Red wall Brexiters will be the ‘hero voters’ of the next election. The rest of us are just walk-on players
Whatever happens in the next general election, Britain will be governed by some kind of coalition. That can be said with confidence because all governments are coalitions of some kind, even when there is only one ruling party.
There are Conservatives who see Rishi Sunak as their rightful leader and others who submit to his authority without enthusiasm. The factions must be balanced in cabinet. The chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, is a Sunakian. The home secretary, Suella Braverman, was a rival leadership candidate for the party of perpetual Brexit.
The current Tory party chair, Greg Hands, is indigenous to pre-referendum conservatism, an urbane former remainer who served in George Osborne’s Treasury. His deputy, Lee Anderson, is a fire-breathing “anti-woke” culture warrior who defected to the Tories from Labour in 2018.
That is coalition politics. It also describes Downing Street’s strategy for retaining some of the majority won in 2019. That means defending the “red wall” – former Labour seats in northern England and the Midlands, where craving for Brexit was the gateway drug to voting for Boris Johnson. But it also means wooing back moderate Tories who recoiled from Johnson’s circus of disrepute and Liz Truss’s pyrotechnic economic mismanagement.
The plan is that one side of the Tory party wins back economic trust with a prolonged display of competence, while the other side slams doors in migrant faces to prove it is still the nemesis of European judges and their metropolitan liberal accomplices.
The two elements must then be combined in the image of a strong, dependable leader. Sunak is more popular than his party and in a presidential race against Keir Starmer he would certainly be competitive. The opposition leader’s allies concede that he has work to do with the many voters who are window shopping for an alternative government and need to be lured through Labour’s door.
But there isn’t much evidence yet that the incumbent prime minister’s personality is sturdy enough to hoist MPs out of danger in all the seats where the Conservative brand is toxic.
There are notionally scores of seats in play at the next election, presaging a potentially seismic shift in the political landscape. But both of the main English parties have their sights set on a narrow slice of the population. Deborah Mattinson, Starmer’s director of strategy, calls them “hero voters” – the ones who swing directly from Tory to Labour, effectively having double the impact of anyone who moves from a third party. The profile of these voters is Brexit-supporting, older (but not retired), economically precarious, socially conservative, white, not in big cities and without higher education.
The anxieties and prejudices of those people exert a magnetic pull on national debate to the exclusion of other voters.
An election fought over the allegiance of red wall Brexiters is an away fixture for Starmer, whose remain-voting liberal lawyer CV is no secret. But the electoral system does give the Labour leader an advantage, too. He would prefer to win a majority, but the door to No 10 creaks open for him as soon as the Tories lose theirs, since no other party will prop up a minority, Sunak-led administration.
The Liberal Democrats have signalled that they are in the business of replacing Tories. Their leader, Ed Davey, hasn’t broadcast instructions to his members to vote tactically in places where a Labour candidate is better placed to unseat an incumbent Conservative, but the message is implicit in the choice of constituencies being targeted and the tone of campaign rhetoric.
Starmer might not be a president-elect, but Britain has a parliamentary system and he is de facto leader of the GTTO coalition – Get The Tories Out. That can be a powerful alliance, although also a fragile one. It was fractured for many years by the Lib Dem decision to form an actual coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. It fell apart completely in 2019 because too many swing voters decided the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister was the most repellent one on the ballot paper.
Starmer has worked hard to repair the damage done by his predecessor, to the point of forbidding him from running as a Labour candidate.
That has disoriented the Corbynite left, which now faces an interesting choice. Loyalty to the exiled independent MP for Islington North means formal rupture from Labour and a future of paddling in the stagnant waters of Marxist protest politics. Rowing in behind Starmer (albeit with much grumbling about principles betrayed) offers a slipstream to future influence over a party in power. It is clear where the left’s interests lie – and it isn’t martyrdom to the lost Corbyn cause.
That also means that even if Starmer wins a majority, he too will find himself governing a coalition. Old divisions are buried, but not deep. They will be disinterred by the hard choices that any government has to make.
The disciplined line Labour is currently holding expresses the appetite for victory worked up after a steady diet of defeats, while patience is instilled by opinion poll leads. Those factors will not pertain once a Labour chancellor is rationing funding to cash-starved public services and a Labour home secretary is grappling with Kentish border control.
Ask Labour MPs how they feel about that prospect and they say they will gladly take the problems of government over the grind of opposition. Also that they are not complacent because the mountain to climb after the crushing defeat in 2019 is so steep. And they are right. The road to Downing Street is narrow and goes by way of persuading Tory voters to switch sides. But it is a dispiriting prospect for those of us who happen not to live along that route; we, the unheroic, second-class voters, whose ballots will be made by imprecise tactical calculation or cast on to a heap in already safe seats.
This is not a new foible of British democracy. For as long as elections have been settled by the first-past-the-post system, millions of voters have had their preferences marginalised. But the imbalance feels especially perverse when politics has been polarised on a range of issues, and the veto-wielding tranche of the electorate is clustered on one side of a partisan divide. If these super voters were swinging on a left-right axis, or a leave-remain one, the battle for their allegiance might at least be a meaningful microcosm of the nationwide competition. But they aren’t.
So British politics must be bent out of shape to make some opinions prominent and fold others out of sight: the idea that leaving the EU was a mistake, for example, or that migration is good for the economy, or that mass indefinite detention of asylum seekers is not a practice for civilised democracies. Those views are widely held, but they will not be visible on a campaign trail mapped by Labour and Tory strategists. Anyone who believes such heresies must simply wait and see what kind of coalition we get next.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist