The explainer

🗳️ Has Britain moved to the left?

3 May 2024

The explainer

Leon Neal/Getty

Has Britain moved to the left?

The forthcoming general election looks set to be a Labour landslide, especially after the Tories’ dreadful performance in Thursday’s local elections.

How significant is this shift?
“We are reaching an end of an era,” says Dominic Sandbrook in The Times. The current “period of Conservative dominance” began with David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s “sun-dappled presss conference” in the Downing Street garden in May 2010, when they announced the formation of their coalition government. Fourteen years later, the Tories are exhausted, fractious and almost certain to be booted out of power. These sea changes occur every generation or so. In 1982 – the early days of Thatcherism – the left-wing MP Tony Benn encountered a group of sixth-formers visiting parliament that unexpectedly wielded right-wing arguments against him. “I realise I am no longer dealing with the old consensus,” he wrote. Today, things are moving in the other direction: young Brits are bucking the trend of becoming more conservative as they age. Even among under-50s, a poll earlier this year put Tory support at just 10%. 

What explains the change?
Partly frustration, says Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. Money is tight, and voters are taking out their anger on the incumbents in government. But the mood has changed. Last year’s British Social Attitudes survey shows a surge in demand for a bigger state, a surge which has become more acute since the pandemic and the cost-of-living squeeze. In 2006, 25% of people said the government should reduce wealth inequality – now the figure is 53%. The current tax burden is 37% of GDP, the highest since World War Two, but 55% of people nevertheless want taxes to rise even further.

Have the Tories tried to push back?
There’s precious little evidence of it, says Robert Shrimsley in the FT. Indeed, given its professed love of liberty, the party has presided over a remarkable number of nannying initiatives, its new gradualist smoking ban being just the latest. There has also been a “huge expansion of state-funded childcare”, and the net zero commitment “against which some MPs are now kicking”. The Tories have also failed to stop the “left-wing takeover of our institutions”, says Allister Heath in The Daily Telegraph. Taxpayer-funded museums and cultural institutions are being “decolonised”, and the arts have become “hegemonically” progressive. 

Have recent crises played a part?
Absolutely, says Sandbrook. Before Covid, who would have believed that a Conservative government would spend more than £300bn “encouraging people not to go to work” via the furlough scheme? Or that under Boris Johnson, a “supposedly libertarian” prime minister, tackling the virus would make the state’s “apparatus of regulation and surveillance” reach a size unmatched in peacetime? After the Ukraine invasion caused a surge in energy prices, it was a Conservative government that spent a further £40bn to cap people’s heating and electric bills. All this has set a high-spending precedent that suits an incoming Labour government.

Can Britain’s leftward shift be halted – or even reversed?
Building some houses would help, says John Burn-Murdoch in the FT, by making young people feel they had a stake in the system. Right-wing support among the young is still strong in other Western countries, but the housing crisis is uniquely bad in Britain. The share of 25-to-34-year-olds who own their own home in America is six percentage points lower today than it was in 1990. In Germany it’s down eight points; in France just three. “In Britain the drop is 22 points.” A recent poll suggested that a housebuilding drive would make 36% of 18-24-year-olds and 20% of 25-34-year-olds “more likely” or “significantly more likely” to vote Tory. Indeed, the Canadian Conservative party, which has campaigned hard on exactly this issue, now has higher support among young adults than at any time since the 1990s.

What’s going on in Europe?
Far from there being some continent-wide shift towards the left or social democracy, Europe is in fact moving in the opposite direction to Britain, says Andrew Neil in the Daily Mail – “distinctly rightwards”. Only four of the 27 EU member states are currently governed by the left. Portugal has just elected a record 48 far-right deputies to its 230-seat parliament. Far-right parties are propping up governments in Sweden and Finland. Marine Le Pen has a good chance of becoming the next president of France. And with the distinct possibility of a Trump presidential victory, says Peter Franklin in UnHerd, Keir Starmer could be elected PM then “find himself as the last liberal in the G7”.

How radical would a Starmer government be?
Not very, says Sandbrook. “The woke enthusiasm of the post-George Floyd era has long since peaked.” Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves boasts that “the next Labour government is going to be the most pro-business government this country has ever seen”. Starmer shares a “cautious, patriotic, even conservative personal style” with Clement Attlee, who won the first Labour landslide in 1945. That administration “brought a dramatic expansion in the horizons of the state” – it founded the NHS, for example – but it was an austere age, and there was no “cultural revolution”. People craved “reassurance and security”, and Attlee, a cricket-loving former public schoolboy, delivered it.

How secure would Labour be in power?
It would likely suffer a similar predicament to the Tories today, says Robert Colvile in The Sunday Times. “We increasingly have an electoral system built for mass parties alongside an electorate splintered into niches.” The Conservative vote is fragmenting, to Labour and the Lib Dems on the left, and on the right to Reform, which is averaging 12% in the polls. “It’s not hard to imagine the Greens or others draining support from a Starmer government, just as Nigel Farage’s various vehicles have tormented the Tories.”

What will define the era we are moving into?
In The Death of Consensus, the historian Phil Tinline argues that each political era is defined by “shared nightmares” from the recent past, says Sandbrook. For the big-spending politicians of the 1950s and 1960s, these were “mass unemployment and governmental indifference”; for economic liberals after 1979, “industrial unrest and state overreach”. Starmer’s spin doctors may well harp on for years about “folk memories of the Liz Truss fiasco”, and how the Conservatives represent “the darkness before the dawn, when neoliberalism ruled unchallenged, the trains never ran on time and nobody under 40 could even dream of buying a house”. This might be unfair, but it’d probably be effective. “After all, remember how ruthlessly the Tories exploited memories of the Winter of Discontent.”

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