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Global lessons for Britain’s faltering Conservative Party

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“We did it,” the new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced to jubilant supporters on December 13, 2019. “We succeeded.”

Johnson is referring to the Conservative Party An overwhelming victory in the election, giving it an 80-seat majority in parliament. But in that moment, the Conservatives also appeared to have pulled off a trickier strategy, one that many other mainstream right-wing parties have struggled to achieve: solidifying a broad-based conservative majority despite an insurgent far-right.

The unity of the Conservative Party, commonly known as the Tories, has been threatened for years by an anti-EU, anti-immigration movement that prioritizes social issues over economic ones. Britain’s 2016 Brexit referendum was in many ways a victory for the far right over the centre, and led to the resignation of the more centrist Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

But on that day in December, Johnson’s Conservative Party seemed to have successfully fended off that threat. Johnson is a Brexiteer who has promised to crack down on immigration while promising to strengthen public services.

Less than five years later, things look very different.Last week’s UK local elections showed that The alliance of 2019 has broken downmany analysts believe that the Conservative Party may be heading towards wipe out A general election is expected to be held in the fall. what happened?

The answer offers lessons not only about British politics but also about fueling the far right in the US and elsewhere.

One of the reasons for Johnson’s victory was his uniqueness as a candidate, whose charismatic outsider image appealed to an unusually broad swath of the population. He made “getting Brexit done” the core issue of the 2019 campaign and successfully won the support of 74% of voters who voted to leave the EU. It has also attracted socially conservative voters away from the UK’s mainstream left-wing party, the Labor Party, by adopting a more progressive economic stance.

But experts say there’s another important factor — what they call “identity polarization.” That force has helped Donald Trump maintain strong support among voters despite the violent Jan. 6 uprising, multiple criminal cases and years of unconventional rhetoric and actions.

In the U.S, Identities become increasingly “stacked” Race, religion, geography, and education all align with partisan identity. With so much at stake, it’s easy for voters on one side to view the other as the enemy. As a result, partisanship is extremely sticky: American voters rarely change sides. Elections are often decided by a handful of swing voters and turnout.

British voters are different. “When I compare the UK and the US, the biggest difference between voters is that there is much less identity in the UK,” said Luke Tryl, UK director of More in Common, a nonprofit that tracks society and politics. explain. There are differences between the two countries. “It’s not always possible to read from the average British person’s perspective on immigrants what they’re going to say, I don’t know, take a knee,” he said, referring to the anti-racist stance taken by British people. Many sports figures, or other controversial issues such as transgender rights or taxes.

As a result, political support in the UK was more unstable.The Conservative coalition is proving fragile in 2019: according to a recent survey, only 43% of 2019 Conservative voters plan to vote for the party in the upcoming general election YouGov poll. For the Conservatives among voters who voted for the “Brexit” side of the EU referendum, things look even worse: their first choice today is “Reform Britain”, a term proposed by leading Brexiteer Nigel Farrar The new far-right party co-founded by Qi and their second choice was the Labor Party. The Conservatives received only 27% of support from Brexit voters, barely finishing in third place.

Some of this stemmed from general dissatisfaction with living conditions in Britain. Households have been hit hard by inflation and rising costs of living. After years of austerity under the Conservative government, the health and education systems and other social services are collapsing. For most voters, many kinds of opinion poll suggests that these issues are more important than immigration or social change.

But Jane Green, a professor at Oxford University, said the breadth of the Conservative voting coalition in 2019 may have obscured how weak support for the party was among many new voters. Voter beliefs and behavior.

She said swing voters who had backed Boris Johnson’s Brexit Party were likely to be the first to switch to another party if they were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of issues such as the pandemic, inflation or health care. .

“These are just weaker conservatives,” she said. “And a political party in normal times is likely to lose the weakest people who identify with it first.”

Labor is courting these voters by pursuing cautiously centrist policies. The approach has frustrated more left-wing supporters but appears to be a pragmatic attempt to build the broadest possible coalition and win a majority.

If one lesson from Britain is that identity polarization – or the lack of it – matters, another is that political institutions matter too. Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system, where the top vote-getter in each constituency wins office, means smaller parties can be disruptors: if the vote is split on the right, for example, it’s easier for centrists to win – Labor Left win. But the system also makes it difficult for smaller parties to enter parliament.

In a system based on proportional representation, like most systems in continental Europe, it is easier for smaller or more extreme parties to win seats. This means that mainstream parties have no incentive, or even the ability, to become “big tent” coalitions representing different groups.

The British electoral system is somewhere between that of Europe and the United States. Like elections in the United States, elections in the United Kingdom tend to be contests between the two major parties rather than a coalition of smaller parties. But its citizens’ less “stacked” political identities and looser party affiliations mean these big tent alliances are more fragile and unstable.

Trier said the results could lead to political unrest. On the one hand, parties need to respond to the concerns of the broad electorate if they want to retain power. This may help build consensus. On the other hand, parties may struggle to maintain broad enough support long enough to pass difficult but necessary reforms, he added. This may teach Labor a lesson if it does become the next government.

“That could mean the honeymoon period is very short,” Trier said. “People don’t say, ‘Oh, I voted for Labour, I’m going to stick with them and give them time.'”

“Even if Labor ends up with a sizeable majority,” he continued, referring to the general election that must be held next January, “they will still find it very difficult to govern because the electorate is restless.”

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