IPR Blog

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

Topic: voting

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.

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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.

 

Awkward to the last: Britain and the EU

📥  Brexit, EU Referendum, voting

Professor David Galbreath is Professor of International Security and Dean of the University of Bath’s Department of Social and Policy Sciences

Following the Supreme Court ruling on the UK Government’s plans to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Theresa May delivered a 1-page draft bill to Parliament which purposed ‘to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’. What will most likely become the European Union Act of 2017 signals the beginning of the end for UK membership of the most economically and politically powerful trading bloc in history.

shutterstock_414800185 [Converted]

 

In his book An Awkward Partner, Professor Stephen George set out to characterise the British role in the EU, stating that while the UK became a member of what was then the European Communities in 1973, it was never all the way in. For European integrationists, the UK was a regular break from ‘an ever-deeper partnership’ – while for European federalists, the UK encouraged state sovereignty that allowed for ‘variable speeds’ of integration. In other words, the UK became a sui generis member of a sui generis institution.

Author of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty when he was Secretary-General of the EU Convention in 2002-03, Lord Kerr set out in a recent talk just how ‘awkward’ and ‘sui generis’ the UK would continue to be – even through the act of withdrawal from membership of the EU. Entitled “Brexit: Will Divorce be damaging, and could it be amicable?”, Lord Kerr’s public lecture – which was hosted by the Institute for Policy Research on campus at the University of Bath – evidenced the argument that in addition to being damaging, Brexit would be very unlikely to be amicable either at home or in Europe.

Lord Kerr reminded us that it was Margaret Thatcher who made the strongest argument for UK membership of the EU. The UK was “stronger in Washington because we were seen to be strong in Brussels, and stronger in Brussels because we were seen to be strong in Washington.” Furthermore, the country was comfortable to assume an identity that was both British and European at that time, which followed the post-war settlement, the major political movements in the region and the quick turnaround in trade after the 1973 accession. Thatcher knew that Britain had an awkward role in the EU, but that it was a role which suited Britain in terms of where it wanted to be in Europe and the world.

Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair followed suit with a vision for Britain that was both strongly European and Atlanticist. Even more, both Major and Blair sought to enlarge the EU so that it would include more states which were like the UK, and would seek a federal rather than integrated Europe. Denmark, which joined at the same time as the UK and was similarly inclined towards Brussels, was joined by Finland and Sweden in 1995. Following this, the augmentation of the bloc continued with the 2004 Enlargement, which brought 10 new member states (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia); further enlargements in 2007 to include Bulgaria and Romania; and the 2013 accession of Croatia. Successive British prime ministers saw this as a way to slow down European integration – and, to all intents and purposes, it worked.

Yet even before the 2004 enlargement the UK (as well as Ireland and Sweden) had opened its economy to EU accession state populations, with the greatest EU migration to the UK being in the years prior to their home country’s inclusion in the bloc.

While EU migration has continued to decline, especially following the 2007-2012 financial crisis, the impact of EU and world immigration to the UK has had identifiable impacts on many communities across the UK – especially in areas that voted to remain in the EU, an irony not lost on remainers. Whereas net migration from the EU has declined over time, the percentage of the population that was not born in the UK has increased. The view on immigration was the single most important indicator for voting to remain or leave the EU in the 23 July 2016 referendum.

The cost of ‘divorce’ is high, and Lord Kerr laid out well the negotiations that will have to go on around trade, industries, banking, and the atomic energy sector – not to mention the status of UK citizens throughout the EU, as well as the EU citizen in the UK. Controlling immigration may give a sense of power to many communities, but it will not solve the problems that existed before the referendum and, in some cases, will be exacerbated by it.

The mistake that the UK government is making is assuming that British industry and products (though not labour) will be needed in Europe going forward, despite the fact that in a globalised world there are many economies that will thrive on being an alternative to the UK in European trade and finance. Already Germany and the Netherlands are receiving marked increases in business and capital that previously would have gone to the UK, and from those that would have invested in the UK but will not following the triggering of Article 50.

To say that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are the only winners in this situation gives the European economies too little credit and discounts the power of new regional economic blocs that just might use this opportunity to build a real alternative to Europe and the UK as a whole. Now that would be awkward.

This post was inspired by a recent IPR Public Lecture given by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, author of Article 50. You can read more about the lecture, and find links to the video and podcast, here.

 

A world collapsing

📥  The far right, Trump, US Presidential Elections, voting

The measure of Donald Trump’s victory is given by those who have been first to welcome it: Marine Le Pen, Pauline Hanson, and David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Trump gave voice to deep wellsprings of racism in American society, and now stands as a global figurehead for nativist, far right movements. “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built”, said the Front National’s Vice President, Florian Philippot. It is hard to disagree.

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Trump’s insurgency will test James Madison’s institutional firewalls to destruction; the Republicans now control Congress and the Presidency, and will add the Supreme Court to the ledger in short order. The Republican mainstream will not be in charge, however. Trump was elected largely without its support, and he drew political energy from its most vociferous right wing critics. Worse, he campaigned against the institutions of American democracy itself: its systems, norms and laws. These institutions will need all the resilience they have possessed throughout the history of the United States of America to withstand him. As the political scientist David Runciman has remarked, “What if the shock that is capable of reforming the system is also capable of destroying it?" Glib talk of “post-liberalism” will not do now. Liberalism will need all the defenders it can get.

Once again, mainstream progressive politics has been found wanting. Obama delivered a stronger economy and healthy pay rises in the last year, but it wasn’t enough. Clinton couldn’t find the voice to animate progressive America; the curse of a bloodless, calculating and hollowed out politics on the mainstream centre-left has taken another victim. There can be no Third Way when you are up against the likes of Donald Trump. There is no triangulating Trumpism.

The European Union will now face massive challenges: defending its Eastern borders against an emboldened Putin; defending an embattled global economic order against rampant protectionism; and defending itself against resurgent fascism and the break-up of its historical project. It will likely find an ally in China, which will resist protectionism and global disorder, turning the axis of world politics in a new direction. But Eurozone leaders must also now urgently ask themselves why working class voters have turned so decisively against the economic order that has prevailed in the West since the 1980s – and change path before it is too late.

The under 30s in the UK: A generation used to not getting what they voted for

📥  Brexit, voting, young people

Dr Benjamin Bowman, Teaching Fellow in Comparative Politics, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies

The EU Referendum underlined a clear disconnect between the ruling elites and the electorate, writes Benjamin Bowman. Disappointment with political choices is particularly marked among the younger generation, whose disaffection exemplifies a deeper depolitisation. Much can be learned from recent episodes such as the Iraq War and the increase in tuition fees if we are to prevent a further failure of the transmission belt between constituents and government. Bowman suggests a mainstreaming of youth politics, for instance by including youth branches within party lists.

young people

Britain voted to leave the EU, but now little is certain in British politics, except that more uncertainty beckons. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, you are likely disappointed with this situation. For young people the experience of disappointment and disaffection is nothing new. Britain is currently on the cusp of constitutional change: we must, seize this opportunity to rebuild the connection between everyday people and institutional politics in our modern democracy. The way recent political choices have impacted the way younger generations perceive politics offers some lessons in this sense.

Brexit, like the Iraq War and the increase in tuition fees, risks alienating the young

Our political moment is a deeply elitist one, despite the hullaballoo of the democratic mandate of the 52%, or the call to “take back control” at a national level. The referendum was criticized as a “media circus of exaggerated claim and counter claim” in which voters were called to muster into opposing camps by elite actors, rather than having the capability to make fully informed decisions. both campaigns were cursed by male-dominated (and indeed, white male-dominated) politics, as Professor Jacqueline Rose wrote last month.

Young voters may feel that “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”: the more things change, the more things stay the same. Brexit is another episode in a long political soap opera for young people, in which the vote represents the dissolution of complex individual concerns, needs, experiences and feelings into a binary (and non-binding) vote for one elite group or another, whether between Remain or Leave, between David Cameron or Boris Johnson, between Nick Clegg or Nigel Farage, none of whom are generally perceived to be seeking to represent voters’ needs, but simply to be hunting a democratic mandate for a plan that has already been settled.

As in the case of the Iraq War, or the Liberal Democrats short-lived pledge to oppose tuition fees, the shortening of the odds that Brexit will ever actually happen will be familiar to young people as a process of voting for one thing and getting another, a failure of the democratic transmission belt between everyday life and the representatives selected to organize it.

Young people will also likely feel that the representation of older generations has been fortified at the expense of the young. Young turnout was reportedly high with a 75% majority among 18-24s voting to remain. This, of course, didn’t stop a tidal wave of criticism aimed at young people who didn’t bother to vote (largely based on a discredited estimate tweeted by Sky, which was based on data from the 2015 General Election and had nothing do to with the Referendum itself).

Blaming young people for their own marginalization has become commonplace, to the point that the words “they should bother to vote if they care that much” is a kneejerk reaction happening all too often. The stacking of the deck against young people is thus blamed on young people themselves, while it is easily forgotten that there is now a whole generation whose experience of voting is largely that you don’t get what you voted for. On a deeper level, this represents an uncoupling of politics from governance, a failure of the transmission belt between constituents and government. The alienation of young people is just one symptom of broader depoliticisation.

All about the money: why young people are abandoning politics and vice versa

As part of a recent research project, I was working with teenagers in a small town in rural England. We discussed how they saw themselves fitting into British society and politics. The participants in the group had a good working knowledge of how the local council functioned and what the big issues in their community were. They were also very clear about the reality for everyday people who needed local government to take action: “I know what the answer will be”, said one participant, a 15-year-old girl, “it’ll be: well, we ain’t got the money”.

Young people’s experience of politics in our austerity era is a complicated relationship between citizens and everyday lives, and elite-level governance. As such, rather than a single political arena, we actually have two sets of politics in Britain – the everyday and the elite. The relationship between the two, in the words of this participant, is a question of not having the money. It is about blaming the inability to transmit popular voice into popular power due to budget constraints or the need to privatize the tools of government. This could be called a failure of the transmission belt between constituents and their representatives. “Well, we ain’t got the money” is a keen observation of the main political event of our time for the young: the breakdown of the transmission belt between the everyday and the elite level.

Everyday politics is a remarkably vibrant and accessible field for young people, who are more educated in citizenship and in methods for making a difference than ever before. They are connected to the world around them, informed about current events from the local to the world stage, and trained in tools from fundraising and volunteering to petitioning at a remarkably young age. The everyday level is about celebrating young power and raising the volume of young voices.

On the other hand, the elite level – the level at which governance is performed – is largely geared against the young participation that is so celebrated at an everyday level. Political parties continue to keep youth wings in policy silos, using them to float youth-specific policy, or as foot soldiers for handing out pamphlets, but little else. The hallmark of young politics is diverse participatory acts, and we celebrate diverse ways to give young people a voice, but mostly fail to transmit that voice into effective power. And it is not just the young who feel disheartened by British politics. We know from the decades of post-war data that there is a growing distance, distrust and even hatred that citizens perceive towards politicians. Where do we go from here?

We need broadband democracy for a broadband age

We must fix the transmission belt between everyday politics and elite governance. There is no better time than now, and no better group to bring into the heart of the process than the young. The Referendum was politics done wrong. Though we are voters with a world of information at our fingertips, we were subject to a circus of exaggerated and (at best) poorly explained claims. Though we have a wealth of tools for communication, our needs, voices and actions were boiled down into a simple In or Out decision.

The UK’s EU Referendum was thus Morse code politics in a broadband age. For young people, especially, this was a poisonous experience, since the modes of democratic activity the young most value – direct participation – were the least represented in a campaign led at a distance by male, aging elites and dominated by grandiose economic, political and social claims rather than by clear connections to everyday life. The Brexit era provides us with the opportunity for a fuller democratic relationship between everyday and elite, institutional politics.

We need to upgrade the transmission of democratic power from the everyday level to the institutional. Young people need direct avenues for participation. Practically speaking, political parties could strengthen the representation of young people directly in their Party structures: not just in segregated youth wings, but at the heart of policymaking, and on Party lists. As long as local politics was able to get things done – which, granted, may be a larger, budgetary issue – this would be especially valuable at local level where young people would be best able to make direct contact with representatives. For the same reason, MPs should be working to get young people into contact and into their surgeries.

A voice for young people must also mean effective power, and there are practical ways to do this too. Unions need to be reaching out to the young: both the working young and those out of work or on insecure contracts. Like Party youth wings, Unions can be a transmission belt by which young people can make a difference on the way society is run at an institutional level, and perceive the effects of those institutions on everyday life. The same could be true of public consultations. For one example, the LSE’s project for The People’s Constitution could teach us a lot about the value and potential for popular participation in upcoming constitutional reform.

We have a new Prime Minister, a new Government, and we are looking at a period of constitutional reform even to the possible extent of Scottish independence and the dissolution of the Union. An era of political change is on the cards. Involving young people at the heart of that change is not only practical, it is essential if we are to rebuild the connection between everyday people and the institutions that serve them.