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Getting back in the DeLorean modernization vs anti modernization in contemporary British politics

Policy Studies
ISSN: 0144-2872 (Print) 1470-1006 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/cpos20
Getting back in the DeLorean: modernization
vs. anti-modernization in contemporary British
Peter Kerr, Emma Foster, Alex Oaten & Neema Begum
To cite this article: Peter Kerr, Emma Foster, Alex Oaten & Neema Begum (2018) Getting back in
the DeLorean: modernization vs. anti-modernization in contemporary British politics, Policy Studies,
39:3, 292-309, DOI: 10.1080/01442872.2018.1478407
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/01442872.2018.1478407
Published online: 27 Jun 2018.
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2018, VOL. 39, NO. 3, 292–309
Getting back in the DeLorean: modernization vs.
anti-modernization in contemporary British politics
Peter Kerra, Emma Fostera, Alex Oatena and Neema Begumb
Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK;
School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK
This article highlights a growing clash between mainstream
modernizing and populist anti-modernizing forces in the UK.
Whilst scholarship on UK party politics has, for the past three
decades, focussed on processes of party modernization, little
attention has been paid to the countervailing processes of
resistance towards modernization. This contrasts with comparative
studies, which show that throughout much of Europe
modernization processes have worked to produce populist
backlashes from anti-modernizing forces seeking to reassert
various types of traditional values and practices. Drawing on the
comparative literature on modernization, our argument here is
that a similar populist backlash against modernization is occurring
across the political spectrum in the UK and has been a factor in:
the rise of nationalism associated with UKIP and the SNP; the
2016 BREXIT vote and the efforts of both Labour leader Jeremy
Corbyn and Conservative PM Theresa May to distance their parties
from the legacies of their modernizing predecessors. Empirically,
we show how this increasingly prevalent line of conflict is playing
out in the UK, whilst theoretically we argue that a discourse
theoretical approach can provide significant advantages over
existing approaches for understanding the dynamic interplay
between modernizing and anti-modernizing discourses.
Received 11 May 2018
Accepted 11 May 2018
Modernization; antimodernization; populism;
Conservative Party; Labour
Party; UKIP
On the 21st October 2015 – the so-called Back to the Future Day – David Cameron used
his weekly PMQs exchange with Jeremy Corbyn to quip about the Labour leader: “I am not
surprised that many people sitting behind him say he should get in his Delorean and go
back to 1985 and stay there”. The quip brought into focus the view of Corbyn’s critics that
his vision is distinctly anti-modern, taking inspiration from a past, and ostensibly discredited, era of Labour politics. Little could Cameron, the modernizing leader of the Conservatives, have anticipated at that time, that his own leadership would soon be over in the
wake of the BREXIT vote and that his successor, Theresa May, would quickly purge
Cameron’s former modernizing allies, together with his modernization legacy. The resultant politics in the wake of Brexit, reflected in a turn towards more traditional Labour and
Conservative politics, raises the important question of whether party politics in the UK is
CONTACT Peter Kerr
[email protected]
Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
beginning to mirror developments in European politics, with mainstream modernizing
forces being increasingly challenged by an insurgent populist anti-modernizing backlash.
This article examines this question, and, in doing so, shifts the main focus of attention
away from the analyses of party modernization which have dominated the party politics
literature in the UK for much of the past three decades. The UK party politics literature,
unlike its European counterpart, has paid little attention to the flip side of modernization;
the countervailing forces of resistance to modernization. This article addresses this gap by
highlighting growing evidence that modernizing discourses in the UK have worked to
create their own backlash and are being increasingly challenged by anti-modernizing narratives. These narratives involve a rejection of certain elements of modernization, alongside a reassertion of various aspects of tradition and nostalgia for the past. In the European
politics literature, this type of nostalgic resistance to modernization has long been cited as
an explanation for the ascendancy of the contemporary populist zeitgeist.
Here, our aim is to make a number of contributions to these existing literatures. Firstly,
we argue that growing clashes between mainstream modernizing and populist anti-modernizing discourses are working to re-structure both inter-party and intra-party competition in the UK. Secondly, we argue that the emerging anti-modernizing backlash is
not confined to the populist right, as some literature implies; rather, it has as much potential to explain the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as it does the earlier increased support for UKIP.
Thirdly, we utilize a discourse theoretical approach for understanding these conflicts. In
doing so, we criticize much of the existing literature for too readily depicting modernization and anti-modernization as static, fixed, political alignments; rather we show that
these positions have a more fluid and relational character, helping to condition and
shape the emergence of each other. Fourthly, we argue that, in this relational sense,
both should be viewed as performing the function in discourse of Ernesto Laclau’s
(2005) “empty signifiers”. As empty signifiers, these discourses have come to perform
three key political functions; they (i) are being increasingly used to mobilize voters; (ii)
work to construct the identity and demands of such voters and (iii) help to create a
social antagonism which attempts to depoliticize or naturalize particular policy agendas.
The article will proceed as follows. Firstly, we attempt to ground our arguments in a
range of scholarly literature, both in the UK and comparative European contexts, which
suggests that an anti-modernizing, populist zeitgeist has begun to replace a former
trend towards modernization. Secondly, we then try to demonstrate how this dynamic
is currently helping to restructure party conflicts, both in and between, the Labour
party, the Conservatives and UKIP, respectively. Finally, we then move on to apply
some of Ernesto Laclau’s insights on populism to demonstrate the contingent and fluid
nature of these conflicts and the political identities they work to produce.
1. The modernization zeitgeist
For several decades, the discourse of modernization came to define what now looks like a
passing era of UK party politics (Byrne, Foster, and Kerr 2012). Since the 1960s, modernization has underpinned various governmental projects, from the first Wilson Administration’s attempts to harness the “white heat of technology” to the Thatcher
Governments’ efforts to overhaul the putatively social democratic post-war regime.
However, more recently, modernization was embodied by the Labour Party’s attempts
during the 1980s and 1990s to adapt to what it saw as the realities of neo-liberal globalization (Hay 1999; Heffernan 2000); a process which, itself, has become synonymous with
modernization. Portrayed as an inescapable response to such realities, Labour’s modernization project started as an exercise in internal party restructuring and rebranding, before
extending outwards in innumerable attempts to modernize broader British society
(Finlayson 2003). In a more limited way, the discourse of modernization was more
recently seized upon by David Cameron who, following his election as Conservative
Party Leader in 2005, embarked on his own modernization drive to address the Party’s
electoral problems in the wake of the New Labour project.
Unsurprisingly, a great deal of scholarly attention has been directed towards understanding such processes of party modernization. Within this literature, the interpretation
of modernization is contested. It is generally agreed that both Conservative and Labour
Party modernizations involved a number of shared elements, including: organizational
change; policy change; image rebranding; a putative move to the centre; a distancing of
the parties from their pasts and, most importantly, an accommodation of both parties
towards what their leaderships perceived to be “modern” conditions (for e.g. Bale 2011;
Byrne, Foster, and Kerr 2012; Hayton 2012; Dommett 2015). However, as regards
Labour’s modernizing project scholars have been divided about whether it was characterized by: continuity with the party’s reformist traditions (Smith 1994); a rejuvenation of
social democracy (Giddens 2007); capitulation to neo-liberalism (Hay 1999; Heffernan
2000); or a combination of these elements (Driver and Martell 1998; Hall 2007). Similarly,
there is debate over whether Cameron’s modernization signalled: a turn towards a more
socially liberal or compassionate form of Conservatism (Dorey 2007; Beech 2011); an
accommodation towards New Labour (McAnulla 2010); or a revised form of Thatcherite
neo-liberalism (Kerr, Byrne, and Foster 2011). However, there is agreement that the Conservatives’ modernization project was less substantial than its New Labour counterpart. As
such, it was more easily blown off-course and should be viewed as a relatively more precarious and less successful attempt at party adaptation (Dommett 2015; Hayton and
McEnhill 2015; Kerr and Hayton 2015).
Such debates have framed analyses of party politics in the UK since the 1990s. Yet, it is
notable that, despite this broad focus on modernization, the precise meaning of the term is
never made clear. Rather, the term has been used enough to incorporate almost any type of
change, regardless of whether such changes can be deemed endogenous or exogenous to
the parties utilizing modernization discourses. Thus, modernization has come to include:
micro-level organizational changes to the parties themselves; meso-level outward reforms
to the state or society and macro-level shifts in the wider socio-economic and cultural
environment. As Finlayson (2003) explains: “Modernisation, then, seems to be a kind
of code word for ‘what is to be done’ … modernisation thus means everything we have
to do”. Despite this definitional intangibility, the literature above does throw up a reasonably clear picture about the types of positional stances that modernization signified for the
two parties. For Labour, the word became inscribed with commitments towards: Third
Way ideas; globalization; marketization; multi-level governance; social justice; multiculturalism; social pluralism; freedom of information; ethical foreign policy and constitutional reform. For the Conservatives, modernization came to signify the party’s
commitment towards: Big Society ideas; social liberalism and equal marriage; social
justice; environmentalism; a quality-of-life agenda; feminization of the party; EU
reform; liberal foreign policy and limited constitutional reform. To this extent, whilst there
is no clear definition of modernization, there is, at least, some level of clarity around how it
was broadly interpreted by both parties.
2. Anti-modernization and the populist backlash
The modernization literature recognizes that both Labour and the Conservatives, like
other mainstream parties across Europe, have attempted to align themselves with
broader national and international social, political and economic changes (Dommett
2015). In particular, they have sought to align with wider globalizing and neo-liberal
forces that promote greater political, economic and cultural integration. However, in
recent years, such modernization discourses in the UK have faced a number of serious
challenges, with: increasing support for UKIP and SNP nationalism; the 2016 BREXIT
vote and the efforts of both Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative PM
Theresa May to distance their parties from the legacies of their respective modernizing
predecessors. Such developments are increasingly being read as a backlash against the
parties’ former modernization strategies which alienated elements of their’ memberships
and voters.
This is an analysis more common in comparative politics literature, where it is long
recognized that social changes associated with modernization, such as increased global
integration, migration and multiculturalism, have helped to constitute groups which are
variously referred to within the literature as: “modernisation losers” (Pelinka 2013);
“globalisation losers” (Kreisi et al. 2006); or, in a British context, the “left behind” (Ford
and Goodwin 2014). Such groups are viewed as alienated from the mainstream political
centre and as key elements of the populist zeitgeist across Europe (Mudde 2004), attracted
by mainly right-wing parties utilizing discourses which promise to restore traditional
values and practices undermined by modernization. These emergent “populist” parties
are seen as triggering a “counter revolutionary” (Ignazi 1992) response to modernization,
promoting “the preservation of the status quo ante – as it was before mass migration,
Europeanisation and globalisation started to challenge the nation state” (Pelinka 2013).
Within the comparative literature, these developments are linked to a broader restructuring of the traditional lines of political competition. Social transformations are seen as
leading to a realignment of citizens around new cultural and identity issues (see Dalton,
Flanagan, and Beck 1984; Inglehart 1990; Kitschelt 1994). This has created a new type
of two-dimensional political space in which traditional economic and distributional concerns now intersect with new cultural conflicts between social liberals or libertarians, on
the one hand, and those who defend more traditional authoritarian values, on the other.
Some studies assert that this new two-dimensional political space, initially triggered by
the impact of liberalization, the rise of feminism and the extension of civil rights, is being
further transformed by developments more specifically associated with “modernisation”;
most notably increased economic and cultural integration, associated with globalization
and new migration patterns (Kreisi et al. 2006; Bornschier 2010; Dolezal 2010). For
such authors, the twin processes of economic and cultural modernization are working
to open-up new structural conflicts between the various groups of “winners” and
“losers” they help to create. This, in turn, has created new potential for political mobilization within national political spaces; potential which has been seized upon by both
mainstream parties, on the “modernising” side, and populist right parties seeking to preserve former values and practices, on the “traditionalist” side.
This literature highlights growing clashes, throughout Europe, between “modernising”
social and political forces and those promoting reactionary, anti-modernizing agendas
opposed to certain interpretations of the “modern” and appealing to traditional values
and the restoration of past practices. However, these conflicts are not always understood
in terms of an emerging clash between modernization and anti-modernization. For eg,
Kreisi et al. (2006) see the conflict as a structural one between integrationists and demarcationists, while Bornschier (2010) sees it as a clash between libertarian-universalist and
traditionalist-communitarian forces. In a British context, Wheatley (2015) highlights a
growing cosmopolitan vs. communitarian clash, whilst, more broadly, Zizek (2006)
argues that recent clashes in Europe are structured around conflicts between the AngloSaxon model of the economic modernizers, on one side, and those who seek to defend
the traditional French-German model of the old Europe on the other. This divergence
indicates considerable conceptual fuzziness.
3. Modernization vs. anti-modernization in the UK
We argue that it is useful to apply the broader terms of modernization vs. anti-modernization to capture the character of such conflicts, particularly in a UK context, because
modernization has become the dominant form of discourse employed in the UK to homogenize a diverse, and sometimes contradictory, array of developments which have
helped to structure political competition and mobilise voters since the 1960s, but
much more explicitly since the 1990s. In this sense, our key argument is that a focus
on the impact of modernization discourses is central to any attempt to explain the
current populist backlash in the UK, and potentially more widely across Europe. This
backlash, based as it is on evocations of nostalgia for past practices and traditional
values, is a corollary of modernization processes. So, our contention is that an anti-modernizing populist identity is emerging in the UK in direct opposition to the formerly
dominant modernization one.
To date, there has been little attention on how such clashes have manifested themselves
in the UK, perhaps understandably. Until recently, the UK party system has been immune
to the impact of populist parties, though this should probably be viewed as a supply-side,
rather than a demand-side problem (John and Margetts 2009). Consequently, conflicts
between modernizing and anti-modernizing forces have been muted in the UK, with
the scholarly focus directed towards understanding processes of modernization, rather
than anti-modernization, particularly in the Labour Party. In the Conservative Party, a
clash between modernizers and traditionalists has long been seen as the key source of
party division (Bale 2011; Hayton 2012) but it is only recently that a backlash against modernization has been viewed as a driver of inter-party conflict, with modernization in the
two main parties seen as crucial in fuelling support for UKIP (Ford and Goodwin 2014,
2015; Evans and Mellon 2015). Here, we argue that conflicts between modernizing and
anti-modernizing forces in the UK are not confined to the political right; they are
clearly evident in the recent divisions within the Labour Party resulting from Jeremy
Corbyn’s 2015 leadership victory. As such, we argue that a clash between modernization
and anti-modernization is becoming an increasingly important basis of both intra and
inter-party competition in the UK. Below we examine, in turn, how these conflicts have
played out in relation to Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP.
3.1. Labour
In Labour, clashes between modernizers and traditionalists had been, until recently, stifled
by the modernizers, who became dominant following the splits, conflicts and expulsions
that animated the Party’s internal politics throughout the 1980s. In the context of such
divisions, Labour’s modernization drive, initiated by Neil Kinnock, was a lengthy, intensely agonistic, process lasting for over a decade. As the modernization project increased
momentum under the leadership of John Smith, and came to full fruition under Tony
Blair, it became hegemonic within New Labour.
Jobson and Wickham-Jones (2010) point out that a central aim of the modernizers was
to expunge the party of its deep nostalgia, in particular its historical attachment to the idea
of labourism; “a nostalgia that celebrates the male working class struggles of the past and
the part played in those struggles by the party”. To the Blairites, such nostalgia “was held to
be the antithesis of modernity” (531), and, most problematically, it prohibited the range of
possible directions open to the modernizers. In their purge of Labourism, the central aim
of the modernizers was to project the party as a forward-looking force and to recast modernization as having played a driving role in Labour’s history (Finlayson 2003; Randall
2009). In doing so, the modernizers utilized the fact that the term modernization has historically been linked to the liberal left, and traditionalism to the conservative right. Thus,
just as traditionalism has tended to hold sway in the Conservative Party, modernization
has become synonymous with Labour; a development which had started to take root
even before Kinnock’s leadership (Finlayson 2003).
It is perhaps unsurprising then that left parties such as Labour are cited within the comparative literature as a key trigger of a traditionalist backlash against modernization, with
anti-modernizing forces seen as reacting against either the progressive social impact of the
New Left since the 1960s or, paradoxically, the accommodation of social democratic
parties to neo-liberalism since the 1980s (Marsdal 2013). Such accommodation has undermined left parties’ ability to mobilize traditional working-class voters and exposed these
voters to the mobilizing effects of the right. Thus, a growing neo-liberal consensus
amongst Europe’s political elites is seen as destabilizing the left-right compass of
working-class voters by de-politicising macro-economic policy and closing debates over
key economic issues that are important to working-class voters (Evans and Tilley 2012).
This has created space for the populist right to focus more on “value politics”, by increasing the salience of issues around immigration and law and order, etc. The left’s acceptance
of a neo-liberal economic consensus is also linked to the metropolitan elites embrace of a
cultural consensus around liberal cosmopolitanism which is said to favour middle-class
voters and further undermine the interests of the social democratic parties’ traditional
supporters (Ford and Goodwin 2014).
Recent evidence suggests that similar dynamics are playing out in the UK, with the
Labour Party’s embrace of neo-liberalism seen as a key trigger for rising disaffection
amongst working-class voters, driving many towards support for UKIP. For example,
Evans and Mellon (2015, 10) see declining Labour support as a reaction to its modernization process: “the damage to Labour’s core support had already been done by New
Labour’s focus on a pro-middle class, pro-EU and, as it eventually turned out, pro-immigration agenda, before the arrival of UKIP as a plausible electoral choice”. But, importantly, this anti-modernization backlash has not just affected inter-party dynamics. In
more recent years, there has also been a growing reaction to modernizers within the
Labour Party itself, given that an attachment to nostalgia and tradition was stifled but
never fully expunged by the New Labour project (Jobson and Wickham-Jones 2010).
For example, there were faint echoes of the modernizers vs. traditionalists split in the
Blair/Brown, although given Gordon Brown’s role as a key architect of the Blair project,
it is perhaps more accurate to refer to this as a clash between modernizers and modernizers-lite. Since Brown’s electoral defeat in 2010 and the ascendancy of modernizing Conservatism under Cameron, Blair’s success in making modernization the raison d’etre of the
Party seems both partial and temporary. Cracks began to appear in the 2010 Labour leadership contest, when the two leading figures, David and Ed Miliband, “both resorted to
nostalgic appeals in order to generate support and to signal the character of their campaigns” (Jobson and Wickham-Jones 2010, 526). The victory of Ed Miliband, who had
strong support amongst the affiliated trades unions, over his brother David, along with
the accompanying influence of the Blue Labour movement also, to some degree, signalled
an emerging backlash against the New Labour project. However, it is the general election
defeat of 2015, and the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as Party Leader, that marked a heightened recognition of a more fundamental clash between party modernizers and the party’s
traditionalist grassroots base.
Whilst embracing most of the key elements of cultural modernization, including the
drift towards cultural integration, social pluralism and liberalization, Corbyn’s rhetoric
has been directed more specifically towards an opposition to key aspects of economic
modernization, particularly neo-liberalism, deregulation and financialization which have
accompanied the spread of globalization. In opposing “Blairite” economic modernization,
Corbynites defend what they see as the party’s traditional core values of social justice,
redistribution, public ownership and state-led growth. In addition, they also promise to
strengthen the party’s link with its traditional blue collar and multicultural support base
by promising to reconnect the party to its grassroots supporters and trades union
affiliates. Corbyn also displays some scepticism towards modern methods of political communication and spin; a key element of Labour’s modernization project (Finlayson 2003).
Thus, the leader has emphasized his commitment to processes of democratization, consultation and consensus building.
As such, the groundswell of support for Corbyn reflects a forceful rejection of the direction in which the modernizers have taken the party. To both Corbyn’s supporters and
critics, the Labour leader’s position is entrenched in the anti-modernizing camp and
rooted in the more traditional politics of “old” Labour (Robinson 2016). Consequently,
many critics have dismissed the Corbynites as wanting to turn “back the clock” towards
a largely discredited past, before the era of modernization, as Cameron’s Back to the
Future quip exemplifies. Indeed, the criticism, that Corbyn needs to reconnect the party
with modern “realities”, as we argue below, has long been used by the modernizers to marginalize both internal and external opposition. However, the important point here is that,
whereas such depoliticizing discourse worked effectively to stifle opposition in the 1990s
and 2000s, it has lost some of its efficacy, given an increasingly assertive backlash from the
party’s traditionalist wing.
3.2. The conservatives
A tension between “centrist” modernizers and centre-right traditionalists has long been a
key source of division within the Conservative Party. This clash was particularly prevalent
post-Thatcher governments and remains the source of a number of party management
problems. On one side, the traditionalists look towards further embedding Thatcherite
reforms, placing strong emphasis on law and order, immigration control, welfare retrenchment, traditional family values, national sovereignty and strong Euroscepticism. On the
other side, the modernizers take inspiration from social liberal ideas and have sought to
reform the party’s image as a “nasty” party, appealing to a more compassionate and inclusive form of Conservatism. Although both sides favour limiting the size of the state, the
modernizers support a slightly more expansive role for government on issues around
inequality and the economy. Recently, the traditionalists have held the upper hand in
the Party, and their close association with the Thatcher Governments’s legacy has
earned the Party a reputation for failing to represent vulnerable and minority groups.
In turn, this prompted successive, but failed, attempts to modernize and decontaminate
the Party’s brand under the leaderships of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and
Michael Howard (see Denham and O’Hara 2007; Bale 2011).
In the wake of the New Labour project, the modernizers’ task has been to pull the Party
away from an over-reliance on its core vote, and an emphasis on anti-immigration, law
and order and state retrenchment. This has been a staccato process and it was not until
the election of David Cameron as Party Leader that the modernizers gained any ascendancy or momentum. Central to Cameron’s strategy was an attempt to align the party
with key elements of Labour’s modernizing project (McAnulla 2010), involving a
greater emphasis on social justice and social pluralism; the latter of which was exemplified
by his support for full legal recognition of gay marriage, provoking fierce conflict with traditionalists (Heppell 2013), and increasing the representation of women within the Party.
The new modernizing ethos was signalled by: a change in the Party’s logo; early attempts
to lower the salience of issues around immigration (Partos and Bale 2015) and Europe
(Lynch 2015); an increased emphasis on environmental protection (Carter and Clements
2015) and a commitment, to ring-fencing budgets for international aid and development.
Cameron’s strategy was thus to bring the Party into line with “modern” conditions, values
and practices (Dommett 2015). In doing so, much effort was directed towards aligning the
Party with the cultural aspects of modernization, including increasing diversity, integration and social pluralism.
As regards the economic aspects of modernization, since Thatcher, the Conservatives
have advocated key elements of economic modernization, such as deregulation, marketization and financialization. Nevertheless, Cameron attempted to further modernize the
party’s image on the economic side by ameliorating the consequences of neo-liberalism,
attempting to: bolster public confidence in the Tories’ ability to protect public services
(Smith and Jones 2015) and improve the Party’s image in relation to the issue of social
The fate of Cameron’s modernization project was sealed by the result of the BREXIT
referendum; a referendum which Cameron called in response to UKIP’s challenge and
internal pressure from the traditionalist wing of the party. However, Cameron’s modernizing momentum began to falter post-2007 in the wake of the financial crisis. Subsequently,
his modernization project was beset with various problems, including some serious party
divisions, confused objectives and a seeming lack of strong political leadership (Kerr and
Hayton 2015). Perhaps most important however, was the strong reaction the leader’s modernization agenda provoked both within the Party and among key elements of its wider
support. In fact, Cameron’s modernization strategy only served to strengthen often
fierce opposition from traditionalists and core voters.
This led to continual pressure on Cameron to take tougher and more traditionalist
stances on issues such as Europe and immigration. Even on other issues which were previously dominated by the modernizers, Cameron was forced to either defend his stand
against some aggressively traditionalist opposition, as in the case of equal marriage, or
beat a hasty retreat onto more traditionalist ground, for example, on social policy,
where Cameron’s former, more compassionate, rhetoric gave way to some stringent
welfare reforms (Hayton and McEnhill 2015). Consequently, most argue that Cameron’s
efforts to modernize the Party merely served to reanimate long-standing conflicts between
traditionalists and modernizers, and on many issues, the traditionalists retained the high
ground. Arguably, this ascendancy became more entrenched after the referendum result,
with key modernizers such as George Osborne and Michael Gove side-lined by Cameron’s
successor Theresa May and replaced by prominent figures from the traditionalist wing,
such as David Davis, Liam Fox and the increasingly right-leaning Boris Johnson.
Although formerly a Remain campaigner, May’s subsequent embrace of a fairly hard
BREXIT stance, along with her support for grammar schools and avowed admiration
for the traditional type of one nation Toryism of Disraeli and Chamberlain, signals a
push-back against a number of modernizing trends. Her rhetoric to date has tended to
be more devout than secular, more conservative than liberal and more localized than
global. Indeed, it is variously noted that her leadership marks a distinct change of direction
from the metro-cosmopolitanism of Cameron’s Notting-Hill set (Asthana and Stewart
2016; Stanley 2016).
At the heart of this traditional turn in both Conservative and Labour is an attempt to
win back sections of their more traditionalist support – those so-called left-behind voters –
who have, in recent years, either turned their backs on the political system altogether or
been drawn to the more traditionalist politics of UKIP.
3.4. UKIP
Until recently, the gradual surge in electoral support for UKIP was one of the most notable
developments in contemporary UK party politics. The idea that UKIP attracts much of its
support from voters who feel alienated by the modernizing tendencies of the two main
parties is central in much of the current literature. In particular, Ford and Goodwin
(2014) argue that the surge in UKIP support has been driven by a general feeling of disaffection amongst mainly older, white, working-class and low-skilled voters, towards the
parties’ convergence around key elements of the Labour and Conservative Party modernizations. This, combined with wider economic and social transformations, particularly
those that have brought greater cultural and economic integration, has helped to establish
a group of voters who feel alienated by the liberal cosmopolitanism of the Westminster
elite. These “left-behind” voters share the characteristics of those groups which the comparative literature refers to as modernization or globalisation “losers”. This literature
argues that it is mainly anti-establishment, populist, right parties, such as UKIP, that have
become the key beneficiaries of this backlash against modernizing and globalising
Ford and Goodwin’s work has been hugely influential in helping us to interpret, not
only the dynamics of support for UKIP, but also some of the ways in which broader electoral competition in the UK has shifted. They suggest that the mainstream parties’ close
alignment with wider modernizing tendencies has helped to create the potential for a
type of “anti-politics” (Stoker 2006), in the form of voters who are disenchanted and
ripe for mobilization against political and cultural elites. This opens fertile ground for
populist, anti-establishment parties, a common feature in Europe, but a significant transformation of the UK electoral landscape. Importantly, the bulk of the empirical work here
emphasizes that appealing to traditional values and practices and a nostalgia for the past
has helped to solidify this transformation. However, whilst Ford and Goodwin’s work has
attracted much praise, it has also been criticized for placing too much emphasis on the
working-class basis of UKIP’s support. According to Evans and Mellon (2015), UKIP
draws as much support from middle-class voters, particularly those who are self-employed
and small business owners. This chimes with some of the comparative literature which
indicates that the composition of the groups most likely to feel threatened by modernization is heterogeneous (Kreisi et al. 2006). Yet, despite this level of disagreement, most
authors agree that much of UKIP’s vote comes from voters who were alienated years
before the emergence of UKIP as a political force, and specifically, by both parties’ realignment towards a “liberal consensus” on issues such as the EU and immigration.
Such literature locates UKIP’s support in a mixture of traditional, working-class Labour
voters and petit-bourgeois or middle-class Conservative voters, who feel shared grievances
at the mainstream parties’ convergence around issues broadly associated with modernization. Whilst the movement of past Labour voters to the right does not necessarily point to
a weakening of class identity, it does potentially demonstrate a shift from economic to cultural voting patterns in an environment in which economic issues have become increasingly depoliticized. However, a certain amount of dispute exists over whether the key
driver of the electoral appeal of populist parties such as UKIP is growing economic
inequality or accelerated cultural change. In some parts of the literature, the separation
of economic and cultural determinants is seen as problematic (see for e.g. Inglehart and
Norris 2016). What, to us, is important here is the range of anti-modernization and traditionalist themes which have been noted to help animate UKIP’s rhetoric and mobilize
such voters. These include UKIP’s: strong cultural conservatism and backlash against
issues such as gay marriage (Webb and Bale 2014); it is anti-establishment positioning
(Abedi and Lundberg 2008); support for civic nationalism and Euroscepticism (Tournier-Sol 2015); rejection of multiculturalism, open borders and political correctness
(Lynch and Whitaker 2013) and appeals for a return to national sovereignty (Crines
and Heppell 2017).
4. Theorizing modernization and anti-modernization
So far, we have argued that conflicts between modernizing and anti-modernizing forces
are becoming increasingly prevalent in the UK, echoing wider trends that are seen to
have driven populist movements across Europe. In this section, we develop a theoretically
informed analysis of these conflicts, which disrupts certain aspects of the existing literature. Specifically, we present a broadly discourse theoretical reading of modernization;
not as a “real” thing per se, but, rather, as a set of discourses which have become inscribed
onto a series of empirical observations (for example, about the spread of globalisation and
social liberalism or the putative necessity for neo-liberal policies), which may not be accurate or, indeed, connected to each other. As such, we agree with Finlayson (2003) that
modernization cannot be defined in terms of its substantive content, which we would
view as permanently fluid and contingent, or, as a fixed political cleavage bound up
with metropolitan liberal elites, as it is presented within much of the current literature.
Rather, for us, modernization, and by definition anti-modernization, is best viewed as a
discursive process; a process which is dynamic, relational and contingent.
Hence, we define modernization as a contingent process of discursive contestation over
which ideas, traits or phenomena should be socially accepted as modern, and see this
process as a key driver in structuring party competition in the UK, particularly since
the 1990s. From this perspective, different political projects have used modernization as
a means to construct meaning around a vast array of contemporary trends. Through
this process, political actors such as Labour and Conservative modernizers have attempted
to mobilize and recruit voters by identifying a number of elements of the modern condition which they view as desirable, absent or incomplete and which need to be either
adapted towards or put into effect (Dommett 2015). Given the nature of this type of political contestation, it is our argument that the empirical content of modernization is likely
to be interpreted differently over time and by different political actors. To recognize this
contingent character of modernization is to acknowledge that modernization “does not
simply progressively develop according to any logic internal either to it or to a wider historical process” (Finlayson 2003, 73). Rather, the word has come to represent a wide, and
often contradictory, variety of “different needs, desires, strategies and demands”.
Importantly, we go further, arguing that the proliferation of modernization discourse
has, in turn, helped to fuel its own field of opposition in the form of populist anti-modernizing and traditionalist discourses. These discourses tend to rely on narratives of the
past, which, likewise, may be more, or less, accurate (Pelinka 2013; Wodak and KhosraviNik 2013), and which have also come to represent a diverse and often contradictory range
of grievances and interests. Hence, the emergence of populist, anti-modernizing discourses
should be viewed as a corollary of the modernization process. More specifically, anti-modernization emerges as a contingent process of opposition towards dominant definitions of
the modern which recruits to its cause ideas, traits or phenomena socially identifiable
with the past. In this sense, the main axis of party competition in the UK is no longer structured around a contestation over which party “owns” the modern, as we saw during the era
of competing Labour and Conservative party modernizations. Rather, our observation
here is that new lines of agonism and antagonism are being drawn from recent attempts
by numerous political actors, such as Corbyn, Farage, May, the Brexiters and so on, to
mobilize and recruit voters around populist appeals which identify past practices and
values that need to be restored as a corrective to modernizing trends. Thus, we can
point to the tendency of recent populist slogans such as “Taking Back Control” or,
further afield, “Make America Great Again” as invoking the anti-modernist notion that
our best route into the future lies in somehow reclaiming some critical elements of our
The significance of applying a discourse theoretical approach to existing debates lies in
the potentially broader ontological implications of viewing modernization as a contingent
discursive process. For, in as much as modernization cannot be viewed as a material
reality, it also follows that the various cleavages which arise out of this process – those
which have been recognized as existing between traditionalist, cosmopolitan liberal or
“left-behind” groups etc. – should not be viewed as “real”, fixed identities. Rather, such
identities are themselves constructed contingently through, and in relation to, the very
process of modernization. Thus, for example, the cosmopolitan liberal “winners” from
modernization – those who have come to be defined as typifying the modern condition
or the more traditional “left-behind” groups who stand in its way, emerge as subject positions which are only made intelligible in relation to modernization and its tendency to
project a linear narrative onto development and inscribe certain forms of politics as
either “progressive” or “regressive”.
Overall then, our aim here is to present a novel theoretical twist to existing accounts of
modernization, and subsequently its by-product anti-modernization, which present these
as static political cleavages. Rather, they are better viewed as representative of a dual
process which is shaping political competition in the UK. In the first instance, modernization can be identified as a discursive process of meaning-making through which various
political projects have competed to make sense of the contemporary world. In its wake,
anti-modernization presents itself as a discursive-relational process which stands in opposition to the former project’s success in (temporarily) fixing the modern condition with
meanings that have become popularly accepted, mainly around greater economic and cultural integration, and around which new social cleavages have begun to emerge.
Whilst there is much to commend existing studies of the conflicts around modernizing
and anti-modernizing forces, there remains a problematic tendency to see both positions
as largely static and fixed political alignments. Thus, voters, parties or factions are often
portrayed as belonging firmly to one camp. This leads to two further problems. Firstly,
there is a tendency to narrowly equate modernization with the Left and anti-modernization with the Right. Yet, if we compare Jeremy Corbyn’s populist version of “old”
Labour politics with that of Nigel Farage’s UKIP, we can begin to detect some elements
of commonality in their respective rejections of the modern and support for past traditions
and established values. In this respect, both Corbyn and Farage, to varying degrees, and
from different starting points, share anti-modernizing ground. This could potentially
help to explain the strong appeal which UKIP had for former “old” Labour voters
(Ford and Goodwin 2014). Moreover, it might also suggest that Corbyn’s own brand of
retro-style Labour politics has the potential to attract back some of those same voters. Secondly, there is a related tendency to view such voters, who are likely to be attracted to
either camp, as having their own sets of interests and identities fixed by their relationship
to social changes, such as the impact of globalization. These voters’ interests are often seen
as pre-constituted, placing them in either the “winners” or “losers” camp. In fact, the lines
between modernization and anti-modernization are often much more blurred, and it is
reasonably common for political actors and voters to be able, at certain times, to move
between each.
The fluidity of these alignments is evidenced in the intra-party politics within the two
main UK parties. In the Conservative Party, it is interesting to note that over the past three
decades the “modernisers” and “traditionalists” have largely swapped roles. Whereas,
formerly, the Thatcherites were viewed as the modernizing, forward-looking force, they
are now firmly rooted in the traditionalist camp, whilst it is the formerly more traditionalist “one nation” Tories who have been able to take up the modernizing mantle. Likewise,
the contingent character of these alignments can also be seen in the ways that both modernizers and traditionalists have positioned themselves on specific policy issues. For
example, throughout the Coalition Government, as Cameron sought to reduce the salience
of Europe as part of his own modernization strategy, it was the more traditionalist right of
the Party which was able to position themselves as progressive modernizers, keen to
embrace ideas of popular democracy and globalization to push for a reformed relationship
with the EU (Lynch 2015). Likewise, in debates over equal marriage, Tory modernizers
fought hard to construct their modernizing reform as an attempt to preserve and maintain
more traditional Conservative ideas around the sanctity of marriage (Hayton and McEnhill 2015). In Labour, even the Blairite modernizers inscribed their modernizing agenda
with a strong notion of tradition, as Blair sought to reconstruct the British political tradition as inherently bound to ideas of reform and change (Finlayson 2003). Thus,
Blair’s modernization presented itself as an attempt to restore Britain’s true heritage. Likewise, although much of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is aimed at restoring more traditional,
“old” Labour values, it also promises to deliver a “new”, more progressive and modern
type of politics.
As a result, it is fruitful to view the line between modernization and anti-modernization
as one which is very often transgressed and made blurry by elite actors hoping to utilize
such discourses in order to gain competitive advantage or dismiss their opponents. Thus,
rather than viewing both positions as fixed alignments, we should acknowledge that the
meanings and the specific constitution of political forces around each are a constantly contested and contingent field. Consequently, in our final section, we argue that modernization and traditionalism are best viewed as performing the role in discourse of Ernesto
Laclau’s “empty signifiers”. As empty signifiers, modernization and traditionalist discourses, whilst preserving a relative autonomy from any specific and fixed sets of
meaning, have come to serve three key political functions: (i) they are being increasingly
used to mobilize voters; (ii) they work to construct the identity and demands of such voters
and (iii) they help to create a social antagonism which attempts to depoliticize or naturalize particular policy agendas.
5. Modernization and traditionalism as empty signifiers
As we noted, a central claim within the literature is that the rejection of cultural and economic modernization provides populist, anti-establishment parties with an inherent appeal
to groups of left-behind voters. A strong implication here is that the relationship between
these voters and their parties is “bottom-up”; i.e. the demands of the voters are pre-constituted by social changes and this then sets the conditions for anti-establishment parties
to tap into this groundswell of already existing demand for a traditionalist agenda. From a
Laclauian perspective, the problem with such a narrative is that it ignores the central role
which political projects play, not only in mobilizing such voters, but in helping to constitute the very interests, identities and demands of these voters. In some parts of the current
literature, this point is partially acknowledged. For example, Kreisi et al. (2006, 923)
observe that:
on the one hand, parties position themselves strategically with respect to new political potentials, which are created by the new structural conflicts, on the other hand, it is the very articulation of the new conflicts by political parties that structures the political space (my emphasis).
This points to a mutually constitutive relationship between social change and political
mobilization, whereas globalization opens up political opportunities, it is for elite actors
to decide how to construct and exploit them. What a Laclauian perspective on populism
brings is a recognition that the mobilization of voters, either towards or against these social
changes, involves the discursive constitution of group identities, such as that of the “left
behind”. As such, political mobilization does not simply act upon pre-existing groups
of voters; rather, the process of mobilization itself plays a key role in the construction
of these groups. Thus, for Laclau, in any populist moment, one must first constitute
“the people” who are to be mobilized and, it is here particularly, that empty signifiers
come to play a central role (Laclau 2005).
To Laclau, empty signifiers act as the focal points for hegemonic contestation between
rival political projects. These components of discourse, which can come in the form of
aims, figures, symbols or slogans, “stand-in” as over-arching, but largely empty, representations of disparate, and often irreconcilable, sets of demands. Their key function is to
bring a symbolic coherence, meaning and unity – in Laclau’s terms, an equivalential
bond – to the otherwise distinct and unconnected social grievances they purport to represent. In doing so, they become the “rallying point of passionate attachments”, as
those who are aggrieved within this equivalential chain – become constituted as “the
people” – and bring what Laclau terms a “radical investment”, or emotional attachment,
to this symbolic representation of their cause. As such, empty signifiers, such as modernization, become elevated to the status of “the Thing” which “the people” are seemingly
demanding to see fulfilled; yet, given their meaningless character, their achievement is ultimately unfulfillable.
In UK politics, modernization has arguably performed such a role over the past few
decades (Byrne, Foster, and Kerr 2012). Whilst the word incorporates a variety of
elements, including globalization, cultural pluralism, social liberalism, social justice and
marketization, its meaning has remained sufficiently amorphous to allow it to mobilize
heterogeneous groups of actors around mainstream political parties. Moreover, whilst
modernization has worked to make sense of a diverse array of social changes, it also functions to produce ideas about which groups emerge as its “winners” and “losers”. Thus, it
constructs lines of political conflict and identity – in this case between modernizers and
traditionalists, metropolitan liberals and left-behind voters, – whilst, at the same time,
articulating a unity amongst the disparate parties, voters and demands it recruits to its
cause. From a Laclauian perspective, what’s at stake in these conflicts is a struggle to construct and mobilize the “true people”; whether that be for Corbynites the true voice of
Labour, or for Farage the authentic voice of the “man in the pub”. Thus, Blair’s modernizing rhetoric promised to restore Britain’s true heritage: “his rhetoric seeks to arrange itself
on the side of ‘the people’, and hence (by implication) opposed to the anti-popular interests of the anti-modernisers” (Finlayson 2003). Importantly, in constituting this “people”,
who stand on the side of modernization, modernizing discourses likewise work to constitute an antagonism with those outside the equivalential chain – the anti-modernizers – or
in the case of New Labour, the “forces of conservatism”. Thus, the former modernization
“zeitgeist” has created its own conditions for a rival, anti-modernizing, populist backlash
based around a reassertion of traditionalist values and practices. As with the modernizers,
the anti-modernizers similarly seek to utilize traditionalist discourses to construct the
same populist mandate, characterizing the modernizers as “out of touch” with the more
traditional values and aspirations of the British public.
This latter point allows us to identify another key function of modernizing and antimodernizing discourses. Whilst they primarily work to mobilize and constitute voters,
they also create a depoliticizing/politicising dynamic which works towards delegitimizing
opposing agendas. Thus, modernization discourses assert that one must “get real”, wakeup and smell the coffee. They ridicule “out-of-touch”, backward-looking traditionalists
and assert a “no alternative” ethos (Hay 1999). The de-politicising mechanism here is
the assertion that the modernizers are expertly schooled in the “realities” of the modern
context – as with the “Remainers” conviction in the historical significance of the European
project – and therefore the only actors knowledgeable enough to recognize the limited set
of responses appropriate to that context. Thus, in discussing French and Dutch resistance
to the EU project, Zizek (2006, 16) noted that the respective “No” campaigns were infantilised, dismissed as immature and irrational forms of populism: “in their reaction to the
no they treated the people like slow pupils who did not get the lesson of the experts; their
self-criticism was the one of the teacher who admits that he failed to educate his pupils”.
Likewise, similar types of rhetoric have been directed both to the Leave side in the debate
over Brexit and towards Jeremy Corbyn from all parts of the political spectrum. Such
critics regularly deploy modernizing discourses to dismiss Corbyn as a backward
looking, intellectually deficient, politician painfully out of touch with modern realities.
For example, Suzanne Moore (2015) wrote in the Guardian:
For Corbyn, the unspun unmoderniser, to lead an extra-parliamentary movement inside parliament, he needs to be intellectually deft. Leaders have to embody modernity, to represent
who we think we are. Politics is about pragmatism, but it is also about ideas; there has to
be an intellectual underpinning. Retro paternalism, whether from him or Farage, cannot
be the future. Even getting into the present would be good.
Thus, although modernization is ideological, given it splits the political field into two
camps (Finlayson 2003) – one which is structured and rational in its approach and
another which is nonsense or out-dated – it has the advantage of presenting itself as
non-ideological and, therefore, a practical, common sense approach to contemporary realities. Likewise, just as modernizers work towards naturalizing their agendas, similar “get
real” discourses are also employed by the anti-modernizers. Whilst the right attempt to
portray the liberal elite as fantasists deluded by modern myths of egalitarianism, multiculturalism and political correctness, the left portray the neo-liberal faith in progress as delusional, whilst emphasizing the hard realities of poverty, conflict, exploitation and
6. Conclusion
Our argument is that, in recent years, anti-modernizing discourses, based around a reassertion of past practices and traditions, have taken an increasingly prominent position
alongside modernization discourses as rallying points to mobilize voters in the UK. The
antagonism between mainstream modernizers and populist anti-modernizers has been
deepening since the onset of the financial crisis and is working to create a field of political
conflict which is increasingly helping to structure both intra-party and inter-party competition across the political spectrum. Rather than viewing these as static alignments, we
argue that both positions are better characterized as relational and fluid discursive
fields, which are often transgressed by protagonists from both camps. As such, the meanings, and thereby the specific constitution of political forces around each, are a constantly
contestable and contingent field, open to various language games. Thus, the recourse to
either a modernizing or anti-modernizing discourse can be used by elite actors as a relational strategic positioning in a context in which one, or other, discourse has become
dominant. As we have shown here, this emerging conflict, which has long divided the
Conservative Party, and which is evident throughout much of Europe, has, in recent
years, fuelled he recent rise in electoral support for UKIP, the BREXIT vote and the emergence of strong, grassroots support for Jeremy Corbyn.
Disclosure statement
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Peter Kerr is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham who specializes in British party Politics.
Emma Foster is a Lecturer at Birmingham who specializes in International Politics.
Alex Oaten is a Teaching Fellow at Birmingham who specializes in British politics and populism.
Neema Begum is a Doctoral student at Bristol who specializes in British Politics and elections.
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