Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Eastleigh Paradox

The Easterlin Paradox (which sounds like what used to be known as a fat airport book) is the observation that average happiness levels in a society do not correlate with GDP. Rich people tend to be happier than poor people, but rich countries are not happier in aggregate than poor ones, assuming the latter are not failed states incapable of meeting basic needs. The standard explanation for this is that happiness is broadly a function of relative status. Apart from the transnational elite, this means we assess our happiness by comparison to our fellow citizens. It has obvious ideological ramifications, hence its general acceptance on the left (there's more to life than growth) and rejection on the right (wealth creation benefits everyone).

There are two apparent paradoxes revealed in the analysis of the Eastleigh by-election, a near-homophone that got me thinking about Easterlin. The first is that UKIP's relative success depended as much on attracting ostensibly pro-EU LibDems to their anti-EU platform as much as Tory eurosceptics. Both coalition parties lost 14% of the vote, relative to the 2010 general election, while UKIP gained 24%. The suspicion that the LibDem defectors went to the Tories (a rather improbable protest given that both parties share government, though there was some movement in both directions) and that the Tories then passed on 1 in 4 voters to UKIP is allayed by the post-vote polling. UKIP actually gained slightly more defectors directly from the LibDems. This hints that beneath the LibDem beard and cable-knit sweater there lurks a less attractive underbelly.

The suggestion that this was an anti-coalition protest vote doesn't stack up unless you can explain why UKIP was preferred over Labour, whose vote share didn't change. "A plague on all their houses" is a possible explanation, but the idea that principled LibDem voters, appalled at the coalition government's track record, decided to throw votes at an anti-EU and xenophobic party rather than anodyne "One Nation" Labour seems unlikely. It also needs to be noted that the constituency is nowhere near the front line of those bearing the brunt of austerity, and that the coalition parties together polled 57% of the vote, so "kick the bums out" doesn't really add up either. A more credible explanation is that the LibDem's pavement politics have been successful in mobilising centre-right voters over the years, which is certainly supported by their dominance of the local council in an affluent part of the country, and that the protest is more a generalised one mixing mild dissatisfaction with the council (planning blight), mild dissatisfaction with the coalition (Osborne's budget), and a general irritation with the established parties (expenses, lying, groping).

This feeds into my own pet theory that the LibDems are actually a more fragile coalition than either Labour or the Tories. Signature policies, such as localism, the environment and civil liberties, have served to paper over the cracks by allowing Orange-bookers, nonconformists and the parochial to find common ground. I fully expect the LibDems to perform reasonably well in the South in 2015 but be slaughtered in the North where the government's obvious pro-South bias (untempered by the LibDems) won't be forgotten. The result may be a shift towards a more neoliberal and libertarian LibDem party, along the lines typically found on the continent. Lloyd George will finally be buried.

The second paradox is that immigration was the single most important issue for a majority of UKIP voters (59%), well ahead of the EU (33%), and was one of the top issues for voters overall (23%), despite the constituency being 97% native English speaking and not having any significant local tensions that could be related to immigration. Of course, "immigration" here is just a code, but a code for what? I doubt this is simple racism for most voters. While it is true that racists tend to have very little interaction with people from a different ethnic background (they avoid them, after all), and that their worldview tends to be heavily influenced by second-hand prejudice, from the snidery of the Daily Mail and Express to the bigotry of online forums, it seems unlikely that Eastleigh has an unusually high concentration of them. I suspect that "immigration" is a handy catch-all for anything and everything that threatens the settled order, from teenage Goths to Polish shops and from married gays to Romanian Gypsies. This is Chesteron's people of England speaking.

The connection between Eastleigh and Easterlin is the point that relative prosperity has little bearing on happiness. In a relatively well-off constituency, with an apparently effective local council, people still want to tell you how bloody angry they are about ... oh, I dunno, something or other.

1 comment:

  1. I think you are right that the Liberals are an unstable coalition. I argued that some time ago, based on their Opportunism. Actually they are probably less so today than they used to be, because some of their Left-wing will already have defected to Labour. They will get crushed in the North, but I suspect in the South too.

    The polling suggests most of UKIP's vote will go to the Tories in a General Election, which would see them home comfortably in what is one of the Liberals safest seats.

    I don't see the fact that UKIP picked up Lib Dem votes as at all contradictory either. In the north Liberal Opportunism sees them adopt a more social democratic position to win over the liberal middle class, and upper working working class votes disaffected from what are frequently bureaucratic Labour administrations. In the South, the same Opportunism sees them try to win middle class votes from the reactionary middle classes. These are the same reactionary middle classes that provide support for the Tories. In places like Eastleigh they are heavily represented.