Shortly after the House of Commons reassembled in March 1974 to hear the Queen’s Speech of Harold Wilson’s minority Labour government, the BBC broadcast Penda’s Fen, a remarkable television drama written by a novice playwright, David Rudkin. The play depicts the adolescent awakening of an adopted son of a vicar in rural Worcestershire. His settled life, structured by established orders of family, faith, patriotism and sexuality, is steadily unstitched in a series of mysterious apparitions and visionary encounters.
Angels and demons, a naked schoolmate, Edward Elgar, and finally King Penda himself, the last of the pagan Anglo-Saxon warrior kings of Mercia, all cross his path as he comes to a new awareness of the hybridity of his identity. It is a ponderous but mesmerising play that digs down through the sedimented hierarchies of 1970s England, into the shifting terrains of a more unsettled, conflictual but ultimately liberating history.
Rudkin’s play evokes the dislocations of the mid-1970s, when the sense of a crisis in the post-war political and economic order was widespread. Post-war Keynesianism was collapsing. Authoritarian, racist and New Right political discourses were competing to take its place, but so too were the new social movements of feminism, green politics and gay liberation. Penda’s Fen spoke to this complex assemblage of social and political forces, and its contemporary resonance resides precisely in the clear echoes of that era in the politics of 2017: a country uncertain of its future, with no political party yet capable of achieving ascendancy, but exhibiting palpable public awareness that significant economic and political change is needed. “Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed,” claimed Theresa May after her election campaign social care U-turn, triggering a collapse in her public standing and her party’s poll lead. It was as hallucinatory as anything in Penda’s Fen.
The Prime Minister’s attempt to solidify a new national consensus behind her leadership and Brexit prospectus took on a distinctly authoritarian tone at the onset of the election campaign. She claimed to give expression to a popular will that was being thwarted by illegitimate parliamentary opposition. But her project was broken on the consolidation of powerful new cleavages in the British electorate.
First and foremost was a demographic one. Labour hoovered up the support of the under 45s, while the Conservatives entrenched their lead among older voters – a trend that has been in play for a number of years, but which Jeremy Corbyn appears to have accelerated. This sharpening of the age divide in British politics has complicated the electoral politics of social class.
Labour has established complete supremacy among the young, multicultural working class (of which Grime4Corbyn is culturally symbolic), and significantly extended its support among the middle classes. But it has lost a large chunk of its older working class support to the Conservatives, so that the overall class divide between the parties has narrowed. These effects are geographically uneven, with Labour doing exceptionally well in Wales, London and other metropolitan centres, but losing ground in parts of the Midlands and the North. Scottish politics remain overlaid by the national question, complicating the story still further.
The apparent return of the two party system masks the volatility of this electorate. In 2015, the British Election Study showed that nearly 40 per cent of the electorate had voted for a different party at the previous election, compared to around 10 per cent in 1966, when voting class blocs were still highly structured by industrial society. The 21st century electorate is more fickle and less tribal in its loyalties, and politics is more uncertain as a consequence. Specific conjunctural factors were also important in 2017. Brexit undoubtedly motivated liberal professionals to support Labour, despite the party’s calculated ambiguity on the issue, while it effectively neutered two of Labour’s biggest recent weaknesses, on immigration and economic credibility.
For their part, the Liberal Democrats were still being punished for their role in the coalition government, while Ukip’s collapse enabled a one-off redistribution of millions of votes. Meanwhile, the fatal combination of toxicity and banality in the Conservative campaign, coupled with Corbyn’s energetic reassertion of social democratic values, steered many former Labour supporters back into the fold. As none of these factors can simply be repeated, however, neither of the two main parties can assume solidity in their electoral coalitions. Each has cross-class support but lacks the inter-generational alliances that would secure dominance.
Ideologically, Labour’s direction is now firmly set by the Corbyn leadership. All that is now at stake is the pace at which it develops, and how far the Corbyn project reaches out across the party and beyond, rather than consolidating around sectarian positions. Labour’s manifesto mixed a restoration of the pre-Thatcherite status quo on public ownership with a defence of New Labour’s most popular tax-and-spend policies, such as education maintenance allowances and children’s centres, and a rejection of others, such as tuition fees. It left untouched Conservative cuts to tax credits for low income families but pledged sweeping progressive taxation and public spending reforms. It was both defensive and bold, enabling the party to unite around an offer to tackle austerity and wage stagnation, without giving many clues as to the future of the left. It promised a better yesterday, owing as much to the Attlee settlement as to any post-capitalist prospectus.
In contrast to Labour, it is the future of conservatism that is now uncertain. The election result has ended Theresa May’s emergent project of coupling Euroscepticism with the party’s One Nation interventionist traditions. The Conservative manifesto’s soft economic nationalist and Burkean rhetoric excited more interest than the substance warranted, but May had begun to sketch a reorientation of Conservative politics for a post-austerity, Brexit era. Her electoral humiliation, and the forced departure of her chief ideologue, Nick Timothy, have finished that off. Conservatives seeking a more centrist path back to younger voters will not stray far from economic and cultural liberalism.
The election result also dealt a fatal blow to the “no deal” Brexit agenda of reinventing the UK as an offshore, low tax and low regulation “world island”. The ambitions for a buccaneering Global Britain are left hanging on whether the UK will eventually leave the EU customs union and the single market, after what will now likely be a long transition period. Lacking a stable parliamentary majority of their own for a hard Brexit, the Conservatives are dependent on a residual Bennite Euroscepticism in the Labour leadership to secure majority support for quitting the single market. It is an irony of history that a reinvention of the 1975 alliance between the socialist left and the Eurosceptic right might yet determine the course of Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU.
Nonetheless, public hostility to further cuts to the state, and the destruction of the post-war public realm – symbolised so horrifically by the fire at Grenfell Tower – mark out an exhaustion of post-Thatcherite conservatism. Neoliberal commentators are casting around for ideas but the energy has drained from their politics. Although the Treasury will not suddenly pivot to fiscal plenitude in the autumn Budget, there is no political mileage left in cutting taxes, public services and the welfare state.
Like the US, British politics exhibits a curious mix of stasis and turbulence. The political momentum rests with Labour but it faces an adversary with strong survival instincts, dug in behind deep electoral trenches. Neither party looks capable of decisive, overwhelming victory. Despite the SNP’s tactical retreat on a second independence referendum, the territorial politics of the Union remain febrile as a result of the government’s deal with the DUP. Like the elderly but potent King Penda, Corbyn has infused politics with a spirit of youthful resistance, but the established order is not overthrown.
This piece was originally published in New Statesman.