Is this a crisis?
It has been widely suggested that the UK’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump reflect some significant common social and economic changes across the developed world, and that these changes have important implications for politics on the left. It is also argued that similar forces are at work in European politics, with worrying implications for European countries facing elections in the next few years, and for the European project itself. I want to argue that the short term implications may have been overstated, but that the changes reflect long term trends, with common elements across the developed world and with serious implications for the politics of the left, but that it is easy to misread them.
Firstly, the changes of 2016 are nothing like as dramatic as they might seem. Both votes were won by extremely narrow margins, suggesting a very evenly divided electorate. In the USA, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin, but lost because of the eccentricities of the Electoral College. In the UK, 63% of the electorate did not vote for change, but because they were evenly divided between committed Remainers and non-voters, the 37% of the electorate who voted for Brexit “won”. Despite this very finely balanced result this slight tipping of the electoral balance has been interpreted as a vote for radical change towards nationalism and to the right. Similarly, in both cases, the campaigns have emphasised division, magnified by the media, and the increasing tendency for people to see only news which supports their pre-existing views. A disillusion with politics and with “elites” has encouraged people to treat the political process like football, with passionate supporters cheering on their own teams, rather than recognising complex and finely balanced arguments.
Long term trends
Nevertheless, a real change is clearly taking place, and I suggest that it reflects four underlying secular trends: ageing, diversifying, globalising and a failure of capitalism. The first two are demographic. As life expectancy continues to rise, society is ageing. As people age they become less concerned with the long term future, and tend to move politically to the right. Once retired from paid work, people lose a degree of control over their lives, especially their financial security, and it is natural to seek security and stability. However, diversification pulls in the opposite direction. The young adult population is much more ethnically and culturally diverse than their parents and grandparents. Overall they have much higher levels of education, and they are more widely travelled. Understandably, they are more focused on the future than the past.
The third factor, globalisation, is more than a matter of moving production and work around the world. Rather it is a process of redistributing resources and opportunities at a global level. Thus, although many people still endure living conditions which most Europeans would regard as intolerable, global levels of poverty have fallen dramatically (halving between 1990 and 2015, and still falling fast), which internationalists of the left ought to welcome. However, it does mean that living standards in the “developed” world are falling relative to the rest, and those whose skills and motivation are comparable, or lower than, with their peers in less developed countries are particularly vulnerable, to immigration, which brings in better qualified or motivated workers, or to offshoring, moving work to countries where labour costs are lower.
The fourth trend is the crisis of capitalism, evidenced in the financial crisis of 2008, when it became evident that existing capitalist models had failed. However, in a hugely complex and interlocked global economy, the political and economic consequences of collapse were too alarming to be contemplated, and Governments adopted policies formerly seen as heretical, to re-establish a degree of balance. Nevertheless, the model had failed, and it has proved unable to restore anything like the kind of prosperity and optimism which had preceded the crash.
The consequence of these trends is a world which is more equal, more diverse, more mobile and more productive. Overall living standards are rising and opportunities growing, but most people in the countries which have been winners since the industrial revolution of the West are losing in relative terms, and some people in those countries are losing dramatically. These are the people described in popular discourse in the UK as the “left behind” and the “just about managing”. In many places they are a small proportion of the population, but in others they are whole communities which have lost their sense of purpose and future. This is most evident in places where a single industry or employer has been driven out by international competition or technological change.
Parties in denial
One explanation of the votes of 2016 is that mainstream politics has failed to recognise this issue, or at least has failed to respond adequately to it. In the UK Referendum campaign, the Labour Party instructed its canvassers to concentrate on its core remain supporters, and to avoid discussion of immigration, which was seen as inflammatory, and likely to encourage Leavers to vote. This avoided discussion about the underlying causes of anxiety about immigration – failed housing policy, failed enforcement of labour market law, lack of effort to encourage integration, and underinvestment in public services. In the USA a similar pattern can be seen. The Clinton campaign, underestimating the degree of disaffection with “urban elites”, neglected what it believed were its secure core voters in the rustbelt states, and minority communities, in favour of trying to persuade “soft Republicans”, shocked by the Trump campaign, to defect. In both cases the strategy fed a “persecution narrative”, regularly talked up by the right and the media, which suggested that those worried about immigration were despised by urban elites as stupid racists, thus deepening a sense of grievance, distrust and discouraging dialogue.
Where does this take the politics of the left in the UK? All four significant English political parties are divided coalitions. The Conservative and Liberal parties all include passionate neo-liberal free traders, but all three include people with very different, and incompatible, views, (nationalists, egalitarians, supporters of a strong managerial state etc). The Labour Party is divided in a different way. From its foundation it was an unstable alliance between a movement of organised workers, fighting for their rights, and a largely middle class, intellectual group arguing, from a position of considerable privilege, for a more equal world. A commitment to equality looks very different if it is a matter of fighting for more on behalf of yourself and your peers, rather than redistributing some of your own advantages. The former group is not necessarily going to welcome the addition of new disadvantaged groups to the catalogue of people to be fought for, while the latter may be more cautious about the extent of redistribution. This is not a recipe for mutual trust, nor for a stable alliance.
Industrial change and globalisation have inevitably weakened the large employment and cultural base on which organised labour thrived. As their numbers shrank and their organisation weakened they became increasingly excluded from the economy and political debate, and their legitimate sense of grievance grew. I suggest that this is the underlying reason for the political shift over the last forty years.
The smaller scale of the UK, and the stronger welfare state, means that the reaction is less violent than in the USA, but the underlying trends are the same. When the overall level of resources in the “developed” world is shrinking relative to the rest, people become increasingly defensive, and hostile to extending notions of equality to a wider world. For the liberal egalitarians, this is a matter of redistributing “our” surplus more widely, while for the workers party, it is sharing an already inadequate cake with new, and perhaps undeserving, client groups.
Two Labour Parties
In this context, the YouGov survey of labour supporters, carried out in Autumn 2016, after the Brexit vote, but before the US elections, is illuminating https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/11/05/labour-workers-party-liberal-left/ . They surveyed 1,468 people who declared themselves as labour supporters or who had voted labour in one of the last three General Elections. They asked about a number of issues, but most critically, they asked what sort of Labour Party supporters wanted. The three options were:
- Getting rid of capitalism and neo-liberalism and replacing them with a fairer economic system (8% of respondents)
- Representing and standing up for ordinary working class people and their values (the “Workers’ rights” group: 33% of respondents)
- Building a society that is fair for everyone, whatever their background, gender, race or sexuality (“Egalitarians: 47% of respondents)
What they found confirms the argument above. On a series of critical policy issues the second and third groups were diametrically opposed, often by large margins. On immigration, 63% of the “workers’ rights” supporters were hostile, while 62% of the “egalitarians” group were positive. On human rights laws the balance was 48% negative to 66% positive. On welfare benefits 47% of the “workers’ rights” thought benefits were too easy to get, while 42% of the “fairness” group thought they should be made easier. Although both groups were positive about the EU, only 50% of “workers’ rights” supporters felt this, compared to 66% of the “fairness” group.
The two groups are distinct in other ways. The egalitarians were younger, more highly educated, from higher social classes and more likely to read broadsheet newspapers. 61% of them described their views as “left of centre”. By contrast, only 36% of the workers party supporters placed themselves as left of centre, and 30% answered “don’t know”.
This is a very profound divide. On many issues the views of the “workers party” supporters align more closely with UKIP than with the “egalitarians”, and it would be foolish to assume that historic tribal loyalty will overcome this in a general election (one of the major mistakes of the Clinton campaign). On the other hand, the egalitarians share many views with the egalitarian wing of the Liberal Democrats, and even with some “one nation” Conservatives.
It does not seem plausible that the Labour Party can go into another General Election without an explicit position on some, at least, of these issues. However, it is also clear that any position will alienate a significant proportion of its supporters, and a fudge will probably alienate both. The current leadership seems disposed towards the egalitarian, cosmopolitan side, which is going with the tide of demography and globalisation, but means abandoning a large group of traditional supporters, or persuading them to change their views. Its current position on Brexit, however, diverges from the egalitarian agenda, and risks alienating a substantial proportion of its supporters on that side too. Those for whom the constitutional and economic implications of Brexit are a dominant issue may well decide to switch to the Liberals, as the only party with a clear anti Brexit policy.
The end of an era
The events of 2016 (and perhaps similar events in other developed countries in 2017) were not a sudden rejection of a political order, rather they are a reflection of much longer term trends, and are best seen as the death rattle of an unsustainable economic and political order. The underlying trends are unlikely to change. Western societies will continue to age, and their living standards are unlikely to rise at the rates seen in the post war period. The world will become a more equal place, at the expense of the former richest countries. Those countries may attempt to stem the flow by protectionist policies, but while these may be popular in the short term, they are likely to aggravate problems by slowing global growth. Political stability will depend on strategies for sharing the misery more equitably, something for which conventional democratic politics has not proved well equipped.
The Labour Party is ideologically more committed to equitable solutions, but its traditional base is not well placed to achieve this. The egalitarians already form a majority of their supporters, and the tide of demography is on their side (although the rising numbers of older people are a restraining force). As the proportion of better educated, more cosmopolitan people grows, the egalitarian agenda will become more popular. However, this risks driving away a substantial proportion of the party’s traditional base, who do not share this agenda. In the short term, at least, this is a recipe for electoral disaster. However, the alternative strategy, to become a party “for the working class”, would harness the party to a declining proportion of the electorate, socially conservative and increasingly disorganised and unpredictable. It would also involve competing with UKIP and a Conservative Party happy to rebrand itself as the party of “hard working people”.
The core strategy for the Labour Party must therefore have two strands. The first is to persuade voters, including especially many of the “workers party” tendency among its own supporters, that an agenda focused on equality is, in the long term, best for all, and that a party which fights only for the sectional interests of the native working class is unachievable, as well as wrong. The second, equally difficult, is to ensure that this is true, and that the response to a declining share of global resources should not be to ignore the interests of particular groups and communities. We must resist the pressure from the right to scapegoat “other” minority groups. Fair treatment for migrants and refugees, the protection of human rights and decent welfare support for those who fall on hard times are all parts of a civilised society where we all benefit.
 Average life expectancy has been rising steadily for more than a century, while birth rates have been below “replacement rate” since the 1960s.
 “Mixed race” is the most rapidly growing ethnic group in the UK population.
 When today’s 70 year olds were leaving school 4% went on to higher education, in 2015 the proportion was 48%.