It was, of course, only a byelection. There were clearly very important local issues – in particular, the impact of HS2 on the area and fears about the Government’s planning reforms – and the Liberal Democrats have a long history of exploiting local issues with great success at byelections.
However, the sheer size of Sarah Green’s victory – overturning a 16,000 Tory majority for an 8,000 Lib Dem majority in a seat that has only ever been Tory – has got a number of pundits looking for national electoral significance in the result.
It could be as shallow as “Some voters just don’t like Boris” – as ‘one senior Tory’ told The Guardian’s Katy Balls.
Certainly there are many things about Boris Johnson himself – from his dishevelled appearance to his overt contempt for the rule of law – that irk an awful lot of people. However, it may be that the voters of Chesham & Amersham have to come to dislike the narrow-minded, xenophobic, neo-racist, authoritarian and brazenly self-interested-to-the-point-of-outright corruption brand of Toryism that Johnson and his cronies have infected the Conservative Party with. A dislike so intense they broke with lifelong support of the Conservatives and gave their vote to the Lib Dems.
Changing political affiliations?
Certainly some commentators, such as Balls’ Guardian colleague John Harris, think they detect something deep and significant taking place amongst the middle classes, traditionally Conservative voters.
Harris sees current middle-class voters as “likely to be graduates who tend to have a broadly liberal view of the world. Their consumerism has an ethical tilt, and they want to do their bit for the environment. Crucially, they also voted remain, and have been repulsed by the kind of shrill, divisive stances…which have become an ingrained habit since the arrival in Downing Street of Theresa May.” Harris sees “Taking aim at ‘citizens of nowhere’, pursuing the hardest kind of exit from the EU, and cultivating the kind of political atmosphere that favours attacks on the judiciary and today’s ‘war on woke’” as decidedly unappealing to ‘small-c conservatives’.
To support his view that the middle classes, especially in the south, are starting to turn away from the Tories to the Lib Dems in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum, Harris quotes a series of local election victories – eg: Kingston upon Thames and Richmond (2018), Bath and North East Somerset (2019) and Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, St Albans, Surrey and Tunbridge Wells (2019). Tellingly, he notes that in May Amersham went from having no Lib Dem councillors at all to taking control of the town council.
If there is a change in political affiliations developing amongst the middle classes, then, Harris notes. the other principal beneficiary of this is the Green Party, with rising support in Cambridge, East Sussex, Gloucestershire and Suffolk. Although Labour has made some progress in affluent middle-class boroughs in the North such as Trafford, generally they are not making substantial gains in the wake of the Tories’ lurch towards the neo-Fascist hard right. At Chesham & Amersham they went from 2nd place with 11,000 votes in 2017 to just 622, 4th place and the candidate losing her deposit – Labour’s worst-ever byelection defeat. According to Andra Maciuca for The London Economic, Rejoin EU leader Richard Hewison has blamed the ‘Embrace Brexit’ policy of Keir Starmer (and Manchester mayor Andy Burnham) as being at least partly responsible for Labour’s abysmal performance.
In the wake of Chesham & Amersham there are clearly critical questions for Labour as well but Harris sums up the Conservatives’ conundrum: “The problem, perhaps, is that if you so zealously pitch yourself at one half of England [the North], you inevitably run the risk of losing the other [the South].”
A vMEMETIC analysis
While no social class is anything like truly homogenous and it would be erroneous to assume all members of a social grouping thought in the same way all the time, there are broadly-shared cultural values amongst social groupings which indicate what motivational systems (vMEMES) are dominating in their thinking.
Broadly speaking – and I do mean broadly – people in the working classes often tend to think primarily in PURPLE and RED – with perhaps some BLUE influencing thoughts around religion and/or patriotism or where highly technical skills are required occupationally. Correspondingly people in the middle classes often think primarily in BLUE and ORANGE – with perhaps some GREEN where environmental concerns and/or issues to with egalitarianism have been taken on board.
For the past 90 years or so, Labour has been the party of the working classes, championing (in tandem with the trade unions) better pay and conditions for workers. While the majority of workers might have thought primarily in PURPLE and RED, there has always been an edge of GREEN in and amongst the Labour leadership that was concerned with racial and gender equality, human rights, etc. Although it may sound condescending, such GREEN concerns are mostly beyond the understanding of PUPRPLE/RED thinking. One example of the way this dichotomy has troubled Labour consistently over the years is immigration and racism. The tribalism inherent in PURPLE thinking leads very easily to prejudice & discrimination against those who are different. Thus, immigrants are all too easily seen as threatening by indigenous white working class – the more different in dress, religion and colour of skin, the more threatening. This was illustrated all too vividly in the protests that followed the sacking of Conservative Shadow Cabinet minister Enoch Powell after his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Thousands of working class whites joined the protests. 600 Smithfield meat porters even marched on Parliament to show support for Powell! A Gallup opinion poll at the end of April 1968 found 74% of respondents thought Powell was right.
Although there is evidence Powell himself was not racist per se, he seems to have understood and accepted fears about immigration and race being very real to the white working classes.
48 years after Powell’s speech, following decades of explicit racism being illegal, implicit racism became a key factor in swinging enough voters to (narrowly) win the 2016 EU referendum for Leave. With UKIP’s infamous ‘Breaking Point’ poster, the racism underpinning Leave’s campaign, to all intents and purposes, became explicit.
It was widely acknowledged by commentators in 2016 – eg: The Guardian’s Andrew Brown – and researchers since – eg: Paul Hutchings & Katie Sullivan (2019) – that race and immigration were a critical factor behind white working class support for leaving the European Union.
PURPLE thinking, with its safety-in-belonging motif, is naturally distrustful of those who are not-of-our-tribe – and, thus, is vulnerable to exploitation around fears of difference. Red-driven demagogues like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, for all their wealth and upper-class/upper middle-class status, are expert in communicating in PURPLE/RED language to PURPLE concerns. Keir Starmer, and before him Jeremy Corbyn, were not.
Richard Petty & John Cacioppo’s (1981) Elaboration-Likelihood Model provides an understanding of the key factors involved in persuading the different social classes.
Those thinking in PURPLE and RED are likely to follow what Petty & Cacioppo term the peripheral route where they the key factors in persuasion will be superficial characteristics such as who is delivering the message and how the message is being delivered. Thus, Johnson is seen as a ‘character’ – with his infidelities and his lies all but accepted because he is ‘Boris’ and he is for levelling up and making the North of England a better place for (white) working people. Farage very successfully played a man-of-the-people role, with his pint and ciggies down at the pub. Both repeatedly and very successfully got across the message that the eurocrats in Brussels were (somehow) responsible for most of Britain’s woes.
Susan Fiske & Shelley Taylor (1991) term peripheral route processors cognitive misers. for the relatively little effort they put into analysing the argument.
By contrast BLUE and the more complex vMEMES tend to prefer the central route and consider the issues, pros and cons, at length and in detail.
The middle class voters of the South, by and large, know that Brexit is at best foolish and at worst a massive and debilitating long-term hit to the UK economy which could take generations to recover from, if ever. They see the opportunities lost to their children to work and live across Europe. They see the benefits lost of a being in a 28-country bloc able to assert itself in a dangerous world of reviving superpower rivalries.
Working class voters in the North hope Brexit will get rid of those Eastern European accents they keep hearing – that’s working – and those brown faces they keep seeing -not working. To some of them at least, empty supermarket shelves and shortages of medicines – all blamed by the Daily Mail on ‘EU intransigence’! – are a price worth paying to get rid of Eastern European accents and brown faces. (I distinctly remember a TV interview with an ageing diabetic in Barnsley. He said not being able to get his imported insulin, which would most likely kill him, was worth it to “get rid of them Muslims”.)
As long as the Tory-leaning hard-right media could successfully smear Jeremy Corbyn as a ne0-Communist, anti-Semite, terrorist sympathiser, Johnson was always going to be the better of 2 evils for the middle classes in the 2019 general election. Corbyn, the ‘threat’ that had to be kept out of Downing Street at all costs, is gone. So the southern middle classes can now dare to consider other alternatives to Johnson. Starmer has so far failed to make much of am impression beyond, like Johnson, wanting to be seen to be wooing the Brexit-supporting white working classes of the North.
Which leaves the Remainers of the southern middle-classes with little or no representation amongst the 2 main parties – and potentially willing to consider the Lib Dems and the Greens.
This analysis inevitably deals in stereotypes and big generalisations – and it misses the subtleties and nuances lost in such generalisations. However, it does provide a broad brush picture of what is going on, even if it misses the details and exceptions a longer and more detailed analysis would pick up.
The memetic war of blue and red walls
Equally the memes of Labour’s ‘red wall’ of seats in the North and the Conservatives’ ‘blue wall’ in the South are generalisations built on stereotypes lacking the finesse of more detailed examination. Nonetheless, they do represent parliamentary seats which can be fought over in elections.
The Conservative victories in the North in 2019 enabled them to promulgate the meme of Labour’s red wall turning blue. The Tory spin on this was that, if they could hold on to those seats, then Labour was effectively finished and the Conservatives the natural, default party of government in England. However, the meme of Labour’s red wall of core voters on whom it could traditionally depend has its converse of the Conservatives’ blue wall in the South – core voters on whom they could traditionally depend. So, just as the Labour red wall proved devastatingly vulnerable in 2019, could the Tories blue wall prove vulnerable going forward?
Certainly Lib Dem leader Ed Davey wants to project that meme – as per his cringey, clumsy photo op the day after Chesham & Amersham, using an orange (Lib Dem) hammer to break down a blue (Tory) wall of toy bricks.
If Davey and the Lib Dems can convince enough people that they are a sensible alternative that can beat the Tories in the South – ie: Davey’s meme becomes the voting schema in the heads of tens of thousands of the southern electorates – then it could indeed become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Unsurprisingly Johnson and the Tories are downplaying the Lib Dem success at Chesham & Amersham and doing their best to ignore it. As has been widely reported – eg: Sky News’ Paul Heffer – Johnson did concede it was “certainly a disappointing result” but attributed the result to “particular circumstances in the constituency”. He then glossed over it by saying: “We are getting on with delivering our agenda for the whole country, that’s what one nation Conservatism is all about. We believe in uniting and levelling up within regions and across the country.”
Labour’s own attempts to gloss over the result was aided miraculously by former Speaker of the House of Commons and ex-Tory MP John Bercow declaring that he had joined the Labour Party. Done in typical Bercowian loud style and big bluster, it remains to be seen how his grand entrance into the Party sits with Starmer trying to hang onto his job and Andy Burnham whose leadership ambitions he can longer even pretend to conceal.
The imminent West Yorkshire byelection of Batley & Spen looks to be a straight fight between the Tories and Labour. If the Tories take Batley & Spen, it will be just another brick in the red wall turning blue. As for the Lib Dems, it is rumoured, according to John Harris, they will not make much more than a token effort in the constituency.
So we’re a long way from knowing whether Chesham & Amersham is a one-off and whether the Conservatives’ blue wall will hold – or whether the fermenting dissatisfactions in the southern middle classes will grow strong enough to bring about similar seismic political shifts as the red wall crumbling did in the North. If Davey really wants to knock down the blue wall, though, he needs to get beyond cheap, flashy gimmicks and present vision and policies that appeal to the middle classes increasingly disenfranchised by the far right radicalisation of the Conservative Party.