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16 May 2024

Do Tory defections to Labour herald a realignment?

The liberal centre-right is not yet shifting as a bloc to Keir Starmer’s party.

By David Gauke

Conservatives are switching to Labour. Evidently, a significant proportion of Tory voters are switching to Labour (as every opinion poll tells us) but also Tory politicians.

The defection of an MP from one main party to another is rare. There have only been eight since a young Winston Churchill moved from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904 but three in this parliament alone (Christian Wakeford, Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke). It is not just current MPs. Some commentators were struck by the sight of Nick Boles, an influential minister under David Cameron, introducing Rachel Reeves before her speech on the economy last week. Other former ministers – such as Claire Perry O’Neill and Anna Soubry – have said that they will vote Labour at the next election.

All of this is helpful to Keir Starmer and the Labour Party. It sends a signal to the public that even staunch Tories think that Labour has changed, while also demoralising the remaining Conservatives. Some might argue that it signals a wider realignment of politics with moderates abandoning the Tories and finding a comfortable home in a changed Labour Party.

Before jumping to that conclusion, it is worth looking at some of the individual cases. Boles, for example, has long been on a political journey. He resigned the Conservative whip in 2018 over Brexit and concluded that he had more in common with Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper than the members of the European Research Group. Even before he left parliament in 2019 he considered himself to be centre left not centre right in outlook. This was no careerist move (the centre-left was not looking in the best of health at that point) but a genuine conversion.

Soubry similarly left the party in 2018 over Brexit, although her position was different to Boles (she campaigned for a second referendum and helped form Change UK, Boles favoured joining the European Economic Area and went independent). She was always on the left of the party and loathed the populist direction the Conservatives took under Boris Johnson. Once Labour returned to sanity, it was not a huge surprise that she declared her support for the party.

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The same cannot be said for the hard Brexit-supporting, Johnson-loyalist Elphicke. I will not pretend to know quite what motivated her to switch parties. In this case, the more interesting question is why Labour agreed to it. It is a decision that has certainly caused some upset in Labour ranks, partly because of Elphicke’s right-wing views and partly because of her behaviour in respect of her disgraced ex-husband. Losing another MP is certainly an embarrassment for the Tories, but it also plays into the perception that Starmer lacks principles.

Elphicke did offer something specific that was useful to Labour. It is possible that by the autumn there will be flights to Rwanda containing asylum seekers who have crossed the Channel and been picked up on the Kent coast. If so, the Tories will seek to exploit this as a dividing line and argue that Labour is soft on small boats. Having the anti-immigration Dover MP on side might just help neutralise the issue.

The point here is that Labour’s strategy is to win over the support of a particular type of voter – a Leave-voting, working-class man who preferred Johnson to Jeremy Corbyn. As Tom McTague has argued elsewhere, the strategy of Starmer’s right-hand man, Morgan McSweeney, is to reassemble a broad coalition of the working classes by reversing the Brexit realignment. This could be contrasted with the thinking attributed to Tony Blair of wanting to move Labour beyond the politics of class and build a centrist coalition based on those open to the modern world.

The Blair option has much more potential to attract moderate Conservatives but it is hard to criticise the political strategy of a party currently 20 points ahead in the polls. Labour is making advances among Leavers; dealignment appears to be under way.

Not so fast, says Professor Jane Green of Nuffield College, Oxford. (She does not say precisely that because that is not the sort of thing that the co-director of the British Election Study says in an academic study.) She acknowledges that plenty of Leave-voting 2019 Conservatives have switched to Labour but that is because a lot of 2019 Conservatives were Leave voters. If one looks at the percentage of the Tory and Labour vote that is made up of Leavers and Remainers, this has stayed pretty consistent over the last five years. It is not that the party tribes and their Brexit affiliations have changed; it is that the tide has risen for Labour and fallen for the Conservatives.

Returning to the issue of defections, it is no great surprise that there is a movement to Labour from current and former Conservative MPs. Some are on a political journey; some will be opportunists; some may not support Labour enthusiastically but – in the spirit of George HW Bush’s famous letter to Bill Clinton – conclude that when it comes to a new government its “success is now our country’s success” and “root” for it accordingly.

But what is not happening is a more fundamental realignment of our politics involving the liberal centre-right shifting as a bloc to Labour. For that to happen, Labour would have to lean into the political realignment rather than seeking to reverse it, and there is little sign of that. At least, not yet.

[See also: HMRC’s hold music has become our unofficial national anthem]

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