Election Divides Kingdom as Parties Consolidate Their Base

Both the Conservative and Labour coalitions have become more homogenous, which makes it harder to govern Britain.

The British flag flies over the Houses of Parliament in London, England
The British flag flies over the Houses of Parliament in London, England (Unsplash/Matt Milton)

There is still a lot to digest from last week’s British election. The promised Conservative landslide never materialized. Labour gained seats, including in affluent constituencies like Kensington that it won for the first time, but it also fell short of a majority. Theresa May remains in power but has been weakened. She must rely on the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland for a majority, which threatens to upset the delicate balance of power in Ulster.

We can nevertheless say two things with certainty:

  1. The trends spotted in last year’s Brexit vote are accelerating.
  2. The new poles in British politics are consolidating and that leaves the center wide open.

New coalitions

The vote to leave the European Union revealed that traditional cleavages of income and class were giving way to a cultural divide.

For many years the Conservatives were the party of well-off shire counties and affluent urban areas. Labour represented postindustrial towns and poor neighborhoods in the major cities.

That has been turned upside down.

The Conservatives, standing for traditional British values and something of a “Little Englander” outlook, managed to unite former Labour heartlands with their rural base.

Labour seized control of affluent urban and suburban neighborhoods and united them with their inner-city bastions.

Multiculturalism, a dislike of Brexit and a desire for a more compassionate politics has given Labour a new coalition consisting of ethnic and religious minorities, mostly white middle-class students and wealthy urbanites.

The Conservative voting bloc now consists of older, rural folk and working-class voters who value patriotism and view immigration with hostility.

Polarized

As a result of this shift, each major party now has a more homogenous base than before.

Rural England has become more conservative. Urban England has become more liberal.

Previous party leaders like Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair were able to bridge this divide. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have widened it.

That makes it harder to govern.

The last three elections have produce two hung parliaments and one small Conservative majority. This state, in which neither party or coalition of parties can win a convincing mandate, is bound to continue unless somebody can prevent Britain from splitting into two.