Despite the Labour Party’s best efforts to prove otherwise, the Conservatives did not win the 2019 general election due to Brexit alone. Labour’s vote share in many of the working-class seats – with high proportions of traditional, social conservative voters – which swung to the Tories in this election had been slipping for a long time before either the 2019 election or the 2016 referendum. It is wrong, therefore, to suggest the 2019 vote represents a ‘sudden realignment’ around Brexit, as some have.
Instead, the election centred mainly on traditional, social conservative values, which appealed strongly to the types of voters mentioned above. Working-class areas whose support for Labour had been slipping steadily for many years – thanks particularly to long-standing mismanagement of criminal justice and of immigration – finally let go, sure in the conviction that the party was in no way willing to represent their more traditional values.
As such, we saw seats such as Bolsover – held by Dennis Skinner for just under half a century, and by another Labour MP for twenty years beyond that – give up on Labour and return a Conservative candidate to parliament for the first time in the constituency’s history.
It is worth highlighting that, as Matthew Parris writes in The Spectator (21 December 2019), Labour’s failure to maintain the support of its more social conservative voters was not always the Conservative’s success. Continuing with the example of Bolsover, whilst the Conservatives did well to pick up 3,000 votes in this seat from 2017, even more significant is that Labour lost 8,000 votes on the last election, so unpromising was their proposed agenda.
In spite of this, it must still be recognised that a large amount of Conservative support was the result of an attraction to its more traditional manifesto. After delivering Brexit, the Tories, led by Boris Johnson, promised to strengthen the police by adding 20,000 to their forces, to defend veterans against continuing trials, and to introduce an ‘Australian-style’ points-based system of immigration. Many social conservative voters, who had previously backed Labour, saw this bait and took it. They were deceived.
My aim now is to highlight why Conservative rhetoric at the election will not be – and, perhaps, was never meant to be – substantive, looking particularly at the aforementioned areas of crime, national security and immigration.
Starting with the police – Boris’ 20,000 new officers pledge sounds spectacular, but falls into the same trap all other debates on the topic lead to; numbers for numbers sake. Whilst it is correct that there are roughly 20,000 fewer police today than there was a decade ago, there are still far more – both in total and, importantly, per head of the population – than there ever was at any time before the early seventies.
That is, before the beat system of preventative patrolling was abolished by the Labour Party (with little opposition from the Conservatives). This point strikes on the key area of policing. Numbers do not matter per se. It is what these are doing that matters.
Since Boris does not talk about the much-needed return of the beat system – which we can only suppose he believes still to be in operation, as it is around parliament and other major city areas – it is most likely that these new officers will not end up on the streets (despite his claims), where they are incredibly effective at deterring crime, but rather will be found whizzing past crime scenes in cars or carrying out vast amounts of paperwork in their offices. (Of course, station numbers are far lower than has previously been the case, meaning police are far away from the areas they are supposed to serve. Boris gives no mention to this, either.)
As such, the Tory pledge on the police is unlikely to result in any noticeable change in policing – which, as our upcoming Crime Special Issue highlights, Britain is in great of.
On national security, the Conservative’s pulled out all the stops in order to defend their (undeserved) dominance of the issue. Among their pledges was that to find better alternatives to the treatment of legacy cases for military veterans, especially in cases pertaining to Northern Ireland. This pledge was as easily broken as it was made.
Already, in the document outlining the bringing back of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, Mr. Johnson has dedicated himself to implementing the 2014 ‘Stormont House Agreement’, a key and controversial element of which was (and, soon, will again be) the establishment of an ‘Historical Investigations Unit’ which possess ‘full policing powers’ to dig into legacy trials.
Mr. Johnson’s desertion of veterans here has gone almost completely unnoticed by the media, yet is a significant act of deceit which – if picked up by the more traditional voters discussed in this piece – could act strongly against his favour.
Perhaps the main area where the hopes of social conservatives – stirred up during this election by the Tory Party – will be completely quashed is immigration. The Tories have a long record of promising lower rates, and then not delivering, on this topic. It seems Boris is unlikely to break this mould.
When asked, those with traditional, social conservative outlooks (and, indeed, who voted Leave in the EU referendum) believe the ‘Australian-style’ immigration system to be a good thing. The reason, however, is because they expect this will lead to a reduction in immigration levels. (Asked a month before the referendum what they thought levels would be after Brexit, most said they expected it would be below 185,000 net per annum. The desired level would be far lower than this expected sum.)
This will not, however, be the case. The party has been very unspecific on numbers (as on most matters in their 2019 manifesto), hinting only at a partial decline. Indeed, levels are simply not going to fall by the almost 100,000 (net) required to meet the above-stated expected total. Another matter of significance when discussing perceptions of immigration is where it is those entering Britain are coming from.
Numerous studies demonstrate that immigration from countries outside of the EU, where cultures are likely to be more divergent from Britain’s, is more unpopular than that from within the bloc. Mr. Johnson’s desire to see more migrants entering from all over the world is not, then, likely to be too well received by his new, social conservative intake – who are not wooed by the economic arguments always drawn up in this debate.
Mr. Johnson and his cabinet have an immense struggle on their hands – they must temper their own social liberal attitudes to these and other topics if they are to maintain the support of the traditional voters they have picked up from Labour at this election.
If they don’t – and, as I have made clear here, I believe they won’t – said voters are likely to abstain in any upcoming election (as social conservatives have increasingly been doing for the last two decades anyway), or offer their support to a smaller, more genuinely conservative force, such as the rebranded and re-launched Social Democratic Party.
As is almost always the case with the Conservative Party, the rhetoric is not, and will not be substantive, and many hopeful – already politically-beaten – voters are soon to be greatly disappointed.
Photo by BackBoris2012 Campaign Team on Flikr.