Older ‘left-behind’ voters turned against a political class with values opposed to theirs
Once more, with feeling. The Ukip-led voter uprising that tore up the political map in and has now changed the face of British politics for ever. on Britain’s membership of the European Union to see off the Ukip revolt. Instead, after a vote that drew the largest turnout in a nationwide poll for 20 years, it is the rebels who have seen off the prime minister, gone within hours of the result’s announcement.
The Ukip rebels, dismissed only a few years ago as a fringe nuisance, have delivered perhaps the largest shock to European politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The vote highlighted Britain’s deepening political faultlines. It also accelerated the growing While England voted firmly to leave the EU, every single Scottish local authority voted to remain. The SNP now has an electorally watertight case when it says the English are forcing Scotland out of the EU against its will. Time will tell how, and when, the SNP chooses to use this argument to revisit the question of Scottish independence.
The divide between London and Belfast is an even bigger cause for concern – , too, opposed the change that is coming, a change that could see the reimposition of borders with the south and could put the fundamental constitutional questions that divide the Protestant and Catholic communities back on the agenda. The divides between England (and Wales, which voted similarly) and the other home nations will have significant consequences, but they are already built into the political system. Scottish nationalism is already represented by the dominant SNP, while Northern Irish politics has long been oriented around the unionist-nationalist divide. It is the deep faultlines the Brexit vote revealed within England that may prove most immediately consequential, as they have the potential to reshape the traditional battlelines of English politics.
Many of these faultlines have been clear for several years now. The surge in Ukip support recorded in both the 2014 European parliament election and 2015 general election was concentrated among voters whom labelled the “left-behind”: older, white, socially conservative voters in more economically marginal neighbourhoods. Such voters had turned against a political class they saw as dominated by socially liberal university graduates with values fundamentally opposed to theirs, on identity, Europe – and particularly immigration.
The that began in 2004 was something the “left-behind” electorate never wanted, never voted for and never really accepted. The economic case for EU migration was clear to the liberal mainstream elites from across the political spectrum, who thought that should settle the matter. Politicians from both Labour and the Conservatives never made a case for free movement, and seemed to believe they could assuage popular anger by restrictions that were manifestly impossible, given EU treaty rules. The left-behind voters weren’t fooled – they soon recognised that controlling immigration would be impossible without leaving the EU, and they have now voted accordingly.
While immigration was the lightning rod, the divides the vote has revealed run deeper and broader than a single issue. They reflect deep-seated differences in outlook and values, hopes and prospects, between graduates and school leavers, globalised cosmopolitans and localised nationalists, the old and the young, London and the provinces.
These divides have been building for decades, but were long latent because, before the emergence of Ukip, they lacked a political voice. Now the between the globalised middle class and the anxious majority is clear for all to see. The patterns of Brexit voting last week map almost perfectly on to the pattern of Ukip voting seen in the 2014 European parliament. The only difference was the numbers: on Thursday, the y. Those who have dictated the terms of politics to the “left-behind” for a generation suddenly found the tables had turned. The result was a massive shock to the citizens of London, Manchester and other cosmopolitan cities, who discovered that much of provincial England utterly rejects their Europhile worldview. It leaves both the Tories and Labour facing stark challenges. The divides in identity, values and outlook it reveals cut straight across class, income and geography.
The Conservative heartlands – places where the party racked up towering majorities just a year ago – firmly rejected the entreaties of a Tory prime minister and voted 55% to 45% to leave the EU. heartlands outside of London rejected the EU even more emphatically – 56% to 44%. Socially liberal and Europhile MPs from both parties must face electorates whose views are profoundly out of step with their own. Such voters have just been given a dramatic demonstration of their political power. The obvious next place to employ it is in a Westminster vote.
The consequences could be shattering for the and Labour alike. The Tories have already lost the leader who for a decade steered them in a centrist, socially liberal direction. Yet his most likely replacement is another elite, middle-class, globalised, socially liberal Etonian Conservative. Boris Johnson has a populist flair which David Cameron lacked, but his madcap appeal seems likely to curdle fast with left-behind voters if he is unable to deliver on the huge promises he has made to them.
That failure seems almost assured. Immigration restrictions cannot be imposed until Britain leaves the EU, which will likely take two years at least. In the short run, EU migration may instead rise, as Romanians and Poles look to get in before the door is slammed shut. The promised will vanish like spring snow in the sun if the government’s borrowing costs rise, or the economy slows sharply. Voters promised they will “take control” will find that, as before, the things they dislike continue and the things they want do not arrive. Their affection for another child of privilege in 10 Downing Street will not last long.
Labour’s problems may run deeper. They are led by a leader who is an open and professed enthusiast for mass migration and who sits in a in the country. It is hard to see how such a leader can credibly hope to represent the voters in the hundred or more Labour seats where the vote for Leave ran at 60% or more. This much has been obvious to many of the MPs representing those seats for a long time. But it is not yet clear whether it is a message that Labour’s membership – who are among the most socially liberal, cosmopolitan groups in all of England – will be willing to accept.
Labour has a membership and a leadership who reject the values and concerns of their traditional voters. They now have a traditional voter base which has risen up en masse to reject the values and concerns of the leadership. Something has to give.
Thursday night belonged, A movement which less than five years ago was dismissed as an irritant and an irrelevance has precipitated the largest political shock Britain has seen in modern history. Nigel Farage has failed in seven attempts to get elected to Westminster, yet he has delivered a more profound and lasting change to British politics than most prime ministers manage.
Whatever happens next, Ukip has changed British politics for good. Where do Farage and Ukip go next? It is hard to know. Some will be tempted to see Brexit as mission accomplished, and may even seek to realign themselves with a Conservative party which will preside over Britain’s Euro-departure. But I suspect most in Ukip, including Farage himself, will want to press on.
The Europe vote exposed the new faultlines in British politics, but it did not create them, and did not resolve them. Brexit may be just the beginning.
Dr Robert Ford is professor of politics University of Manchester. He is co-author, with Matthew Goodwin, of Revolt on the Right: Explaining Public Support for the Radical Right in Britain. @robfordmancs