While the UK Independence Party and the Brexit Party performed poorly in the 2019 UK elections, the right-wing populism they espouse is not a spent force. Rather, in what may be the most important British election in decades, their presence was a deciding influence on the course of the election, and on the eventual victory of the Conservative Party.
Right-wing populist parties did not fare well in the recent British elections. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) won a paltry 0.1 percent of the vote, while the Nigel Farage-led Brexit Party won 2 percent, having made the strategic decision to help the Conservative Party by refusing to run candidates in electorates held by Conservatives. At the same time, right-wing populism remains a powerful force in the United Kingdom. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend the Conservative Party’s massive election win without understanding the role played by right-wing populism, first in pushing the Conservatives to hold a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership, and also in legitimising nationalist rhetoric in public discourse.
The 2019 UK General Election, won in a landslide by Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, tells us two important things about British politics. First, that in England a portion of traditional Labour voters, particularly those living outside major cities and low-skilled workers, are shifting away from centre-left parties and increasingly voting for nationalist right-wing parties. That Labour appears to have lost so many traditional working-class seats is shocking in itself. More shocking is that it lost these seats with the most left-wing, pro-working-class leader the party has had in decades. Jeremy Corbyn is, if nothing else, the very image of a British socialist: bearded, vegetarian, and committed to spending large amounts of money on social welfare programmes. To this end, he pledged to increase funding to the NHS, raise taxes on the wealthy, and make university education free.
It is easy to imagine that these policies would appeal to working and lower middle-class voters. Why, then, did Labour do so badly in the election? The answer clearly has something to do with Brexit. After all, it was during the referendum on Britain’s European Union membership that the first signs that working-class Britons were unhappy with Labour began to appear. One of the most interesting things about the Brexit vote was the way in which it revealed divisions between the Labour party and many of its voters on the question of Britain’s belonging within the European Union. While the party itself opposed a British exit from the EU, most of its working-class supporters voted for Brexit. Suddenly, these working-class English – most of them living outside the wealthy, multi-ethnic cities – found themselves politically aligned with the right-wing populist UKIP on an issue.
Working and lower middle-class support for Brexit seems to be predicated on the idea that mass immigration has made their lives worse and must be slowed. This may not be true. The perception, however, exists and is the basis for the small revolt which saw working-class Britons defy Labour and vote to leave the EU. The Brexit referendum revealed, then, a fracture in British politics. While on paper the Labour Party’s coalition of working-class people, immigrants, and wealthier social progressives appears strong, this Brexit demonstrated that on the issue of immigration, this coalition was divided. The 2019 election has demonstrated just how disastrously divided the Labour base is on immigration. While the party continued to win the support of immigrant communities and middle-class social progressives, Labour lost a number of its longest held working-class seats, particularly in more rural areas, including Workington, Leigh, and Blyth Valley.
In losing these traditional Labour seats to a right-wing party, Labour is conforming to a wider European pattern. In France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the rural working and middle classes are turning against the centre-left and voting for conservative – or increasingly – right-wing populist parties. The key issue in all these communities is immigration, or rather the belief that mass immigration is making it more difficult for working people to find a good job, buy a home, or live in a nice area of a big city. There is doubtless also an element of xenophobia involved. Thus, they turn away from the pro-immigrant left and towards the economic nationalist right, which promises to stop immigration and bring back jobs. This pattern is behind the astonishing decline of the Dutch Labour Party, the French Socialists, and the Social Democratic Party in Germany, all of which have experienced a dramatic decline in support over the past decade as right-wing populist parties grew. Yet in the UK, we see a slightly different pattern emerge. The decline of Labour has not resulted in the rise of UKIP or the Brexit Party. Rather, the Conservatives have benefited from the working classes deserting Labour.
The second thing, then, that the election tells us is that right-wing populist parties are not electorally successful in the UK. The poor election results of UKIP and the Brexit Party, however, are not the result of a public rejection of their core ideas, but rather the product of the Conservative Party embracing elements of right-wing populism. Boris Johnson, recognising how unpopular mass immigration has become in parts of the UK, indicated he will slow the number of people moving to Britain. Equally, he announced he is steering the Conservatives away from the free-market based economic politics which have characterised the party since the 1980s, and will instead increase public sector funding. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, of course, has turned away from the neoliberal, pro-market politics personified by Tony Blair. Yet the party’s failure in 2019 shows how difficult it is to balance the interests of Britain’s working class, middle class, and immigrant communities. By calling for open borders and a second referendum on Brexit, they have lost some of their traditional rural and low-skilled worker support. On the other hand, if they were to call for an end to mass immigration, they would lose the support of migrant communities and much of the wealthy middle classes in London and other large cosmopolitan cities. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have embraced the big spending, anti-immigration, patriotic rhetoric of many European right-wing populist parties. By moderating this language, the party has received an election result which low-taxing, pro-immigration Tories such as David Cameron could never have achieved.
So what does this election tell us about right-wing populism in the UK? While right-wing populist parties failed to win seats at the 2019 UK election, their powerful influence over British politics can be seen in the Conservative victory. By opening up debates on once-settled issues – EU membership, mass immigration – UKIP and the Brexit Party created fractures in the British political system which were ultimately exploited by the Conservative Party. The popularity of UKIP and the Brexit Party, and the electoral threat they posed to the Conservatives, essentially forced the Tories to adopt some of the eurosceptic, anti-immigration rhetoric and policies characteristic of right-wing populism. The Labour Party could not do this without losing much of its immigrant community and socially progressive, white collar support. So while individual right-wing populist parties UKIP and the Brexit Party enter the dustbin of history, right-wing populism is not defeated. In what may be the most important British election in decades, their presence was a deciding influence on the course of the election, and on the eventual victory of the Conservative party. What remains to be seen is whether the Conservatives govern according to their populist rhetoric, or whether they will continue to allow mass immigration, and fail to deliver on their promise to spend more on the healthcare system, law and order, and other public utilities.
Nicholas Morieson holds a PhD from the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, where he is a lecturer in American Politics.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.