The nature of how the public thinks about politics has changed, the existing political parties have struggled to come to terms with those changes and, partly as a consequence, politics is not working as it should.
Those are three conclusions that can be reached from polling research that has been published in advance of tomorrow’s Future of Britain conference. The conference is a joint event organised by the Tony Blair Institute and the Britain Project (in the interests of transparency, I am on the advisory board of the latter) which aims to set out a more constructive way in which we can operate, resisting the populism of both the far-left and the English nationalist right.
In understanding how our politics have changed, I have already done something unhelpful. The terms “left” and “right” have been with us since the French Revolution and provide a useful shorthand when politics has generally been about economic security. But as an analytical tool, the left/right spectrum is limited in explaining politics at a time when cultural values count for more. People’s political identities are now two dimensional and the language we use to describe politics needs to reflect that. Let me introduce you to the political clock face.
The pollster Andrew Cooper and his team at Yonder have assessed the electorate on the basis of two attributes – economic security (wealth and income) and diversity (taking into account ethnic diversity and population density). Individual parliamentary constituencies can then be mapped onto a clock face that reflects their particular attributes.
A constituency that has an average diversity score and an above average economic security score would be placed at 12 o’clock but with a below average economic security score would be at 6 o’clock. A constituency with an average economic security score and an above average rating for diversity would be at 9 o’clock, below average at 3 o’clock.
To make this a little less abstract, let us go for a tour. Constituencies between 12 and 1 o’clock will be prosperous and suburban – we are most likely to be in plusher parts of commuter belts. As we move round the clock face, the constituencies will become a little less prosperous and a little more rural, starting with pleasant market towns. By the time we have got to 3 o’clock, we are very much in the working countryside, by 5 o’clock we are back in towns but poorer ones. By 7 o’clock, we are in a city where we will stay for a while, albeit moving to more prosperous environs as the clock ticks on, perhaps with an excursion to a smart university town at 11 o’clock before returning to where we started.
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Once you start to look at constituencies in this way, you can see how our politics has changed. Back in 1992, the Conservatives won lots of London seats that would have been placed at 11 o’clock but Labour held onto 4 o’clock towns. By 2019, the Tories – even in a very good year – had largely retreated from seats in the 11-12 o’clock range but had advanced to 4 or even 5 o’clock into, to mix my metaphors, the Red Wall. By 2022, Conservative MPs representing constituencies between 12 and 1 o’clock (the Blue Wall, to continue the metaphor mixing) are increasingly nervous.
This tilting of the axis has been accelerated by Brexit but has been detectable for some time. Nor are they unique to the UK. The US is further along this process than we are but we can see the same phenomenon in most developed democracies.
A political realignment is happening but the difficulty is that our political parties – forged in an era of the politics of economic class – do not know how to respond to it. The Conservatives remain attached to economic policies designed to appeal to 1 o’clock voters but want to wage a culture war designed for 4 o’clock voters. Labour is focusing on the very same 4 o’clock voters (hence its caution on Brexit) and does not have the confidence to advance towards the prosperous moderates between 11 and 1 o’clock.
For those who want to see populism defeated, either the Conservative move around the clock face towards 3 o’clock has to be reversed or (more likely) the 1 o’clock voters have to be persuaded to vote elsewhere. There is an opportunity here for the Liberal Democrats if they can convincingly make that pitch.
The shift in the political axis has transformed the nature of our political debate, leaving some voters politically homeless whilst making others more influential than ever. It has made our big political parties less coherent and authentic as they contort themselves in an attempt to assemble a dispirit coalition of support. The insincerity damages trust, the incoherence damages competence.
As further polling commissioned by the Britain Project shows, the experience has not left the British public satisfied. Large majorities say that Britain is in a period of decline (69 per cent), that our political system is broken and the main parties do not know how to fix it (76 per cent), and that the country has no clear plan about where it is headed (75 per cent). The changing nature of our politics – as illustrated by the clock face – and two-party politics as it is currently working is an unhappy fit.
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