IPR Blog

Expert analysis, debates and comments on topical policy-relevant issues

Topic: political parties

Labour’s weakness leaves the Tories free to do as they please

📥  political parties, Political sociology, voting

This article first appeared in the Financial Times.

Soul-searching about the electoral prospects of the Labour party has been a British political pastime for decades. After Labour’s defeat at the 1959 general election, Anthony Crosland, the party’s pre-eminent revisionist intellectual, published a Fabian pamphlet entitled “Can Labour Win?” His argument was that economic growth had shrunk the industrial working class and swelled the ranks of an affluent middle class, transforming the electoral battleground on which Labour had to fight.



Pamphlets and polemics have been published with variations on that theme ever since, always after Labour has lost elections. With the exception of a bout of civil war in the early 1980s, Labour has responded to each defeat by seeking to broaden its appeal and modernise its policies. In each era, it has succeeded in getting re-elected.

The results of Thursday’s by-elections paint a bleaker picture, however. It is not simply that Labour’s current leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is unpopular, or that his brand of reheated Bennism holds little appeal for most voters. The chances of his leading Labour into the next general election must now be considered minimal. It is that in the heyday of postwar social democracy, Labour won handsomely, whatever the national result, in seats like Copeland (which it lost on Thursday) and Stoke-on-Trent Central (which it held with a reduced majority).

Since then, three things have happened in these constituencies and others like them: turnout has fallen dramatically, the number of parties contesting the seats has multiplied and the Labour majority has been slashed. The party’s grip on power in its historic strongholds is now more tenuous than at any time since the 1930s, when it was split and faced a popular National government.

Until relatively recently, Labour could rely on its working-class supporters, even as the industrial society that shaped their allegiances steadily disappeared. Today, age and social class inequalities in voting patterns work decisively against the party. Older, middle-class voters turn out in much greater numbers than working-class and younger voters, which disproportionately benefits the Conservatives. Theresa May has been adept at consolidating this older voting bloc behind her government.

The prime minister has used the Brexit vote to offer a new configuration of Conservative politics that is both Eurosceptic and post-Thatcherite, detaching the interventionist, One Nation economic and social traditions of the party (at least in rhetoric, if not yet in practice) from its enfeebled pro-European wing. It is an electorally potent combination, which has had the effect, not just of boxing Labour into liberal, metropolitan Britain, but of holding down the UK Independence party’s vote.

Breathless post-Brexit talk of Ukip eating away the core Labour vote in the north of England has now given way to a more sophisticated appreciation of the flows of voters between the parties — flows from which the Conservatives, and to a lesser degree the Liberal Democrats, appear to be the winners.

Britain’s new electoral geography has also undermined Labour. Once, the party could bring battalions of MPs to Westminster from Scotland, Wales and northern England, where it was indisputably dominant. Now it fights on different fronts against multiple parties across the UK, a national party in a fracturing union. In Scotland, its support has been cannibalised by the Scottish National party, while the Conservatives have picked up the unionist vote there.

In Wales, party allegiances have split in different directions, while in England, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats at the last general election handed a swath of seats to the Conservatives. The EU referendum added another layer of complexity, splitting coastal, rural and post-industrial areas from cities and university towns, and leaving Labour facing in different directions, trying to hold together a coalition of voters with divergent views.

Any Labour leader would struggle in these circumstances — renewing the party’s fortunes at a time of national division is a monumental task. But it is now clear that the surge of support for Mr Corbyn in 2015 was less a new social movement giving energy and purpose to the Labour party, than a planetary nebula collecting around a dying star.

Labour’s weaknesses leave pro-Europeans bereft of political leadership at a critical time. In the absence of an effective opposition that can marshal blocking votes in parliament, the government is able to conduct the politics of Brexit internally. Countervailing forces are restricted to alternative centres of power, such as Scotland or London, and civil society campaigns that are only just starting to form. Big business is curiously mute and the trade unions have other priorities. On the most important question facing Britain, political power is dangerously lopsided.

Yet there are still grounds for optimism on the left, however small. Britain’s radical political traditions — liberal, as well as social democratic — are resilient and resourceful ones, particularly when they combine forces. The defeats inflicted on progressive parties in recent elections around the world have been narrow not decisive, suggesting that talk of a nationalist turn in the tide of history is overblown. While British Conservatism may be remarkably adaptive, Brexit will be a severe test of it.

Five years after Crosland posed the question of whether Labour could win, Harold Wilson became prime minister in a blaze of the “white heat” of technology. It will not be Mr Corbyn, and it will take a lot longer this time, but Wilson may yet have a successor who can do the same.


Citizen's Income: the long history of an inevitable idea

📥  Economy, Finland, future, living wage, policymaking, political parties, research, Switzerland, universal income, Welfare

Dr Malcolm Torry is Director of the Citizen's Income Trust and a prolific author on the subject of Citizen's Income.

On Tuesday 11 October the Institute for Policy Research hosted a seminar on the desirability and feasibility of a Citizen’s or Basic Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. An account of the seminar is available on the IPR’s website. I shall not here repeat what was said at that seminar: instead, I shall begin with a different seminar.



Following the publication of its report on Citizen’s Income, the Royal Society of Arts hosted a seminar on the history and prospects of the Citizen’s Income debate. In his presentation Karl Widerquist, Co-chair of BIEN, the Citizen’s Income international umbrella group, recounted the history of the idea from the 18th Century onwards, and made suggestions as to the different ways in which the debate might now develop.

The subsequent discussion recognised that the more intense debate of the past two or three years has a variety of causes: think tank engagement with the issue, represented by the RSA’s and Compass’s reports, and interest at the Adam Smith Institute; successful pilot projects in Namibia and India; planned pilot projects in Finland and Holland; a referendum in Switzerland; political party interest in the UK (with the Green Party and the Scottish National Party supporting the idea, and Labour interested) and in other countries too; new trade union interest; and perhaps even the Citizen’s Income Trust’s 30 years of research and publications.

The current debate already has its own history, constituted by three phases: discussion of whether giving everyone a Citizen’s Income would be desirable, interest in whether it would be feasible, and discussion of which would be the best way to implement the policy. There are no firm boundaries between these three phases (if a Citizen’s Income could not be implemented, for example, then it would not be feasible – and if it wasn’t felt to be desirable then it wouldn’t be feasible either), and each new phase has been in addition to a previous phase or phases, rather than being a replacement – but the progression is significant because it is evidence for the increasingly serious nature of the current debate. The think tank reports listed above belong to the ‘feasibility’ phase, as does my own recent Institute for Social and Economic Research Euromod working paper and recent book. A significant contribution to the new focus on implementation will be an Institute for Chartered Accountants consultation on the subject in November.

Where will the debate go now?

Luke Martinelli’s recent Institute for Policy Research blog discusses the diversity of the current debate in terms of, firstly, the diverse political ideologies of some of the players, and secondly the diversity of Citizen’s Income schemes discussed. A Citizen’s or Basic Income is always the same thing. It is always an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every individual. But there are of course a wide diversity of different schemes, with each scheme specifying the levels of Citizen’s Income for different age groups, and the changes that will be made to the existing tax and benefits systems when the Citizen’s Income is implemented. Compass called a scheme that retains means-tested benefits a ‘modified’ scheme. It is not. The Citizen’s Income is a genuine Citizen’s Income, so the scheme is a genuine Citizen’s Income scheme.

There is a history to this diversity. As with the three phases of the current debate, so the longer-term debate has evolved by addition rather than by replacement. Thomas Paine’s suggestion, that those who no longer have access to expropriated commons should be paid compensation, has been a continuing theme, represented today by Guy Standing’s campaigning scholarship. Today’s most high-profile representative of the libertarian argument for a Citizen’s Income is Philippe Van Parijs, and Charles Murray represents well the extreme version of this tendency, which would like to scrap all other welfare provision on the implementation of a Citizen’s Income. But this is to suggest – as Martinelli’s blog post does – that arguments for Citizen’s Income, and accompanying preferred Citizen’s Income schemes, can be located in clear ideological categories. I suspect that this is less and less the case. There are no longer clear categories, and there are no reliable spectra on which positions can be located. Our age is increasingly one of radical diversity. My first book on Citizen’s Income, Money for Everyone, discussed political feasibility in terms of identifiable political ideologies. The following book, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income, simply offers 101 different reasons, recognising that for each individual a particular bundle of reasons might be significant. A handful of the reasons offered are framed in terms of political ideologies, because for many people those are still salient – but most of the reasons are simply listed in such broad categories as ‘economy’, ‘society’, ‘administration’, etc. My most recent book, Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, recognises that we are a community of communities, and that particular communities might have their own distinctive reasons for supporting or rejecting Citizen’s Income. As the Citizen’s Income debate becomes increasingly mainstream, we shall find the same tendency that we find with other current issues: that they will become political footballs – that is, they will be pushed around by political considerations, rather than in relation to their own characteristics. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has for a long time recognised that we shall one day need a Citizen’s Income, and that the idea needs to be carefully studied by government. He spoke at the Citizen’s Income Trust’s conference in 2014, invited the Trust to organise one of his People’s Parliament events, and since becoming Shadow Chancellor has reiterated his interest. Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, has also been clear about his support. During the recent Labour Party leadership campaign, Corbyn’s opponent Owen Smith stated his view that Citizen’s Income wasn’t credible. Whether he had read any of the research I don’t know – but it certainly appeared that the motive for his objection was that his opponent had supported it. It is regrettable when positions are taken for reasons proceeding from a personal political career, or for factional advantage, rather than on the basis of evidenced and reasoned argument – but incidents such as this are useful because they signal the fact that an idea is understood, and that it is understood to be significant. What is then required is a sustained emphasis on the idea’s feasibility.

The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income understands feasibility as multifaceted, and recognises that specifically political feasibility is just one aspect of feasibility. In order to be implemented, a Citizen’s Income scheme would need to pass two kinds of financial feasibility test, with regard to both the feasibility of paying for it and the need to avoid imposing losses on low-income households at the point of implementation; it would need to pass psychological, behavioural, and administrative feasibility tests; and it would need to be able to negotiate the complex policy process from idea to implementation. The book concludes that there are Citizen’s Income schemes that could achieve all of that. A conclusion that might have been more explicit is that conformity of the scheme to a political ideology or ideologies might be fairly unimportant. A conclusion that is drawn matches one that Martinelli draws: that deeply embedded convictions, relating to reciprocity, deservedness, and so on, will need to be recognised at the implementation stage, because only those implementation methods that could achieve public approval can be regarded as feasible. The popularity of both the NHS and Child Benefit suggest that unconditional benefits fit the British psyche just as much as ideas of reciprocity and deservedness do; so as long as age groups generally felt to be ‘deserving’ are the first to receive Citizen’s Incomes, psychological feasibility should not be too difficult to achieve. Governments can move ahead of public opinion if they are moving in the same direction – recent examples are the ban on smoking in workplaces and public places, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage – and legislation can sometimes shape public opinion (as equalities legislation has done). This suggests that any government that saw good reason for implementing a Citizen’s Income scheme would be able to do so, as long as it started with age groups generally believed to be deserving – that is, children, retired people, the pre-retired, and the 16+ age group.

Martinelli suggests that the Citizen’s Income debate will exhibit a variety of different Citizen’s Income schemes, with each kind relating to a different set of political convictions. I’m not so sure. It is a reasonable assumption that for the foreseeable future any initial Citizen’s Income scheme in a developed country will need to be revenue neutral, and possibly strictly revenue neutral (in the sense that only tax allowances related to earnings would be reduced to help to pay for the Citizen’s Income). Microsimulation research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research has shown that a revenue-neutral Citizen’s Income scheme can only avoid imposing unacceptable losses on low-income households if current means-tested benefits are left in place and are recalculated to take account of each household’s Citizen’s Income and changes in net earnings. Recently updated figures show that a working-age adult Citizen’s Income of £60 per week could be paid for on this basis. This is not large, but neither is it insignificant. Compass’s recent report takes a similar approach. The RSA report does not – but neither has it tested its proposed scheme for low-income household losses at the point of implementation. We look forward to the results of current IPR microsimulation research. We are now more aware than before that although it is possible to construct a wide variety of Citizen’s Income schemes in theory, in practice only a narrow range of that diversity could ever be financially feasible in both senses of that term. If the debate about Citizen’s Income remains mainstream, and if it becomes increasingly so, then any infeasible scheme will be put under considerable pressure (as the Green Party’s proposed scheme was before the 2015 General Election) – and the result will be convergence on a narrow range of revenue-neutral schemes that would not impose losses on low-income households at the point of implementation.

The increasingly flexible and diverse nature of the employment market, family structures, and society and the economy generally, and the way in which the proceeds of production will continue to accrue to capital rather than to labour, mean that sooner or later we shall need a Citizen’s Income – and that we shall need to find some means of paying for it. But that could still be a very long process. Maybe by this time next year everybody will have lost interest, and the idea will have to await another upsurge in interest in a generation’s time; or maybe there will be both developing and developed countries taking the first steps towards implementation. More likely, we shall experience a situation somewhere between those two. Whatever the debate is like next year, it will have been important for high-quality research to have facilitated it. For this reason it is a pleasure to see the Institute for Policy Research contributing to the research that we shall need, and to the widespread debate that is now required.

This blog post develops on themes discussed by Dr Torry in a recent IPR Seminar. You can view the seminar and slides in full on our online lectures page, or listen to the podcast on our Soundcloud playlist.

Exposing a fragile coalition: The state of the basic income debate

📥  Economy, employment, living wage, political parties, universal income

Dr Luke Martinelli is Research Associate on the IPR's universal basic income project.

Is it time to move beyond the polarised views that characterise the basic income debate? Universal basic income (UBI) may be an attractive solution to a host of policy problems – but advocates must recognise that moving from abstract concept to reality will involve significant trade-offs and political barriers.


Gaining traction, growing support

In recent weeks, there have been a number of developments which appear to demonstrate the movement of UBI towards the political mainstream: in the UK, the influential Trades Union Congress (TUC) has endorsed social security reform that embodies the principles of basic income; in Canada, the Government is moving forward with concrete plans for a basic income pilot, adding to those upcoming in Finland and the Netherlands; the French region of Aquitaine is consulting on the idea; and in Germany, the single issue party Bündnis Grundeinkommen (Basic Income League) has just been established. These trends seem to suggest that UBI is gaining traction that will lead inexorably to widespread implementation.

After all, UBI is not just a good idea; it is an increasingly good idea in a world in which the nature of work, family and society is rapidly changing.  Automation of production processes, both in manufacturing and, increasingly, services; large and growing wage gaps between ‘lousy’ and ‘lovely’ jobs (Goos and Manning, 2007); the growth of zero-hour and temporary contractual arrangements; and long-term unemployment among disadvantaged groups are all problems which urgently need addressing. Nuclear families have given way to the emergence of complex and unstable family structures, and the ‘new social risks’ of lone parenthood and gaps in the provision of care for children and the elderly threaten vulnerable sectors of society.

All of these factors are feeding into the widespread failure of existing social security systems to achieve equitable and efficient settlements for growing numbers of people – exactly what UBI claims to be able to provide.

Yet despite (or perhaps because of) intensified interest in basic income, the debate has become more polarised than ever. It is an elegant balance of justice and liberty; it is the worst of all possible worlds. It is the saviour of the welfare state; it will destroy it. It can be implemented tomorrow; it is a vague and distant utopia.

All things to all people

When considering these polarised views on basic income, it is worth noting that UBI is best considered as a family of proposals, rather than a specific policy per se.

The core characteristics of UBI as an idea are that payments should cover the entire population, and eligibility cannot be conditional on income, work history, or behavioural requirements. Beyond this, there is a great deal of variation between plans in terms of a number of important aspects  – including, crucially, the level at which payments should be made, and how the basic income fits into the wider constellation of welfare and tax policies.

These design features vary in relation to the precise goals that basic income is intended to achieve, which themselves are contested. Although it can be seen as a prosaic way to simplify a complex welfare system, alleviating administrative costs and bureaucratic intrusion while reducing marginal tax rates – and thus eliminating the poverty and unemployment traps that pervade means-tested systems – it has also been touted as having the potential to fundamentally alter how we think about ‘work’. Releasing individuals from the compulsion to enter paid employment – and the exploitation and domination this entails – in order to survive, and liberating them to pursue a variety of socially valuable and creative activities, UBI has been mooted in radical terms as “a capitalist road to communism” (Van Der Veen and Van Parijs, 1986).

Multi-partisan support

The protean nature of basic income helps to ensure that the concept appeals across traditional party lines. One of the striking things about this idea is the wealth of favourable theoretical arguments which appeal across the political spectrum, leading to the popular description of UBI as 'not right or left, but forward'. In isolation, these arguments apply to other ways of organising social security – but few if any such systems so effectively marry the priorities of the social democratic left (equality, solidarity and redistribution) with those of the libertarian right (small government, freedom and efficiency). By both left- and right-wing proponents, UBI is viewed as the saviour of a broken welfare system which is stigmatising and intrusive yet unfit for purpose.

For basic income advocates on the left, the focus is on the failure of the system to provide security for all in an adequate and dignified fashion, as socio-economic conditions have made the Beveridgean system increasingly untenable. Gone are the days – if they ever existed – when male breadwinners provided for their families with stable, well-paid jobs. The Trente Glorieuses, that period of yet unmatched growth and prosperity following WWII, gave way to deindustrialisation, structural unemployment, rising wage inequality, and the increasing prevalence of precarious employment.

For the right, the welfare system is seen as the cause of dependency and societal breakdown, as the complex array of means-tested benefits reduces work incentives and discourages family formation. The bloated government bureaucracy which administers the intrusive work tests and financial conditions creates higher taxes, which act as a drag on the efficiency of the economy as a whole.

Basic income, perhaps miraculously, seeks to balance these competing goals and priorities. But does this congregation of political views mean that it is universally and normatively desirable? Clearly not.

Cross-party opposition

There is an equivalent (and possibly more significant) meeting of minds across the political spectrum that finds basic income a deeply discomfiting notion. Social democrats believe that welfare should be generously available for all, and those on the right that it should be a residual safety net – but both agree that the right to an income comes with a responsibility to work (however this responsibility is actualised). Notwithstanding the claims of political philosophers such as Philippe Van Parijs that “even surfers should be fed”, Bowles and Gintis (2000) demonstrate that people “support the welfare state because it conforms to deeply-held norms of reciprocity and conditional obligations to others”. Of course, this goes beyond the simplistic equality of contributions and receipts – but the belief that everyone has an obligation to contribute to society if they can, and that only those unable to work through incapacity, involuntary unemployment or caring responsibilities are deserving of state support, provides a philosophical foil to the arguments of basic income advocates (Anderson, 1999). Bay and Pedersen (2006) show that support for universal welfare drops when respondents consider the possibility of foreign immigration. Data on attitudes to welfare, which have hardened in recent years, appear to uphold these insights – as analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey by Eleanor Taylor and IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce serves to demonstrate.

For progressive opponents of UBI, welfare should be restricted to those most in need, since the wealthy do not need it; if you are going to spend more on welfare, why not make payments more generous for the poor? Thus, basic income is likely to be seen as ineffectual by the progressive left, as demonstrated by reactions to Compass’ UBI proposals stating that “a powerful new tax engine will pull along a tiny cart”, and that feasible UBI schemes are “not generous enough to achieve the aim of replacing wages in an increasingly automated world; or they are not funded properly; or both”. The concept of uniform benefits also appears to conflict with the principle that levels of support should correspond to the needs of claimants – which are complex and varied, and therefore might be seen to justify an equally complex range of benefits.

At the same time, conservative opponents argue that UBI would be prohibitively expensive, require huge tax rises, and significantly damage work incentives. Although the unconditional nature of UBI leads to lower marginal effective tax rates (as the benefit is not withdrawn as income rises), if payments were pitched at subsistence level or higher, there would be a significant negative labour market response as individuals opt for more leisure.

Thus, while basic income has supporters across the political landscape, it also has detractors – and the large family of basic income proposals provides a wide target at which to direct criticism.

A fragile coalition

The multifaceted nature of basic income enables detractors to criticise the least desirable type of basic income (from their particular perspective). Thus, basic income’s association with ‘undesirable’ political views permits left-wing opponents of basic income to attack UBI as an alternative to decent public services and a project to dismantle the welfare state, while simultaneously allowing right-wingers to criticise it for inflating the role of government in welfare provision and dampening incentives for self-provision.

Exacerbating the political challenge of UBI is what De Wispelaere (2015) calls the “problem of persistent political division” among supporters. While agreed on the general principle, UBI advocates on each side of the political divide have different ideas about the key parameters. When UBI is operationalised in a specific scheme, divisions appear; as De Wispelaere observes, a residual scheme such as that proposed by Murray (2006) is “entirely unacceptable to anyone supporting basic income on progressive grounds”. At the same time, libertarian UBI advocates would only support basic income schemes that sought to replace the entire welfare system. Thus, support from the ‘opposite’ political side may taint the concept of basic income by association: progressives cannot get behind a policy supported by right-wingers, and vice versa.

Although steps to realise basic income show signs of progress, therefore, this ultimately hinges on the extent to which meaningful coalitions of interests can be built and sustained around concrete proposals. This prospect is a lot more distant than appears at first glance; the apparent unity of the basic income movement masks a multitude of deeply divided actors, and a highly fragile coalition.

To end on a more positive note, these political difficulties are not necessarily intractable – but it may be that advocates have to sacrifice their broad coalition in favour of congregation around specific schemes. This would give lie to the idea that basic income is ‘all things to all people’, but it might garner new and more enthusiastic supporters as well.



Anderson, Elizabeth S. (1999). "What Is the Point of Equality?" Ethics, 109(2): 287-337.

Bay, Ann-Helén, and Axel West Pedersen. "The limits of social solidarity basic income, immigration and the legitimacy of the universal welfare state." Acta Sociologica 49(4): 419-436.

Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis (2000). "Reciprocity, self-interest, and the welfare state." Nordic Journal of Political Economy, 26(1): 33-53.

De Wispelaere, Jurgen (2015). "The struggle for strategy: On the politics of the basic income proposal." Politics (2015): 1467-9256.

Goos, Maarten, and Alan Manning (2007). "Lousy and lovely jobs: The rising polarization of work in Britain." The review of economics and statistics, 89(1): 118-133.

Murray, Charles. (2006). In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute Press.

Van Der Veen, Robert J. and Philippe Van Parijs (1986). "A capitalist road to communism." Theory and Society, 15(5): 635-655.

Van Parijs, Philippe (1991). "Why surfers should be fed. The liberal case for an unconditional basic income." Philosophy and Public Affairs, 20: 101-131.

Have you been in a Jobcentre lately?

📥  employment, future, political parties, Welfare

Dr Rita Griffiths is Research Programme Lead for the IPR.

“Anyone who thinks Jobcentres are like [those in The Full Monty] … would be pleasantly surprised by visiting [one today],” quipped Damian Green, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in his address to the Conservative Party Conference last week; “no screens, no queues … no sense of sullen despair.” He is right in his observation that Jobcentre Plus offices today look very different from how they did in the 1980s and 1990s, when The Full Monty – along with films like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off – depicted the humiliation and shame wrought on working class men forced to sign-on after being made redundant from jobs in mining, steel and other heavy industries.



It is true that the metal security screens have gone, and dole queues no longer snake out of the doors of benefit offices – which have long since disappeared, along with the traditional industries and breadwinning jobs these men were once employed in. However, it is debatable whether, as claimed by Green, this is down to the transformative power of a modernised and rebranded Jobcentre Plus better equipped to meet the employment needs of ‘ordinary working-class people’ in the post-industrial era. Some would argue it says more about the depersonalised, contracted-out and digitised nature of today’s benefit and employment services – director Ken Loach, for example. His latest offering I, Daniel Blake, for which he won the 2016 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, sits uncomfortably alongside Green’s resolutely upbeat account of the changing landscape of government employment support. The protagonist of Loach’s drama, a skilled man in his 50s whose working career is curtailed after he suffers a heart attack, finds himself cut adrift amidst the faceless, ‘digital by design’ bureaucracy of Jobcentre Plus call centres, online benefit processing and the impersonal, one-size-fits-all responses of government-funded advisers. So who is right?

In their own way, both are. Today’s Jobcentre Plus may have upholstered seats, carpets and jaunty, modern graphics – but just try getting past one of those burly security guards if you want help to get a job, or secure better-paid work. Austerity-driven civil service staffing cuts mean that, unless you are an existing benefit claimant required to attend a mandatory appointment with an adviser as a part of your ‘Claimant Commitment’[1], you will likely be turned away – told instead to search for jobs online, or to contact a call centre (using your own mobile and, until recent lobbying persuaded the DWP to change its stance, at a premium call rate). If the security guard allows you entry, you will be directed to a Jobpoint, a touchscreen monitor for online job-hunting – that’s if they haven’t already been removed, along with the free-to-use telephones, as Jobcentre Plus moves inexorably towards full digitisation. In fact, you may be hard-pressed to find a Jobcentre in your local area; in the last five years, scores of them have been closed – including many in rural areas where the nearest alternative may be over an hour’s travel away.

Reduced Jobcentre footfall is of course an undeniable product of the changed nature of work, and online recruitment methods now used by most employers and applicants. However, research is beginning to show that another important factor in the decline of Jobcentre use is the increasingly punitive way in which ‘jobseekers’ and other benefit claimants are dealt with, and a corresponding rise in the incidence of benefit disentitlement and sanctioning.[2] Arrive late for a mandatory appointment, or apply for fewer jobs than is stipulated in your ‘Claimant Commitment’, and you risk being sanctioned. Too many sanctions and you risk losing your benefits altogether, potentially for up to three years.[3] The government claims that sanctions are used infrequently and only as a last resort, but the evidence tells a different story. Research by David Webster from the University of Glasgow found that between 2007 and 2012, one fifth (19%) of all JSA claimants – equivalent to almost a million and a half people – had been subject to sanctions or disallowances.[4] In the context of an increasingly stringent, parsimonious and punitive welfare system, some eligible groups are simply not bothering to claim, further reducing the claimant count.

This brings us to another reason that Jobcentres may seem less desperate places these days: increasing localisation and discretion in the delivery and payment of welfare. In what Frank Field describes as “the most radical departure in welfare since the Atlee government"[5], emergency financial help and other discretionary support intended to prevent the poorest and most vulnerable people in society from falling through the safety net has been devolved from central government to local authorities. This has occurred, it should be noted, with limited public debate about the issues and implications localisation raises. So the queues, over-crowded waiting rooms and sense of despair have not gone away, they have simply relocated – into the burgeoning network of council ‘one-stop shops’ and food banks, where cash-strapped local authorities and volunteer workers struggle to help the growing numbers of claimants and families whose benefits or tax credits have been reduced, stopped or failed to reach their bank accounts for whatever reason.

Even if Green’s rosy vision of the contemporary Jobcentre is right, changes are afoot which may yet see a return to Jobcentre queues and sense of frustration.  Under the most radical and contentious welfare reform measure proposed to date, working people and families claiming Universal Credit means-tested financial help with housing, childcare and living costs will be drawn into a system of conditionality and sanctioning similar to that which currently applies to unemployed and economically inactive claimants. Untried anywhere in the world, a large-scale randomised control trial involving 15,000 low-paid Universal Credit claimants is piloting a new Jobcentre Plus-delivered ‘in-work progression’ service[6] targeted at an entirely new category of customer: low-paid workers and their partners. If rolled out nationally, an additional one million UC claimants will become subject to work conditionality. But here’s the most controversial part: these people will already have jobs. What is more, unless the family contains children under the age of 13, work conditionality requiring regular face-to-face meetings with a Jobcentre adviser will continue until household earnings reach a minimum threshold equivalent to both adults in a couple working 35 hours per week at the national minimum wage. Only parents with authorised caring responsibilities for younger children and other officially exempted groups, such as those with a serious health condition, will have the option to work part-time.

Encouraging low-paid workers to increase their earnings is a laudable policy goal, but when earning more means working longer hours, even in families with young children – and when working for longer is the only way of meeting mandatory conditions for UC receipt – the role of Jobcentre Plus advisers in supporting individuals to progress in work becomes somewhat compromised. Tailored, one-to-one, personalised support from a work coach which underpins the in-work progression service is similarly to be applauded, but progression implies improvement – not just in earnings, which could be achieved simply by getting another low-paid job - but in rates of pay and job prospects. Will customers be helped to access training to improve their earnings potential and jobs offering better terms and conditions, or will they simply be obliged to find more low-paid work? This raises another important question: in whose interests will this employment advice be offered? These already ‘hard working’ customers, employers proffering zero hour contracts, or a government intent on reducing social security expenditure?

Empathetic, individualised support to encourage employment progression runs counter to the work-first culture and general direction of travel that Jobcentre Plus has been moving in for more than a decade. What seems to be missing too is any acknowledgement that, although low earners eligible for means-tested help may represent a new category of customer for Jobcentre Plus, they are not necessarily a different group of people; it is well known that people in poverty and at the bottom end of the earnings distribution often cycle between work and benefits. How realistic is it to think that low-paid workers will be willing to trust the very same advisers who may have imposed a sanction on them during a previous spell of unemployment?

Not simply a cultural and logistical challenge for resource-strapped Jobcentres, through eroding the distinction between being in work and out of work and potentially extending negative representations of benefit claimants to those who already have a job, in-work conditionality also risks obscuring the hitherto strictly demarcated political dividing line between Theresa May’s ‘just managing’ families and welfare-dependent ‘scroungers.’ Hampered by the incremental and chronically delayed rollout of Universal Credit, and a paucity of up-to-date government-commissioned and academic research, only time will tell whether this new vision for Jobcentre Plus will ever be realised.


[1] Originally designed as part of Universal Credit, with a rollout that has been much slower than anticipated, the ‘Claimant Commitment’ – with its requirement for 35 hours of evidenced job search as a mandatory condition of benefit receipt – also now applies to claimants of jobseekers allowance (JSA) and employment support allowance.
[2] See ESRC-funded research entitled ‘Welfare conditionality: sanctioning, support and behaviour change’ led by the University of York.
[3] A third failure to comply with the most important jobseeking requirements will result in a sanction of 156 weeks.
[4] See D Webster, University of Glasgow
[5] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/373/37302.htm
[6] http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmselect/cmworpen/549/549.pdf

Legacies and long shadows: will Theresa May succeed where Chamberlain failed?

📥  Anglosphere, Brexit, future, political parties

Birmingham has a square named after Joseph Chamberlain, its most famous politician, through which visitors to the Conservative Party conference will pass on their way up from rebuilt New Street station this week. Although the square is home only to a lacklustre memorial fountain, and not his statue, Chamberlain will still loom large over proceedings at the conference. He will be celebrated by Theresa May and her colleagues as a champion of the manufacturing industry and a great social reformer, the radical who campaigned for municipal education, decent housing and civic improvements for the Victorian working class.



Chamberlain was also an apostle of imperial unity between Great Britain and her settler colonies – what today’s Brexiteers call the “Anglosphere”. As Colonial Secretary, he sought closer economic and political ties between Great Britain and Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. His passion for this cause would eventually lead him out of government, the better to campaign for tariff reform that would give preference to colonial goods and shelter British industry from international competition. It was a lost cause. Free trade was too deeply embedded in the political economy of Edwardian Britain for Chamberlain to dislodge it. Birmingham’s manufacturers were no match for the financial, commercial and shipping interests that had the deepest stakes in the liberal British world order, while the free traders’ “big loaf” beat Chamberlain’s “little loaf” for the loyalty of the working class. Unionist imperialism plus social reform lost out to a new progressive alliance of Liberal and Labour interests.

Theresa May wants to succeed where Chamberlain failed in uniting working-class voters with the British industrial interest. She has created a new department for industrial strategy and promised to prioritise “just managing” households. Housing policy is to be refocused from subsidising home ownership, to building homes and supporting private renters. Fiscal policy will be relaxed, easing planned cuts to services and benefits. The electoral coalition that delivered Brexit – of struggling working-class voters and middle-class older voters (or the “excluded and the insulated”, as David Willetts recently put it) – will form the ballast of a new Conservative hegemony.

But the Prime Minister’s chosen path to Brexit – of prioritising immigration control over the single market, and “sovereignty” over the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – will bring her into conflict with Britain’s existing political economic interests, just as much as Chamberlain’s campaign for tariff reform did. Britain’s leading-edge manufacturers – in the automotive and aerospace sectors, for example – are deeply integrated into the European single market. They do not simply make products in the UK, and sell them to the rest of Europe, tariff free, as Brexiteers suppose: they have complex supply chains and move parts and people across plants in the EU. Imposing custom checks, slowing down supply chains, and limiting the movement of workers will matter as much as tariffs to their operations. And what goes for manufacturing is doubly true for services.

Decisions about new investment will often be taken in global HQs, not national branch offices. The growth of foreign direct investment in the UK since the 1980s means that much of Britain’s industrial capital is no longer national in any meaningful sense. Economic patriotism will hold little sway over multinational investors or global bankers.

Some political economists argue that the advanced sectors of the economy are not subject to partisan division, since their centrality to national prosperity is such that political parties agree on the policies needed to secure their interests. If so, that may be about to change. The City of London and the leading export sectors – trade unions and employers – have yet properly to flex their muscles in the Brexit debate. Although they cannot currently turn to an electorally credible Labour opposition to make their case, they will have advocacy routes of their own, not least through the Mayor of London and the Scottish government. Hard Brexit will stretch Theresa May’s unionism and the unity of the country, as much as that of her own party, to the limit (and that is before the status of Northern Ireland’s border is factored into the equation).

Few peacetime prime ministers have confronted a set of challenges like those facing Theresa May: holding together the United Kingdom, revitalising British industry, delivering shared prosperity to working people, and renegotiating Britain’s place in Europe and the world. It is a formidable list. Lesser ones defeated Joe Chamberlain and his generation. Theresa May will hope that she isn’t memorialised by failure.

Whatever happened to the soft left?

📥  New Labour, political parties, Soft left

The New Statesman led its Labour Party conference edition with a series of “New Times” pieces, in emulation of the 1988 Marxism Today special of that title. For people of a certain age, Marxism Today remains talismanic. It was where the future was debated on the left in the 1980s, in a spirit of intellectual openness and curiosity. It analysed and probed culture, as much as politics and economics, and stood for broad anti-Thatcherite alliances. It featured progressive Tories on its pages, as well as feminists, greens and eurocommunist Marxists. Remarkably, (but characteristically) you could buy it in WHSmith.

It was also a potent source of intellectual renewal for the Labour Party in the 1980s. Although it was originally a Communist Party magazine, it consistently engaged in debate with Labour MPs and intellectuals, seeking to understand the popular appeal of Thatcherism and its place in history, and to sketch out paths forward from the ruins of post-war Keynesianism and the ossified, dying cultures of the industrial Labour movement. It was everything the Trotskyist, Bennite and Old Labour right were not.


Selection of Marxism Today covers: Composite, Amiel Melburn Trust

The key receptacles of this intellectual debate in the Labour Party were the soft left and its leading thinkers: MPs like Bryan Gould, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown. In the 1980s, the soft left had an important place in the Labour Party’s modernisation. Where the right provided organizational ballast, the soft left provided ideas and energy. They were trusted with the party’s values, but also its intellectual journey to the future. They understood the importance of winning elections, but they fed off wider social movements and organisations, like environmentalism and Charter 88, and engaged with Labour’s grassroots in local government and the trade unions.

To get a feel for the interplay of ideas that took place between the Labour soft left and Communist Party modernisers in the late 1980s, read this exchange from the Marxism Today archive between Bryan Gould, David Blunkett, Bea Campbell and Charlie Leadbeater. It ranges across political strategy, theory, and substantive issues of economic and democratic reform. Something of the soft left’s modernising impatience comes across: Gould talks about “leapfrogging” Thatcherism, while also displaying the economic radicalism that was later to cost him his career. Blunkett meanwhile combines electoral realism with a participatory democratic impatience with “parliamentarianism”.

This exchange would be inconceivable today, and not just because the Communist Party of Great Britain folded in the early 1990s. The contemporary Labour soft left has become a shadow of its former self. As the 1990s and 2000s wore on, its luminaries deserted, departed or died, and it proved incapable of renewing itself. In the last two Labour leadership elections, the soft left torch was carried by Owen Smith and Andy Burnham. It did not burn brightly. Rather than contest the terrain of ideas with Corbyn, both chose to surrender the intellectual field to him.

If Labour’s moderates are to stand any chance of political renewal, they will need to rediscover the party’s soft-left traditions, not simply in name, but in spirit and substance. These traditions have become associated with political ineptitude and intellectual torpor, but it was not always thus. The soft left was an important ingredient, not just in the recovery of the Labour Party in the 1980s, but in the birth of New Labour in the mid-1990s – precisely when Tony Blair was at his most ecumenical. He too graced the pages of Marxism Today, though the magazine would come to disown his project. The soft left contributed ideas and energy that a leader from the right of the party absorbed. There is an enduring lesson in that.

Colin Crouch: The familiar axes of politics are changing, with momentous consequences

📥  Brexit, Multiculturalism, political parties, Political sociology

The familiar axes of politics are changing, with momentous consequences, argues Colin Crouch

From the time of the French Revolution, mass politics has revolved around two core conflicts: that between preferences for more or less economic inequality; and that between conservative, authoritarian values and liberal ones. The main divisions among political parties in most countries fit into this frame, but we have become accustomed to seeing the former, raising issues of redistributive taxation, the welfare state, and the role of trade unions, as the senior partner. In western Europe, if not in the USA, this has become even more the case as organized religion, the main historical carrier of social conservatism, has declined in importance.



This situation is challenged by the growing prominence of a chain of partly associated, partly quite independent, forces: economic globalization, immigration, refugees and the assertion of Islamic identities, which includes terrorism as its extreme. Together these reassert the old struggle between authoritarian conservatism and liberalism. Many people feel that everything familiar to them is being threatened, that they are being confronted with decisions, cultural artefacts and the presence among them of persons, all coming from outside their familiar and trusted sphere.  They seek security by trying to exclude the forces and people that are doing this to them. Most affected are those whose own working lives give them little control in any case, and who are accustomed to the security that comes from the enforcement of rules that exclude troubling diversity. This response takes various forms. Many Russians become both highly nationalistic and also stress their homophobia. Many people in the Islamic world assert their religion (which is here far more important than nationality as a symbol of a pre-globalized past) and impose strict dress codes on women. Many Americans not only become fearful of Mexican immigrants and Islamic terrorists, but become agitated about abortion. A more general social conservatism, most powerfully embodied in deep-rooted feelings around sexuality, mixes with xenophobia to produce new social supports for the traditional, not the neoliberal, right.

Europe, especially western Europe, has been a partial exception. The final great battles of the 1970s in Catholic lands over contraception, divorce and finally abortion petered out, the churches, the main bearers of European social conservatism, became weak and in many cases often liberal in their social attitudes. There are today few supports for general authoritarian conservatism, and matters have narrowed down more closely to immigration and the following chain: the European Union is a super-national force that suppresses traditional national identities; in particular, it brings immigrants with unfamiliar cultures and languages; it is difficult to distinguish immigrants from refugees, who come in alarming numbers from even more unfamiliar cultures; and since these refugees are Moslems, they are likely to include terrorists who will try to kill us.

Against these beliefs and fears stands a liberal, inclusionary mind-set that sees in globalization and multiculturalism a series of opportunities for a richer life, more varied cultural experiences, perhaps new possibilities for individual advancement.

A brief history of political identity

To put this confrontation into context, we need to understand how it happened in the first place that ordinary people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose daily lives were very remote from big political issues, ever came to have political identities. It occurred as they found that aspects of their social identities, which they understood very well, were engaged in struggles over inclusion and exclusion in voting and other political rights. Depending on one’s social position, one’s identity was implicated in either demands to be included, or demands to exclude others. Class and property ownership, religion, and occasionally ethnicity (in Europe normally with reference to Jews, in the USA to Afro-American people) were the key identities around which these struggles revolved. By the end of World War II and after considerable bloodshed the concept of universal adult citizenship had become accepted in almost all advanced economies. Spain and Portugal remained outside the consensus until the mid 1970s; Greece flitted in and out. In central and eastern Europe a very back-handed kind of universalism dominated, where universal inclusion came to mean universal exclusion except for a small communist party elite; but in general in the west politics became peaceful and more or less democratic.

Once universal citizenship was achieved, those identities forged in struggles to achieve or prevent citizenship began to lose their raison d’être, but so deeply rooted were they that paradoxically they became the basis of democratic electoral politics. Over time they could do this not as direct memory but only as memories of parents’ and grand-parents’ experiences. These necessarily faded, and in any case many people moved away from the social locations of their parents and grandparents. Democracy therefore began to depend for its vigour on forces that its very achievement had weakened. Their decline was reinforced by three major changes. First came the rise of the post-industrial economy and the creation of many occupations that have no resonance with the struggles of the past, and whose practitioners cannot easily relate their occupational identities to political allegiance at all. Class declined as a reliable source of political identity. Second, (in Europe but not the USA) religious adherence declined, and along with it both the power of the identity struggles surrounding it and general conflicts over authoritarianism versus liberalism. Finally, the use of ethnicity or nationality as identity resources in partisan struggles had been rendered horrifying to most politicians and ordinary people, partly as a result of the two world wars and their demonstration of the destructive force of nationalism, and partly through knowledge of the Holocaust and the passions that had lain behind it. A nationalistic fringe continued in some countries, and the separate issue of racial entitlements to citizenship continued to flourish in the USA until the 1960s, but in general this became a no-go area in political conflict.

We should not puzzle at declining voting turnout and even more strongly declining identification with political parties once we appreciate that a strong interest in politics by the mass of citizens who have no chance of being politically effective needs social supports, and that those bequeathed to us by the struggles of the past have declined in salience. There has now been such a general loosening of ties between parties and voters that it increasingly seemed inappropriate to include a discussion of voting behaviour within a discussion of identities. Does voting for a party, even repeated voting for it, necessarily imply an ‘identity’ with it any more than frequent purchase of a brand of soap implies an identity with the firm making the soap? Certainly, election campaigns increasingly resemble advertising campaigns for products, suggesting that parties do indeed consider that they bond with voters no differently from the way producers of goods bond with customers.

But this may now be changing, as economic globalization and its broader consequences start to reproduce social identities with powerful political potential. Central is revived national consciousness. While the great majority of politicians had for decades abjured using national identity in party conflict, there was no reason for them not to use it as a non-conflictual rallying call, since after all their role is to care for the nation. As a result national sentiment has been left lying around in popular consciousness, available for other purposes if occasion arose. Globalization, immigration, refugees and terrorism provide such occasions. Meanwhile memories of the appalling consequences of the political use of nationalism in the first half of the 20th century are fading. Nation is strengthening as a political force, while class and religion (unless the latter becomes implicated in conflict around Islam and therefore absorbed into nationalism) are declining.

The turnaround can be seen most clearly in parts of central Europe. The political implications of class identities had been stood on their head under state socialism, and national identity remains the only strong link that people can feel to their polity. This helps explain the puzzle of the Czech Republic, which has suddenly become the most Europhobic country in Europe after the UK. The country has benefited more than any other from the European Union, which has provided its modern infrastructure, a safe framework for the divorce from Slovakia, an easy channel for the German and other investment that has equipped an advanced economy, and a base for trading with the rest of the world that the infant country would otherwise have had to create from scratch. Then the EU asked for some payback, putting pressure on the Czechs to help bear the burden of Middle Eastern refugees arriving on the coasts of Greece and Italy. Czechs – whose nationalism historically never hurt anyone but has been a badge of resistance against various forms of foreign domination – suddenly became responsive to the wave of anti-foreigner feeling sweeping through Europe.

One major, unexpected result of these developments is that the old predominant conflict axis around inequality and redistribution is itself becoming interpreted through nationalism rather than through class politics. The new nationalist movements nearly always include the global financial elite in their attacks. Many observers were surprised when there were relatively few mass expressions of anger after the 2008 financial crisis. We can now understand why. For ordinary non-political people to take any kind of action, including voting, against powerful forces they need some confidence-boosting assurance that they are part of something wider, something rooted in a strong social identity. Given the decline of class, only national identity has been available to give them that assurance. All contemporary xenophobic movements, from Donald Trump in the USA and Mariane Le Pen in France to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Norbert Hofer in Austria, link their attacks on immigrants and refugees to those on the national elites implicated in the financial crisis. In turn, some protest movement that began as non-xenophobic opponents of elites, like il Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, find that they can get more traction if they include resentment at refugees in their rhetoric. Groups like UKIP in the UK or Alternative für Deutschland, which started life as critics of the European Union, have found success by responding to fears around immigrants and Moslems. The challenge to powerful elites is hereby made safe, because it is enfolded in attacks on the weaker symbols of globalization. One might be frightened to kick a strong man, but one might kick what one believes to be his dog.

In a recent Guardian article, Martin Jacques claimed that the successful Brexit campaign and various other instances of widespread support for populist movements around the western world constituted the return of class politics in general and a political reassertion of the working class in particular[1]. This was wistful thinking. Outside Greece, Spain and possibly Scotland, the new populism is precisely not articulating itself as class movements, but as nationalistic, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee – quite apart from the fact that a majority of Brexit voters were comfortably off Conservative voters in southern England.

The social supports of multiculturalism

Is nationalism therefore set to trump all other political forces, as its deeply rooted emotions come up against little more than voting behaviour of the soap-buying kind? Are persons holding liberal opinions anything more than randomly scattered individuals? Stalin invented the term ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ to stigmatize Jews, but the general idea that cosmopolitanism or a positive approach to multiculturalism implies rootlessness or normlessness is widespread. Some recent research suggests otherwise, providing evidence that liberal attitudes are associated with particular social locations.

The starting point is the work of a Swiss sociologist, Daniel Oesch[2]. He became dissatisfied with the idea of an undifferentiated middle class used in so much academic as well as popular discussion, given that the category was coming to mean the broad majority of occupational positions in the advanced economies. He proposed that social and political attitudes were formed, not just by the positions people occupied in organizational hierarchies (class), but by the kinds of work tasks on which they were engaged. He distinguished three of these: technical (e.g. manufacturing), administrative (e.g. banks, public bureaucracies), interpersonal (e.g. public services). If these categories were combined with hierarchical position, he found that one could account for differences in, say, voting behaviour among those occupying middle-class positions.

Oesch’s idea was applied to issues of direct relevance to us here by two German political scientists working in the US, Herbert Kitschelt and Philipp Rehm[3]. Gathering data from all western member states of the EU, they examined typical differences in attitudes among people working in different hierarchical positions and on Oesch’s different types of task along the three dimensions that I have used here: inequality and redistribution; the role of authority versus liberty; and immigration. The first of these relates to the inequality axis, the other two to the authoritarian versus liberalism axis. Unsurprisingly, they found that people at the upper and middle levels of hierarchies in all types of task held less egalitarian views than those in lower positions, though senior and middle-ranking persons in interpersonal services were considerably less inegalitarian than the others. Those at higher and middle levels in all work tasks had liberal attitudes on both general authoritarianism and immigration, though there were differences. The most liberal were professionals in interpersonal services, then those engaged in technical tasks, least so those in administration. Those at the lowest levels of hierarchies held illiberal views on both dimensions, and egalitarian views on the third dimension. These findings held true after controlling for whether people worked in the private or public sectors, or whether they were male or female.

Without more detailed research it is difficult to know to what extent people with certain social attributes are drawn towards working at particular tasks, or working at particular types of task leads people to develop the attitudes in question. From the finer details of Oesch’s and Kitschelt and Rehm’s work it emerges that the more people have discretion in their work tasks and work directly, face to face, with other human persons, the more liberal and inclusive they are; the more their own work follows rules and routines in impersonal contexts, the more they support authoritarianism and exclusion. There does not seem to be any important difference between attitudes to immigrants and those on general issues of authority. For example, people who believe that immigration should be restricted are also likely to believe that school discipline should be tougher.

It seems clear that attitudes on issues of authority and liberty are not just personal whims, but socially rooted. The Brexit referendum similarly revealed sociological regularities. Young, particularly female, well educated people living in large cities were more likely to vote to remain in the EU; older, mainly male persons in both declining industrial cities and prosperous provincial areas not much touched by the new economy tended to vote to leave. The politics of this question is more complex in the British case than elsewhere. Whereas the Brexit campaign played on fears of foreigners and implicitly encouraged isolationist tendencies, the purpose of the ministers involved in negotiating the UK’s future economic place in the world seems to be to expose the country to intensified global competitive pressure. How they will eventually reconcile that with their mass supporters is a very interesting question, but beyond our concerns here. Most important is to recognize that openness to multiculturalism and internationalism have become deeply felt, socially grounded beliefs among those parts of contemporary populations whose work and other aspects of social location lead them to reject exclusion and value inclusiveness. This determined cosmopolitanism might be based on a positive appreciation of being enriched by engagement with other cultures, or on a desire to be free of constraints on individual freedom. In either case, it is necessary to note that the revival of exclusionary nationalism is not the only popular development in contemporary politics. A major cleavage is opening between two sets of deeply held attitudes.

Long-term implications

These changes will have long-term and unpredictable consequences for all main political forces in advanced societies. The biggest challenge is to the alliance of neoliberals and conservatives, currently the world’s dominant political formation, expressing the inegalitarian end of the inequality and redistribution axis. Hegemonic as the economic ideology of an international elite, neoliberalism is rarely a powerful force in democratic party politics. When it appears virtually alone in a party’s identity, that party is usually very small (as with the German Free Democrats). More normally it appears within conservative parties, as with the UK Conservatives or US Republicans. But classic European democratic conservatism is weakening alongside its former religious supports. Its parties then face a strong temptation to rediscover the nationalism that is part of their heritage and become part of the new xenophobia. They can do this either in coalitions or deals with far-right parties (as in Scandinavia) or through shifts within the party (as with British Conservatives). But this threatens the heart of the neoliberal project, which is globalizing and highly cosmopolitan. So far the tension has been even more severe in the US, where the Christian right is far stronger than in most of Europe. The Republican Party is being torn apart between the neoliberals who have dominated it for years through their billionaire backers and the protectionist nationalism represented by Donald Trump. Neoliberalism and conservatism are allies when the main conflict axis is that around inequality and redistribution; if that is gradually replaced by one that sets liberalism and a nationalist conservatism against each other, they stand at opposite poles.

Moderate conservatives do not necessarily follow the nationalist path. Using their central position in most political systems, they can achieve simultaneous accommodations with the two main rival forms of liberalism, neoliberalism and social democracy. One sees this most clearly in German Christian Democracy – the country where the nationalist option is seen as most dangerous.  It was also there in the currently defeated Cameron-Osborne wing of British Conservatism.

Neoliberals also have the option of shifting to the left by making compromises on the inequality axis, if that axis is being dwarfed by that over conservatism-liberalism. There are certainly precedents. Blair’s New Labour, Schroeder’s Neue Mitte SPD, Clinton’s New Democrats, have all been examples, as are today Renzi’s Democratici. These may seem uncomfortable antecedents, but arguably the largest social change in recent times, the move towards gender equality, has been a shared neoliberal/social-democratic, anti-conservative project. When, following the financial crisis, the OECD and IMF began to resile from their earlier neoliberal policy stances, they were motivated mainly by the risks being posed by growing US inequality to mass consumption[4]. In the wake of the Brexit vote some global investment advisors went further and began to worry whether growing inequality was not nourishing xenophobic resentment against globalization. How far are neoliberals willing to accept redistribution and strong welfare states in order to safeguard their other achievements?

Social democrats have their own crises. As the manual working class declines in size, they reluctantly face the reality that they will never again be the assured representatives of the biggest fraction of society. Instead they fight for their share of that large middle mass of the post-industrial world. Thanks to Oesch’s analysis, we can see that this mass is no longer just the conservative bourgeoisie of the past, but includes, particularly among those engaged in interpersonal work tasks, the new constituency of the left, though where voting systems give them the chance, they often prefer environmentalist and other non-social-democratic forms of the left. These people are primarily liberal, though also favourable to redistribution, and there is growing tension between them and the old working class as the conservatism-liberalism axis grows in importance. Can social democrats reassert the priority of the inequality axis to hold their coalition together?

David Goodhart[5], Wolfgang Streeck[6] and some other observers have pointed out that the social democratic welfare state was an essentially national institution, rooted in people’s sense of shared membership in a national community. The idea is expressed most clearly in the Swedish idea of the welfare state as folkshemmet, the place where people can feel at home. These meanings could be stretched to include small numbers of immigrants, but to how many? Is the US aversion to a strong welfare state a reflection of its cultural heterogeneity? Thinking on these lines leads some to seek a national social democracy, which requires severe limitations on immigration, a rejection of liberalism, and in the case of European countries withdrawal from the EU.

Political clocks cannot be put back. The great welfare states developed under the aegis of a benign form of national identity that was not directed against outsiders. The most advanced welfare states developed in open trading nations – Scandinavia, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK. That world cannot be recaptured. To assert the limitation of social citizenship to ‘real’ nationals now can no longer be the folkshem of a people who just happen to be ethnically homogenous, but becomes symbolized by the demand of the Front National that rights be limited to français de la souche (best translated broadly as ‘true born French’), requiring active exclusion of those deemed to be outsiders. Non-aggressive nationalism is still possible in places like Scotland or Greece, where resentment against external domination does not require the victimization of immigrants and refugees. Elsewhere it has become very difficult to sustain.

Also, free trade is now nested in a regime with global rules, not a series of national decisions to choose how much free trade they want to accept. In this context the EU constitutes an opportunity to extend social policy alongside free trade, expressing the pooled sovereignty of its members, rather than the loss of sovereignty implied by the pure free trade of the World Trade Organization.

But is the direction of pooled sovereignty towards the construction of transnational social policy possible with the current politics of the EU? Today’s European tragedy has two components. First, Europeans are being asked to absorb large numbers of dispossessed people from the other side of the Mediterranean. Second, the EU is coping with both this and the free movement of labour from central Europe at a moment when EU policy makers and the European Court of Justice have experienced an extreme neoliberal turn, rendering it unwilling to provide the social policy support that these large movements of people require. The first was not Europe’s fault; the second it is fully within the power of its policy makers and jurists to change. This is again dependent on some rethinking by European neoliberals, which the withdrawal of the UK might make easier.

No political family can look forward to a comfortable future. The outcomes of these tensions and their explosive consequences for the main contemporary political currents will be very varied. A particularly important variable is the balance between the electoral (democratic) component of political systems and that which concerns lobbying, the role of big money, the bargaining power of global corporations. The latter is probably more important in shaping our politics, though since it is largely invisible we can say least about it. It is the arena within which neoliberalism mainly operates as a political force. Ironically, it is likely to be here that alliances between neoliberals and social democrats are forged. It may be easier for neoliberalism to soften in this non-democratic but dominant part of political life, because change involves rational calculation by small numbers of self-interested individuals and corporations, not the deep feelings of large numbers of people. One can already see the framework for this elite compromise in the changing approaches of the OECD and IMF. As international organizations, these can never share in the new xenophobia. Since the late 1970s they have helped forge the neoliberal hegemony and have been major protagonists of an open global trading system, but their recent fears about the impact of growing US inequality on mass consumption, and the role of big money in political lobbying marks a major shift. The OECD has also started to change its earlier hostility to the work of trade unions and collective bargaining. This could be the start of a new neoliberal/ social democratic historic compromise.

In the electoral sphere much depends on the relative sizes of Oesch’s different fractions of the middle class, on party structures and voting systems. The tensions within both conservative and social-democratic parties as the relative importance of the two great axes of conflict changes can be most fruitfully released in systems where new parties can form and then make various alliances. Electoral systems of the British and in particular US kind force everything to remain within existing parties, sometimes contorting them out of all meaning. Within all this complexity, generational change and economic restructuring seem to favour the growth of various kinds of liberalism, while every new horror emerging from the Middle East strengthens xenophobic nationalism.
[1] Jacques, M. (2016) ‘The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in Western politics’, The Guardian, 21 August.
[2] Oesch, D. (2006) Redrawing the Class Map. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
[3] Kitschelt, H. and Rehm, P. (2014) ‘Occupations as a site of political preference formation’, Comparative Political Studies.
[4] See, in particular, OECD (2011) Divided We Stand (Paris: OECD).
[5] Goodhart, D. (2013) The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration. London: Atlantic.
[6] Streeck, W. (2015) ‘The Rise of the European Consolidation State’, MPIfG Discussion Paper 15/1. Cologne: Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.

Colin Crouch is a sociologist and political scientist, and is emeritus professor at the University of Warwick and an external scientific member of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne. His most recent book, Society and Social Change in 21st Century Europe, is published by Palgrave Macmillan

This essay appears in the latest edition of Juncture, the IPPR journal of ideas.


Culture comes first: putting culture and values at the centre of public policy

📥  policymaking, political parties

Stephen Muers is Head of Strategy and Market Development at Big Society Capital. This blog post is based on his time as one of IPR's Visiting Policy Fellows while in his previous role as Director of Criminal Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice.

The best approach to making decisions when information is dispersed and constantly changing is the subject of a central debate in public policy. Core textbooks for public policy students generally set out the arguments for and against a series of frameworks for such decision-making, each of which lead to different policy tools. More fundamentally, political leaders and senior public officials implicitly or explicitly endorse these frameworks to different degrees, shaping their favoured policy solutions. My argument is that many common frameworks fail to take sufficient account of culture and values both as a way of understanding policy change and as an explicit goal.



Tools for decision-making

Four sets of policy tools flowing from four overarching frameworks dominate policy debate.

Market tools, such as privatisation, financial transfers to enable people to purchase in the market and internal markets within public services like the NHS, will be the favoured options if you believe that the price mechanism and free self-interested agents will tend to arrive at the optimal outcome. A different – and arguably more sophisticated – variation of this is based in the Austrian rather than neo-classical school of economics: not attempting to argue that the market will necessarily optimise, but that that the price mechanism is the best proxy we have for summarising and assimilating dispersed information about the preferences of different actors.

Deliberative tools such as citizens’ juries, micro-level community control of services and the creation of new forums for public debate are the priority if you believe the interplay of unrestricted dialogue between individuals and/or groups is best suited to achieving the most desirable overall social outcome.

Rational state tools such as strategic planning, heavily regulated markets and needs-based allocation formulae will prevail if the preferred thesis is that the government is best able to assess and respond to the competing sources of information and social value. This is typically enabled by the use of bureaucratic expertise to assess options, with elected representatives determining normative issues of value and relative priority.

Informal judgements such as clan or family based networks and precedents are less often put forward as a desirable framework to aim for, but frequently posed as an empirically-based description of what actually happens. Such informal decision-making is a major feature in development studies, but is also highly relevant in industrialised societies (for example, studies of the former USSR have argued that the system was only capable of functioning because of its highly developed informal network of patronage, deals and exchange[1]).

Officials developing policy advice for ministers, MPs debating propositions, journalists commenting on policy issues and academics assessing the results spend considerable time and effort debating the merits of these frameworks and the tools they lead to. Is it better to contract out a service or plan it centrally? Should a service be devolved to local communities so they can decide the approach, or centralised to drive efficiency and fairness? Can a national formula allocate money efficiently and effectively? Should the government give people money to purchase something or provide it directly?

The importance of value systems

There is, however, a good case for saying that debating these different tools is missing the point. Anyone who has spent any time wrestling with public policy will have had the experience of changing the policy tools applied to a problem but getting the same results – or applying a tool that worked well in another locality or country and finding it is completely ineffective in a different context. If getting the right framework for understanding how to make decisions and designing tools appropriately doesn’t work, then what should we focus on?

Values and culture are the missing ingredients. Values and culture in this context refer to the set of (usually implicit) norms, ethical standards and habits shared by the actors in the relevant system. The psychological concept of ‘superordinate goals’ is useful here: the overall aims, sometimes at a broad, high level, which are shared by all the actors and which their ways of operating act to reinforce. Such goals do not need to be, and often aren’t, written down or otherwise expressed in a way that all the actors would sign up to – but can nonetheless be deduced from the way they interact.

Experience shows that values and culture are extremely powerful in determining outcomes. In the famous quote (sometimes attributed to Drucker), “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. After consuming strategy, culture then moves on to policy interventions and tools for lunch. Tools and interventions get co-opted and altered in order to serve the goals, values and assumptions of those using them.

International development practitioners are well versed in this phenomenon. Years of attempts to introduce ‘rational’ western-style merit-based bureaucracies, transparent needs-based allocations and fiscal planning in developing countries have, in many cases, seen those tools simply used to continue the extraction of rents for clan and family members. In a contrary example, similar informal networks and patronage-based approaches in China have produced impressive economic growth – one reason for this being that those networks sit within a very powerful set of superordinate goals around national prosperity and prestige. In western countries there are plenty of examples where supposedly market-based or technocratic processes are actually used to reinforce the existing position and values of elites and insiders: procurement rules that are in fact so complex that new entrants find them impossible, ‘open’ recruitment based on a set of criteria that narrowly reflects the status quo, ‘market-based’ solutions that involve little competition and the state retaining all the major risks (the failed London Underground PPP is a good example[2]).

Value systems as a policy goal

The first implication of value systems’ triumph over policy tools is that it would make sense for voters in a democracy to choose leaders on the basis of their fit with the values and superordinate goals that the elector wishes to see prevail in the country, rather than their detailed policy proposals. In this model, specific policy proposals offered by political leaders are important not so much in themselves but as ways of signalling a deeper set of cultural assumptions. There is, in fact, a reasonable amount of evidence that many voters do operate in this way. One study of the 1983 UK General Election found that many of the major policies in the Labour manifesto, the so-called ‘longest suicide note in history’, were popular. However, polling on more abstract and value-based perceptions of the two major parties (estimations of their ‘leadership’ and ‘patriotism’, for example) pointed much more accurately to the result[3]. Recently, some analyses of the UK’s EU referendum have argued that cultural values (order versus openness) were the strongest predictor of whether someone would vote to remain in or leave the EU, with attitudes to specific issues and also demographic factors emerging more as proxies for those underlying values[4]. Political campaigns often launch policies not because of their substantive merit but to ’send the right message’ about the assumptions on which their candidate operates.

Moving away from elections to decision-making in government, what are the implications of a focus on value systems? One is that it reinforces a long-standing line of argument in public policy research that having the centre determine processes across a dispersed policy system is futile. Outcomes will not be driven by centrally specified approaches, but by how the individual actors (“street-level bureaucrats” in Lipsey’s famous phrase) use and mutate those processes based on their own needs, values and desires. The process in and of itself has little force against street-level norms and values. A linked point is how to use international evidence and learning effectively. We need to move away from “can we implement the policy tool that was successful in country X?” towards “what is it about the system in country X that enabled them to develop an intervention that was so successful in their own context?”[5]

So if detailed process specification, or scouring the world for good ideas to import, won’t work, what should decision-makers be doing? The logic of focusing on value systems implies that they should be doing what they can to create a culture and value system that supports positive change, learning and evolution. If it is inevitable that outcomes are shaped by ‘street-level’ culture and the constant iteration that happens as people interact and revise their plans, are there things that can be done to help that dynamic lead to better outcomes?

Should government promote positive value systems?

First, it is necessary to address two arguments against attempts to change or create value systems. The first is that such attempts are doomed to failure. Culture is so persistent over time, and develops in such a dispersed, organic and unplanned way, that it is hubristic to think that conscious action by government, or indeed any other institution, can change it. There is a two-fold response to this challenge. The first part is to acknowledge that there is some force in this argument. Changing culture is not easy, and certainly not quick. It needs to be done with the grain of what is already there, and by building broad support rather than by top-down decree. The second part, however, is to point to the clear evidence that it can be done. The extreme example is the actions of totalitarian regimes: it is hard to argue that the Bolsheviks didn’t manage, over many years of focused effort, to change the fundamental culture and values of Russia and the other Soviet republics. The experience of Germany after WWII demonstrates the impact of government on culture through a sort of natural experiment: surveys after reunification showed that different cultures and value systems had become internalised by the populations of the two halves of the divided state. However, they also showed significant continuity, and so emphasised that government can only influence culture slowly and in part[6].

The second argument against attempts to change or create culture emerges from this last discussion: such actions are associated with dictatorial regimes and have no place in a liberal democracy. Shouldn’t a democratic government represent and embody the values of its population, rather than trying to engineer them? There are, again, two counter-arguments to this. The first is that a government cannot help influencing the values of the society it leads. Even if not done deliberately, the way government and its leaders behave and the values they implicitly or explicitly endorse will have an impact on society. If this impact is inevitable, there must be a case for consciously considering it and acting accordingly, rather than allowing the impact to occur by accident. The second is that if we believe that values and culture are central to determining social outcomes, and democratic governments are elected at least in part to deliver outcomes, then taking a position that they should not address those factors is to will the ends but not the means, and potentially condemn them to failure.

How to promote value systems

The most obvious way to create a culture that supports positive change and learning is for government to send messages through its words and actions that this is desirable. This would include launching and welcoming experiments in policy and practice and being open to learning from failure, to bottom-up innovation and to constant iteration rather than over-specifying plans from the start.[7]

Such an approach can, however, seem rather intangible. The obvious way to give it harder edges is to use incentives to reward service improvement and thereby encourage innovation that delivers such improvement across the system. This is the philosophy behind recent school reform; the changes gave schools autonomy to innovate, and strong incentives to do so, by introducing a rigorous performance regime.

However, performance incentives alone are unlikely to engender the culture of wholesale creative experimentation discussed above, for several reasons:

  • There is a long-standing body of literature which argues that it is hard to design incentives which can’t be gamed and that do not lead to distorting behaviour. There is always a risk that hard performance measures produce great innovation in the management of the measures themselves, rather than genuinely improving services across the board. Classic examples include hospitals meeting the four-hour A&E waiting time target by creating other queues elsewhere in the system[8], and schools focusing their efforts on pupils around the borderline of exam targets at the expense of the less able, who were never likely to make it[9].
  • Problems that require collaboration between lots of agencies, with the costs and benefits potentially falling asymmetrically, are difficult to address through performance incentives. While it is theoretically possible to design an outcomes framework that pulls all agencies together behind a common goal (the UK model of joint PSA targets, for example) it is hard to do so in a way that isn’t highly complex and bureaucratic. Simple measures of their own performance will tend to have more traction with service managers.
  • Measuring and rewarding performance as a way of promoting innovation has the downside of pushing innovation towards current problems that we know how to measure. The most valuable feature of a dispersed system is, in fact, its ability to react quickly to a changing situation, beginning the task of innovating to respond to new challenges before the central authority has even clocked their existence. The makers of Blackberry phones were proud of the way they encouraged employees to innovate and improve keypad mobile phones – but missed the real innovation of moving to touch-screens and disposing of keypads altogether.
  • Service outputs, or even outcomes, are not the only objective of public services in a democratic state. Such services also need to operate in a way that is recognised as fair and legitimate, and which promotes trust between citizens and institutions. While trust and legitimacy is, in some cases, measurable, it is much harder to target with performance incentives[10].

Multi-national corporations that operate with a high degree of autonomy amongst their business units face the same challenge around creating a positive culture of innovation and learning. Evidence from examples such as General Electric indicates that performance incentives alone are not sufficient. These companies have tended to find that, within a decentralised environment, the centre needs to provide an infrastructure for collaboration, mutual learning and opportunities that actively pushes people in that direction, in order to avoid narrow and immediate targets being the sole focus for their creativity. Simply incentivising people to hit performance goals doesn’t lead to a culture that is healthy for innovation in the long term[11].

What a successful infrastructure and environment for collaboration and learning looks like will be highly context specific. What General Electric does to engender innovative learning by local business managers will look very different from what the health service or the police might do. Innovation and learning will be needed to discover how best to innovate and learn, and to keep that understanding up to date. While performance incentives alone are not likely to work, there is also a long history of softer collaboration approaches (best practice networks, peer support, joint boards and shared funding, for example) draining large amounts of resources for little discernible effort. Developing better ways to promote a culture of positive change, learning and evolution is a central task for both public service leaders and the researchers who wish to understand and help them.


[1] Russia’s economy of favours, A Ledeneva 1998, CUP
[2] Blunders of our governments, Crew and King 2013, OneWorld
[3] British General Election of 1983 1984, Butler and Kavanagh, Palgrave Macmillan
[4] “It’s not the economy, stupid”, Kaufmann 2016, LSE discussion paper
[5] “What makes governments get great”, Andrews 2013, Harvard Business School discussion paper
[6] “Value Priorities in the United Germany”, Boehnke et al 1993, European Journal of Psychology of Education; “Individual Preferences for Political Redistribution”, Corneo and Gruner 2002, Journal of Public Economics
[7] “Is your policy a dodo”, Muers 2014 Civil Service Quarterly
[8] “Review into the Four Hour Emergency Access Reporting at Nottingham University Hospital Final Report”, Ken et al 2010
[9] E.g. “Quick fixes to climb league tables”, Marley and Mansell, 2007 Times Educational Supplement
[10] “Creating Public Value”, Kelly and Muers 2004, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit discussion paper
[11] Author discussion with Monia Mtar, University of Bath Business School


Theresa May and the Varieties of Capitalism

📥  banking, Brexit, Economy, political parties

Rhetorical commitment to social justice has featured in every new Prime Minister’s No. 10 doorstep speech in recent years. Theresa May’s remarks were well crafted and confidently delivered but it is her commitment to economic reform, not social mobility and fairer life chances, which has surprised observers. She starts her premiership with bold promises to reduce excessive executive pay, set higher bars for foreign takeovers of British firms, legislate for workers on company boards, and devolve economic powers to cities. She has even included “industrial strategy” in the title of a government department, where once mere mention of the term was banned.

May has been pursuing this agenda in speeches and interventions over a number of years. It consciously echoes older, pre-Thatcherite conservative traditions, drawing on Chamberlain municipalist and Macmillanite Tory heritages. Although the development of her ideas pre-dates the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, Brexit gives the Prime Minister a new opening, since it forces the construction of a new political and economic settlement, both within the UK, and between the UK and the EU. May will position her reform agenda as a post-Brexit national (and unionist) economic project: one which gives each of the regions and nations of the UK, its social classes and major economic interests, a stake in the future.

Such a project is shot through with risk, not least in meeting the political challenge of reconciling restrictions on free movement of workers from the EU with continued access to the single market. But fatalists will argue that fundamental reform of British capitalism is also chimeric. To use the terms of the academic Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) literature, Britain is a Liberal Market Economy, whose fundamental institutional features – flexible labour markets, low rates of unionisation, firm level bargaining, reliance on general, rather than vocational, education, and so on – are inimical to reform on continental, coordinated lines. The structures for collaboration between firms and unions, and the dense networks of institutions that support long-termist, highly skilled and high-productivity capitalism in Northern Europe simply don’t exist in the UK. On this account, May would do better just to loosen the spending taps, and invest in infrastructure, R&D and skills, while leaving corporate governance reform, industrial strategy and regional policy to Heseltinian romantics.

In large part, these debates focus on the supply side of the economy and how to reform it. But from within the comparative political economy academic literature a new focus on how the demand side can explain differences in national economies has recently emerged. In an important paper, Lucio Baccaro and Jonas Pontusson of the University of Geneva develop a new analytical approach that focuses on differences in components of aggregate demand in the explanation of national growth models:

“Borrowing from post-Keynesian economics, we emphasize the demand side of the economy and place the distribution of income, among households and between labor and capital, at the center of our analysis. We focus…on cross-national diversity, but in contrast to the Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) literature inspired by Peter Hall and David Soskice, we do not conceive this diversity in terms of institutional equilibria that predate the crisis of Fordism in the 1970s. Our analytical framework identifies multiple growth models based on the relative importance of different components of aggregate demand—in the first instance, household consumption and exports—and relations among components of aggregate demand. Our 'growth models' are more numerous and more unstable than Hall and Soskice’s 'varieties of capitalism.'

Empirically, we illustrate our approach with data for Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom over the pre-crisis period 1994–2007. In all four countries, the Fordist model of wage-led growth ground to a halt as the institutional channels whereby productivity growth fed into household consumption and investment—most obviously, collective bargaining based on strong unions—eroded in the 1970s and 1980s. Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom illustrate, we argue, three different solutions to the problem of finding a replacement for the faltering 'wage driver', whereas Italy is a case of persistent failure to solve this problem. Over the period 1994–2007, the United Kingdom relied on household consumption as the main driver of economic growth, spurring household consumption through a combination of real wage growth and the accumulation of household debt. In marked contrast, Germany came to rely on export-led growth, repressing wages and consumption to boost the competitiveness of the export sector. Sweden enjoyed robust growth of both exports and household consumption. Italy, finally, experienced sluggish growth in both domains and, hence, overall stagnation.”

This is a startling and original thesis, with numerous implications. It draws attention to the fact that the growth of the financial services sector, by allowing the UK to run a current account deficit, benefited workers as well as the banks, since it made possible robust growth of domestic consumption, thus boosting demand for low-skilled labour and pushing up real wages (at least until 2003-4) – as well as facilitating expansion of household credit and boosting the tax revenues that underpinned investment in public services. This is in sharp contrast to Germany, where a low-wage, low-skilled service sector developed alongside the dominant export-orientated manufacturing sector in which real wages were held down to preserve competitiveness, exporting demand to the rest of the Eurozone.

Of course, much has changed since the financial crisis. The UK’s productivity has slumped, growth has been relatively weak and real wages have been stagnant. A heavy price has been paid for financialisation, and the UK has yet not found a new, sustainable growth model. Baccaro and Pontusson speculate that where growth is consumption-led, governments of both centre-left and centre-right will respond to downturns by stimulating domestic consumption, which is indeed what happened in the UK, despite a restrictive macro-economic fiscal stance. Yet constraints on household credit and the prospect of falling real wages will also inhibit consumption-led growth, while business investment is currently paralysed by Brexit uncertainty. That suggests that government investment will have to rise to usher in, if not a new era of state-led economic development, then at least one in which public sector investment and strategic intervention plays a much more central role.

Baccaro and Pontusson also point to the importance of high-end exports in the UK economy, such as business services and higher education, but also, of course, financial services. These sectors will be accordingly critical to any post-Brexit future economic settlement forged by the Conservative government. As the authors put it, “any hegemonic social coalition must arguably include the financial sector, which has played a crucial role in enabling the United Kingdom to run persistent current account deficits, benefiting workers as well as capitalists.”

How a new Brexit era growth model takes shape will therefore have as much to do with the social coalitions that underpin it, as with the ambitious supply-side reforms outlined by the Prime Minister. It will sharpen up the political choices that need to be made in the coming months and years – overlaid on the shifting territorial politics of the UK, as well as its social class and economic interests.

On the worldview of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove

📥  Brexit, Michael Gove, political parties

Some years ago I wrote a blog on Dominic Cummings, an adviser to Michael Gove and one of the key architects of the Leave campaign. The blog focused on a long essay he had published on leaving the Department for Education. The blog is no longer available on-line, but a few people have asked me for it, so in light of recent events, I thought I would republish it.

I was too generous to Cummings in the blog, as readers will doubtless note, and I got some of it wrong. But I think some of my reflections on his thinking remain valid and help explain his worldview. My description of Gove as Schmittian looks particularly appropriate after today.


Until now, Dominic Cummings has been little known outside Westminster, where he is spoken of as a brilliant, mercurial and Svengali-like special adviser to Michael Gove.

But the engineered leak of his departing advice to his minister - an extended essay entitled Some Thoughts on Educational and Political Priorities - has brought his name onto the comment pages of the national newspapers. The main charge against him is that he has exaggerated the influence of genetic inheritance on a child's educational outcomes, a criticism he strongly denies. It is unfortunate, however, that the debate on Cummings' essay has been reduced to this time worn issue because its intellectual range is wide and stimulating.

The author certainly doesn't wear his learning lightly, but his intellectual exhibitionism is nonetheless rewarding, as it opens a window onto what animates Gove's political agenda - an agenda which has perhaps more drive and energy than any other part of modern Conservatism (indeed it could be argued that it is the only part of the modern Conservative project which has any real political momentum).

Cummings sets out the case for an integrative 'Odyssean' education, a term he borrows from the physicist Murray Gell-Mann to describe an exacting synthesis of maths and the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the arts and humanities, into 'crude, trans-disciplinary thinking'. He is excoriating about the education of the broad mass of the population in modern democracies, but reserves his most acidic criticism for the elites whose world he inhabits: MPs, civil servants and journalists. 'Most politicians, officials, and advisers,' he writes, 'operate with fragments of philosophy, little knowledge of maths or science (few MPs can answer even simple probability questions yet most are confident in their judgment) and little experience in well-managed complex organisations. The skills, and approach to problems, of our best mathematicians, scientists, and entrepreneurs are almost totally shut out of vital decisions. We do not have a problem with "too much cynicism" - we have a problem with too much trust in people and institutions that are not fit to control so much.'

If this thesis sounds familiar, it is because it is largely a version of CP Snow's famous Two Cultures argument that British education and intellectual life in the 1950s had become damagingly divided between scientists and their literary counterparts. Cummings simply substitutes politicians and the bureaucratic class for Snow's literary intellectuals and gives the whole thing an Asian pivot by extolling the virtues of a rigorously trained leadership class servicing a project of national advancement. It is, as an academic friend of mine remarked, 'CP Snow in Singapore'.

As it happens, Cummings is more selective in his interests than his sketch of an Odyssean education would imply. His essay is chiefly preoccupied with mathematics and computer science, evolutionary biology and military strategy, and he has clearly digested modern complexity economics. This is an impressive range, and one that is vastly wider than one would normally encounter in Westminster. But he has little of value to say on contemporary political economy and social science, and his treatment of political philosophy is cursory. Unsurprisingly for one of his outlook and false modesty, Cummings regards Nietzsche as the last philosopher of any note worth reading. (As far as I can see, Carl Schmitt doesn't make an appearance in the essay, but if any political theory best typifies Gove's conviction politics, it is Schmitt's decisionism.) Cummings' Odyssean learning is perhaps best thought of as a Renaissance education shorn of its civic humanism and democratic potential, with a reductivist bias towards mathematics and the natural sciences.

What is the political purpose of this project? The ostensible goal is to make Britain 'the school of the world', that is, 'the leading country for education and science'. But that is an instrumental goal in service of a deeper objective, namely to secure a 'fragile civilisation' from the existential threats of global warfare, economic cataclysm and deepening resource conflict. Cummings is a prophet of dystopia - humanity's evolution predisposes us to group conflict, and our mastery of technology enables self-destruction. His essay is replete with military allusions and metaphors, while his interests in the history of warfare, genetics and computer science lend it a Cold War sensibility and sci-fi tone. It is Robert Heinlein at the Gates of Salamis.

Nonetheless, the essay has flashes of penetrating insight which illuminate how Team Gove sees the world. In a telling phrase, he notes that there is 'constant panic, but little urgency' in modern government. If Gove's tenure has been marked by anything it is urgency. He is impatient with the protocols of modern bureaucracy, dismissive of social partnership and disdainful of professional opinion. Cummings' essay gives as good an introduction as one will get to the Govean style of governing and the imperatives driving it. And, just like Gove, Cumming has a Janus-faced vision for public services: at once highly centralist, bordering on authoritarian, and at the same time Hayekian in its belief in the virtues of distributing information, decision-making and risk across a plenitude of social actors. While not a conservative in the Burkean mould, Gove tempers his radicalism with an appreciation of the importance of stable, liberal social order within which evolutionary change can occur.

Like Gove, Cummings is Eurosceptic to his core. The European project is airily dismissed and there is little but disdain for most contemporary European thought. The very expanse of his intellect also reveals where the conservative mind has become closed. His reference points are for the most part Anglospheric.

For all that, Cummings' essay demonstrates how Gove has been able to pin the English left onto the defensive on education policy. As a secretary of state, he has taken world-class standards in education from a rhetorical phrase to a serious concern of policymaking. His blindspots are many and varied, and his centralism is truly Napoleonic, but he has forced education debate onto new territory. Above all, he has given conservatism a national project in education, which previously it lacked. The 'global race' is an organising narrative which Gove has been able to translate into a set of policies, some of which at least have popular appeal. If Labour wants an alternative story of national renewal for its 'race to the top' then it too will have to develop an account of the fundamental purposes of education, where innovation and energy can be harnessed to improve standards in our schools and colleges, and how English education can be reorganised. If nothing else, Cummings' essay is a useful spur to these tasks.