Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 11 May 2021


Britain’s Labour Party just collapsed in blue-collar England. Democrats should consider themselves warned.

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Britain's Labour Party leader Keir Starmer is seen in the window of his offices in London on May 7. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
May 11, 2021 at 3:56 a.m. GMT+8

Political trends in the United States and Britain have mirrored one another for decades, so the Labour Party’s stunning collapse across blue-collar England in last Thursday’s local elections is a clear warning sign for President Biden and Democrats. A full analysis gives Democrats signs of hope but also shows how difficult it will be to build a durable Democratic coalition.

The headline results were a disaster for Labour leader Keir Starmer. The party lost the parliamentary constituency of Hartlepool by a whopping 23 points. The seat resides in a working-class area that Britain’s Conservative Party had never won previously and that had once been occupied by Peter Mandelson, the Labour politician who served as former prime minister Tony Blair’s spin doctor. Labour also lost 327 local councillors in England, mainly in blue-collar areas that were once Labour’s heartland. It was the British equivalent of the massive losses that Democrats suffered in blue-collar areas in the Midwest and Northeast during the Trump era.

Other results were more positive. Labour gained support in some wealthier areas of the country that opposed Brexit, an analogue to Democratic gains in wealthier U.S. suburbs. Most telling here was Labour’s defeat of incumbent Conservative mayors in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and West England, two regions that had voted to remain in the European Union or were divided on the question in the 2016 referendum. Combined with Tory losses to minor parties in other wealthy areas that voted “Remain,” these results suggest that Democrats may hold onto their suburban gains even after Donald Trump’s departure from the White House.

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Democrats should pay particular attention to the results from Scotland and Wales. In Scotland, the left-wing Scottish National Party (SNP) won another resounding victory in that nation’s Parliament while Labour equalled its best-ever results in the Welsh parliamentary elections. Crucially for Labour, the Welsh party largely held on to the blue-collar, Brexit-voting regions in the north that had deserted Labour in the 2019 general election. Democrats who want to regain working-class support should look to these regions for best strategies.

Nationalism and culture are the keys to understanding why Scotland and Wales diverged so sharply from England. Political scientist Matthew Goodwin is Europe’s premier scholar of blue-collar voting shifts and what he calls “national populism.” He notes that the sweet spot in politics today is to be center-left on economics but center-right on culture. Being center-right in “culture” here doesn’t mean taking the religious right’s views on abortion and same-sex marriage; it means being firm on immigration and backing the idea that one’s national history is basically good even while acknowledging missteps or injustices.

Scotland’s SNP and Welsh Labour fit this model perfectly. The SNP is social democratic in its economics and loudly backs Scottish independence. Welsh Labour also expresses support for the distinct Welsh nationality even as it rejects independence. By contrast, Paul Embery, a Labourite and author of the recent book “Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class,” told me that “Labour in England is hostile to any expression of English nationalism.” This bleeds over, according to Embery, into indulging the cultural proclivities of the metropolitan educated classes — which he lists as “LGBT rights, climate change, gender identity,” among others — at the expense of the cultural values of the working class.

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This is the problem Biden and Democrats refuse to address. Biden’s economic agenda has elements with real working-class appeal, such as child benefit payments, higher minimum wages and paid family leave. His “Buy American” plan also reinforces working-class patriotism. If these were all that were on offer, he’d look pretty good.

But it’s not all that’s on offer. Biden backs the woke left’s cultural priorities too, and working-class voters don’t share those enthusiasms. It’s hard to appeal to wealthy White voters on culture while also appealing to working-class voters on economics. Gains with one demographic are balanced out or exceeded by losses in others. That’s why Democrats were able to narrowly win Arizona and Georgia but have lost any hope of winning once-marginal Ohio and Iowa.

Biden’s immigration stance is especially problematic. Mass, low-skilled immigration drives working-class voters to the right virtually everywhere in the world, and the 2020 vote signaled that it also drives Latino working-class voters to the GOP. Biden did especially poorly compared with past Democrats in heavily Hispanic regions on the Mexican border. The huge pro-Trump shift in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley was not isolated; Biden’s margin in two other heavily Latino border counties — Arizona’s Santa Cruz County and California’s Imperial County — were 12 and 17 percentage points lower than Hillary Clinton’s. Hispanic blue-collar workers apparently like tight labor markets as much as Black and White workers.

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Biden and Democrats desperately want to use the Trump era to regain national political dominance. Britain’s local elections show just how hard that’s going to be.

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