Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to the media next to a large inflatable of him, after Conservative Party candidate Jill Mortimer won the Hartlepool by-election, at Hartlepool Marina, in Hartlepool, north east England, Friday, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Britain’s remarkable political realignment continued in yesterday’s 2021 local elections. In working-class regions where the joke for decades has been that “Labour votes are weighed, not counted,” the Conservative Party surged. The only Parliamentary seat up for grabs (the former shipbuilding center of Hartlepool) went Tory for the first time since the constituency was created in 1974. As of Friday morning, Conservatives had also gained more seats on northern local councils in economically struggling places like Northumberland, Oldham, and Sunderland, where an older electorate has switched parties after decades of voting Labour. These results indicate that the collapse of Labour’s “Red Wall” of support in the 2017 and 2019 general elections was not a fluke. Why have once-loyal working-class voters fled the Labour Party in the U.K. and could the same thing happen to the Democratic Party in the United States?

Any proper analysis has to recognize that Britain’s realignment is bringing Labour some new voters.  Labour is expected to retain the mayoralty of London that Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson once held, reflecting the party’s increased popularity with college-educated professionals, young urbanites, and most racial and ethnic minority groups.  But even if Labour could pick up an art student or a management consultant for each dockyard worker or ditch digger it loses, the exchange feels wrong at an almost spiritual level given the party’s origins and self-image. It’s also not a great trade when it comes to winning. Combined with the fact that Scotland, Labour’s other historic stronghold, has been lost to the Scottish National Party, hemorrhaging working-class voters for professionals in Notting Hill hurts.  Doing well in English and Welsh cities and university towns simply isn’t enough for Labour to break its 11-year losing streak.

Like the Democrats in the United States, Labour tries to bridge a coalition of working-class and lower-income voters around the country with socially liberal college graduates.  Brexit is widely cited, not without reason, as the signature event that ruptured Labour’s coalition.  But having lived in London as well as “Up North” I see Brexit as just one outgrowth of broader U.K. disagreements about what matters in life and how to achieve it.  And having grown up in West Virginia, which in my lifetime went from reliably Democratic to perhaps the Trumpiest state in the union, many of these disagreements are familiar to me: Is patriotism a virtue or a sin? What makes a good family? Is the government our friend or our enemy? Is our society fair or unfair, and to whom?

The severe disagreements within Labour’s traditional coalition should not be dismissed as culture war trivia overinflated by Murdoch-owned media (e.g., The Sun newspaper in the U.K. or Fox News in the United States).  If your town’s economy relies on a nearby military base and your family has proudly served, but urban peace activists demand deep cuts in the military budget, the stakes are objectively high for both sides and not just cultural, even though there is a cultural dimension to the disagreement.  And in the era of social media, no one needs Murdoch-owned media to find out how other people in their putative political coalition perceive them.  If Brexit supporters in Hartlepool want to be called racist or stupid, or, Remain supporters in London want to be called elitist or out of touch, all they have to do is log into Twitter or Facebook. The days are gone when silver-tongued politicians like Tony Blair (or Bill Clinton) could largely control their party’s internal messaging and make their coalition think itself more cohesive than it really was.

Labour’s schism in the party’s heartlands is also present in parts of the United States, most notably Appalachia.  In what Americans somewhat misleadingly call the “Scots-Irish” culture, being respected is more important than being liked or sympathized with.  That culture descends from the British regions where Labour is bleeding votes. In my experience, almost all college-educated Labour Party members in London sincerely feel sorry for people in the declining industrial areas of Britain.  But the demand from those regions is not pity but respect, and that respect often won’t come because most of those same Labour members deeply believe supporting Brexit was not a respectable decision to make. Hence the increasing divorce of the former partners in the left-wing coalition, which leaves Labour struggling to choose which parent to live with.

Democratic Party leaders who follow U.K. politics will understandably worry that the same fate awaits them.  Certainly, elements of their coalition grate on each other, and social media gives them all the ability to air such grievances in a 24/7 Festivus.  In the Scots-Irish-influenced areas of the country, like West Virginia and chunks of Pennsylvania and Southern Ohio, many former Democratic voters clearly feel “dissed” by more affluent and educated elements of the Democratic Party and have therefore decided to go the way of Hartlepool.  But Democrats have two significant advantages that Labour does not.

In the British multi-party system, Labour has to compete for college-educated voters with two parties who draw heavily from the same pool: the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Both of these parties expanded their vote share as Labour was crushed in the 2019 general election, and have improved their lot further in the 2021 local election results released at this writing (vote counting will continue through the weekend). For multiple reasons, third parties just can’t get as powerful in U.S. politics, making it easier for Democrats to capture the lion’s share of educated, socially liberal voters.

America’s racial diversity will also help the Democrats. Trump did better than most Republicans with multiple minority groups, but minority voters, on the whole, retain a strong tie to the Democratic Party. Unlike in the U.K., which is 87% white, strong support from minority voters can easily tip national elections. Winning a third of Britain’s white working-class puts Labour in the doghouse, but it put Joe Biden in the White House. Democrats can therefore be relieved that their prospects are brighter than those of their sister party across the Atlantic, even though they face similar challenges holding their coalition together.

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University. @KeithNHumphreys