Boris Johnson and Blue-Collar Conservatism
Uttering the name Boris Johnson alongside the epithet blue-collar would have been incongruous, to say the least until just a few months ago. As mayor of London 2008-16, Johnson positioned himself as a liberal Conservative who advocated an amnesty for illegal immigrants, touted his green credentials and attacked Trump after his controversial comments in 2015 about the Islamification of London. The Prime Minister, who attended Eton College before going on to study at Balliol College, Oxford, had earlier gained notoriety for insensitive and snobbish comments about the residents of Liverpool in 2004 that necessitated a public apology. Johnson’s slightly German appearance, without doubt, has its origins in his Bavarian ancestors of the von Pfeffel family some of whose members were ennobled in the nineteenth century. On the face of it, then, the former editor of the Spectator magazine would seem an improbable champion of Leave-voting Labour supporters outside the metropolitan bubble.
The shift from the largely class-based politics of the twentieth century to a world marked by the new fault lines of patriotism vs. globalism and traditionalism vs. cosmopolitanism is, however, creating some strange bedfellows as doors open to politicians who can make this realignment work to their advantage. In December 2019 Johnson, following in the tracks of Donald Trump and others, proved particularly adept at superseding the old divisions of his country. A glance at the electoral map before and after 12 December makes this abundantly clear. What had become known as Labour’s red wall crumbled as Leave-voting seat after Leave-voting seat in the North, the Midlands and Wales fell to the Conservative Party. The constituency of Wrexham in North East Wales, purely by way of example, had never delivered a Conservative member of parliament since the advent of universal suffrage in 1928, having been Liberal, Labour, Social Democrat and Labour. All in all the Conservatives gained 57 seats from Labour across the country.
Labour’s electoral base
In Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, political parties inevitably represent coalitions of views and sections of the electorate. To understand the outcome of the general election of 12 December 2019 it is necessary to understand the coalition that had been the Labour party before that date. At the risk of oversimplification: in the one corner stood the socially conservative patriotic white working class that are left-wing to the extent they support Britain’s free at point of delivery national health service, the welfare state, workers’ rights and, with varying degrees of intensity, the trade union movement; in the opposite corner stood middle-class progressives in the metropolitan areas, woke graduates, champagne socialists, ethnic minorities and Muslims. Ultimately, the gulf between the two different parts of the coalition proved impossible to bridge, especially given the large metropolitan middle-class leadership of the Labour Party.
Snobbery and the metropolitan elite
The widening cultural gap between Labour’s metropolitan leadership and its base was nicely exemplified by an episode that occurred during the Rochester by-election of 2014. As Labour MP Emily Thornberry was campaigning on an estate in the Kent town she noticed a house draped in English flags with a white van parked outside. The MP for Islington South in London tweeted an image of the scene. Accused of snobbery and condescension she resigned from the Labour Shadow Cabinet later in the day. During the 2019 election, Thornberry was again at the centre of controversy when she allegedly called Leave voters in a pro-Brexit colleague’s constituency “stupid”. Thornberry denied the allegations and brought legal action against the Labour MP who made them. These episodes had echoes of the notorious incident in the 2010 election campaign when the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, called a Labour-supporting pensioner, who challenged him on the street about immigration in her home town of Rochdale, a “bigoted woman”. Brown was subsequently forced into a grovelling apology.
Somewheres and anywheres
Using the terminology of the British political scientist David Goodhart, the divisions within the Labour electoral base reflects the division of British society into the two camps of “Anywheres” and “Somewheres”. By “Anywheres” Goodhart means those individuals who are well-educated and value openness, fluidity and personal autonomy. They are mobile and have, or at least purport to have a cosmopolitan mindset. “Somewheres” on the other hand value rootedness, a sense of locality, familiarity, security and patriotism. Anywheres, according to Goodhart, are generally graduates and affluent people who make up around just a quarter of the population but this value block has in recent decades dominated political discourse through cultural hegemony in the education system, the civil service, the media and the arts. The two worlds collided in the Brexit debate.
One Nation Tory-ism
The chaos of the 2017-19 Remain dominated Parliament, the Labour Party’s shift towards support for a second referendum and the threat of the Brexit Party produced a seismic shift in the December 2019 election. Indeed, the election itself was in some ways reminiscent of the 2016 Leave Campaign as the Conservatives focused relentlessly on Brexit and funding for the National Health Service. For the moment at least Boris Johnson seems to have brought about a new settlement in British politics, bringing together an electoral coalition between the working class of Labour’s old industrial heartland and the Tory voting shires. Further, Johnson’s “One Nation” rhetoric alludes to the Disraelian conservatism of the 1860s and 1870s that sought to unite the country around social reform, patriotism and opposition to soulless utilitarianism.
The outlines of Johnson’s One Nation Toryism or what his detractors label as populist nationalism, then, are taking shape: Brexit, greater funding for the NHS, a substantial increase to the minimum wage, increased public spending in the north, a clampdown on foreign criminals, an extension of police stop and search powers and symbolic acts such as reducing the UK presence at globalist glamour events like the Davos World Economic Forum. Such measures may not please some on the corporatist-globalist wing of the Conservative Party but the prospect of a very long period in government thanks to the new dispensation may assuage their concerns.