Monday, 22 January 2018

Polarisation and Class

In a recent tweet, Matthew Goodwin suggested that a YouGov survey on Brexit sentiment indicated a "polarised Britain". It's not evident that the data show any such thing, not least because attitudes to Brexit clearly exist on a spectrum, which raises the question of what a British political scientist might mean by this term. The concept of political polarisation takes two forms: an increase in the policy differences (and thus "distance") between the two main parties and a greater degree of party identification and mutual dislike (i.e. partisanship) among supporters. These are not the same thing, and can even move in opposite directions, though the one may influence the other. In practical terms, polarisation at the party level reduces the likelihood of policy cooperation. The recent US government shutdown is taken as evidence of polarisation between Republicans and Democrats, while the current debate within Germany's SPD over a "grand coalition" with the CDU/CSU is taken as evidence of a less polarised polity. Both the "culture wars" in the US and the return to a straight two-party fight in the UK have been interpreted as growing polarisation within the electorate, though it could be argued that both actually reflect greater polarisation at the party level.

In the field of political science, polarisation has predominantly been seen through the lens of American experience and its modern incidence is usually traced back to the realignment that followed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when conservative Southern Democrats started to gravitate towards the Republican Party and the latter's liberal tradition, then embodied by Nelson Rockefeller, withered away. In effect, this process sorted voters into more clearly defined liberal and conservative camps, which in turn encouraged the parties to adopt more ideologically consistent positions over and above the covert appeals to race embodied in Nixon's Southern Strategy and his invocation of the "silent majority". This means that polarisation has been a persistent feature of the neoliberal era. That might appear paradoxical in view of the emergence of the Washington Consensus, but it might also suggest that polarisation, particularly around issues of values and identity, has been a compensation for a lack of real disagreement elsewhere, which in turn explains the increasing use of rhetorical tropes such as "tribalism" in its framing.

In contrast, the story of the UK was presented from the late-80s onwards as the decline of tribalism, both in the sense of socio-economic group identification and party affiliation. This reflects the greater association of political tribalism with socio-economic class in Britain. As class was marginalised ("We're all middle class now", as John Prescott once said), the use of tribalism as both an analytic metaphor and a rhetorical trope declined, increasingly replaced with technocratic appeals to "what works". Conventional British wisdom from the 90s onwards was that elections were won from the centre, which meant that polarisation had less utility in British political analysis than it did in the American equivalent. The recent revival of the term is largely the work of centrists aiming either to clear an ideological space for a new "moderate" party formation or to encourage a repeat of New Labour's shift to the right. A rider to this has been the insistence that Brexit shows that the traditional dividing line of socio-economic class is fading and being replaced by a new division centred on cultural values ("open" vs "closed") and demography (old vs young). In other words, polarisation may be on the increase but it has nothing to do with class.

Goodwin shares the centrist view that the British political landscape changed in the 1990s, but rather than seeing this as the triumph of technocratic managerialism over special interests, he casts it more as the replacement of a socio-economic class cleavage by one centred on "cultural" values, such as a dislike of immigration and gay marriage, and thus comparable to US developments. This goes further than the idea of a post-material politics to ascribe predominantly reactionary values to the working class. In Goodwin's reading, the change manifested itself at the political level first in the limited success of the BNP and then in the growth of UKIP, as described in Revolt on the Right, which he co-authored with Rob Ford. This interpretation was amplified by centrists who stressed the tension within the Labour Party between non-metropolitan traditionalists (Northern MPs, Blue Labour etc) and a cosmopolitan, progressive elite. Though this has always been part of Labour's makeup, deindustrialisation and the post-material turn were expected to (finally) cause a rupture, which would manifest itself in the "traditional white working class" flocking to the Tories in 2017. In the event, it didn't work out that way, leading to Goodwin having to eat a page out of his book on Brexit live on TV.

The return of traditional two-party politics in the UK is a reversion to the historic norm, but much of the analysis since June last year has described it as an increase in polarisation, despite no real evidence that voters have changed their opinions or that they have become more partisan. If anything, opinion polling on policies and attitudes has confirmed that voters have largely held the same opinions for years, for example consistently favouring nationalisation of public service providers and being mistrustful of big business. What has actually changed is that the subjects of opinion polls and focus groups have broadened out from the narrow obsession with leadership and electability that dominated political coverage from the mid-90s onwards, reflecting the greater prominence of substantive policy debate since 2008. In retrospect, Labour's failure in 2015 looks to have been the result of timidity, both in its reluctance to seize the policy initiative (e.g. its acceptance of the Tories' deficit narrative) and in its hesitation in dropping the superficial signalling that had marked the previous two decades (those immigration mugs and the "Edstone").

A stronger argument can be made for an increase in polarisation at the party level over the last couple of years, for two reasons. First, Labour's shift under Corbyn to a politics that is both policy-led and recognisably within the tradition of postwar social democracy has served to define a credible alternative to neoliberal orthodoxy. Second, the Tories' obligation to own Brexit has required them to give a more nationalist inflection to neoliberalism, hence the halting gestures towards economic justice and social responsibility. Though it proved to be a disaster in many ways, the Conservatives' 2017 manifesto was significant for its emphasis on policies, however poorly thought through some of them were. The schizophrenia of the Tory campaign, caught between the vacuity of "strong and stable" and the buttonholing of the manifesto, has already become legendary, but we shouldn't allow this to be framed by Tory apologists like Tim Shipman as a matter of personality clashes or technical misjudgements. This was a party in transition from the glossy leadership of the Blair/Cameron era to the new policy seriousness, and as such the Tories in 2017 were not that dissimilar to Labour in 2015.

Though support is coalescing around the two dominant parties to the exclusion of others (though not as much as in the 1950s), this isn't polarisation except in a narrow technical sense. Rather than polarised, a better interpretation is that Britain is more politically engaged than it has been for a while - probably since 1997 - and that the two main parties are responding to this by defining clear policy differences, for example over nationalisation, rather than by trying to pitch a "best price" for an essentially common offering. Labour has made the most progress in this regard, which in part has been due to its careful ambiguity over Brexit, while the Tories look like they will struggle to catch-up until Brexit can be consigned to the out-tray. Assuming that the smaller parties maintain a hardcore of support (though the implosion of UKIP looks increasingly likely), the next general election will probably come down to swing voters, that is people who cast their ballot in response to specific policy preferences and with an emphasis on material concerns, such as housing, public services and wages.

Unless you imagine these individuals as manic, pinballing from one extreme to another, this suggests that talk of a polarised Britain, or indeed of a post-material politics, is exaggerated. In the case of Matthew Goodwin, this looks like an attempt to preserve the idea of a cultural cleavage that supersedes class interests. This shouldn't come as a surprise from someone who has built a career on the twin ideas that values are now politically dominant and that this provides a vector for the far-right to enter the political mainstream. A return to material or class politics marginalises the far-right as a subject of academic interest. What is more surprising, or perhaps just dispiriting, is that centrists have decided to pursue a similar strategy of exaggerating polarisation in order to delegitimise Labour's shift under Corbyn. In so doing they are reinforcing the Goodwinian narrative and thus the idea that the electorally decisive bloc is made up of Northern, working-class reactionaries. Just as the instrumental use of polarisation by parties under neoliberal hegemony in the US led to the election of Donald Trump, so the same dynamic in Britain risks preserving the dishonest discourse of "legitimate concerns" that should die a death with UKIP.

1 comment:

  1. Herbie Destroys the Environment23 January 2018 at 17:44

    I think after a major economic event, such as the 2007 blip/crash, polarisation to some extent is inevitable between those that cling to the status quo and those that cling lightly to the status quo. The polarisation goes no further than this. Every capitalist society almost without exception has so called polarisation between centre left and centre right with a few at the extremes. Polarisation is the norm but it is a superficial polarisation. And on both sides passive consumerism holds sway.

    I would say capitalism is creeping toward a technocratic authoritarianism; it’s the natural end result of neo liberalism, along with extreme inequality (a less superficial polarisation!).

    Brexit, after we factor out the irrelevancies, was a racist reaction pure and simple from a population infected by a toxic media over many decades. It was a one off vote were the level of debate never got above pathetic and in essence the vote asked the following question, do you want dark skinned people walking down your street yes or no? Normal politics in less binary than this. The only lesson here is never give idiots idiotic questions.

    I think it is correct to play down class and play up ‘culture’, we have the elites and under them a mass of passive consumers digesting every bit of shit thrown at them, and like some bile black hole now and again something will get spat back out.

    If Britain is becoming more politically engaged nothing much will come of it given current levels of consciousness. Or if something does come of it we will simply have one top down solution as opposed to another.

    When there is an increase in crime, homelessness, substance abuse, reliance on food banks, decline in services etc manic is an understandable reaction, manic from those on the receiving end and manic from those happy it is happening to someone else.

    Austerity is a polarisation project aimed at the most vulnerable with the intention of keeping everyone else by their masters side. Seems to have worked from where I stand.

    But we will see what Corbyn brings, well maybe.