An FT editorial declared last year that divisions between left and right no longer explain how voters think. In September Intelligence Squared ran a debate on Britain’s Political Identity Crisis and the dissolving of left and right into new political tribes. There is much talk of realignment in British politics.
One of the most useful contributions to the debate was this chart published just before Christmas by the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch and Sebastian Payne, based on data from the British Election Survey. It plots voters on two axes according to their attitudes. The horizontal axis is the traditional left-right split, based on issues like income distribution, taxation and the behaviour of big business. The vertical axis maps social attitudes to things like the death penalty, crime, school discipline and traditional British values.
As you might expect, it shows a large number of voters following something like the traditional two-party positions; for the Conservative voters, right-wing on economic issues and socially conservative on cultural issues, for Labour voters, the opposite. However there is also a significant chunk in the top left hand corner, containing both Labour and Conservative voters who are left-wing on economic issues yet more conservative on cultural questions.
Jon Mellon and Chris Prosser from the BES team discussed this in a paper they published last September. They found that, unlike the voters, most parliamentary candidates from the major parties fitted into the classic party positions. Plotted on a similar scale, their stated positions showed the Labour candidates falling into the bottom left quadrant, economically left and socially liberal, while the Conservative candidates clustered towards the top left quadrant, economically right and socially conservative.
There is, then, a group of voters in the top left quadrant not really represented by anyone. Furthermore, as Mellon and Prosser note, these voters are predominantly working class.
Something else happened in over the last thirty years though. The Overton Window, that range of policies that politicians and commentators deem to be politically acceptable, moved towards the bottom right. It was as though a deal had been struck; you can have diversity, minority rights and discrimination laws if we can have privatisation, deregulation and tax cuts. The effect of this was to take policies that were popular with the public off the agenda on the grounds that they were publicly unacceptable. Politicians proposing renationalisation and high taxes on the rich or the restoration of capital punishment and cuts to immigration tended to be dismissed as eccentric, even though many voters were in favour of such things.
As American political scientist Alan Wolfe said:
The right won the economic war, the left won the cultural war.
Or, as David Goodhart put it, the two liberalisms won, the economic liberalism of the right and the social liberalism of the left:
What if a lot of people feel that there’s no point in voting because whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.
The two liberalisms – the 1960s (social) and 1980s (economic) – have dominated politics for a generation.
Even during the Thatcher period, when economic policies shifted to the right, the liberal policies initiated during the 1960s, and the social changes that went with them, continued apace. Conservative politicians may have railed against ‘political correctness’ but they didn’t do much about it. Racist and sexist language that would have passed unremarked in 1979 was considered unacceptable by the time John Major left office. Corporal punishment in schools was abolished under Margaret Thatcher and, while there was much tough talk on immigration, her government did little to change the existing laws. The Conservatives even shied away from illiberal legislation that would have been overwhelmingly popular, such as the re-introduction of capital punishment. Voters might have thought they were voting for socially conservative policies but what they got was economic liberalism.
If the right had quietly abandoned the culture war the left seemed to do something similar with the economic war. By and large, Labour under Tony Blair accepted privatisation and de-regulation. It tried, with some success, to mitigate the rise in economic inequality by using redistributive taxes and benefits while advancing its socially liberal agenda. Its Equality Act in 2010 said very little about economic equality. 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.
All of which meant that politics began to drift away from some working class voters. Voters who were socially liberal or economically on the right got at least some of that they wanted. Those in the top left quadrant were quietly ignored.
A YouGov poll in 2015 found majority support for both “radical left” and “radical right” policies. Policies that might be dismissed in the broadsheets as unworkable or even a bit bonkers were actually quite popular.
The survey also found that all policies except for workers on boards had majority support among UKIP voters. Perhaps more surprisingly, between 40 and 50 percent of Conservative voters backed the ‘radical left’ policies and a majority of Labour voters were in favour of the suggestions on benefit cuts and ending parole for murderers.
The accompanying commentary said:
All of this points to a contemporary mindset that defies traditional classification. It is possible for the same people to believe several things at the same time which come from opposite ends of the traditional ‘political spectrum’.
Most tellingly, although 63% of British people are at least fairly clear on what is meant by the left/right terms, the largest group (43%) say they don’t think of their views as being right or left wing.
Is this really a contemporary mindset, though, or just one that was ignored for years? My grandfather would not have found any of this at all strange. A former soldier, miner and trade union activist, he believed in nationalisation, workers’ rights and the welfare state, while also having a low opinion of ‘shirkers’ and a slight mistrust of foreigners. He would not hear a word said against the royal family or the armed forces. Every profile I read of union leader Bob Crow remarked on the fact that a left-wing firebrand such as he was also in favour of the death penalty. In that, I suspect, he was not that far away from many of the people he represented.
Support for the death penalty was, as Eric Kaufmann pointed out, strongly correlated with Brexit voting intention. He argued that the Brexit vote was primarily about values, with the EU referendum providing an issue around which those with socially conservative values coalesced. That can be seen on John Burn-Murdoch’s chart, with the block of Leave voters spreading across the left-right divide but concentrated mostly on the authoritarian side of the chart.
I think Resolution Foundation Director Torsten Bell had it about right when he observed that many of the Leave voting areas had been left behind economically decades ago but that there was a cultural aspect to the vote too:
[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.
Those in that top left quadrant had suffered economically and, at the same time, the prevailing political culture had gradually moved away from them. The referendum gave them a chance to upset the apple cart and they took it.
This leaves the main political parties with a problem. Doing what they have done for the past few decades isn’t going to cut it any more. Their dilemma is made more difficult because, when you start unpacking some of these political and cultural attitudes, there is yet more nuance. Take something like social conservatism. Acceptance of same-sex relationships has increased significantly over the past half decade or so, especially among people describing themselves as Christians. In contrast, attitudes to race and ethnicity have not moved as much. British Social Attitudes data suggest that people are a little less racially prejudiced than they were 30 years ago but the report contrasts this with the sharp drop in homophobia. Simon Hix, Eric Kaufmann and Thomas Leeper found that, for all the referendum rhetoric, voters were actually more concerned about non-EU migration than migrants from inside the EU.
A study by Populus for the Legatum Institute in last September looked at several aspects of social liberalism. It found, as you might expect, that younger voters were more socially liberal. Here, again, the general acceptance of same sex relationships shows up but the attitude to crime is also interesting. Younger voters, on balance, want tougher punishment for criminals and a more order society.
The same study, much to the disappointment of its sponsors, found significant support for renationalising transport and utilities and a generally unfavourable view of capitalism. Nationalisation found majority support among Conservative voters and across all age groups. The suggestion from some Tories that renewed support for nationalisation comes from young Corbynistas who can’t remember how bad things were in the 1970s doesn’t really stack up.
When it comes to the corporations and the labour market, there is little to cheer the deregulators. The light-touch approach of the last three decades is no longer popular with the voters, if indeed it ever was. Peter Mandelson might be relaxed about people getting filthy rich but the majority of people, it seems, disagree.
The common theme emerging here is that people want the government to do more. Whether it’s about crime and immigration or stopping profiteering and ensuring greater equality, the underlying theme in all of this is a desire for more government action.
This is why I think it is unlikely that post-Brexit Britain will become the deregulated shrunken state that many of those who bankrolled and ran the Leave campaign hoped for. It does raise the question, though, about what politics might look like in the next decade. The Brexit vote revived the idea that people can actually change things by voting and the surprise result of the last election suggests that voters might be getting the message.
It’s tempting to look at the data from the surveys I have covered in this post and conclude that a party advocating greater state intervention in the economy together with a crackdown on crime, curbs on immigration but with a liberal attitude to sexuality and soft drugs might be onto a winner. Something like a British Pim Fortuyn, perhaps. Politics is more complex than that, though, and a first-past-the-post parliamentary system without a directly elected presidency is the most hostile environment for insurgent parties. Ironically. UKIP only made the headway it did because of the proportional system in the European Parliament.
Nevertheless, those who talk of realignment are right in that the Conservative and Labour parties will almost certainly have to shift the positions they have held for the last few decades. The voters have started to break the Overton Window. It will be interesting to see what they let in.