2019 and 1968: Boris Johnson and the Northern strategy

The 1968 Presidential election was a turning point in US politics. Richard Nixon appealed to the “silent majority” and ushered in a long period of Republican dominance. Between 1932 and 1968, the only Republican to win the Presidency has been the World War II general Dwight Eisenhower; between 1968 and 1992, the only Democrat to take office was Jimmy Carter (and that for just one term).

In part this realignment was driven by the decision of the Democrat Lyndon Johnson to embrace the civil rights movement. This turned many white southern voters against the party and Nixon was credited with the “southern strategy” that eventually turned the region into the Republican stronghold it is today. (As it happened, many of the southern states voted for George Wallace, an outright segregationist, in 1968.)

Something similar seems to have happened in Britain in 2019. Boris Johnson was elected with the help of many seats in the north, including mining towns where “Tory” was regarded as a swear word under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Seats that had never elected a Conservative, or had not done so in generations, turned blue: Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley , Bolsover, Great Grimsby, Redcar. Tony Blair’s old seat, Sedgefield, fell to the Tories with a swing of 12.7%.

Success was not confined to the north. The Conservatives also picked up seats in the Midlands and in Wales. And there was one part of the north that was firmly resistant to Boris Johnson’s appeal: Liverpool. The swing there was just over 2%. When Johnson was editor of the Spectator, the magazine described Liverpudlians as having a “peculiar, and deeply unattractive, psyche”.

Still it seems reasonable to describe this as a “northern strategy” which could, conceivably, have changed the British political map in the same way as 1968 changed the US. Polling by Lord Ashcroft showed that the Conservatives won every social class, including the C2 grouping (skilled manual workers) by 20 points. They have become the party of the countryside and the small towns, whereas Labour holds the big cities (outside Scotland); in London, Labour has 49 out of 73 seats and made its only gain of the night.

As I argued earlier this year, it really looks like the Conservatives are turning into the Republicans, emphasising cultural and nationalism issues. Their appeal is tilted more towards men than women (the gap was 13 points), and more towards the old than the young. If only people born in 1975 and later had been allowed to vote, Labour would have won easily. And the Conservatives appeal a lot more to white voters. I haven’t seen a breakdown of the 2019 figures but in 2017, 77% of ethnic minorities voted Labour, according to the Runnymede trust.

Can this last? In the US, Thomas Frank argued in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” that working class voters were repeatedly persuaded to vote against their economic interest because of cultural issues- “God, guns and gays” as it has been described. In Britain, or rather England, the key issue was patriotism. This was evident in the Brexit vote and also explains the dislike of Jeremy Corbyn, who always seemed to favour anti-western causes (such as when he suggested that the Russians should be invited to investigate the Salisbury poisoning). If Labour repeats the mistake, and picks a Corbynite clone as its next leader, the trend may very well become entrenched.

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

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