This political order is being undone. Just as the Democrats in the United States are gaining more votes in affluent suburbs, the opposition Labor Party and centre-left Liberal Democrats are gaining popularity among the upper classes in Britain. This is partly due to the Brexit debate, which pushed even educated voters to the left, and working-class voters – who had been shifting to the right for more than a decade – to the right. Johnson’s massive victory in 2019 rested on an inverted pyramid of success: for the first time in modern history, the Tories did better with Britain’s underprivileged.
This is the demographic base of the populist-conservative alliance. Working-class populist voters want protection from the economic and cultural shocks of the modern world. Conservative voters want to protect traditional values, both economic and cultural. In some areas – opposition to “woke” ideology, for example – the two sentiments overlap. In others, they clash.
The economy will be a big flashpoint in this inevitable conflict. Many mainstream Tories, for example, backed Brexit to usher in a free trade, low tax nirvana – what some have called a “Singapore on the Thames”. But the former Labour-voting working classes saw Brexit as a hedge against the ravages of free trade and an immigration regime that had left them behind. The old blue conservatives are inclined, like Johnson himself, to lean to the right economically and a bit to the left culturally. The party’s new voters want the exact opposite.
Johnson’s successor will have to finish the job of solidifying this coalition. As British political scientist Matthew Goodwin pointed out, there is no going back to the pre-Brexit Conservative Party. Attempting to restore this bygone era is doomed to failure; instead, conservatives will have to think hard and flesh out what the new conservatism stands for and means.
Above all, this will require a new paradigm on the economy. The question is no longer one of high taxes versus low taxes; it’s good taxes versus bad taxes. It’s not a matter of the government being bad and the private sector being good; it is a matter of justice and dignity for all, achieved through a mix of private and public action that has characterized modern economies since the 1930s.
A new politically successful conservative-populist model must meet two basic criteria: first, it must show working-class voters they matter, which means the next prime minister must lean against traditional party values and embrace the values of new Conservative Party voters.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt is the example to avoid. He attempted to create a conservative labor party between 2006 and 2014, but ultimately failed because he supported less restrictive immigration policies and insulted new working-class voters in his conservative Moderate Party by doing so. . Sweden now has a powerful working-class populist party, the Swedish Democrats, which are about as large as the moderates. British Tories cannot risk this happening to them.
Conservatives must also ensure that all boats are lifted by rising economic tides. This can take the form of investing in worker productivity through education, restricting mass immigration to ensure a tight labor market in the country, or a host of other measures. The key is to understand that just as all politics is local, all politics is personal. It doesn’t matter how much national GDP grows if the gains all go to some people in specific regions.
British and American politics often move in similar directions at the same time. Just as Bill Clinton presaged Tony Blair and Brexit presaged Donald Trump, Johnson’s replacement will likely become the model for the next Republican presidential candidate. Whether this is a positive example or one to avoid remains to be seen.