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The Conservatives didn’t become a workers' party, but may be becoming a party of the middle
Following the 2019 election, some heralded a great realignment in British politics. Contrary to historic trends, increasing volumes of working classes voted for the Conservative Party, reflecting the popularity of Brexit and Boris Johnson. Three years later, the picture is mixed. Whilst the Conservatives have maintained support among working classes – against a background of declining popularity, lower classes (C2, D, E) support the party as keenly as higher classes (A, B, C1) – a great realignment has scarcely transpired. Overall, the Conservatives are performing poorly in polls, working-class voters favouring Labour.
Explanations range from the failure of levelling-up (a regional policy) to the reliance of the party on older, propertied voters, yet there have been fewer attempts to interpret these developments with reference to institutional theory, the approach favoured in this Substack.
Reading the great realignment as an institutional change, problems become apparent. Traditionally, the Conservative Party has won support from capital owners and managers, this coalition complementing the UK’s liberal-majoritarian political economy. Therefore, the development of a working-class support base entails significant change. Institutional theorists regard change as difficult, existing structures providing incentives to maintain the status quo. As per this Substack’s (new!) name, institutions are path dependent.
Yet following Brexit, British politics has entered a period of unusual flux, institutional theorists calling these periods critical junctures, path dependencies being forged during these times. Whilst certain doors have closed – as I explained recently, Britain is out of the EU for a generation – other processes are more fluid, party support bases being an example. But sooner or later, equilibriums tend to emerge; a working-class Conservative Party would represent one such equilibrium.
Nonetheless, the path dependency of the Conservative Party presents hurdles to this. Though the Conservative base has undergone changes – as with right-wing parties in other Western countries, previous decades have seen increasing support from working classes - the Conservative Party retains attachment to the interests of capital. Despite certain successes of levelling-up, inability to raise larger tax revenues has prevented further progress; many Conservative supporters, particularly in the South of England, are very resistant to this, the low-tax champion Liz Truss only failing after market intervention.
Conservative links to finance are relevant, the city lobbying for regulation which favours financial interests. Famously, the Conservatives are strong among homeowners, particularly older ones, making house building more difficult.
Attachment to ideas can be overstated - structural influences drive politics and the Conservative Party has impressive ability to reinvent itself – yet commitment to Thatcherism remains significant. Many MPs, particularly in traditional seats, entered or became interested in politics during the 1980s and, as recently as 2015, the Conservative Party favoured free markets unambiguously.
Given these impediments, the Conservatives seem unlikely to turn into a working-class party. Notwithstanding this, recent developments may have brought us closer to equilibrium. In a study of the US, Galbraith and Choi show that the Democratic Party has become the party of upper and lower ends of the income distribution, uniting liberal professionals and poor minorities, whilst the Republican Party enjoys higher support in the middle of the distribution, particularly among white voters.
Something similar may be happening in Britain, cleavages such as education, minority-status and age also being crucial. Whilst signs of different voting behaviour among low, middle and high income groups remain nascent - in many polls, class does not predict voting intention - there are indications of this. In recent years, the Conservatives have performed strongly among upper working classes (C2s), Labour faring better among higher classes (ABs), particularly younger members, and lower classes (DEs).
Admittedly, instability within British politics scarcely lends itself to equilibriums. In recent years, partisan identification has declined, i.e. fewer voters are loyal to specific parties, entailing unpredictable polling and election results. The emergence of two-dimensional politics adds to this. Many voters have distinct positions on economic and cultural topics, these often being at odds with party positions; therefore, the changing salience of economic and cultural issues creates instability.
Yet an equilibrium may emerge. Parties might adjust to declining identification, the preferences of unaligned groups becoming more predictable. In contexts with lower rates of partisan identification, such as Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, parties have become accustomed to this.
Voter positions on economics and culture might become more aligned with those of parties. In this parliament, the Conservatives have shown signs of becoming comfortable with new supporters. Whilst there is tension in the Conservative support base - upper working-class Conservatives tend to favour taxation of richer groups, pitting them against affluent Conservatives – cooperation is possible. Aside from issues which unite older and property-owning voters, such as resistance to house building (so-called NIMBYism), regional development is less controversial. Wider measures which protect British markets from global competition, such as reduction of immigration, are also popular across the party.
Brexit consolidates many of these themes, creating new complementarities between economic nationalism and cultural conservatism; Conservative voters tend to support the government in disputes with the EU, such as the conflict over the Northern Irish border, and perceive opportunities in post-Brexit deregulation, the Brexit Freedoms Bill aiming at this. As I argued recently, Brexit path dependence is likely to produce groups who are committed to the status quo, these being natural Conservative supporters and, potentially, groups in the middle of the income distribution.
The transformation of the Conservatives into a working-class party may have proved implausible, yet a party of conservative middle-income groups entails less change, making it more realistic. And this is consistent with the mixture of statism, neoliberalism and economic nationalism which has characterized recent Conservative governments. This agenda has scarcely been well received – at the next election, the Conservatives might be soundly defeated – yet it may herald the future, becoming more prominent as the party rebuilds and consolidates its new support base.
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