The Northern Strategy: How Nixon won the South. How Boris will try and win the North.

Up until the 1950s the Southern States of the USA were solidly Democrat. From the 1870s onwards the “Solid South” voted Democrat even when the rest of the USA voted Republican. This map shows the 1956 Presidential election. The blue states held out for the Democrat Adlai Stevenson while the rest of the US went to Eisenhower/Nixon:

This is hard to believe for my generation who grew assuming that the Southern States had always been dominated by white identity politics, gun ownership and banning abortion. This shift from Blue to Red wasn’t an accident of history, it was the result of a political campaign – the Southern Strategy – promoted first by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon in the 1960 – 1972 Presidential elections.

The Southern Strategy was simple and cynical. Exploit the racial tensions of the civil rights era and stir up grievances among white voters to persuade them to switch to the Republicans. Ken Mehlman, Chairman of the Republican Party under GW Bush went so far as to apologise for this to the NAACP:

“Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization….I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

Today’s Republican party apparently shows no contrition for promoting white supremacy in the Southern States.

The Conservative Challenge

Here in the UK we are shuffling unhappily towards another sharply polarising General Election, with all the enthusiasm of a teenager being sent to tidy their bedroom. The Conservatives are in the process of reshaping themselves as a party of authoritarian English Nationalism. This will almost certainly cost them all of their 13 seats in Scotland, marginal seats like St Ives in the South West, and London seats like Richmond Park.

Despite this the Boris Johnson seems convinced he can win a majority. To do this they need to win roughly 30 seats. I’m being generous and assuming they can retain the seats of the 21 MPs they just expelled.

Lets start with the top 50 Conservative target seats, arranged by the swing needed to capture the seat:

Constituency Current MP Region/Nation Maj%
Perth and North Perthshire SNP Scotland 21 0.02%
Kensington Labour London 20 0.03%
Dudley North Labour West Midlands 22 0.03%
Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour West Midlands 30 0.03%
Crewe and Nantwich Labour North West 48 0.04%
Canterbury Labour South East 187 0.16%
Barrow and Furness Labour North West 209 0.22%
Keighley Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 249 0.24%
Lanark and Hamilton East SNP Scotland 266 0.26%
Ashfield Labour East Midlands 441 0.44%
Stroud Labour South West 687 0.54%
Bishop Auckland Labour North East 502 0.58%
Peterborough Labour East of England 607 0.64%
Oxford West and Abingdon Lib Dem South East 816 0.68%
Westmorland and Lonsdale Lib Dem North West 777 0.75%
Colne Valley Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 915 0.76%
Ipswich Labour East of England 831 0.81%
Bedford Labour East of England 789 0.81%
Stockton South Labour North East 888 0.82%
Edinburgh South West SNP Scotland 1,097 1.11%
Warwick and Leamington Labour West Midlands 1,206 1.12%
Penistone and Stocksbridge Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 1,322 1.33%
Carshalton and Wallington Lib Dem London 1,369 1.35%
Argyll and Bute SNP Scotland 1,328 1.38%
Eastbourne Lib Dem South East 1,609 1.40%
Ayrshire Central SNP Scotland 1,267 1.41%
Lincoln Labour East Midlands 1,538 1.58%
Portsmouth South Labour South East 1,554 1.74%
Warrington South Labour North West 2,549 2.06%
Derby North Labour East Midlands 2,015 2.07%
High Peak Labour East Midlands 2,322 2.16%
Battersea Labour London 2,416 2.19%
Wakefield Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 2,176 2.35%
Wolverhampton South West Labour West Midlands 2,185 2.58%
Wrexham Labour Wales 1,832 2.61%
Stoke-on-Trent North Labour West Midlands 2,359 2.82%
Dewsbury Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 3,321 2.94%
Vale of Clwyd Labour Wales 2,379 3.07%
East Lothian Lib Dem Scotland 3,618 3.24%
Kingston and Surbiton Lib Dem London 4,124 3.32%
Norfolk North Labour East of England 3,512 3.36%
Reading East Labour South East 3,749 3.39%
Gower Labour Wales 3,269 3.59%
Blackpool South Labour North West 2,523 3.61%
Great Grimsby Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 2,565 3.61%
Linlithgow and Falkirk East SNP Scotland 4,077 3.63%
Darlington Labour North East 3,280 3.66%
Ayrshire North and Arran SNP Scotland 3,633 3.83%
Weaver Vale Labour North West 3,928 3.88%
Rother Valley Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 3,882 3.92%

Lets take out the seats in Scotland and Wales (where an English Nationalist Tory Party have no chance) London marginals, and seats in the South East which are strong Remain. This gives us 34 seats, roughly the minimum the Conservatives need to win a slim majority. I’ve organised them by region to see the geographic spread:

Constituency Current MP Region/Nation Maj %
Ashfield Labour East Midlands 441 0.44%
Lincoln Labour East Midlands 1,538 1.58%
Derby North Labour East Midlands 2,015 2.07%
High Peak Labour East Midlands 2,322 2.16%
Peterborough Labour East of England 607 0.64%
Ipswich Labour East of England 831 0.81%
Bedford Labour East of England 789 0.81%
Norfolk North Labour East of England 3,512 3.36%
Bishop Auckland Labour North East 502 0.58%
Stockton South Labour North East 888 0.82%
Darlington Labour North East 3,280 3.66%
Crewe and Nantwich Labour North West 48 0.04%
Barrow and Furness Labour North West 209 0.22%
Westmorland and Lonsdale Lib Dem North West 777 0.75%
Warrington South Labour North West 2,549 2.06%
Blackpool South Labour North West 2,523 3.61%
Weaver Vale Labour North West 3,928 3.88%
Canterbury Labour South East 187 0.16%
Eastbourne Lib Dem South East 1,609 1.40%
Portsmouth South Labour South East 1,554 1.74%
Reading East Labour South East 3,749 3.39%
Stroud Labour South West 687 0.54%
Dudley North Labour West Midlands 22 0.03%
Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour West Midlands 30 0.03%
Warwick and Leamington Labour West Midlands 1,206 1.12%
Wolverhampton South West Labour West Midlands 2,185 2.58%
Stoke-on-Trent North Labour West Midlands 2,359 2.82%
Keighley Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 249 0.24%
Colne Valley Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 915 0.76%
Penistone and Stocksbridge Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 1,322 1.33%
Wakefield Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 2,176 2.35%
Dewsbury Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 3,321 2.94%
Great Grimsby Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 2,565 3.61%
Rother Valley Labour Yorkshire and the Humber 3,882 3.92%

Some of these seats are bellweather marginals. Stockton South changed hands in 1997, 2010 and 2017. It’s last Tory MP was the hapless James Wharton who will be remembered only for coming top of the ballot for private members bills and choosing to propose the European Union Referendum Bill. Wanker.

But lots of these seats have never elected a Tory; Rother Valley, Bishop Auckland, Stoke on Trent North, Dudley North have been Labour since they were established. The Tories last won Great Grimsby and Wakefield under Stanley Baldwin, the last Tory leader to win Newcastle Under Lyme was Disraeli.

In stark terms – to have any chance of winning a majority the Conservatives will need to pick up dozens of traditional Labour seats in the Midlands, Yorks and Humber and across the North, including seats which have never elected a Tory before.

To complete the picture this is the list of Labour and Tory targets

Region Tory Targets Labour Targets Total
South East 4 10 14
South West 1 5 6
Midlands 9 17 26
North West 5 6 11
NE&C 4 1 5
Y&H 7 5 12
East  4 6 10
Wales 0 7 7
London 0 9 9

This is more than just persuading those voters that they have the best policies. Politics is as much about a sense of identity as it as about specific policies. People who identity as Labour or Tory, are unlikely to change their views based on specific policies. The question the Tories face is: How do you change people’s tribal political identity.

Goldwater and Nixon: Loss Resentment and Crisis

The Republican’s Southern Strategy gives us a worked example of how to go about this.

The first step was to create a sense of loss. A loss of privilege, a loss of identity, a loss of values.   A loss of status or position in a social hierarchy. The loss of a traditional order which placed white people above black people. The loss of a way of life.

The second step was to turn that loss into resentment and grievance.   That others are being given privileges that by right belong to them.  That others identities are being promoted above theirs, other peoples values above their own. They are being treated unfairly. They are the real victims, persecuted by wicked federal politicians from far off Washington DC.

The final step was to create a sense of urgency, of crisis. That racial tensions of the civil rights era threatened a race war, riots, conflict. That unless they acted urgently all they held dear was under threat. Maybe even the existence of the white majority itself was at threat.

A popular slogan on the traditional white supremacist right captures this:

“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”

Unsurprisingly the states which were swung to the Republicans in this way experienced a big increase in gun ownership among white families.

Boris and the Northern Strategy

If we use the same 3 steps we could see how the Tories can target white voters in blue collar constituencies that historically voted Labour.

It’s pretty easy to see how this will play out. I’m going to pick on Sunderland for the next bit, not because it is a Tory target seat, but because I know it well and it shares many characteristics with the seats the Tories are aiming for. It is also well Brexity:

In many of these constituencies the sense of loss is palpable, it is all around you. I remember what Sunderland was like in the early 1970s before we joined the EEC. The high street was bustling, the town had it’s own department stores: Doggarts and Joplings, and people travelled from across the region to shop there. My own gran had a large collection of matching hats and coats from Joplings.

The Department stores are gone, and with them most of the shoppers. The same high street today is dominated by a large Poundland, occupying the site opposite the old Joplings building:

When Joplings was at it’s heyday you could leave school with no qualifications and find well paid manual work which would give you respect, and pay enough to raise a family. If you kept your nose clean you could get on without having to have college education.

The working environments for manual jobs were all white and all male. You could say what you thought without anyone complaining you were being racist, sexist or homophobic. Outside of work things werethe same; pubs, football grounds, CIU were just as homogenous. The whole North East was a white male only safe space.

The communities that large scale manual labour produced had their own distinctive character. They were tight knit, and followed a kind of practical socialism, rallying round to help each other. These societies were also rigidly socially conservative, and highly conformist. Everyone knew each others business, and any deviation from rigid conformity wasn’t tolerated. A woman’s place was in the kitchen, a gay person’s place was in the closet, and the only Asian faces were behind the counter of a take away. Age was respected, and the opinions of older people were listened to regardless of whether they were sensible or not. Respect your elders and your betters.

The economics of these communities has changed. To get on you need college education, and without it opportunities are restricted to zero hours contracts on the national minimum wage. Jobs that don’t get respect.

The distinction between the old skilled manual employment that didn’t need formal qualifications and modern unskilled manual employment may seem slight to people with degrees, but the difference is profound in terms of wages and respect.

Skilled manual employment allowed people in an area like Sunderland to afford a reasonably sized house, a decent education for their children, state healthcare and a reliable pension. Foreign holidays too, and a new car every few years.

Unskilled manual employment in the current labour market means poorly paid and/or insecure employment jobs that make the worker feel that have no control for the circumstances . A house, holiday and car are out of reach for these employees.

These workers no longer find political representation through the Labour Party or the Trades Unions, neither of which offer any solution to this decline in employment status

But the change in employment patterns isn’t just economic – it is cultural too. As technology removes skilled manual jobs, men are pushed increasingly in work which involves interaction with customers. In these jobs workers are expected to act and speak in line with socially liberal values. Interactions are policed by supervisors who record calls and check to ensure that the customers ethnicity, sexuality, gender characteristics are being privileged. Management control doesn’t just include work tasks, but how people express themselves.

The tight knit homogenous communities that mass skilled manual labour produced are in permanent decline. People might share their lives on social media but they don’t want their neighbours to know their business, or judge them on their politics or sexuality. Society is just as heirachical, but their position in it is much less certain, and the respect that came with age no longer applies.

None of these changes of course have anything to do with the EU, and leaving won’t change a thing, but that doesn’t matter. It is the sense of loss that matters, and for communities which used to be the backbone of the Labour movement that sense of loss is palpable and no-one in the Labour leadership seems to have noticed. The modern world doesn’t share their values or respect them, nor does the Labour Party, which is entirely given over to social liberalism.

Turning that sense of loss into resentment and grievance is the easiest part of the process. Others are being given privileges that by right belong to them.  Not just privileges, but financial preferment through the benefit system. Others identities are being promoted above theirs, other peoples values above their own.   The press have been eager to exploit these resentments, insecurities and grievances for years.  Some politicians had too, but many steered clear of openly embracing this agenda, partly for fear of unleashing forces beyond their control, but also because they felt, like David Cameron, that embracing a socially liberal centre ground was the way forward.  

One of the key areas of grievance was the welfare system. Too difficult for honest people to get help, too easy for those who wanted to milk the system. In particular too easy for immigrants to access, without accepting the moral obligations implicit in the system. This clash between self reliant practical socialism and the central welfare state run by privately educated politicians who would never need it was a key grievance, easily exploited by newspapers and politicians who were prepared to blur truth and fiction in order to encourage a sense of unfairness.

One of the chief grievances is the sense that an English national identity is under threat, and that expressions of this English national identity are frowned upon while all other identies are celebrated. It’s easy to laugh when this English nationalist sentiment is expressed by daft memes on social media about banning flags, or burning poppies, but that doesn’t mean it is any less strongly felt.

Corbyn is clearly hugely unpopular with this group of voters, not because of any particular policy, but because he represents a middle class leftie political identity. This is of course, precisely why he is so popular with his middle class supporters. But the problem goes back longer than that. Many of these voters had been uneasy with Labour embrace of social liberalism under Blair, and it’s enthusiasm not just for immigration, but for the identity politics of immigrant communities.  Sunderland has low levels of immigration and a rapidly shrinking population, but despite that immigration and immigrant identity is much greater grievance.

The final part of the process is the sense or urgency, of crisis. That was why the current moment is so politically charged. Brexit is in crisis, potentially an existential crisis. The current crisis creates the sense of urgency – something valuable is at urgent risk  – Brexit, and with it the chance to return to some older values, recapture what was lost.  That urgency, discontinuity is key to breaking down political identities and re-shaping them.

This is why the current shambolic crisis engulfing Johnson and the whole Brexit process hasn’t damaged his poll ratings. A sense of crisis, of things in the balance, or fast moving events works in his favour. It gives the impetus to change political identity. The last chance to save Brexit before it is too late.

If Johnson succeeds these voters might become tribal Tories for decades to come, embracing an authoritarian English nationalist political identity, particularly if Johnson can convince them he will spend money on the NHS and make the benefit system fairer. Some of these voters were naturally drawn to authoritarianism – there were plenty of hangers and floggers in traditional working class communities. Others are prepared to endorse authoritarian policies only to protect or reclaim their privileges and identity.  

Johnson might be losing votes in the Commons, but so far he is winning the process of political transformation. One of the key features of Leave voters is that they are mistrustful of the political establishment, but at the same time willing to place almost uncritical trust in establishment politicians like Farage, Johnson or even Rees Mogg. They trust these politicians because they understand the sense of loss, the feeling that change is loss, and they accept the legitimacy of their grievances no matter how crazy.

A few months ago Trump heralded the election of Boris Johnson by calling him “Britain Trump”. I think he is wrong.

Johnson is the British Nixon. An unprincipled little man stirring up grievances and insecurities among white voters to get power heedless of the consequences.

Brixon.

The Britain Trump is a few years down the line. We might even look back on Brixon with nostalgia.

Links:

https://www.sunderlandecho.com/news/crime/sunderland-protester-billy-charlton-goes-on-trial-accused-of-stirring-up-racial-hatred-540567

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/09/post-brexit-sunderland-if-this-money-doesnt-go-to-the-nhs-i-will-go-mad?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

https://research-information.bristol.ac.uk/files/167839376/Sunderland_Final_070918.pdf

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