Everyone is asking when the general election battle might begin, but hardly anyone is asking the more important sequitur: on what political ground will it be fought?
For the last fifty years, electoral campaigns have been waged in the name of liberty. Labour’s 1964 manifesto pledged that “Labour firmly puts the freedom of the individual first.” Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms were prefaced by a 1979 manifesto that argued “the balance of our society has been increasingly tilted in favour of the State at the expense of individual freedom”. In 1997, Labour’s landslide was built on policies of “diversity” and “choice” on everything from schools to pensions to housing supply. On the steps of Downing Street in May 2010, David Cameron proclaimed the first value of his government to be freedom.
The next general election, whenever it comes, will be very different. As Onward research shows this morning, today’s voters seem to want more structure in their lives, not less. Nearly two thirds (65%) favour “a society that focuses on giving people more security”, compared to 35% who want one that gives people more freedom. When considering specific issues, they think that the growth of cities has been bad for society, the explosion in university access harmful for the country, and put the falling marriage rates down to a decline in values. And this is true of virtually every age group, ethnicity, region and every party’s voters.
Interestingly, this is not a nostalgic longing for a bygone age. When asked to choose, three fifths (58%) want to live in a society that embraces change over one that preserves tradition. People want politicians to go further on gender equality and on the whole support flexible working in the modern economy. It is clear that people want change, just not the change that has been offered in the past. Indeed, when asked about key tenets of modern liberalism such as globalisation and technological change, people are fearful rather than welcoming.
This newfound scepticism of liberal reforms extends to liberal democracy itself. In other countries, we find that – while 84% of people say that a “democratic political system” is a good way to run the country – three fifths of voters think “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Parliament” is a good way to run the country, and among under-35s, 36% favour “putting the army in charge”.
The shift from a post-war liberal consensus to a post-Brexit era of belonging is both a threat and an opportunity. It underscores the challenge for established parties who have in recent decades competed over the liberal centre ground. The first party to embrace the politics of belonging can break the deadlock and win a respectable majority – something no party has achieved since 2005.
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It is clear that Labour and Conservatives – both of whom, we find, have lost close to half of their 2017 votes – must redefine their offer, and lean towards security and protection instead of freedom. If they don’t, the two party politics that has dominated British politics since the 17th Century will be no more. While strongly pro-freedom voters do exist, they are a small proportion of the electorate.
This is particularly true for the new Prime Minister and his team in Number 10. We find that Conservatives are twice as likely to favour security over belonging as those who would not consider the Conservatives, and only 29% of party’s defectors to the Brexit Party favour a society that focuses on giving people more freedom. There may be Conservative MPs who self-describe as “freedom fighters”, but their core electorate do not.
The question is not when the general election will come – it is coming – but how it will be fought. In the post-war period, the organising principle of politics was freedom. Today, it is security. The times have changed and politicians must change with them if they want to survive.