Was the referendum result the revenge of the ‘left-behind’ voters? Not the most recently left-behind, says the Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell. Those areas that have experienced the sharpest fall in income since EU enlargement might have been expected to vote most strongly for Brexit but, as Torsten shows, “there is no relationship between how an area’s prosperity changed in recent years and how they voted.”
There is, though, a clear relationship between those areas with low earnings and high proportions of votes for Brexit.
You get a similar picture if you look at the 2002 earnings figures, says Torsten, which suggests you have to look back further to understand what is going on. As Will Davies of Goldsmiths puts it, the geography reflects the crisis of the 1970s and 80s not the 2010s:
It is easy to focus on the recent history of Tory-led austerity when analysing this, as if anger towards elites and immigrants was simply an effect of public spending cuts of the past 6 years or (more structurally) the collapse of Britain’s pre-2007 debt-driven model of growth.
But consider the longer history of these regions as well. Thatcherism gutted them with pit-closures and monetarism, but generated no private sector jobs to fill the space. The entrepreneurial investment that neoliberals always believe is just around the corner never materialised.
To put it another way, then, the left-behind who voted for Brexit last week were left behind a long time ago.
Eric Kaufmann has a slightly different take on this. He rejects the left behind story in favour of a cultural explanation:
The Leave campaign’s stunning upset has barely sunk in and already the pundits are flogging a familiar storyline. Those ‘left behind’ in the hard-luck provinces have punched privileged, corporate London in the nose.
The facts tell a different story: culture and personality, not material circumstances, separate Leave and Remain voters. This is not a class conflict so much as a values divide that cuts across lines of age, income, education and even party.
Values, such as whether children should obey their parents or whether we should bring back the death penalty, are better indicators of a Leave or Remain vote than income, he says:
The graph below, restricted to White British respondents, shows almost no statistically significant difference in EU vote intention between rich and poor. By contrast, the probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.
A quick glance at the post-referendum voting stats tells you that there is something going on here that is not just economic. There were majorities for Leave in some of the posher parts of southern England. Polling by Lord Ashcroft found that the majority of outright owners and those in social housing voted Leave while a majority of private renters and those with mortgages voted Remain. This suggests, as Torsten says, a coalition of the older traditional county Tories and the working class in the former industrial towns.
[T]his isn’t just about the numbers – it’s about culture, outlook, lifestyle and what we feel a sense of belonging to. That might not be the normal thing for an economic research organisation to say, but it’s true. And it’s also, as many people noted last night, a function of the coalition that underpinned the leave vote – shire Tories combined with Britain’s industrial heartlands. In a sense, though, this is simply a different sort of left-behindness. Left behind by the shift in the cultural zeitgeist as well as the economic changes.
Or, as Max Wind-Cowie observed, three years ago:
Bringing together the dissatisfied of Tunbridge Wells and the downtrodden of Merseyside is a remarkable feat, and it stems from UKIP’s empathy for those who have been left behind by the relentless march of globalisation and glib liberalism.
One of the most succinct explanations for the political changes of the last four decades came from American political scientist Professor Alan Wolfe:
The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war.
This is the equality paradox I wrote about some years ago. Since the 1970s, the institutional barriers and prejudice against women, gay people and ethnic minorities have been broken down both by legislation and changing attitudes. The graduate intakes at the big firms in 2015 look very different from those of 1980, which were almost exclusively white and male. In most social situations it is no longer acceptable to use racist language and it is illegal to do so in the workplace. In 1985, a manager in a well-known company could tell another to “get his typing done by the wog” and not only win the resulting court case but avoid a public outcry too. That would be unthinkable today. The phenomenon sometimes derided as political correctness which, for the most part, is simply social justice and good manners, won the day during the 1980s and 1990s even though the UK was under Conservative rule. The Tories fought the economic war but, for the most part, were prepared to concede on the cultural side. They even abolished corporal punishment in schools.
While all this was happening, economic inequality rose sharply and the share of GDP going to waged employees declined from its 1970s peak. This means that a manual worker in 2015, though he is protected from discrimination and abusive language at work, is getting a smaller slice of the economic pie than his counterpart in 1980.
The two great political parties which had dominated British politics since the First World War by and large went with the flow. The Labour Party accepted privatisation and deregulation while the Conservative Party toned down its opposition to immigration and gay rights. Not everybody was happy with this.
On the Tory side, free market economics often leads to a lot of things that socially conservative voters don’t like. De-industrialisation breaks down communities. De-regulation removes rural bus services. Free trade and foreign competition closes the local factory. Public spending cuts reduce the number of police officers and diminish the armed forces. Even among Conservative voters there is still a majority in favour of re-nationalising the energy companies and railways. They might have moaned about them at the time but at least you knew where you were with British Rail and the local gas board. The Telegraph’s Ed West spoke for many conservatives when, commenting on the Beecroft proposals, he said:
What is it with the Conservatives? They seem to be Right-wing only where no one wants them to be Right-wing. Theirs is a conservatism that cares nothing about British sovereignty, marriage, natural justice, defending the borders, law and order or the armed forces, but that cares deeply about reducing the rights of British workers. Contrary to the idea banded about in the less thoughtful areas of political discourse, conservatism is not about protecting the rich: it is about creating an environment that is safe, sober, crime-free, respectful, educated, gentle and high in social capital and trust. In other words, about protecting the poor and weak. Until the Conservative Party realises this, they will continue to haemorrhage support.
A decade ago, an article appeared in the now defunct Powellite journal Right Now! asking, “Is capitalism conservative any more?” It was written from a very right-wing perspective and it concluded that big business is no longer on ‘our side’. At the time it seemed eccentric but the anti-business conservative rhetoric has become more mainstream in the dozen or so years since it was written. The alliance between patriotic traditional conservatism and economic liberalism, that has defined the modern Conservative Party, is breaking apart.
There is a similar dilemma on the Labour side. To celebrate its centenary, the New Statesman asked Did the left win the 20th century? Despite the reversals of the last third of that century and the clear direction of travel since, such as declining trade unionism, rising inequality, stagnating wages and increasing insecurity, the NS audience decided that the left had won the 20th century. From the perspective of the young London lefties gathered at King’s College, it did look as though the left had won. I wonder if they would have had the same result if they had held the debate in Hartlepool though.
Outside London, there are a number of Labour supporters wondering why their party was in power for thirteen years, yet their neighbourhoods are decaying, their incomes are falling and their employment is increasingly precarious.
The restrictive practices that once protected working class jobs were blown away by both globalisation and liberal legislation. If they were still in business, the firms that used to recruit from families could no longer do so, even if they wanted to. A middle-aged man whose dad got him a start at the works couldn’t do that for his own son. The council houses that used to be allocated on the basis of having lived in a community for years are now owned by housing associations. The trade unions that used to give workers some say in the way things were run have gone. Practices that look unfair and inefficient from today’s perspective reinforced a social structure. They gave people a sense of control and bound them to an established order.
But, in the Labour Party, it was the socially liberal left that triumphed and the socialist left that lost. Just as Ed West remarked that the Tories were right-wing about the wrong things, many Labour voters felt their party was left-wing about the wrong things. Working class voters are too often demonised as bigots but it is not homophobic or sexist to wonder why your party is campaigning for gay marriage and more women on boards while your home town is going down the pan. Labour’s Equality Act said very little about economic equality at all. As Peter Mandelson might have said, the Labour government didn’t mind people getting filthy rich provided they had the right equality and diversity policies in place.
David Goodhart called this the triumph of the two liberalisms, the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right. Its most obvious physical manifestation is immigration. Throw open the borders, stop employers and housing providers discriminating in favour of locals and the place fills up with foreigners. And who benefits from the cheap labour? Big business of course. An unholy alliance between the metropolitan leftie liberals and the money grabbing free-market Tories enriches the elite and stuffs the traditional working class. Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that but try explaining it on the doorstep on a council estate in the pouring rain.
If the right won the economic war and the left won the cultural war, there are a lot of people in Britain who wish that it had been the other way around or, at least, that the victory had not been so complete. Some of them are well-off and angry, others are poor and angry but we heard from them very loudly last week. As Ben Chu says, all political parties need a better understanding of the deeper reasons behind the Brexit vote. It’s a often said that Labour voters feel abandoned by their party but a lot of Tory voters do too.
The trouble is, the EU’s role in all this has been fairly peripheral. If anything, it might have mitigated some of the worst effects of economic liberalism. As Eric Kaufmann says, something similar is happening in a lot of western economies. The same frustrations are behind the support for Donald Trump in the USA. Leaving the EU, therefore, is unlikely to make much difference. And that is likely to make people even angrier.
Lord Ashcroft’s research also noted attitude clusters aligning with Remain and Leave voters:
Some of the more deprived areas voted Remain and quite a few posh ones voted Leave. Clearly economics is only part of the story. There’s a lot more going on here.