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Is the big shake-up in Britain coming to the US?

Today, Britain is in the grip of a realignment rooted in a new cultural divide; some of these cultural issues are also reconfiguring American politics

Eight major electoral contests in the last nine years have pushed one of the world's oldest and historically most stable democracies into a period of churn and change.

BRITAIN has been rocked by eight major electoral contests in the last nine years.

Four general elections, two referendums on Scotland's independence and European Union (EU) membership and two sets of European Parliament elections have pushed one of the world's oldest and historically most stable democracies into a period of churn and change.

The Brexit wars in particular offer us the chance to get a read on the seismic shifts that are pushing Britain into a state of realignment.

Realignments in British politics have been generally rare: Most recently, infighting on the left in the 1980s led to a breakaway party and, eventually, the rise of New Labour and Tony Blair.

Today, Britain is in the grip of another realignment, one that is rooted in something else entirely: a new cultural divide.

The cultural issues - related mostly to immigration and ethnic change - are also reconfiguring American politics.

In Britain, rather than focus on just the Conservative and the Labour Parties, let's first step back and look at two broad blocs, which we'll call left and right.

The left encompasses the main opposition Labour Party and the progressive Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The right encompasses the Conservatives and the populist right, which has been represented by the far-right British National Party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) of Nigel Farage and, more recently, the Brexit Party.

The left and right have been fairly stable and evenly matched over the past decade, a picture that looks a lot like American politics (we exclude Scotland and Northern Ireland, which make up less than 10 per cent of Britain's population).

But what has changed for each bloc is the social and ideological composition. The data shows us that Britain is now in the grip of a profound and long-term realignment.

The Brexit culture wars have not only shaken up Britain's political map but are now pushing the country into a more polarised state.

From 2010 to 2019, the districts that favoured Brexit shifted further to the right, supporting the Conservatives or the populist right, while places that were more likely to vote to remain in the EU moved decisively left, becoming more likely to vote for Labour, the firmly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

This drift helps to explain how as part of their victory in the general election this month, Boris Johnson and the Conservatives were able to capture "red wall" districts - the coal and factory towns in the Midlands and north of England that until now voted as reliably for the Labour Party as blue-collar precincts in the American Midwest once voted for the Democrats.

Why is this happening? The popular answer on the left is that this is about economic insecurity, economic globalisation and imports from China.

Immigration anxieties

But when you zoom in to look not just at areas but individual voters, attitudes toward immigration are in fact the strongest predictor of support for Brexit.

Britons' anxieties about the pace and scale of immigration, something that Mr Johnson pledged to restrict, lie at the heart of Britain's political realignment; many voters are now putting their cultural preferences ahead of their once-tribal party political identities.

The immigration attitudes of individuals strongly predict attitudes toward Brexit. Liberalism on immigration correlates with the share of university graduates and, to some extent, the proportion of young voters in a constituency.

Left-wing and progressive parties are increasingly made up of whites inclined toward difference and change, as well as ethnic minorities. The right is increasingly made up of whites who tend to view difference as disorder, and change as loss.

"Fast versus slow" is a better framework for understanding this than "open versus closed".

Mr Johnson and the Conservatives have tapped into this strong feeling of cultural insecurity and anxiety over rapid social change; Labour, by promising to uphold the free movement of EU nationals and large-scale immigration, merely offered more of the same.

Another important dynamic is occurring in Britain, as it is throughout the West: the ethnic sorting of the electorate.

Minorities are increasingly diverging from white Britons, though the effect is not as pronounced as in America, given that racial minorities represent less than 15 per cent of the British population.

Together, the 2011 ethnic composition of a region and the level of support for Brexit in 2016 predict over 40 per cent of the variation in 2010-19 shifting between the left and right blocs.

Because of all this, from 2010 to 2019, the average district where left parties won over 20 points more of the vote share than right parties - "left landslide" districts - became nearly 12 points less white and eight points less supportive of Brexit.

By 2019, districts where the Conservatives dominated were 30 points whiter than left landslide constituencies, and around 14 points more likely to have voted Leave (based on static 2011 ethnicity and 2016 Brexit data).

The secondary part of the British story - which might also bear lessons for American politics on the left - is the failure of Jeremy Corbyn's more radically leftist Labour Party to consolidate the left vote behind it. Mr Johnson consolidated the Brexit vote, but the Remain vote was fragmented and across progressive forces.

This speaks to the Conservative Party's relatively greater capacity to calibrate its ideological compass to popular demand, while Labour has a tendency toward ideological rigidity. For instance, Labour's support for socialism under Michael Foot in 1983 or Jeremy Corbyn today tends to hamper the party's ability to reach voters at the centre.

Even today, some commentators on the left like the political scientist Cas Mudde continue to insist that Mr Corbyn's ideas are not the problem.

If, as research from the Voter Study Group showed, the average American voter is left on economics and right on culture, then this zone is the sweet spot for both the Republican and Democratic Parties.

Yet as the political scientist David Goodhart notes, Labour, like many Western left parties, finds it much more difficult to speak to the identity anxieties of the median voter over immigration, family and national identity.

Conversely, the right is generally able to shift toward higher public spending. Under US President Donald Trump, for instance, the deficit has skyrocketed to approach a staggering US$1 trillion.

In Britain, Mr Johnson promised higher expenditure on public services, raising the minimum wage and offering more state aid for failing businesses.

Since 2010, Labour has consistently failed to match the Conservative Party's capacity to capture the votes of their respective ideological blocs.

A less-doctrinaire Labour Party would either need to moderate enough on socialism to woo well-heeled social liberals - as Mr Blair did in the 1990s - or shift right on immigration, like the Danish Social Democrats, to win back the white working class. But for now, Labour's electorate has become structurally unsound.

Yet there are risks for the Tories. With a more working-class, socially conservative and anti-immigration electorate, Mr Johnson and the Conservative Party are increasingly vulnerable to a resurgence of rightist populism (like UKIP in 2014 or the Brexit Party in 2019).

American politics is being reconfigured along similar lines as Britain. Historically, the Democrats have effectively consolidated left voters behind them, but many of the parties' candidates have moved toward more progressive positions, especially on immigration.

It is not hard to see a 2020 Trump campaign making further inroads into the American equivalent of the "red wall". Alternatively, his unwillingness - or at least his party's - to drift further left on economics, like Mr Johnson, could yet prove to be his Achilles' heel in 2020. NYTIMES

  • Matthew Goodwin is a professor of politics at the University of Kent, England and a senior visiting fellow at Chatham House. Eric Kaufmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London.