Some things I learned from GE2017 [1 of 2]
12th June. Obviously the dust is still swirling around the election, since it has thrown up more questions than answers. And we’re still waiting for some of the actual election data about turnout and so on. But there are some initial conclusions that can be drawn. This is the first of two posts, since I tried to write it as one post and it got far too long.
1. Neoliberalism is over
The economic programmes in the manifestoes of both Conservatives and Labour were, effectively, anti-neoliberal programmes. (By neoliberalism I mean, following Will Davies, a form of politics in which state actors follow a “modernising” agenda that broadens the scope of markets, using the rhetoric of “competition” to target institutions that lie outside of the market, and to marketise or abolish them.)
I think that Tim Jackson was the first to point this out, more than a week before the election, noting the all but “ubiquitous call across the multi-coloured manifestos of the 2017 election to start building “an economy that works” — for everyone.”
Anthony Barnett made a similar point in Open Democracy a week ahead of the election:
They share a common rupture from the dominant neoliberal approach of the last 35 years, with its anti-state philosophy of market competition. In the night of media silence the old form of economic government is slipping below the waters, as the public distances itself from an epoch of military failure and financial crash. This extraordinary and far-reaching development has not been discussed on the BBC or in most of the media as they cannot use the term ‘neoliberalism’.
Or, as Aditya Chakrabortty observed in The Guardian of the Conservative manifesto,
Just five paragraphs in, and she’s using language that would have made Gordon Brown stutter. This is the same Tory prime minister who wants a cap on energy prices, talks about “a new centre ground”, and investigates the Victorian practices of the gig economy’s overlords.
Chakrabortty described it as Britain’s “first post-crash election”:
This election is the first in which both party leaders drop the happy-clappy, catch up with just how bad things have got — and, at last, grope around for fixes. … It takes decades for an ideology to die — but among the power elites of London, you can finally see it happening.
It’s impossible to overstate what a big shift this is. The point is that it’s in the electoral interests of both the main parties to tell this story. The Conservative “Red Tory” Philip Blond has an agenda here, but this is his conclusion from the election:
“An astonishing number of people voted for state socialism,” said Blond, claiming that the fiscal tightness of the previous chancellor, George Osborne, would lose. “If the party were to go to the country with a conventional Tory offer it would lose and lose badly.”
“Thanks to Jeremy Corbyn Red Toryism is needed now more than ever, because it is the only thing that the party has in the box to match it.”
2. Age and location are the new political markers
One of the things we learnt from the Brexit vote was that progressive opinion was correlated by age and education (although these clearly overlap) and also by location; core cities were likely to be Remain, towns, countryside and declining cities Leave. This chart, from YouGov, shows how sharp the political polarisation by age had become, especially when you look at the flat distribution of LibDem votes by age. This was ignored by many politicians, and analysts, because of the conventional wisdom that young people couldn’t be bothered to vote (the main reason, as far as one can tell, that so many polls got the result so wrong.)
The chart below, from the FT, shows how these age divisions have sharpened since the financial crisis. People of working age are a lot more likely to vote Labour, which isn’t that surprising when you taken into account that the wages of those in work are still below their level they were at in 2008.
The geography of this is pretty clear as well. This map gives an indication of which parts of the country swung towards the Conservatives, and which to Labour.
There’s already been some nonsense written about this, for example in the pages of the The Economist, which proclaimed after the election with little visible evidence of actual thought that ‘the culture wars arrive in Britain‘.
But the reason they think that is that they have an outmoded view of class, which isn’t up to the task of analysing the changes we’re seeing.
New versions of class
I argued in my recent paper in the Journal of Futures Studies on ‘the new politics of place’ that we’re seeing these changes is because labour markets have changed with the rise of “post industrial” economies. This has produced new versions of class, in which–if you’re not paying attention–you can be confused by aspects of identity politics.
It is quite a complex argument, and obviously you should go and read the whole thing, but in brief, in economies dominated by businesses producing knowledge or services, the labour process is different.
Scott Lash and John Urry explained the difference in Economies of Signs and Space in 1994. Labour costs in knowledge and services industries, they write, especially services, represents a high proportion of the total. Labour is “implicated” (their phrase) in the services delivery, which is “the intended outcome of a necessarily social process” (p.200). Further, “the social composition of the producers… is often part of what is ‘sold’ to customers” (p. 200), and in turn this means that emotional labour, the ability to perform emotional work, becomes an integral part of the product or service. Or, in the words of Hardt and Negri, “Society has become a factory.”
Citizens of somewhere
What this means, for all that Theresa May noise about “citizens of somewhere” and “citizens of nowhere” these workers are clearly citizens of somewhere; manufacturing can move fairly easily, but service and knowledge businesses are firmly located in particular places. In other words, age and place are markers, but they are markers of a new type of class composition that has finally started to emerge from the end of the manufacturing era.
Equally, when you look at the six seats that Labour lost to the Conservatives, many of which have been Labour for years, you can see that they’re in the old manufacturing areas and haven’t managed to rebuild their economies around services or knowledge. Here’s the full list: Copeland, Mansfield, Middlesbrough South, North-East Derbyshire, Stoke South, Walsall North.
There’s a further sign of this division. As theFT pointed out, seats with a higher proportion of people in poor health were more likely to be Conservative, though this is not really just about health. It’s a marker for places with weak local economies that have not managed to build a services economy. Conversely, Labour did better among seats with a higher proportion of people with degrees, which is a marker for how well the local economy has adapted to a knowledge-led services economy.
3. Pundits don’t understand mobilisation
Pundits treat politics as a zero sum game. That’s what the swingometer is about. It works OK as a rule of thumb when turnout figures are broadly the same and politics is played out between two parties. But they are completely blind to mobilisation. And although we won’t know how many of the young voted this time around (there’s a 72% figure being quoted but it’s not an official figure), it’s reasonable to assume that some of the increase in turnover, seen across England, came from a greater youth vote. This also related to the media channels that were telling the election story, as I’ll discuss in the second of these posts.
But this isn’t the first time they’ve made this mistake. The vast SNP surge in Scotland in 2015 came because they had similarly mobilised a whole group of poorer voters taken for granted by Scottish Labour, first during the IndyRef, and then during the election campaign. It’s possible that part of their decline this time may have been because they didn’t tell enough of an economic and social story. But again: pundits are short-sighted, and don’t look at the long trends. The SNP is still heading in an upwards direction when you take a longer view.
4. Politics has reasserted itself
The political result of the Brexit vote was that politics was effectively suspended in favour of some mystical rhetoric about the will of the people, backed up by the attack dogs of the right-wing press. This is one of the reasons why the various Brexit votes in Parliament went through broadly uncontested.
The fine Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole tells this recent history this way on the New York Review of Books blog:
The popular will had been established on that sacred referendum day. And it must not be defied or questioned. Hence, Theresa May’s allies in The Daily Mail using the language of the French revolutionary terror, characterizing recalcitrant judges and parliamentarians as “enemies of the people” and “saboteurs.”
This is why May called an election. Her decision to do so — when she had a working majority in parliament — has been seen by some as pure vanity. But it was the inevitable result of the volkish rhetoric she had adopted. A working majority was not enough — the unified people must have a unified parliament and a single, uncontested leader.
Well, we know how that turned out. What’s interesting about this, though, is that in calling an election to get a mandate for Brexit negotiations, May herself broke this spell. The good news: I’m willing to bet that we won’t be hearing anything about the “will of the people” anymore, even from the Daily Mail.
A couple of asides
Aside #1 (Labour)
Given where they were coming from, Labour has done as well as it could have hoped in this election. As Anthony Barnett said, this was partly because Corbyn “captured the anti-system, anti-elitist spirit of Brexit… He is the energetic insurgent seeking change and she is the evasive, manipulative representative of the status quo.” And while the pundit class and some of Labour’s hard right said that a different Labour leader would have won the election, I can’t see who that leader would have been, for these reasons: there aren’t other obvious leaders who would have enthused the young, and other leaders would have watered down the manifesto. Better to have UKIP voters coming back to the party because of economic policy rather than trying to make migration pledges the Conservatives will always be able to outbid you on, and which alienate the younger, urban voter.
Aside #2 (Journalists)
I used to think the BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was biased, but one result of watching her performance on Friday made me realise that she may just be a bit dim. So John Curtice, a fine pollster but not a political analyst, said on Friday morning that Corbyn had done only as well as Gordon Brown in 2010, which is broadly true in terms of seats. She repeated this observation without qualification several times during the day. But it is self-evidently not true in terms of votes (40% to 29%).
Nor is it true in terms of the long arcs of elections, where parties tend to rise and fall over a series of elections: GE2010 saw a fall in the Labour vote in percentage terms and in actual numbers of voters, for the third successive election. GE2017 saw an increase in percentage share and absolute numbers for the second successive election. Perhaps my expectations of journalists are too high, but I’d expect a national political editor, who earns more than £200,000 a year for her knowledge and judgment, to be telling this sort of nuanced story about an election.
Part 2 will follow as soon as I can write it.
Originally published at thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com on June 12, 2017.