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“Remain versus Leave”, the Latest Structural Cleavage of British Politics? Lessons from the Elections on December 12th
On the 12th of December 2019, the day when 45 million British were expected at the polls, The Guardian headlined: “polls open in most important general election in a generation”. For its part, the conservative publication The Spectator headlined, on 12th of December 2019: “the most important election in modern history”. According to The Financial Times the voters were facing “an impossible choice” in a crucial election that could carve the future of Great Britain for generations to come. The foreign press had a similar approach.


30/12/2019 Region: European Union Topic: Geopolitics

 From left to right: Jo Swinson (Lib Dem), Jeremy Corbyn (Labour), Boris Johnson (Conservatives) and Nigel Farage (Brexit Party)

     On the 12th of December 2019, the day when 45 million British were expected at the polls, The Guardian headlined: “polls open in most important general election in a generation”.[1] For its part, the conservative publication The Spectator headlined, on 12th of December 2019: “the most important election in modern history”.[2] According to The Financial Times the voters were facing “an impossible choice” in a crucial election that could carve the future of Great Britain for generations to come.[3] The foreign press had a similar approach. The Italian newspaper La Republica depicted a country torn by a Hamlet’s dilemma: “the Disunited Kingdom casts its vote”.[4] The Danish publication Berlingske considered the elections as “the most important elections in the past decades”.[5]

     Michael Gove, a minister in the Johnson cabinet admitted to the BBC that the vote on the 12th of December 2019 was the most important in his life,[6] and Nicola Sturgeon, the head of the Scottish National Party, stated that “the General Elections are the most important in  decades and will determine the country’s future for a long time to come.”[7]

     The intense language used by the media observers and by the political actors themselves built the symbolic plan of the latest British elections, under the sign of rupture, discontinuation and, especially the disruptive force of the Brexit. The ideological tension caused by the referendum on leaving the EU seemed to be still looking for an outlet which the regular parliamentary tempo didn’t manage to provide. Starting with 2015, the British were called to the polls five times, out of which three times were for general elections (2015, 2017 and 2019). This lability in a system that was famous for being, historically, among the strongest and most stable in the world, fuelled the narrative of the total collapse of the Westminster model, incapable of providing a clear majority and convincingly institutionalise the overabundant ideological offer of the political parties. The Economist wrote “British politics is broken, absolutely broken”.[8]

     Of course defining political reality as exceptional in a crisis is a communication strategy where one can find the necessary strategies of every actor involved - advertising the elections as an unprecedented moment in history where the political parties are not only trying to mobilise their voters, but to reach out to others, less interested in politics and who, under different circumstances would have not exercised their votes. However, apart from the cynicism sometimes hidden behind this exaggerated rhetoric, there really were political and ideological stakes to the 12th of December elections, and we cannot estimate their importance for the future of Great Britain and Europe.

     Brexit and the British Political Field

     The British news agency TLDR News surveyed 8367 people, where each person scored from one to five a series of domains of policy (of governance) according to their importance.[9] Following the survey, the highest scores were recorded by the change of the medical system (4.11), environmental protection (3.918), Brexit (3.913) and economic recovery (3.88). Other themes considered important by those surveyed were education (3.86), public housing (3.47), while immigration and Scottish independence received the lowest scores (2.70 and 2.20). Surprisingly, the fight against crime scored only 3.30, but one must take into account the fact that the survey, even though was published on the 1st of December 2019, was conducted before the London Bridge attack on the 29th of November[10], which, once again, brought back security and identity related anxieties, as well as accusations of lax judicial system.[11]

Picture 1:Trend in the opinion polls between February - December 2019. Plain lines represent general trends, the dots represent the opinion polls. Source: Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/263615ca-d873-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17, opened on 25 December 2019

     Brexit keeps on dominating the political agenda, and the parliamentary blockage from the fall of 2019 was what determined Boris Johnson’s government to organise early elections. However, Brexit is more than a tactical dossier or a “public policy” that must be implemented. Taking a stand about leaving the EU has tended, for the past three years, to supersede the traditional cleavages, without completely removing them, but, at the same time taking over and reorganising the divisions, which had once been part of the ideological field. The impact of Brexit on the two party political system specific to the Westminster model is obvious; the powerful bipolar tropism power has faded leaving room for an ever more divided politics. A series of surveys that took place from May to September 2019 showed the erosion of the two party system. A survey ran by YouGov in May put the Liberal-Democratic Party and the Brexit Party on top of the list, with 24% and 22%, ahead of the Conservative (19%) and Labour (17%) parties.[12] The combined voting intentions of the two greatest parties in the government amounted to only 36% which represented an all-time low. The decline of the two post war historical parties was accompanied by a surge in the voting intentions for new parties, or parties which in the past had played a supporting role. Thus, a  survey conducted by a different polling institution showed for the first time, by the end of May 2019, that five parties were above the symbolic 10%: the Brexit Party (26%) and Labour Party (22%) were in the lead, followed by the Conservative Party (17%), the Liberal-Democratic Party (16%) and the Greens with 11%.[13] This double evolution of the partisan system seemed to be confirmed by the two elections that took place in May 2019: the local and parliamentary elections consecrated a balance of power which questioned the very survival of the Westminster two-party system, on the medium term. On the 2nd of May 2019, following the local elections, even though the Conservative and the Labour parties remained the most important British parties (with 28% each), observers noticed the rise of the Liberal Democratic Party (19%), of the Greens and independent candidates. The Conservative Party lost a total of 1334 seats in the local councils (approximately one third of what they had previously had), the Labour party minimised the damage (they lost only 82 seats compared to 2015), the Greens gained 198 (a 400% rise) and many independent candidates won against their opponents from traditional parties.[14] However, the real shock came with the European elections on the 23rd of May. Even though the European elections, which make use of a proportionate system, have a dynamic of their own that always favoured major parties, the elections could be compared to an earthquake. Brexit Party, recently founded by Nigel Farage got 31% of the votes at national level, followed by the Liberal-Democratic Party (20.3%). With only 14% the Labour Party didn’t even have 2% ahead of the Greens (12.9%). The Conservative Party lead by Theresa May didn’t even manage get over the 10% threshold.[15]

     The months May through August 2019 were decisive and taught us some very complex lessons. The British two-party system, even if it could artificially survive with the help of the election system, risked a complete separation from the popular vote, which, on a medium term, could have caused serious political cleavages.[16] However, the most revealing political lesson was that regarding the change of ideology in a society and culture influenced by Brexit. Leavers (those who favoured leaving the European Union) and Remainers (those who wish a reversion of the results of the referendum in 2015, either by a popular vote, or by a parliamentary decision) represent two ideological and influential blocs, two coherent political cultures. Partisanship regarding Brexit is more likely to generate an extreme polarization than any of the traditional interests of the parties. A British Social Attitudes survey proves that only 8% of the respondents admitted to be “committed supporters” of a certain party, while 40% admitted either to “really oppose” or “highly in favour of” leaving the EU.[17] A different survey ran by the Populus Institute, reached the same conclusions: 88% of the British population were either Leavers or Remainers and 72% state that they identify themselves “very much or fairly enough” with this label. By comparison only 62% identify themselves with a political party (out of whom 47% identify “very much or fairly enough” with a certain partisanship).[18] Favouring or being against Brexit creates, thus, two political partisanships with a strong structure, deeply rooted in a social and cultural background, as well as in an ethical-axiological one. The geography of the leave voters proved to include mostly poor areas, having been highly influenced by the level of education and/or professional qualification, income, and age.[19] In rural areas and small towns, the popular vote clearly favoured leaving the EU.[20] This explanatory pattern of a “peripheral”[21] vote cast in marginalized areas, similar to the anti-system voting patterns in European countries such as France[22], or the USA[23] must also be analysed from an ideological and cultural point of view. Truly the attitude towards the death penalty is a much more revealing indicator regarding the Leave vote than the social status or the income level[24]; it indicates the fact that there is a strong connection between those who are in favour of leaving and those who have a system of values based on “authority” and “conservatism” (a wider meaning, not that associated with the British Tories).

     The Death of Traditional Cleavages: Brexit as a Short-Term Substitute Cleavage

     Behind the Brexit vote loom the fracture lines of a cleavage at all superficial. However, is it fair to use the notion of critical juncture when referring to Brexit?

     In the dedicated literature, the term attributed to Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan[25] describes a founding moment highly lolarising effect and with a deep symbolic and emotional meaning that will determine the subsequent nature of those cleavages. Often encountered in the paradigm of historical institutions, where it is strongly linked with the concept of path dependency (a concept that seeks to explain the way a certain choice unfalteringly influences, at a certain point in time future decisions and evolutions)[26], the notion critical juncture is more useful when studying history, not immediate policies; in their classic study, Lipset and Rokkan defined as critical junctures of Western history the Reformation, the National Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, significant historical moments that lasted for decades and had a huge shaping impact on the tectonic of societies.[27] The difference in magnitude makes a comparison with Brexit rather difficult. It is too early to say whether Brexit is but an epiphenomenon grafted on some long term underground mutations, or whether it truly has a matrix dimension able to cause major changes in the British political landscape.

     Rokkan’s historical concept doesn’t thus appear to be the most suitable one to understand the rift - very real, however, hardly institutionalized - between the two sides, Leave and Remain. There is another theoretical pattern that better describes the reality of this ideological remodelling.

    When describing the Eastern European political landscape post-communism, the political expert Daniel Louis Seiler made reference to the coagulation, in the first phases of the transition process, of a series of cleavage substitutes with temporary life span, connected to the political immediate dictated by the management of leaving behind the old regime.[28] Such a short term cleavage substitute was, for example, that between the neo-communists and “the democratic opposition”.[29] A cleavage substitute represent a demarcation line that can generate polarization; however, it is hard to imagine whether it remains unchanged (while Lipset and Rokkan’s model was based on this ability of the cleavage to remain unchanged and stabilise the conflict on a long term). Moreover, it doesn’t have the ability to completely annihilate other dichotomies that are present in society, but will graft on them, blurring them for a while. And, being determined by the immediate political actuality, the conflict didn’t have the time to institutionalise under the form of political parties.

     We discover that the political landscape after Brexit is structured by a form of partisan conflicting state remarkably similar to that mentioned above - even though in a political space very different from the theoretical model. The conflict regarding Brexit, once the process of leaving the EU is finalised, can be frozen in time only if the discourse really changes. At the present moment, the rhetoric of the pro-European parties is anchored in the hope that the vote from the 23rd of June 2016 can be changed, either by rescinding article 50 (the approach of the Liberal Democratic Party[30]), or by organizing a second referendum (the approach of the Labour Party and the Greens[31]). On a longer term, if the Conservative Party manages to withdraw Great Britain from the EU - which at this time seems only a matter of months - the relevance of such rhetoric will be questioned. It is highly unlikely that the technicality of the debates regarding the post-Brexit economic and geopolitical relations with the European bloc will be enough to provide a sufficiently mobilising rhetoric that won’t leave room for a re-joining referendum in a near future.[32] The pro-European political identity must survive and cling to more solid structures that are yet to emerge.[33] Furthermore, the rift between the two sides, Leave and Remain, hasn’t completely destroyed the old structural dichotomies of the political life. Left and right haven’t completely lost their relevance. It is true that the left-right duo cannot be the only key to understanding the Brexit vote in 2016 or the subsequent elections in 2017 and 2019. However, the new pro and con EU dichotomy isn’t all-inclusive either; it rather overlaps instead of cancelling other traditional sources of political conflicting state.

     Ideologically speaking, the agenda of the electoral campaign is marked by the strong visibility of the social issues. An independent survey run by the news agency TLDR clearly showed that domestic issues such as the state of the health system, austerity or environment protection could match or even outshine Brexit in terms of visibility during the electoral campaign. Brexit, although a significant matter, isn’t hegemonic; according to a YouGov survey, Brexit was one of the most important matters for the voters (68% believed that Brexit was one of the most important stakes in the elections), but so were health (to 40% of the respondents, health was one of the most important issues), security (28%), environment protection (25%) or economy (25%), as they have been brought up by a large number of the respondents.[34] On the 18th of November, the Brexit issue was down to 59%, while the state of the health care system was up at 45% and environment protection at 28%.[35] Moreover, surveys conducted in the last weeks of campaign positioned health and the situation of a national healthcare system seriously affected by the budget deficit ahead of preoccupations related to leaving the EU.[36] So we notice that besides the recurrent issue regarding Brexit that truly doesn’t follow traditional patterns with respect to the left or right, the campaign was marked by the retention, in the ideological spectre, of other issues, traditionally anchored in the left or right narratives: the state of the public services, the budget deficit, or security and crime.[37]

     Structurally speaking, if we consider the Labour Party the engine that fuels the left and the Conservative Party the engine that fuels the right we see that the chaos from the local and European elections was unmistakably stopped. In December 2019, the two main parties got almost 76% of the votes (43.6% for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and 32.2% for the Labour)[38]. Beyond the mechanisms that the British electoral system uses to produce a majority, the Conservative Party got the second largest number of votes in British post-war history - in 1979 the party led by Margret Thatcher got 43.9% of the votes, only 0.3% more than Boris Johnson’s, in a victory that is still historical.[39] Under these circumstances we cannot speak of a dying two-party system that is connected to life support and is kept artificially alive by the first past the post electoral system; even more so, since the “new” parties that don’t favour a left or a right got very modest scores (11.5% the Liberal Democrats, 2.7% the Greens and 2% the Brexit Party[40]).

     This last aspect takes us to the main issue that makes us think of Brexit as rather a substitute of transitory cleavage. A classical cleavage is, according to the classical definition of Lipset and Rokkan, some kind of internal conflict state institutionalized by political parties coagulated around this rivalry. Brexit for sure had a huge impact on the British society, really polarizing it and giving birth in several months to antagonistic political identities. However, institutionalization of the Leave and Remain concepts - essential for the stabilization of the cleavage over time – was only partial and imperfect. The pro-Europeans joined together in several already existent parties - from Labour to Greens. Only one party emerged out of Brexit as fully pro-European - the fleeting centrist party Change UK, which dissolved in December 2019.[41] The main electoral engine of the Remain identity was the Liberal Democratic Party – successor of the old reforming Whig party, which dominated British politics in the 18th and the 19th centuries. The Leave camp was more efficiently institutionalized mainly because it had, before the referendum a robust political support - the UKIP, which had well over 10% of the votes (in 2015, Farage’s party received 12.65% of the votes[42]) and had built its political identity around European resentment.[43] Established in January 2019 by the former president of the UKIP, Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party is a single issue party[44], built around the idea - a populist archetype - that a mainstream elitist party, such as the Conservative Party cannot negotiate a clean Brexit without betraying the popular will. The exceptional score that Farage’s party got in the European elections didn’t put an end to the chaos in the parliamentary elections in December 2019. The Brexit Party was affected by four of its MEPs, who announced their support for the Conservative Party so as not to create a division among the Leave voters[45], as well as by a timid electoral strategy - conciliatory with the Conservatives, in the sense that it chose not to contest them in their already detained 317 districts.[46] The result was catastrophic not only because of its incapacity to obtain a single mandate (in the past, the UKIP has been systematically thwarted by the first past the post[47] electoral system) but also because of the low percentage of votes at national scale (2%). Brexit Party successfully capitalised the protest vote, comfortably dominating the European Elections where the voters were motivated by a punitive logic aimed against the ruling parties[48]. Farage’s party adopted a populist style taking advantage of the dichotomy people versus the elites and skilfully adapting the anti-European narrative to an anti-System narrative.[49] Farage used with the Brexit Party the same recipe for success he had previously used with the UKIP: a “multi-layered” anti-European formula where the latter served as a proxy to the anti-elitist resentment pointing this time at the inside, at the British politicians and at traditional media.[50] More credible as opposing the system than the Conservative Party, the Brexit Party - isolated by Johnson’s refusal to form an alliance before the December elections[51] - didn’t manage to become a credible Brexit promoter on a national level. In the light of the election results on the 12th of December 2019, Brexit Party remains the prisoner of the debilitating dynamic that characterised the UKIP as well - a party which evolves at the margins of the political system, capable of influencing the political agenda, but, which doesn’t have a major political role in the reorganisation of the party system.


     Conclusion: A New Left, a New Right? The Internal Mutations of the Post-Brexit Conservatism and Labourism

     Brexit has not established itself as a new believable model of cleavage that would replace the traditional dichotomy between the Labour and the Conservative parties. The main lesson of the December 2019 elections was the resilience of the Westminster model at least in England and the Wales (in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, where the temptation for independence is coagulating and generates a growing rejection of the big national parties, the observer needs another analysis grid, more adapted to local dynamics[52]). The period from May to August 2019 - marked by two rounds of elections, local in the beginning of May and European in the end of the same month - seemed to announce the permanent erosion of the traditional two-party system and to promote new political engines, such as the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democratic Party or the Greens, more in line with the trends that dominate the post-Brexit British society. In the period between July and August, the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democratic Party, after two months of spectacular rise in the polls, were about to surpass, at a national level, the number of votes that the Labour Party and the Conservative Party would get.[53] The fall of 2019 switched the rising trend of the small parties, consolidating once again the British two-party system that had been governing the country after the 2nd World War. The elections in 2019 echo those of 2017 when the two ruling parties got over 80% of the votes[54] (compared to a little over 67% in 2015, before Brexit[55]).We deliberately chose to show the percentages of the popular votes instead of the number of seats in the parliament, because the resilience of the Labour or Conservative votes isn’t a mere reflex of the system first past the post. The conclusion is that although the balance of power between the two parties is constant, the political antagonism between them continues to be, by far, more relevant in England and Wales.

     Even if Brexit hasn’t dissolved the traditional cleavage between the left and the right, which has proven its resilience by surviving its two great political, ideological and electoral engines (the Labour Party and the Conservative Party), the shock of the referendum on the 23rd of June 2019 triggered deep changes in the nature of the two parties and, indeed, in the concepts of left and right themselves. Brexit was, ideologically speaking, the ruin of Blatcherism, which, following the disappearance of Thatcherism, ensured a relative stability of the British system. To the essayist and journalist Tom McTague, the Blair playbook - which recommended the leaders of the ruling parties, both left and right, to be weary of their own “radical” militant nuclei and urged them, by using programmed catch-all centrist platforms, to open towards the less political voters - gradually stopped being useful in the post-Brexit British space .[56] While in the past the political leaders feared that polarisation might lead to ideological segregation that would lead to loss of voters, Brexit changed the rules of the game, as radicalism ceased to impose limits; both Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson (as well as the leaders of smaller parties such as Jo Swinson of the Liberal Democratic Party[57]) placed their bets on a campaign of intransigence and ideological purity, instead of a pragmatic compromise.

     The second mutation deeply redefined the sociological basis of the left and right: the deprived and marginalised lower classes vote right more and more for the, while the relatively educated and relatively stable (from an economic point of view) classes lean - ideologically - toward the left. Unlike the first evolution we mentioned, this tendency has been monitored on a long term and has been documented since the 50’s by the French economist Thomas Picketty, who made a study comparison between the Labour Party, the French Socialist Party and the US Democratic Party.[58] The “Brahmanization” of the social-democratic left (this is the name that Picketty chose to describe the “migration of workers” towards the conservative right or the anti-system parties and the re-composition of the left around the urban middle class - hence the reference to the Brahmans, the highest Hindu caste) hasn’t been stopped by Corbyn’s policy, whose radical promises regarding separation translated into the iodeal and frustration of a young, urban leftist electorate. Issues such as minority rights, ecology, immigration or the legacy of the British Empire (Jeremy Corbyn was in the 70’s, while serving as a hard Labour MP, the main voice against anti-imperialism[59]) show the difference between the Labour narrative and the agenda of the “red” worker constituencies in the Midlands and Northern England. Also known as the “red wall”, this area - made of constituencies that have always been loyal to the Labour Party and are made of proletarian voters (in 2016 the Leave vote was very strong) switched to right in 2019 for the first time in decades, if not in a century. It is the case of the district of Burnley, a former industrial area north of Manchester which has, for the first time in 109 years, a conservative representative in Westminster; 67%[60]of the Burnley population voted Leave. By contrast, the English electoral map clearly shows the difference between the rural areas and the major urban areas: most of the London districts and the metropolitan areas such as Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds remain faithful supporters of the left.[61]