Party Identification in the UK: A Thing of the Past?

Published: Apr 4, 2022  |  

Political writer

Growing up, my grandfather constantly reminded me that the Labour party is the party for “us.” He believed Labour was the party of the working class, the party that championed ethnic diversity, the party of equality, and opportunity. Labour made him feel at home in a country that was, at first, alien to him when he arrived from Punjab in India. He is a proud Labour voter, and has always felt that he could only identify and feel represented by Labour.

This concept of party identification has been central to debates about British voting behavior since its inception in the 1960s. However, while people up and down the United Kingdom like my grandfather may have a strong personal connection and affiliation to a particular political party, this notion of political partisanship and ideological loyalty in modern-day Britain is eroding.

The 2019 election was dubbed the “Brexit election,” with Britain’s membership in the European Union being the dominant issue. Despite previous party in-fighting during Theresa May’s tenure as PM on what a “best possible deal” would look like, the Tories continued to dominate the issue, enabling them to dictate the optics and direction of the issue. Labour was left squandering policy solutions that never quite cut the mustard.

Subsequently, election day led to large swathes of Labours’ “red wall” turning blue, with the bedrock of party support for generations wiped out. Some voters living in red wall seats, such as Bolsover and Bassetlaw, voted Tory for the first time. These were people who admitted their parents and grandparents would be “turning in their graves” at the sight of them voting for the Conservatives, as a blue vote would be a betrayal to their community. Why, though?

The short answer is: party dealignment. The UK has seen a significant shift in its economy and society, which dates back most prominently to the “Thatcher years.” The neoliberal free-market economics implemented and then seen through by successive governments since Thatcher has substantially weakened the relationship between the electorate, ideology, and party. The growth of the service sector, the decline of manufacturing, the rise in educational attainment, and homeownership are only a few of many issues that help explain the decline in political partisanship and the growing disconnect between people, their communities, and the “Westminster bubble.”

Britain has evolved with the media playing a massive role in how the electorate views parties, party leaders, and manifestos. If the job of PM were listed on, the main criteria would most likely be: a good head of hair, a well-tailored suit, and a deep but commanding voice for Prime Minister’s Questions. A very presidential style of conducting politics. The electorate’s eyes are on the leaders of the party. Policy solutions are an afterthought.

Of course, some people still vote out of principle for a party or set of policies. However, the electoral landscape and the idea of a party’s “safe seat” are up for debate now more than ever. The Tories stole Hartlepool; Labour nicked Putney. Party identification and loyalty are fading, making way for a new age of voters and voting issues, changing the political landscape every election cycle.

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