Sunak, in potholed northeast England, illustrates theory and practice of political change


British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s visit to Darlington in northeast England (on March 31) is a practical illustration of the theory of politics.

The theory is as follows: there is a significant realignment of the left and the right in Western democracies such as the UK and US and both the demand and supply side of politics is changing to revolve around tangled issues of identity rather than straightforward economics.

So to Mr Sunak and his Conservative Party as they begin campaigning for the May 4 local elections. The Conservatives badly wants to remain the choice of Darlington, a market town that was solidly Labour from 1992, voted leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum and elected a Conservative MP in December 2019. While it was about it, Darlington also managed in 2019, to put Labour out of business in the council. The Conservatives took control of the local authority, upending 40 years of political tradition and forcing the Labour Party to cede power in its traditional northern heartlands.

Darlington illustrates exactly what’s been underway in the practice of politics in the past half-century.

As Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent told Persuasion’s Yascha Mounk recently, both the demand and supply side of politics has profoundly changed in the past 40 years. Globalization, high rates of migration, and ethnic and demographic change have pushed voters to focus on so-called “cultural war” topics, which, he says, “are really questions that are much more about ‘Who are we?’ rather than ‘What do we have?’”

As for the supply side, Professor Goodwin points out that the right has generally been much better at appealing across traditional party lines, as we can see with “Britain’s Conservatives during the Brexit wars [and] Trump’s Republicans” even as the left has largely failed to understand that the foundation of politics is not about Industrial Revolution-era class and redistribution.

Unsurprisingly then, Mr Sunak got himself down to Darlington and took a jolly good look at the potholed roads, for which he was mercilessly pilloried. He also made a load of promises about fixing everything up, for which he was jeered. And he did his best to show how plugged in the Conservatives were to the cavity-ridden, deprived northeast of England, for which he was stared at with admiration and disbelief.