National Post (Latest Edition)
U.K. byelection holds lessons for Canada’s Conservatives.
Something important happened in England recently. Alongside local elections, there was a byelection in the constituency of Hartlepool on England’s northeast coast. Hartlepool has sent a Labour MP to Westminster for the last half century, but on May 6, Conservative Jill Mortimer was elected by a significant majority. The Hartlepool result matters not just because incumbent governments are so rarely rewarded at the ballot box during byelections, but because of what it says about broader political trends in the United Kingdom.
Canadian Conservatives would be foolish to ignore what has now become a substantive and sustained realignment of the U.K. Conservatives’ voter coalition. In fact, the byelection result, and the results of local elections happening at the same time, represent further confirmation of an increasingly proven theory: the success of the “Leave” side in the Brexit referendum campaign five years ago was not a historic aberration.
The Leave campaign stitched together an entirely new coalition of voters that the Conservatives under Prime Minister Boris Johnson have since persuaded to back them en masse. Many former Labour-party voters, often working class and from northern England, have switched allegiances, and it seems to be sticking post-brexit.
The dominant international and U.K. media narrative, and therefore the one consumed by many Canadians, about the events in the United Kingdom over the last five years goes something like this: there had long been a small group of illiberal Englishmen who distrusted the European Union and wanted to leave it. These men stoked public interest, pressured then-prime minister David Cameron to put the matter to a vote and, through a combination of unsavoury campaign tactics and more than a hint of racism, convinced a few too many dim-witted British people to vote to leave the EU.
Cameron resigned after his referendum loss, and new prime minister Theresa May struggled to follow through on the referendum result because the country deeply regretted its error. The Conservative party’s decision to remove May and replace her with Johnson would make no difference because, so the narrative went, he too would, and initially did, struggle to make a break from the EU. But this narrative has almost completely fallen apart.
Despite the predictions of the U.K., Canadian and international commentariat, Johnson romped to a general election victory in December 2019 by committing to seal the deal and “get Brexit done.” He then successfully negotiated to leave the EU. Johnson and his party continue to dominate in public opinion polls, as he executes his campaign commitments and delivers on a world-leading vaccine roll out.
Ultimately, the narrative fell apart because it was always wrong. From the very beginning, pressure mounted on Cameron to hold the Brexit referendum not because of some small-minded nationalists, but because British people demanded it via the ballot box: the Eurosceptic U.K. Independence party was surging in every European, local and national election.
While many of the prominent faces of the Leave campaign were Conservative, many of those who voted Leave were traditional Labour supporters. As the Leave campaigners understood, the people demanding to leave the European Union were united not by partisanship, or even ideology, but by a shared interest in taking control over their shared economic and cultural destiny.
Akin to the much-discussed rust-belt voters in the United States, British people outside of the major urban centres felt they were getting a bad deal from the small-l liberal obsession with a particular version of free trade and free markets, metropolitan values, budget austerity and open borders. This centrist consensus denied and suppressed the lived experience of ordinary people outside of London. Frustration with this liberal worldview cut across deeply entrenched party lines, just as it has in most wealthy Western countries.
Johnson has proven able to translate the energy of the Leave campaign into a remarkably successful governing mandate. Through Johnson’s blend of cultural conservatism, patriotic positivity about the future, as well a focus on regional economic development (or as Johnson calls it, “levelling up”), the U.K. Conservatives have appealed to voters not just in more southern, suburban areas where they have historically been strong, but in what was long considered the “red wall,” where working-class voters supported Labour candidates in every election over decades.
It would be easy to explain the byelection result in Hartlepool by pointing to the weakness of Keir Starmer, the new Labour leader, or the success of the government’s vaccine roll out, but those factors alone do not explain the broader trend. This realignment is happening because of values. Blue-collar English voters no longer feel as though Labour sees the world the way they do, or agrees with them about what a better future looks like. Very simply, the Conservatives are succeeding because they have filled the values gap left by Labour.
Canada is no doubt different. There is no Brexit question. The Liberal party is a strong centre-left presence with enough savvy to occasionally apply a populist lens to its policies, particularly its spending commitments. But the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating worrying economic trends, the left is increasingly distracted by culture war virtue signalling and the status quo Conservative voting base simply is not big enough to elect a majority government. It might be easy to tune out international politics with so much going on at home, but if you are a Canadian Conservative who wants to win, you ought not to.
Nick Varley is a former elected Conservative councillor in Chiltern District and served as head of ground campaign for Vote Leave during the Brexit referendum. He is now vice-president of Crestview Strategy’s U.K. office.