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We examine the emergence of a new party, UKIP, which exploited the new political opportunity presented by growing identity divides, mobilising discontented identity conservatives to secure the strongest electoral performance by a new British party since the 1920s. We unravel the puzzling timing of UKIP’s surge. If immigration rose to the top of the political agenda in the mid-2000s why did it take nearly a decade for a radical right party to fully capitalise on public discontent over the issue? This delay was the consequence of an older reputational legacy from the first wave of immigration. Since Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives had been seen as the party of immigration control. The Conservatives were able to use this reputation in opposition in order to win over the anxious identity conservatives. But doing so required setting up expectations of radical cuts to immigration, expectations the party was unable to meet once it returned government. It was the collapse in the Conservatives’ reputation for immigration control at the start of the Coalition that opened up space for a new party, space that UKIP rapidly filled as disappointed identity conservative voters abandoned the Conservatives and turned to the radical right.
In Chapter 3 we look at the differences in the values and worldviews of identity conservatives and identity liberals. The ethnocentric worldview of identity conservatives has two aspects: attachment to in-groups and hostility towards out-groups. They have clear ideas about who belongs to ‘us’, and strong suspicions of groups deemed to fall outside the tribe. Conviction identity liberals see this worldview, and the political stances which flow from it, as morally wrong, a conviction that is reflected in their commitment to anti-prejudice social norms. Ethnic minority ‘necessity liberals’ also strongly oppose ethnocentrism and its effects, because the suspicions and hostility of ethnocentric white citizens often fall upon them. They ally strongly with conviction liberals on identity conflicts, but do not share their broader socially liberal agenda. The politics of identity is a tug of war over social norms, with identity liberals seeking stronger and more expansive definitions of racism sanctioning a wider range of attitudes and behaviour, while identity conservatives push back against this process, attacking it as the unjust imposition of excessively stringent rules, which they believe stigmatise the legitimate expression of group attachments and anxieties about change.
The concluding chapter focuses on two questions. The first is whether Britain is unique in its identity conflicts. While no other EU member state looks likely to repeat Britain’s EU exit adventure in the near future, the demographic trends driving the emergence of identity conflicts – educational expansion and rising diversity through globalisation and mass migration – are common to most wealthier democracies. The effects of these changes are being felt everywhere – educational and ethnic divides are becoming stronger predictors of political choices in many countries, with ethnocentric ‘us against them’ conflicts over issues such as immigration, national identity, diversity pitting identity conservative white school leavers against identity liberal graduates and ethnic minorities. In the United States, which like the UK uses a first-past-the-post electoral system, similar identity divides have reinforced and deepened longstanding party divisions on race and identity. The second question is what impact identity politics can have outside party and electoral politics. Many policies involve decisions about the distribution of resources between groups, and as such public views of such policies may be radically changed by the mobilisation of identity conflicts. We discuss welfare, equal opportunity and immigration policies to illustrate this disruptive potential.
The EU Referendum and its aftermath further polarised identity politics by forging two new political tribes: ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’. The 2016 referendum was the first national political choice to be structured primarily around identity divides. Traditional conflicts over class, income, economic ideology and economic competence were pushed into the background. Instead, it was the conflicts over identity and values which split graduates and school leavers, white voters and ethnic minorities and young and old which primarily drove voters’ Brexit choices and informed their Brexit identities. The intense referendum campaign and polarising political aftermath proved to be a moment of awakening, making voters aware of just how deeply divided they were from their political opponents. They now knew what kind of people fell into each Brexit tribe, and began to display all the classic symptoms of partisan bias when asked to judge their tribe and its opponents, seeing their own side through rose-tinted spectacles while dismissing their rivals as fools and knaves. These attachments have been consequential not only for political views but also for social life since the referendum, as the identities forged by a single political choice have taken on a life of their own.
This chapter sets out the plan of the book and our main arguments. We introduce identity conservatives and identity liberals, the new demographic groups whose conflicts are at the heart of identity politics in Brexitland. Identity conflicts in Britain did not begin with Brexit though the EU Referendum brought these conflicts to the fore and made the groups themselves more aware what divides them. The identity conflicts laid bare by Brexit are instead the result of a collection of long-running social trends: demographic changes that have been underway for decades; the political legacies of Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, on the one side, and the anti-racism legislation and mobilisation around Stephen Lawrence’s murder, on the other; the changes wrought to party competition and voters’ perceptions of the parties by Tony Blair and New Labour; and the long-term consequences of liberal immigration policies introduced by the first two New Labour governments. These trends all set the scene for the developments of 2016, and the Brexitland politics that unfolded post-referendum.
In Chapter 4 we tell the story of how identity conflicts were first mobilised into electoral politics during the first wave of migration to Britain after the Second World War. This period of British history is rarely mentioned in conjunction with our decision to leave the EU in 2016, but it is critical for understanding more recent identity conflicts. The first wave of sustained mass migration was the first demonstration of the disruptive power of such conflicts, producing a wave of ethnocentric voter mobilisation which upended political competition and has continued to reverberate in debates over multiculturalism, discrimination and identity ever since. The new political conflicts generated more recently by another surge in immigration have interacted with, and sometimes reinforced, these older divisions. The paths followed by Labour and the Conservatives on such issues were first traced out in this period, with Labour establishing themselves as defenders of ethnic minorities, and the Conservative choosing to mobilise anti-immigrant sentiments in the white majority. We cannot understand the identity conflicts mobilised by Cameron, May and Farage without first understanding the era of Heath, Powell and Thatcher.
In this chapter we describe the second important electoral development of the Coalition period: the ‘reshuffle on the left’. Coalition with the Conservatives unravelled the Liberal Democrats’ electoral alliance of identity liberals, protest voters and tactical anti-Tory voters. More than one voter in eight in England and Wales switched from the Liberal Democrats to other parties during the Coalition. Protest-motivated Liberal Democrat supporters switched largely to UKIP, but the biggest shift was the migration of identity liberals to Labour, tipping the balance of the Labour electoral coalition. The traditional alliance of ethnic minority voters with Labour was also reinforced in this period as Muslim voters alienated by the Iraq War returned to the Labour fold. As white school leavers alienated by New Labour and angry about immigration shifted in large numbers from Labour to UKIP, the growing strength of identity liberals within the Labour coalition was accelerated. As a result, the 2015 Labour electorate, though similar in size to that of 2010, was dramatically different in composition. The traditional party of the workers was, for the first time, drawing more support from graduates and ethnic minorities than from white school leavers. This was a new Labour Party.
Chapter 10 concludes our story by looking at the evolving electoral aftermath of Brexit in England and Wales, as seen in the 2017 and 2019 general elections, and the possible paths forward. The steady growth of the identity liberal electorate of graduates and ethnic minorities has provided Labour with a powerful source of new votes. But this influx of new identity liberal supporters has also created new electoral risks, risks underlined by the party’s weak performance in the 2019 election. The growing electoral heft of identity liberals within the Labour coalition has increased the political power of identity politics to unsettle the attachments of economically left-wing but socially conservative ‘old left’ voters, who are increasingly at odds with the identity liberal groups now rising to dominance in Labour’s electoral coalition. The re-alignment of these voters, driven by Brexit, fuelled the Conservatives’ 2019 triumph, but that success in turn brings new challenges. The Conservatives have made major short-term gains with white school leavers, but must now meet the expectations of these disaffected and distrustful voters, and also face growing risks of counter-mobilisation from graduates and ethnic minorities opposed to the identity conservative politics they are now seen as representing.
In this chapter we turn to the story of the Scottish independence referendum, to showcase how social and political context play a critical role in critically shaping identity conflicts. Similar demographic and value divides were present in the Scottish Independence and EU referendums, and in both contexts a nationalist party had surged to prominence in part by mobilising these divisions and promoting constitutional change. Both Independence and Brexit won their strongest early support from identity conservative voters wishing to ‘take back control’, and in both cases the electoral success of nationalist parties advocating withdrawal from a larger union was a key factor leading to the holding of an exit referendum. Yet despite these parallels, the politics of the two referendums has been very different. Different patterns of identity attachment explain the divergent patterns of conflict and ultimately their outcomes – Scottish attachments to an overarching British identity are much stronger than English or British attachments to a European identity, while negative views of England and Westminster as out-groups are much weaker in Scotland than negative views of the EU and Brussels as out-groups in England. We also reflect on what lessons the political aftermath of divisive referendum campaigns Scotland offers.
Chapter 5 focuses on the long-term political trends that helped to set the scene for Brexitland. Both Labour and the Conservatives changed in ways which alienated voters and eroded traditional partisan political identities. The two governing parties converged ideologically, and their elites became dominated by career politicians recruited from a limited number of graduate-dominated professions, reducing the differences between parties and narrowing the sections of society they represented. Voters responded to these changes by losing interest in politics and becoming more hostile to politicians, reflecting a growing belief that they were being denied a meaningful choice. This alienation was particularly acute among identity conservative voters, creating a political opportunity for a new issue or a new political force to mobilise the intense discontent of this group. Sure enough, in the second half of the New Labour governments, an issue emerged with the ability to realise this potential: immigration. We show how and why conflicts over immigration rose up the agenda in the later New Labour governments, and why this issue proved to be such a powerful lightning rod for discontent among identity conservatives.
In Chapter 2, we trace the demographic developments that have driven both the rise of new ‘identity liberal’ electorates and the decline of the formerly dominant ‘identity conservative’ group. Educational expansion has opened universities, formerly the preserve of a small elite, to the masses. Migration and rising ethnic diversity have dramatically increased Britain’s ethnic and cultural diversity. The combined effects have transformed the typical experience of a young person growing up in Britain. A typical citizen growing up in the 1950s had little prospect of attending university and had little or no contact with people with different ethnic or religious backgrounds. But her granddaughter growing up in the 2010s knows a society where ethnic and religious diversity are a part of everyday life for most young people, and university was an experience enjoyed by the majority of her peers. The generational structure of both these changes and hence of the identities and values associated with them, drives the third demographic trend: growing generational divides. Finally, we show how the geographical distribution of the different demographic groups adds to the electoral polarisation between identity conservatives and identity liberals, who not only think differently, but also increasingly live apart from each other.