Issue LXXXIII: Brexit as Identity Politics

19 Dec

Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a smashing victory in this month’s British election. The Conservatives won their largest victory since 1987 while the British Labour Party had their worst loss since the Great Depression.

The British press and the BBC blame socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party for this horrendous loss. It is a fair point, but the world’s oldest and most successful party has an above average batting average anyway; only three Labour politicians have won an election since 1945: Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair. If an Englishman went to a voting booth blindfolded and without any recent news, he would vote Conservative no matter who ran Labour.

Meanwhile, Tony Blair never had to deal with the death of the Labour stronghold in Scotland. Due to the strength of unionized manufacturing and mining, the vast majority of Scottish MPs elected were Labour, and the last (unelected) Labour Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was Scottish. Now the Scottish National Party, which support independence from Great Britain, wins overwhelmingly. The Scottish National Party’s social democratic vision of an independent Scotland has won over the towns that used to vote Labour. Imagine if Nancy Pelosi had to win Congress without New York because it was electing a third party to Congress? Not very easy.

The Conservatives would never win Scotland so the gains of the Scottish Nationalists never cost them much. England was were they would make their bed. And England will be the focus of this report.

Brexit as Identity Politics

Visiting England for the first time in 9 years, it struck me how on edge London was in March. Brexit seemed to produce a form of identity crisis and paranoia in Londoners. There are racists in the countryside I was warned and attacks on immigrants and the brown-skinned. Progressive Londoners seemed to being having identity crisis. The way people talked about issues had Americanized significantly (for better or worse) with social issues having far more importance than they did in 2010.

Now explaining all the intricacies of the United Kingdom and the European Union would take a full semester course, and I do not aim to explain how the anti-democratic European Commission works. Remainers and Leavers have both good and bad reasons for leaving the EU. Some reasons are social and some are economic. Historically the Labour Left opposed the European Union for being pro-capitalist and anti-democratic while the far right has opposed it for its regulations, freedom of movement for all EU citizens between nations, and its international court. The center-right and center-left of the two major parties have supported it wholeheartedly.

Regardless of the real reasons one can debate Brexit, it ultimately became an American-style social issue or “identity politics” issue like abortion or gun control. Being a Remainer meant you were cosmopolitan, tolerant, and happy with the last 30 years of the British economy. Being a leaver meant you were racist, against immigrants, stuck in the past, and upset with how deindustrialization ruined entire regions of the United Kingdom.

This is novel in the UK. The ramifications of social issues are lost on Americans as it has been so part of American politics we cannot see how much it can affect the electorate.

Decline of the center-left

Internationally center-left parties have two main constituencies since the late twentieth century: historic working class areas (urban or rural) and a growing white collar professional base. Squaring these two has become difficult every election with the former group shrinking in wealth and numbers and the latter growing in wealth and numbers. In the case of the Democratic Party, the leadership has consciously shifted their focus to the suburbs since the 1968 convention as explained in the book Listen Liberal by Thomas Frank. The disaffected workers began to shift to the right or stop voting all together since the neoliberal era began in 1980.

Americans, never historically-minded to begin with, now think it is normal for affluent Overland Park, Kansas and Troy, Michigan to have Democratic congresswomen while postindustrial Dayton, Ohio turns red. The ten richest congressional districts are all Democratic now. In hindsight, the Barack Obama 2008 coalition of minorities and affluent professionals has become even more polarized in the Pelosi 2018 coalition as more medium-sized cities turn red and historically union Democratic areas like the Iron Range of Michigan and Minnesota become Republican.

Britain moves more slowly. Right now the politics are catching up with the 1994-2000 era of America. Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party freedom caucus are similar to MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and the ERG faction of the Conservative Party. The loss of the historic mining towns of northern England is similar to when Al Gore lost West Virginia for the first time since 1984. Ex-miner Dennis Skinner, the longest-serving Labour MP, lost his seat to the Conservatives despite supporting Brexit. He was an old school left-wing unionist that opposed the EU for decades. Tony Blair’s old seat went to the Tories as well. Labour only represents London and other major cities.

Polarizing to the Right

This is not good for left-wingers who hoped for Corbyn to lead the Labour Party back to its roots. His base straddled between the anti-Brexit professionals and the pro-Brexit postindustrial areas. To please the cosmopolitans, he pledged a second Brexit referendum. This irritated the workers in the North who voted no and cannot believe the process since still on going more than three years after they voted leave. In 2017, he did much better when he promised a pro-worker Brexit (Lexit or left Brexit) and no referendum.

But the news is not any better for the neoliberal centrists in the style of Tony Blair as the ultra-Remainers, the Liberal Democratic Party, flopped with less than 2% of seats. Conservatives should cheer however. In political geography, they get to keep their elite urban enclaves in suburbs who would never vote Labour but expand into the forgotten and neglected areas of Britain devastated by free trade and deindustrialization. Doesn’t that sound like the Trump playbook in the industrial Midwest? Bridging the gap between workers in the cities and the small towns will be the only way for Labour to ever win, with or without Jeremy Corbyn.

What works in the Midwest works in the Midlands…. to Boris Johnson’s delight.

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