Boris Johnson’s Victory and the Fate of Populism in the West

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By William Yanek

The future of left and right wing politics in the West is closely tied to the future of populism. This future will be determined by voters’ final verdict on immigration and globalization. On December 12th, the West edged closer to that verdict with Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party winning a landslide victory, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the United Kingdom since Margaret Thatcher’s win in 1987.

Carrying 43.6% of the vote to Labour’s 32.2%, the Conservative Party achieved victory by flipping several districts of the infamous “red wall” in northern England, which are working class districts that had voted Labour for generations. 

The fall of the “red wall” represents a broader political realignment happening not just in Britain but throughout the West. In the U.K., voter preferences are being reshaped along Brexit lines. According to political scientists Matthew Goodwin and Eric Kaufmann, from 2010 to the 2019 elections, Brexit supporting districts moved further toward right wing parties, such as the Conservatives and UKIP, while those supporting the Remain campaign further aligned themselves with parties on the left like Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens. A survey conducted by YouGov showed that Conservatives captured 74% of the Leave vote compared to the 65% they captured in 2017. This consolidation of the Leave vote led the Conservatives to victory and may help to explain the crack in the “red wall”, as Brexit supporters comprised both Conservatives and a significant number of Labour voters in the north.

This reshaping of voter preferences along Brexit lines is changing the makeup of the Conservative and Labour bases. According to The New York Times, racial minorities aligned more with parties on the left in 2019 than before. In regards to education levels, the YouGov survey showed that the Conservatives improved in polling amongst those without degrees, winning 58% of the vote as opposed to Labour’s 25%. Looking at the final electoral map, it is evident that the divide between urban and rural voting preferences is becoming more stark. Labour support is being squeezed into dense cosmopolitan cities while Conservative support is spreading in working class areas and vast swaths of the English countryside.

The left and right each have their own theories as to why the 2019 general election ended the way it did. Labour supporters, like Owen Benjamin at The Guardian, suggest Corbyn’s unpopularity, the British public’s weariness of Brexit, and talk of a second referendum did Labour in. On the right, many conservatives, like Bret Stephens at The New York Times, suggest that it is the ‘socialist’ economic policies of Corbyn that doomed the party. Both views are plausible, but they don’t show the complete picture of the realignment happening in Britain and the West.

It is true that the British public was certainly weary of Brexit. It had consumed almost every aspect of political life for three years and had further polarized political discourse. Johnson’s slogan “Get Brexit Done” appealed to this sentiment of wanting to move on from the issue. Labour’s radical economic policy prescriptions may not have been palatable to the general public, and combined with Corbyn’s personal unpopularity these policies may have contributed to Labour’s inability to consolidate left-leaning voters. Labour won only 70% of the left leaning vote in 2019 (with the other 30% going to the Liberal Democrats and others) compared to the 93% share of the right wing vote the Conservatives garnered, according to The New York Times.

However, the profound and historic demographic shifts being seen in Britain, specifically in former Labour strongholds in the north, cannot be completely explained by weariness of Brexit, wariness of socialist economic programs, or Corbyn’s personal unpopularity. The mass of voters who swung this election in the north were cultural conservatives who voted for the Leave campaign. They were not just tired of the Brexit debate, but of politicians failing to execute the Brexit they voted for in 2016. At the same time, these were not economically conservative voters, but working class people who had voted according to left-leaning economic interests for decades. These voters betrayed their traditional economic and class interests in 2019 because they believed the Conservative Party could better address the two issues that mattered most to them, two issues which are at Brexit’s core: immigration and globalization.

The angst of the working class over immigration and globalization is what’s driving the political realignment across the Western World. The working class people who are driving this realignment no longer recognize the countries they live in: deindustrialization, lack of employment, and swift demographic and cultural change surround them as their old conceptions of employment, family, community, and national identity crumble before their eyes. It’s no wonder that these same working classes don’t care so much anymore about which party will add a few extra cents to their hourly wage. 

More than anything, Boris Johnson’s victory suggests that the populist revolts of 2016 were not just a fluke. The concern about mass immigration and globalization which motivated these revolts are reshaping the left and the right, and will for years to come.

So what does this mean for the future of the left and right, respectively?

For the left, in order to be electorally viable, they will have to alter the Corbyn formula. In the United States, according to research from the Voter Study Group, the “average American voter is left on economics and right on culture”. The same is generally true about average voters in other Western countries, noting that European voters are further left than Americans on both economics and culture. Left-leaning economic ideas are popular, particularly with the working class, but these alone do not secure the left an electoral coalition. Working class voters, as seen by the 2019 general election results, are willing to sacrifice their economic interests for the sake of nationalist policies. To recapture the working class, the left needs to change how they address cultural issues that voters are prioritizing, issues of immigration and national identity.

To make this shift, the left must find a way to reconcile the two main factions of their coalition; the pro-globalization educated elite on one end and young anti-corporation leftists on the other. In America, it is the difference between the Clintons and Bernie Sanders. In Britain, it is the difference between the likes of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who championed moderate economics, mass immigration, the interventionism of the Iraq War, and the project of liberal internationalism generally and Jeremy Corbyn, a socialist who supports tax hikes and nationalization and a man who has been skeptical of the EU and foreign wars like Iraq in the past. 

 The left’s choice between economically moderate pro-immigration internationalism and socialism will determine their future. It is possible to build a coalition with moderate economic ideas and leftist social policy as Obama did. It is also possible to build a coalition with leftist economic programs and conservative social policy, which would appeal to the working class. But it is not yet possible in modern Western democracies to build a coalition with both radically left wing economic and social policy and have success, as Corbyn’s Labour Party demonstrated on December 12th.

On the right, it seems conservatives have found an electoral strategy that works. Johnson’s Conservative Party assembled a coalition of working class voters and traditionally free-market-supporting EU skeptics to win easily in December. The right is becoming increasingly defined by the new members of their coalition, the working class who they have successfully wooed. This is transforming the right from a neoconservative, libertarian movement to a populist one, one that appeals to the average economically liberal, socially conservative voter. On cultural issues, the Conservative Party of Britain is coming closer to becoming the Brexit Party as it consolidates the Leave vote and takes a more skeptical view of mass immigration. On economic issues, the populist evolution of the right in the West is even more apparent, as populist figureheads Trump and Johnson embrace increases in public spending. In the U.S., the federal budget deficit cleared $1 trillion for the 2020 fiscal year. In the U.K., Johnson has promised massive increases in investment in public services like the NHS, their healthcare service. The neoconservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has been eclipsed by the right wing populism of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, and it appears that this kind of populism has gained electoral credibility and is here to stay.

Will both sides of the political spectrum succumb to populism and compete to gain the confidence of the beleaguered working class? Will the left reject socialism and do battle against the populist right with the same elite internationalism of years past? Or, after the reign of Johnson and Trump, will establishment liberalism and neoconservatism rise again to their high perch as populism recedes? There’s a simple answer to these questions: as long as the painful symptoms of immigration and globalization remain, today’s political realignment will not stop. The warning sirens of populism will continue to resonate and Boris Johnson’s triumph will only be the beginning of what’s to come.

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