Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 6 Aug 2020, 2:10 PM


The economic base of realignment

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One finding of Labour's review of its election defeat is that politics is "organised more around cultural values than an economic 'left-right' divide."

This is the theme of Stephen Davies new book, The Economics and Politics of Brexit, in which he argues that we've seen a realignment of politics: "the main division in society has switched from being primarily about economics to being about culture and identity" - between cosmopolitans and nationalists. The Tories won December's general election, he says, because they were quicker than Labour to see this division, and succeeded in uniting the nationalists whilst the cosmopolitans were divided. We can read Sir Keir's "friends of the forces" plan as an attempt to appeal to the nationalists*.

Which in turn echoes a point made by Matthew Goodwin and colleagues:

2019 is not a critical election but a continuation of longerÔÇÉterm trends of dealignment and realignment in British politics...Class realignment and Brexit realignment...go hand in hand and appear to have implanted a new, potent cultural divide at the heart of British politics.

All this poses a big question, however: why now? Delors

There's nothing new about a mix of social conservatism and anti-EU feeling, as anybody who remembers trash newspapers in the 80s will recall. The Sun's headline "Up Yours Delors" appeared in 1990. But in the 1997, 2001 and 2005 elections voters decisively rejected the party obsessed with Europe in favour of a socially liberalish cosmopolitan technocrat party, and it was only after the they stopped "banging on about Europe" that the Tories returned to power.

So what changed? The question here isn't merely about what people believe. It's about why social conservatism and anti-EU feelings have become more salient and mobilized.

It could be that less has changed than we might imagine. Lewis Baston argues that many "red wall" seats (a phrase unheard before 2019) are "in fact nothing more than traditional marginal seats."

But there's something else - the years of economic stagnation caused by the financial crisis and austerity. As Stephen says, political divisions "reflect and derive from real conflicts of interest and material circumstance and everyday lived experience". We have abundant evidence - such as from Thiemo Fetzmer and Nick Crafts - that austerity led to Brexit. The Resolution Foundation has shown that "Blue Wall" seats have suffered even worse economic conditions than the rest of the country since 2010.

There are at least two mechanisms here. One is simply that hard economic times create a sense of decline and hence a nostalgia for better times: the Churchill myth, and celebrations of VE day are probably stronger now than in the 90s. The other is that - as Ben Friedman has demonstrated - they generate intolerance and fear of outsiders.

On top of this, there is the fact that the right (and centre) have no answer to capitalist stagnation. In the 80s, Thatcherites could plausibly tell a large client base "vote for us and you'll get rich". Today's Tories can't say that. As Dave Cohen says, "culture wars are all they've got." It's a cliche to complain that the BBC gave Farage the oxygen of publicity, but less often remarked that he was filling a vacuum. Marx predicted that falling profits would lead to "credit frauds and stock swindles". It's also led to analogues of these in politics - the rise of cranks and grifters promoting culture wars.

All this gives me a beef on two fronts. On the one hand, I'm unhappy that too many polscis are committing an error that neoclassical economists also make: they take preferences as data without inquiring of their origin. But on the other hand, it refutes the optimism of some earlier Marxists who thought that class consciousness would grow endogenously. It doesn't. It needs cultivating. And we can't do this merely by calling for more anger.

It also gives me two worries. One is that this new alignment is hostile for both socialists and free marketers, as it gives us big government without the changes we need in economic institutions. Worse still, having profited so much from the new political alignment, the Tories will open up new fronts in the culture wars. And too many leftists will play into their hands.

* He's not trying to appeal to actual servicemen (who'd like better pay, no stupid wars and a leader who doesn't support the IRA) but those who fantasise that they were in the forces.

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