A tale of two realignments
Why comparing the American Republicans and British Tories is instructive
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Two parties, two very different moods. In America, Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis and the Republicans are looking forward to making gains at the looming midterms, which could clear the path for their return to power in 2024. In Britain, in sharp contrast, the Tories are languishing on historic lows in the polls and looking ahead at the next election, also likely held in 2024, with a combination of fear and dread.
Look under the bonnet, at the profile of their support, and you will find other reasons for their very different outlooks. While one of these parties remains strongly anchored in the unfolding realignment that is sweeping through global politics, the other has become unmoored from it and is now utterly adrift from many of its core voters.
In the generic congressional polls, in America, the Republicans trail Joe Biden and the Democrats by 13-points among college-educated voters but lead them by 9-points among voters without a college degree. Look only at white voters and the picture becomes even more dramatic; while the Republicans trail the Democrats by 4-points among white graduates they lead them by 26-points among white non-graduates.
Republicans not only still hold commanding leads among the very same voters who put Trump into the White House in 2016 but have also strengthened their position. Aside from retaining these groups, they have also been reaching into much larger numbers of working-class and typically non-graduate Hispanic and Latino voters, about one-third of whom plan to vote for the Republicans at the midterms.
This education-based realignment is also being reinforced by geography. While the Democrats enjoy an astonishing 30-point lead in the cities, where liberal graduates concentrate heavily but narrowly, the two parties are now almost neck-and-neck in the suburbs while Republicans lead Democrats by 28 points across rural America.
Now cross the pond and look at the British Tories. Less than three years after Boris Johnson’s emphatic victory they are grappling with their lowest levels of support in British polling history. The realignment, the deeper demographic currents which swept Boris Johnson into power, in 2019, is not just falling apart —it is invisible.
Today, it is the Labour Party, not the Tories, who hold an impressive 30-point lead among the nation’s skilled working-class voters, the electricians, mechanics and plumbers. It is Labour, not the Tories, who hold a 43-point lead among semi and unskilled workers. It is Labour, not the Tories, who have whittled down Johnson’s 53-point (!) lead among pensioners to a barely visible 4-point lead today. And it is Labour, not the Tories, who, astonishingly, are now the most popular choice among the Brexit voters who are scattered across the small, coastal and Red Wall towns.
The complete implosion of the British Tories has not been lost on their counterparts in America. ‘Three years ago’, a Republican strategist said to me over lunch this week in Westminster, ‘we looked to the Tories as an example of what to do. Now? We see them as an example of what not to do’. He has a point.
In the polls, this week, 95 per cent of the people who voted for Trump at the last election in 2020 plan to vote Republican again at the next election. But not even 40 per cent of the people who voted for Boris Johnson in 2019 currently plan to vote Conservative at the next election. As I have written previously, in less than three years the Tories have gone from giving the world a masterclass in how to build a new electoral coalition to giving a masterclass in how to smash it to pieces.
How can we explain this? One possible explanation is the incumbency effect. Having been in office for more than twelve years, since 2010, and having whittled through no less than five prime ministers, Britain’s Tories, so the argument goes, have simply found it much harder to retain support from their key voters. But I don’t buy that.
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