Making sense of general election 2019

by Dr Chris Byrne

The 2019 general election resulted in Labour’s worst defeat, measured in seats in Parliament, since before the Second World War. Seats that had been Labour for generations turned blue: Don Valley, a Labour seat since 1922, changed hands on a 19 percent swing; Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former seat, Labour since 1935, was lost on a 26 percent swing; and Bolsover changed hands on a 23 percent swing, ending 69 years of continuous Labour rule. These events are remarkable in their own right, but what makes them genuinely shocking is that they were not predicted by the polls, which narrowed in the closing stages of the campaign. These events also ran counter to the expectations of most commentators after Labour’s surprisingly good showing at the 2017 general election—not to mention the expectations of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself, who is reported to have said at Glastonbury in June 2017 that he would be Prime Minister “within six months.”

 

So what went wrong for Corbyn and Labour? One obvious problem was antipathy towards the Labour leader on the doorstep. Jeremy Corbyn was far and away the single biggest reason voters gave for abandoning Labour. This stems from a combination of personal animus based on perceptions of Corbyn as out-of-touch and lacking intangible ‘leadership qualities’, and his taking unpopular policy positions on a number of important issues. Chief among these was Brexit. Labour’s Brexit policy, of negotiating a new Withdrawal Agreement within three months and then putting it to a referendum with Remain on the ballot within six, was widely derided. Indeed, the studio audience at the ITV leaders’ debate laughed at Corbyn disbelievingly when he attempted to explain the merits of a policy that involved negotiating a deal no one in his party planned to vote for.

 

However, Brexit was a thorn in Labour’s side for another reason: At this election, and at the one before it, the nature of Corbyn’s appeal was fundamentally reconstructive: it highlighted problems and injustices in the existing political regime, and sought to tackle them with a radical new policy platform. In short, he promised an end to the neoliberal orthodoxy of the long 1990s. However, whereas virtually everywhere else Labour’s appeal was reconstructive in nature, in relation to Brexit it was fundamentally in favour of preserving the status quo. ‘Remain and Reform’ was Labour’s official position in the EU membership referendum, but the increasingly polarised nature of the Brexit debate after general election 2017 made it virtually impossible to talk about the need to reform the EU. The exigencies of party management and preventing the haemorrhaging of Remain supporters to a resurgent Liberal Democrats led Corbyn to a second referendum policy that ultimately blunted his reconstructive appeal.

 

Another crucial issue was credibility. Simply put, the public did not believe that Labour was capable of actually delivering on the plethora of spending commitments it made, especially given some dubious claims about where the money was going to come from. The sheer number of promises and their grand scale was impressive — nationalising rail, mail, water, energy and broadband, promising 33% off rail fares by January 2020, promising to plant two billion trees by 2030, compensation for WASPIs, compensation for miners over pensions, and the dubious claim that an ‘average’ family would be better off to the tune of £6700 per year under a Labour government. Labour’s contention that it could pay for all of this with a small increase in taxes for those earning more than £80,000 was derided by respected independent institutions such as the IFS.

 

Finally, the issue of antisemitism cut through in 2019 in a way that it didn’t in 2017. Just weeks prior to polling day the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mervis made an unprecedented intervention in the election campaign to insist that Jeremy Corbyn was unfit for high office due to his poor handling of complaints of antisemitism in his party, and the ‘mendacious fiction’ that all such complaints had been dealt with. Shortly after there followed damning leaked evidence from the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the EHRC investigation into Labour antisemitism, which included interference from the leaders office in disciplinary measures being taken against some of those accused of antisemitism. These events compounded Corbyn’s earlier blunder of refusing to apologise for his handling of antisemitism in his car-crash interview with Andrew Neil in late November.

 

That said, the result can’t simply be put down to Corbyn and Labour’s failures. Boris Johnson also did a number of things well. Contrasting with the complexity of Labour’s Brexit policy, the Conservatives’ could be distilled down into three words—‘Get Brexit Done’—and this message was rammed home at every available opportunity in a style befitting a campaign ran by a Lynton Crosby protege (Isaac Levido). More importantly, it was backed up by skilful framing of the reasons for holding the election and the choice before the British people. That choice was, vote for me and get Brexit, or vote for the other guy and get two referendums—one on Brexit and another on Scottish Independence. This was underscored by a narrative of complete parliamentary dysfunction, shaped by the prorogation saga and the drama surrounding the government’s attempt to pass its renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This set the stage for a ‘people versus Parliament’ election that allowed the government to capitalise on deep reservoirs of anti-political sentiment in the country.

 

The Conservatives also took measures to neutralise the popular bits of Corbynism in this election. In comparative historical context, Boris Johnson might be described as a disjunctive political leader: a prime minister affiliated with a dysfunctional political regime. This placed him in a parlous political situation, but the Conservative manifesto implicitly acknowledged this in seeking to tackle a range of pressing regime vulnerabilities. For example, there were manifesto commitments to address regional economic imbalances in the form of the Towns Fund, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and extra funding to upgrade transport infrastructure in the major city regions outside London. There are promises of new protections for gig economy workers, and measures to tackle the unaffordability of housing and housing insecurity, with the rollover of Help to Buy and outlawing ‘no fault’ evictions in the private rented sector, respectively. There were even proposals for a clampdown on tax evasion involving tougher prison sentences and a new Anti-Tax Evasion unit within HMRC. Now that Brexit is going to happen, and most likely in a fairly ‘hard’ form, what all of this means is that we are seeing not the reconstruction of British politics, but a reconfiguration and deepening of the existing neoliberal political regime.

Brexit and the Median Voter 

By Dr Paul White

British public opinion remains sharply polarised over the issue of Brexit. The nation appears more divided than at any time in living memory. On the surface, the issue at stake would appear to be a simple binary choice, and indeed was presented as such in the 2016 referendum question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union’? Almost three and a half years later, the divisions opened up by the referendum appear almost impossible to reconcile. On the face of it, whatever path is chosen by the next government appears certain to be deeply unpopular with approximately half of the electorate.

Given this political landscape, political parties have been forced to make careful electoral calculations and, in most cases, have clearly targeted voters on one side of the divide or the other. In the current election campaign, the Conservatives under Boris Johnson are standing on a firm platform of ‘Get Brexit done’, while the Liberal Democrats have targeted the Remain half of the electorate by committing to a withdrawal of Article 50 notification. By contrast, Labour have prevaricated for many months. To some extent this indecision is understandable, given Labour’s awkward position. On the one hand, a large number of Labour supporters are Remainers. On the other hand, many constituencies in Labour’s traditional heartlands, particularly in the North of England, voted Leave, in some cases by a goodly margin. Committing decisively to either camp seems likely to alienate a goodly fraction of potential Labour voters. The result is a woolly policy stance based around negotiating a new Withdrawal Agreement, but then holding a second referendum in which the party may or may not campaign against its own negotiated deal. If current polling is anything to go by, this indecisive stance may have cost Labour votes from both the Leave and Remain camps. The lesson appears to be clear; political parties cannot simultaneously target both sets of voters, but must choose one side or the other.

A more nuanced analysis, however, might conclude that the range of public opinion on Brexit presents more of a spectrum than a simple binary choice. While the Leave camp is certainly not united around a single vision of Brexit, it would be fair to say that the Remain camp does not share a single vision of the future either. For example, while some Leavers undoubtedly would prefer a complete ‘hard’ Brexit, others would prefer continued single market membership. Some Remainers are comfortable with the potential prospect of an eventual federal union, while others would oppose federalism but believe this can be avoided. Attitudes towards Brexit thus represent a continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. At one pole are advocates of the hardest of hard Brexits, at the other are the Euro-federalists; but many voters are positioned somewhere in between these two poles. It seems possible, therefore, that a solution acceptable to the majority may also lie somewhere in the middle.

Survey data collected prior to the referendum suggested that the primary concern of Remain voters was the economy, while many Leave voters were primarily motivated by sovereignty concerns (British Election Study 2016).  A solution that addressed sovereignty concerns by leaving the EU political institutions, while simultaneously protecting the economy via continued membership of the single market, might therefore prove to be an acceptable compromise to substantial numbers of voters in both camps. Black (1958) developed the theorem of the median voter, based on the logic that rational voters will prefer a policy closer to their desired outcome rather than one further away from it. For example, Voter A may desire increased public spending, even if this means a tax rise, while Voter B may desire tax cuts even if this means reduced public spending. However, a median policy of maintaining the status quo might be acceptable to both. While this policy does not give either voter their ideal outcome, for Voter A it would be better than a public spending cut, while for Voter B it would be better than a tax increase. Given this, both may be willing to vote for this compromise policy. This logic may be applicable to the Brexit issue as well. At the poles of the spectrum, die-hard Brexiteers may accept nothing less than a hard Brexit, while hard Remainers may accept nothing less than cancellation of the UK’s Article 50 notification. Between those two extremes, though, lie the more moderate Remainers and Leavers who may well be willing to support a compromise policy in the shape of EFTA / EEA membership.

The EEA option would, of course, mean accepting continued freedom of movement. This would be a problem for a section of the Leave camp. However, the BES data suggests that immigration was not the overriding issue for the majority of Leave voters. The EEA option would address most of the sovereignty concerns by removing the UK from EU political institutions, while simultaneously protecting the economy – the primary concern of many Remainers – via continued membership of the single market. While this option gives neither side their preferred solution, for most Leavers it would be preferable to remaining, and for most Remainers it would be preferable to hard Brexit. The median voter model suggests that this compromise solution may be one towards which moderate voters in both the Remain and Leave camps can gravitate in large enough numbers to form a majority.

That, at least, might have been true in 2016. Given the acrimony of the last three years, it may be that positions have hardened to an extent that makes compromise less likely. Even so, for the rational voter, the EEA option still represents a sensible compromise solution that is preferable to their respective worst-case scenarios. As such, it may be the most realistic way of finally settling the issue. A full Brexit is likely to leave the Remain camp campaigning for re-entry, while a cancellation of Article 50 would provoke enormous anger from Leavers. Either course of action would keep the issue festering for many years to come. A compromise solution acceptable to a majority of people in both camps might take the sting out of the dispute and finally allow British politics to move on.

Labour have, of course, proposed a customs union and a large degree of regulatory alignment. However, the party’s stance is highly confused, and also includes promises of a second referendum together with the possibility of negotiating a new deal then campaigning against it in that referendum. If the leadership had adopted a clear and unequivocal EEA position from the outset, the party might have been able to avoid alienating both Leave and Remain voters. In doing so, Labour might have been in a far stronger electoral position than appears to be the case at present.

 

References

Black, D. (1958). The Theory of Committees and Elections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

British Election Study (2016). ‘What mattered most to you when deciding how to vote in the EU referendum?’ Retrieved 18 November 2019, from http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-findings/what-mattered-most-to-you-when-deciding-how-to-vote-in-the-eu-referendum/#.Wo2S36jFLIW

Renewing the Centre?

by Paul Wetherly

Have recent events – notably the election (and re-election) of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party following the Conservative victory in the 2015 general election, leading to a surge in support for the party on the basis of the presentation of a left-wing manifesto ‘for the many, not the few’ in the 2017 election, and the 2016 vote to leave the EU leading to a ‘hard Brexit’ strategy being pursued by the Conservative government – revitalised British politics by breaking from the uninspiring centrist politics of the preceding period? Was ‘centrism’ a problem that needed to be solved? Or, on the contrary, is the problem that the main parties have vacated the centre ground of politics, creating an urgent need for the centre to be renewed? Is centrism the problem or the solution?

The politician who has most consistently argued that centrism is the solution is Tony Blair. Following the ‘New Labour’ victory in 1997, in 1998 Blair set out his ‘personal political philosophy’ in The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century. The Third Way is a ‘label for the new politics [of] the progressive centre-left’ and a ‘a modernised social democracy’. Back then the case for a centrist politics was made in terms of moving beyond the ‘old left’ and the ‘new right’, or the ‘two major political projects [that] have dominated politics in Britain and many other Western democracies – neo-liberalism and a highly statist brand of social democracy’. Twenty years later Blair is making the case for ‘renewing the centre’ all over again, only this time the problem is that the centre-ground has been vacated by ‘the Brexit-dominated Tory party and a hard-left Labour party’. These developments within the two main parties are closely bound up with the challenges presented by the rise of ‘outsiders’ (or ‘insurgents’) and ‘populists’. The EU referendum would certainly not have happened without the influence of ‘outsiders’ in the shape of UKIP and their populist anti-EU and anti-immigration politics. And Jeremy Corbyn came from nowhere as an outsider candidate to win the Labour leadership (though perhaps not a ‘true’ outsider). In order to examine centrist politics as the solution we need to ask: what is the problem that the offered solution is intended to solve?, is the solution feasible and desirable? and, what do we mean by the centre anyway?

The problem which centrism is intended to solve can be understood, first and foremost, as one of statecraft; that is, the problem of winning elections and governing effectively. This is expressed by Blair’s claim in 1996 that ‘A modern party to be successful . . . must be in the centre, speaking for the mainstream majority’. The implicit theory behind this claim is that the political attitudes of voters are arranged on the left-right spectrum in a normal distribution, with the majority gathered together on the ‘mainstream’ centre ground and dwindling minorities being encountered as you travel from the centre out towards the extremes of either left or right.

Blair’s position shifts uneasily between the impression that he feels comfortable standing on the centre-ground based on the conviction that centre-ground policies offer effective solutions to pressing problems in the modern world, and the impression that occupying the centre-ground involves an uncomfortable but necessary compromise in order to win support. In the latter view centrism recognises that there is often a trade-off between ideological purity or ‘principle’ and electoral support or ‘populism’ (in the sense of finding out what ideas and policies are popular with voters). As a populist strategy, occupying the centre ground is justified by the imperative of finding a position ‘that can get the support to win in order that you can do things for the people that desperately need help’ (Smith 2016).

The idea that the route to power runs through the centre ground because that route brings you in contact with the ‘mainstream majority’ has become something of a conventional wisdom after the electoral success of New Labour, being adopted by Cameron as the way back to power for the Conservatives. As recently as March 2018 former chancellor George Osborne, speaking with Blair, echoed the argument that ‘The centre ground was where general elections used to be fought and won .. [and] … that it was where many voters still remained’ (Coughlan 2018). In the French Presidential election in 2017 Macron ran as a self-styled centrist with the purpose of overcoming the division between left and right.

So much for the idea that occupying the centre ground is the solution. What should we make of it? First we need to be clear about what we mean by the centre. There are two conceptions of the centre that need to be distinguished: the ideological centre and the centre of debate. In ideological terms the centre is defined in relation to the left-right spectrum, as the space in between. In contrast, the centre of debate refers to those ideas that at any time tend to dominate and set the terms of political debate. The centre of debate might not correspond with the ideological centre.

It is generally recognised that a single left-right spectrum cannot capture the complexity of ideological argument, with the ‘market versus state’ economic conception of left-right politics being supplemented by a social or moral dimension ( eg see political compass for a version of this two-dimensional conception; also Wetherly 2017). The economic left-right conception can be seen, essentially, as originating from the dominant responses to the processes of modernisation in Europe, particularly those that Gamble summarises as the ‘bourgeois revolution’, the ‘three pillars’ of which were ‘capitalist economy, democratic polity, and scientific rationalism’ (Gamble 1981: 21). In this view, the dominant Enlightenment ideologies of the modern era are liberalism and socialism / communism. These traditions contest the nature of a capitalist economy and the role of the state. Thus the ideological centre consists of the space in between individualist, free-market, anti-statist liberalism and anti-capitalist, collectivist, statist socialism (though this conception is complicated by the anti-statist vision of communism that can be found in classical Marxism – see Wetherly 2017).

This centre ground can be seen as quite expansive, providing space for a meaningful debate between social liberalism and social democracy. In the postwar decades in Britain (viz. roughly from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s) this is what the centre ground meant and it has been argued that it provided a basis for consensus politics, i.e. it was also the centre of debate. During the 1970s this consensus broke down in the face of critiques from left and right in the context of mounting economic difficulties. If the mixed economy and welfare state were no longer working, the solutions, putting them simply, were either, on the left, more statism (e.g. public ownership, planning agreements etc.) and, on the right, to ‘roll back the state’ (e.g. privatisation, deregulation, etc.). It was the latter, neoliberal, position that provided the basis for a new form of statecraft in the guise of ‘Thatcherism’ (and Reaganism in the US), and neoliberalism  arguably still dominates political debate nearly forty years later (though some critics see signs that the era of neoliberalism is coming to an end).

This conception of the ideological centre and brief sketch of postwar British politics enables us to view Blair’s advocacy of occupying the centre ground in a critical light. First, if the postwar Keynesian Welfare State formed the basis of political consensus and the centre of debate, this should not be seen as where the mainstream majority had always gathered. Rather, it constituted a political shift from the political ideas that dominated British politics in the first half of the 20th century – a shift to the left. It can be seen as a synthesis of two trends: a shift within liberalism to social liberalism in order to save capitalism from itself through reform, and the pressure of the labour movement in the form of a social democratic reformist brand of socialism, epitomised by the 1945 landslide Labour victory.

Second, the centrist consensus broke down because the Keynesian welfare model of reformed capitalism entered into crisis in the 1970s with the end of the long postwar economic boom, to be replaced by ‘stagflation’ (the combination, for which the Keynesian toolkit seemed not to have a fix, of high inflation with economic recession and high unemployment).

Third, Thatcherism succeeded not by occupying the centre ground but by seeking to challenge and overturn the central elements of the centrist postwar politics. For Thatcherism, centrism was definitely not the solution but the problem, to be solved by a shift to the right – characterised in Hall’s famous analysis as ‘the great moving right show’.

Fourth, to the extent that Thatcherism was successful in discrediting the postwar settlement (which was not entirely) and building a new consensus around individualism, anti-statism and other right wing themes (again not entirely), this posed an electoral dilemma for the Labour party. Blair’s strategy of occupying the centre ground was definitely not a return to postwar social democracy, now characterised as the ‘old left’. It was, in that sense, a repudiation of the centre. And although it is simplistic to characterise New Labour and the third way simply as a continuation of neoliberalism, it is fair to say that it represented a significant adjustment to Thatchersim. In other words, Thatcherism had succeeded in shifting the centre of debate to the right.

Thus the strategy of occupying the centre ground is ambiguous between the ideological centre and the centre of debate. In practice, Blair’s strategy was populist in the sense of adjusting to the preferences of voters, in that it shifted right in response to what it perceived to be the new centre of debate established by the ideological success of Thatcherism. On the face of it, Blair became Labour’s most successful prime minister in electoral terms on the strength of this strategy. But there are some basic problems, some of which have become manifest in recent years. The strategy highlights the distinction (and dilemma) between ‘preference accommodating’ versus ‘preference shaping’ strategies. The former, Blairite, approach has the obvious disadvantage that it allows ideological opponents to shape voter preferences and shift the centre of debate. Second, the strategy might prove to be counter-productive in electoral terms as voters may lose trust in politicians whom they see as lacking conviction and not saying what they believe. Third, when both main parties converge on the centre ground this narrows the political choice offered to voters and can therefore contribute to disillusionment. Worse, when the ‘centrist’ policies on which the parties converge fail to ‘do things for the people that desperately need help’ this can fuel the anger and anti-politics that has become a notable feature of politics in Britain and elsewhere in recent years.

Blair, T. (1998) ‘New politics for the new century’, The Independent, 21 September. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/new-politics-for-the-new-century-1199625.html

Brown, C. (1996) ‘Blair: We’re centre party now’, The Independent, 12 April. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/blair-were-centre-party-now-1304370.html

Coughlan, S. (2018) ‘Osborne and Blair: ‘Gap in centre politics’’, BBC, 18 March. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-43448199

Smith, D. (2016) ‘Tony Blair admits he is baffled by rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn’, The Guardian, 23 February. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/feb/23/tony-blair-bernie-sanders-jeremy-corbyn

Weaver, M. (2018) ‘Tony Blair calls for new leadership from ‘strong progressive centre’’, The Guardian, 10 April. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/apr/10/tony-blair-new-leadership-strong-progressive-centre-labour-conservative-party

Wetherly, P. (ed.) (2017) Political Ideologies, Oxford University Press.