Tuesday

17th Sep 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit has uprooted Britain's traditional party system

  • Theresa May’s party is consistently polling over 45 percent. (Photo: Prime minister's office)

A portion of British voters said they feel they have more in common with people who voted the same way in the EU referendum, even if they had supported a different political party in the 2015 elections.

In other words, Brexit has uprooted traditional party allegiances.

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At first glance, this makes the Liberal Democrats’ pitch as the "Remain" party more understandable.

The trouble with the British, however, is that we tend to be an accepting people when it comes to referendums.

While the Liberal Democrats have very slightly increased their support since the 2015 election, the party has not enjoyed the recovery that many expected. It actually lost seats to the Conservatives at the local elections at the start of May, and is currently polling at around 10 percent.

The fundamental problem of appealing solely to "the 48%" who voted to stay in the EU, is that "the 48%" don’t exist.

Pollsters YouGov say that the UK is split into three groups in terms of attitudes to EU membership: The Hard Leavers, who account for 45 percent of voters; the Hard Remainers who still want to try to stop Brexit through parliament or a second referendum.

The size of Theresa May’s poll lead can be attributed, in part, to the rise of the third group – the so-called "re-leavers," who voted to Remain in the EU, but think that the government has a duty to leave, in order to carry out the will of the British people.

At "Brexit and the political crash," a public meeting held in London last Saturday (13 May), Toby Young, a journalist turned professional Tory Brexiteer, advised determined Remainers to "wait 10 or 15 years till things have gone completely pear-shaped, and then argue for another referendum."

For the typically pragmatic British, this is realistic.

'Mayism'

The role of the Re-Leavers means that Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats are trying to woo just 22% – the Hard Remainer section of the electorate – where it is competing for support with Labour and Greens in England and Wales, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) north of the border.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are fishing in a massive lake of potential votes.

It’s hardly a surprise that prime minister Theresa May’s party is consistently polling over 45 percent.

So, perhaps, it was logical that the Conservatives launched their manifesto in the West Yorkshire town of Halifax on Thursday (18 May), a Labour-held seat that appears certain to fall to May’s Conservatives in three weeks.

On economic and social policy, May has tacked to the left, promising a rise in the minimum wage and protection for workers on short-term contracts.

Although the prime minister insisted that "Mayism" does not exist, her party is, in terms of rhetoric at least, far more centrist than the party of Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron.

“We do not believe in untrammelled free markets,” her manifesto states, adding with a quasi-biblical flourish that: “We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality. We see rigid dogma and ideology not just as needless but dangerous.”

On the right, with May stealing the UK Independence Party's (UKIP's) clothes on Brexit, there is little reason for the party to exist.

Paul Nuttall, the latest UKIP leader trying to prove that the party is more than Nigel Farage’s tribute band, argues that UKIP is needed to keep May’s government "honest" on Brexit. As a pitch for votes, this is extremely feeble.

For many in the north of England and Wales, voting Conservative still carries a certain social stigma.

The Tories would never have let Cameron or Boris Johnson, both sons of privilege, loose in Halifax, a former mill town. May, the daughter of a vicar, is a far more convincing advocate of a classless Britain.

Political realignment

The seeds for a political realignment were probably sown years ago when the Labour party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown became dominated by political professionals.

Post-referendum, the differences in culture and expectation between university-educated, metropolitan, Labour Remainers, and the party’s traditional base of supporters in the industrial heartlands has never been starker, principally over attitudes to immigration.

A realignment may take longer than the eleven and a half months between the EU referendum last June and next month’s general election.

Even so, British politics is edging closer to a radical reshaping, particularly in terms of the factors that determine how people vote.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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