the accompanying economic crisis.

There is not yet much evidence that they are jumping ship.

Perhaps they are willing to give Johnson benefit of the doubt until the end of the Brexit transition period. Either way, it is not hard to see how things could start to go very wrong for the incumbent prime minister.

Immigration numbers are still high and there is also no guarantee that amid a major economic crisis these voters will continue to prioritise their values over their wallets. Nothing focuses minds like lost jobs and rising debt.

Keir Starmer has challenges, too.

Winning adulation in London and the university towns -or ‘Remainia’- is fine. But Labour already holds much of this territory.

To return to power, and given the SNP’s dominance in Scotland, Starmer also needs to make serious progress in non-London England -where lots of voters are instinctively socially conservative and wary of the new turn toward identity politics.

It is worth remembering that the Labour Party has not won the popular vote in England since 2001. Let me say that again – by the time of the next election Labour will not have won the popular vote in England for more than twenty years.

So, there are also huge challenges for Starmer’s team.

Blair managed to crack this nut by promising to be ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’ -he hoovered up the professional middle-classes while giving the more instinctively socially conservative working-class a message that resonated.

But that was also before the values-ridden debates of today -with debates over migration, Brexit, gender, statues, the legacy of empire and who-knows-what-is-next shooting up the agenda.

Starmer will need to find his own way of navigating our values divide. But find a way he must if he is serious about winning the next election.

So, is Britain’s realignment temporary or permanent? Can Boris Johnson retain his support in the Red Wall? Or can Labour repair their relationship with these low-income, blue-collar and cross-pressured voters? 

Only time will tell.

And for Johnson, especially, the clock is ticking … 


Matthew Goodwin – Twitter – Website – Speaking

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