Are we at a pivotal moment in British politics? Is last Thursday’s electoral upset a sign that the assumptions of the last three decades no longer hold true?
For the last 30 years, what David Goodhart called “the two liberalisms” have prevailed, the economic liberalism of the right and the social liberalism of the left, “Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.” The Conservatives concentrated on deregulation, union busting and privatisation, while talking tough, but avoiding any action on, on immigration, political correctness and traditional values. Meanwhile, Labour focused on a socially liberal agenda without attempting to roll back the economic gains of the right.
It was almost as though a tacit deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts. The effect was to take policies that were popular with the public off the agenda on the grounds that they were publicly unacceptable. This applied both to left-wing and right-wing policies. Renationalisation and higher taxes on the rich were never going to happen but neither were the restoration of capital punishment or significant curbs on immigration. All were considered to be outside the Overton Window, the range of policies that politicians and media commentators said were politically acceptable.
Politics was all set to continue like this. As the Economist’s Bagehot column put it earlier this year:
Tony Blair converted Labour to Thatcherism and David Cameron converted the Tories to Jenkinsism.
While all this was going on, voters, and especially young voters, started to lose interest in elections. Turnout fell after 1992 and never really recovered.
Chart via Resolution Foundation
The ‘what’s the point’ arguments and the sense that anything that really mattered to people was off the agenda, contributed to the general sense of disempowerment. ‘They’ were all the same and anyway, big corporations controlled everything. While the economy was growing and people felt reasonably secure, they would put up with the parties they had long supported focusing on things they thought were irrelevant or to which they were mildly opposed. But when the economy collapsed, trust in political parties and corporations went with it.
The squeeze on pay and living standards fuelled a frustration with the business and political establishments that had been gathering pace for a while. Populism is usually depicted as right-wing but, while it focused most obviously against immigration, there was an anti-corporate element to it as well. Many of the people who voted for Brexit (and for Trump and Le Pen) didn’t like immigration and political correctness but they didn’t care much for corporations and free-market policies either. Theirs was a revolt against immigration but also against ‘rich banksters’ and the offshoring of jobs.
Brexit showed that, if enough people are for or against something, by voting, they can start or stop things from happening, regardless of what big business or any other powerful interests might say. Older voters discovered this first. The EU referendum saw a percentage turnout not seen since 1992. It brought people out who hadn’t voted for years. Turnout rose with age, according to some surveys reaching 80-90 percent among the over 65s. The pro-Brexit anger was partly economic and partly cultural. Older working class voters, who were concerned about immigration, played a large part in delivering the Leave majority.
This was the vote that the Conservatives believed they could pick up at the election. With its interventionist policies, the Erdington Modernisation was all about reaching out to those working class voters who had become disillusioned with the Labour Party. Much to the disgust of the Economist, the Tory manifesto was more statist than at any time since Edward Heath.
This strategy worked, up to a point. The Conservatives took seats from Labour in the Midlands and increased their share of the vote. As the FT’s Chris Giles and Gemma Tetlow noted, the higher the Leave vote in a constituency, the more the Conservative vote share increased.
It also increased in areas with a higher proportion of retired people.
The Conservatives also gained most from the collapse of UKIP. These are the factors which enabled the Tories to win seats like Mansfield and North East Derbyshire.
If that is all that had happened, things would have gone according to plan and the Conservatives would have been returned with a larger majority.
The problem for the Tories, though, was that not all the Labour voters who had defected to UKIP went on to vote Conservative. Some went back to Labour. Furthermore, Remain voters under 45, many of whom would normally have supported the Conservatives, deserted them.
And, finally, young voters got the message about voting too. The referendum was a wake-up call. Campaigns over the last year to encourage them to vote seem to have worked. It’s too early to say for certain how high the young voter turnout was. It was almost certainly up on previous years, though the 72 percent figure being bandied around last week may well have been exaggerated. Nevertheless, there is evidence that those aged 18-25 helped to compensate Labour for the loss of its Leave-voting supporters. The party’s largest increases came from areas with a high proportion of young people.
This was enough to scupper the Conservatives’ chances of getting an overall majority. Although the party increased its share of the vote to its highest since 1987, the Labour Party increased its vote share too. The older working class voters stuck to the script but many of the youngsters, who were expected to stay at home, turned out for Labour, as did the younger middle-aged. The Erdington modernisation failed to gain Erdington where, although the Tory vote increased by 8 percent, the Labour vote went up by 12 percent. It was a similar story across most of England and Wales.
Like the Conservatives, Labour attracted new voters by pitching policies that had been off the table since the 1970s. Before the election, conventional wisdom said that Jeremy Corbyn was too left-wing but, as the campaign went on, it became clear that a lot of people liked the Labour Party’s ideas. Its interventionist policies, like taxing the rich, banning zero hours contracts and nationalising the railways and energy companies, went down well. Even those who weren’t especially fond of Mr Corbyn liked a lot liked a lot of what his party was saying.
It was a campaign the like of which we haven’t seen for decades. Representatives of business complained about their loss of influence, while the Economist lamented the abandonment of neoliberalism. The main parties put forward policies on immigration, price controls, industrial policy, tax and nationalisation which had been deemed unacceptable until recently. And they proved popular. People threw their votes at the Overton Window and smashed it.
Cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert came up with the term “The Long 90s” to describe the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Great Recession. He noticed, as Kurt Andersen pointed out in a Vanity Fair article in 2012, that the rapid changes in fashion and music that characterised the postwar period seem to have slowed or even stopped altogether after the 1990s. The 2000s and 2010s produced some talented musicians but their music wasn’t new.
For arguably the first time since the beginning of recorded music, there isn’t any that you couldn’t have quite easily imagined being made 20 years previously.
This cultural stagnation, he says, reflects the political torpor we have experienced since the 1990s. But he thinks we may be coming to the end of that period.
I think that we are probably already at the end of that moment that I’ve called the long 1990s.
It may be that the phase we are about to enter is merely the third phase of a very long period unbroken neoliberal hegemony. But if the key feature of the long 90s was the pervading sense that even on the Left, the normativity of neoliberalism could not be refused, then that moment is clearly now over.
He wrote that two years ago. The events of the last year suggest that, in the UK at least, he may be right. Suddenly things look very different. The assumptions of the Long 90s period, with its low election turnouts and limited role of the state, have been challenged. The former Labour voters who transferred their allegiance to Theresa May and the young voters who flocked to Jeremy Corbyn want more state, not less. They want the government to do something and they have discovered that voting can make a difference.
Even though it didn’t win the election, Labour is riding high. It is benefitting from the post-election opinion poll bounce that usually goes to the winning party. It is not inconceivable that Labour might come to power in 2022, or even sooner, with a radical and interventionist agenda. No longer constrained by EU regulations, a left-wing government could tax, nationalise, subsidise and regulate whatever it liked. The campaign for Brexit was, for the most part, led and financed by the libertarian free-market right; people who want more deregulation, less tax and a smaller state. It is beginning to dawn on some of them that Brexit may deliver the exact opposite. For Andrew Lilico, one of the relatively few economists to support Brexit, all that matters now is stopping Corbyn.
Everything else is secondary now to stopping him. Austerity, Brexit, public services reform, trade deals with the US, foibles about doing deals with Irish politicians or Lib Dems – even new anti-terror laws. Everything else is secondary and expendable for the moment.
It was their own fault. The Brexiters fanned the flames of populism and re-introduced people to the notion that voting might change things. They thought that the new post-Brexit Britain would be theirs. Now they realise it probably won’t.
When historians and political scientists look back, in a decade or so, one image will define the Summer of ’17. It won’t be a distraught Theresa May or a waving Jeremy Corbyn. It will be the burning Grenfell Tower. It is still way too early to be clear about what went wrong and whose fault it might have been but, regardless of the causes of the fire, as the Guido Fawkes blog complains, the political fallout is already damaging the Conservatives. It doesn’t really matter how much of a role austerity, a scrimping Tory council, outsourcing and deregulation had in making the catastrophic blaze more likely, the story fits the spirit of the times. Grenfell was a tower block housing the poor in the middle of one of the country’s richest constituencies, the one in which, less than a week earlier, Labour had overturned decades of solid Tory majorities. It may, in time, become a symbol of the point at which British politics turned.
Of course, this may all turn out to be summer hysteria. Maybe things will calm down in the autumn. In this business-as-usual world, the Conservatives will get a new leader and the free-marketers will reassert themselves to produce a less interventionist set of policies. They will win a solid majority and post-Brexit Britain will simply be a slightly poorer version of its early 21st century self. Labour will moderate its tone to win in 2022 and continue the process. Once the summer storms are over, the glaziers will repair the Overton Window and shut out the turbulent elements.
Somehow, though, I doubt it. It was always likely that Brexit, coming when the UK was still dealing with the aftershock of the financial crisis, was going to cause significant economic upheaval. Combine that with a renewed enthusiasm for voting and all sorts of things become possible. I still think we are in for some interesting times, Perhaps the Summer of ’17 really will be the end of the Long 90s.