Why has UK politics become so unstable?
In recent years, the UK has experienced major instability, several governments falling. Rishi Sunak, the recently installed successor to the ill-fated Liz Truss, is the fifth prime minister in just over six years. This turmoil is at odds with the UK’s traditional reputation for stability. Resultingly, many people ask; why has UK politics become so unstable?
Whilst certain popular explanations are less plausible – emphasis on personalities does not convince me – Brexit is undoubtedly relevant, positions on the referendum undermining traditional party allegiances. Yet despite its importance, Brexit occurred in a system which was experiencing deeper instability.
In this post, I review two factors, changing patterns of class support and declining partisan identification, which underpin recent instability. These developments are common across liberal democracies – in recent years, international waters have been choppy – yet have particularly destabilized the UK, initiating and interacting with Brexit.
Firstly, patterns of class support have changed unusually quickly, party governance struggling to adjust. Historically, the Conservative Party is an alliance of capital owners and managers, whereas the Labour Party is an alliance of industrial workers and (to a lesser extent) sociocultural professionals.
There have always been tensions in these alliances, yet recent changes have been particularly destabilizing, reflecting socio-economic changes. Whilst the travails of Labour are famous – best-sellers chronicle the ascent of sociocultural professionals and decline of industrial workers within the party – the Conservatives have faced similar challenges. At the last election, the Conservatives attracted poorer Brexit supporters in post-industrial red wall seats.
Analysis of these developments is common, but few appreciate how disruptive these changes have been. Academic literature emphasizes that party support bases have a complementary relationship with wider institutions. In other words, established patterns of support suit existing systems and, if they unravel quickly, unpredictable consequences are likely to follow.
In practical terms, stable bases allow parties to anticipate the preferences of supporters, the Conservatives and Labour knowing certain groups like old friends. Parties have found it more difficult to understand new supporters. For example, the Conservatives have had difficulty anticipating the preferences of supporters in red wall seats, reflecting limited acquaintance with these voters and their (comparatively) left-wing economic preferences. Governance problems have compounded this. Electing Liz Truss, an activist selectorate chose a tax cutting agenda which was unpopular with newer voters. Labour has had similar problems, sociocultural professionals dominating the activist base. This led to the 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the cultural agenda of whom offended traditional supporters and led to disaster in the 2019 general election.
Secondly and relatedly, there has been a decline of partisan identification, i.e. fewer voters are loyal to specific parties. Scholars associate partisan identification with liberal-democratic stability. When voters are faithful to parties, historically the case in developed liberal democracies, this promotes stability. Yet across the West, partisan identification is declining. In the UK, the last British Election Study (BES) book argued that this created instability from 2015-19.
Recently, declining partisan identification has been just as destabilizing. Most notably, it has made Conservative polling vulnerable to sudden shocks. If the Conservatives enjoyed historic levels of partisan support, polling reactions to the mistakes of Johnson and Truss would probably have been less dramatic. Yet the volatile nature of the electorate meant that this was not so, encouraging Conservative MPs to remove the two leaders. Without the polling shocks, both leaders would probably have survived the crises.
Whilst Labour has been the beneficiary of recent instability, declining partisan identification will affect the party in the future. Should Labour win a large majority at the next election, assumptions that the party will govern for a generation are difficult. As we have seen in this parliament, things can change rapidly.
The relationship between Brexit and these two factors is intriguing. Notwithstanding its importance, Brexit would probably not have been so destabilizing had these conditions been absent. Indeed, one could argue that Brexit would not have happened at all, the referendum reflecting pre-2016 instability.
Yet the two factors which I have reviewed also exist in other Western countries, sometimes being more longstanding and influential than in the UK. Therefore, we return to our original question; why is UK politics so unstable? Notwithstanding the existence of turbulence in other contexts – EU member states are scarcely oases of stability – it is difficult to advance a contrarian position (!); instability reflects the influence of Brexit.
We may easily imagine a counterfactual in which Remain prevailed – for example, Boris Johnson might have supported Remain – yet, for better or worse, the UK left the EU, this initiating a decisive transformation of the state’s trajectory which, unlike other anti-system political movements, cannot be voted out.
Brexit has interacted with deeper pressures for instability, such as changing patterns of class support and declining partisan identification, making the UK one of the most unstable countries in the West. In the longer term, such pressures may diminish, the UK settling into a new path dependency. Yet this does not seem imminent. Even if Labour wins the next election, it appears unlikely that stability will return, these pressures not discriminating against parties. Though political junkies may relish this, markets and voters will take a different view.
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