Friday, 7 June 2019

Political Geography

Rob Ford recently asked the question, "Is British politics on the brink of a Brexit realignment?" Though there have been plenty of similar think-pieces over the last couple of years, the speculation has reached a peak with the recent local and European Parliament elections in which the two main parties suffered at the hands of smaller parties for the first time since, well, the last set of elections. Yesterday's Peterborough by-election (in which the incumbent party held the seat - the very definition of a non-event) turned the dial up to 11, being billed in advance as the moment when "our two-party system suddenly went bankrupt". The Brexit realignment thesis assumes a wider sociology in which values have taken over from material interests, but there is actually little evidence that a shift is underway. Such an interpretation is understandable coming from a centrist commentariat that remains enamoured by the idea of Labour's eclipse, but it's more surprising when it comes from political scientists who know that a political dispute can be momentous without being constitutive. That, after all, was the lesson of the EEC referendum in 1975, when the temporary division into "in" and "out" alliances did not prefigure the 1979 general election.

The last great realignment occurred in the early twentieth century when universal suffrage brought an entire class into politics, leading to Labour's replacement of the Liberals as the progressive standard-bearer. Views hadn't changed, the electoral system had. There is nothing like that social watershed in play now, and every reason to be sceptical that the two main parties have had their day. What we are probably witnessing is less a realignment than a recomposition, which is something that all parties periodically go through. In other words, more along the lines of the radical ideological shifts that the Conservative party undertook in the late-70s and Labour undertook in the mid-90s. In fact, at the level of ideology, the current evolution may be much more modest, despite the apocalyptic tone of the reporting. What may be unusual is that both main parties are recomposing at the same time, which suggests that they are reacting to independent factors rather than just responding to each other's moves.

Ford, along with Matthew Goodwin, has been a chief proponent of the idea that politics is shifting from economic interest (or class) to culture (or identity). This anti-materialist analysis has been around as long as the materialist view of history, and its expansion from the political right to the centre is by no means a novel development, but it is true to say that Brexit has seen the centre fully embrace the "two tribes" mentality. This has led to a number of ironies, such as that advocates of electoral reform have turned into majoritarians, demanding the ultimate first past the post poll in the form of a second referendum, while erstwhile pluralists have insisted that there can be no compromise and that attempting to bridge the divide is futile. It has also led to a hysterical focus on virtue in which terms such as loyalty and integrity have been mangled beyond recognition (defectors condemning defections, sabotage excused as dissent). These are all symptoms of a centrism that has lost its bearings since 2008 and is now adopting a rightist worldview - them and us - in a vain attempt to "resist" the right.

Ford's thesis has two parts. First, that "Voters' tribal attachments to the traditional parties have been eroding for decades, and the newcomers are mobilising deep divides in the electorate — over education, identity, diversity — that have been building for a long time". The second part is the belief that a tipping-point can arise in a first-past-the-post electoral system, allowing a new party to replace an old one if it is seen as a credible option: "Think of it as the electoral 'Tinkerbell effect' — if people believe new parties can win, then that belief becomes self-fulfilling. If people cease to believe the old parties are unbeatable, they become beatable." The second part of the thesis was thoroughly tested by the SDP in the 1980s. They established credibility with a number of by-election wins and secured 25% of the vote in the 1983 general election as part of the Alliance with the Liberals, but their support was spread too thinly to translate into a proportionate number of seats and thereafter they faded away until their absorption by the older party.

The corollary of this was the SNP's more recent success in Scotland, which Ford characterises as the "annihilation" of Labour, where it benefited from an even but preponderant spread in votes. This winner-takes-all dynamic obscures both the volatility of the SNP vote and the resilience of Labour's. The former almost trebled between 2010 and 2015 (from 0.5 to 1.5 million), largely on the back of the "heroic failure" of the 2014 independence referendum, but then lost a third of its votes in 2017 (down to just under 1.0 million). Labour's collapse between 2010 and 2015 was also a third of its vote (from 1.0 to 0.7 million). In 2017 it maintained its vote but picked up more seats because of its relative concentration and the erosion of the SNP vote by the Tories. That the latter's improvement from 0.4 to 0.7 million (40k ahead of Labour) between 2015 and 2017 was presented as a triumph by the media tells you more about the media than it does about seismic shifts in the Scottish body politic.

The "Tinkerbell effect" is a theory that allows Ford to have it both ways. He can cast an outlier as the eruption of an underlying trend and also dismiss any evidence of a reversion to the mean as the residual bias of the electoral system, so the inconvenient evidence of 2017, when the two main parties posted their highest combined share since 1970, can safely be ignored. Ford's wishful-thinking was most evident in his preview of this week's ballot, which also had the bad luck to appear the day before Change UK split asunder: "It is a remarkable coincidence that, at the very moment that two new parties are making a credible bid to break Britain’s long political duopoly, a by-election is being held. If one or both of the new challengers can overhaul the big two in Peterborough on Thursday, it may begin a feedback loop, with success reinforcing credibility, which in turn begets further success."

In the event, Change UK didn't bother the scorers and the Liberal Democrats reverted to their long-running national poll average after the giddy heights of the European Parliament elections. While Labour lost vote share, it retained the seat (which it was already fortunate to win in 2017) because of the collapse of the Conservative vote under pressure from the Brexit party. Farage's advance certainly spells bad news for the Tories, but less because of Brexit than because a single-issue party highlights the intellectual void that is modern conservatism. Beyond quitting the EU, what do the Tories now stand for? The superficially plausible arguments of Thatcherite neoliberalism, that deregulation and marketisation would lead to a healthy economy and opportunity for all, had lost their power by the millennium and were shown to be rank hypocrisy by 2008. Since then, the Tories have allowed Europe to fill the void while their attempt to build a broader consensus around economic management has led to the cul-de-sac of austerity. That the Brexit party has no platform other than hard Brexit isn't cunning tactics by Farage, just a recognition that he doesn't need more than this to successfully undermine the Conservatives.

This takes us back to the first part of Ford's thesis, that voters are now motivated more by identity and cultural values than they are by material interest, and that this is dissolving the electoral coalitions of the traditional parties of the left and right. The assumption is that there is a potential alliance of the reactionary fractions of the working and middle classes on the one hand and of the progressive fractions of those same classes on the other. In fact, these new alliances look very much like the existing voter coalitions. What the realignment thesis actually imagines is a recomposition that produces a liberal-conservative duopoly in which the left is marginalised and the right reverts to a pre-Thatcherite purity. Regardless of the salience of culture or the material to voters, what this model fails to factor in is the importance of geography, beyond a tendency to use terms like "Northern" as a proxy for supposedly homogenous views or characterise areas like Peterborough as "leave territory". Both reactionaries and progressives are to be found across the country, and where there is a disproportion (e.g. the attraction of progressives to cities) it tends to map to existing party strengths and thus reinforces the traditional duopoly. The message from electoral history is that an insurgent party can only hope to displace one of the main incumbents if it can muster a resilient core of voters concentrated by geography.

Labour supplanted the Liberals because it was the party of the urban working class. The Tories have been the longest-lasting major party because they have dominated rural areas. It is possible that the Greens or Liberal Democrats could erode Labour's share of middle-class progressives, but this is unlikely to cause it to lose its urban seats where the vote is predominantly working class. The Liberals can only break through if the poorest fifth of the population is disenfranchised. It is possible that the Brexit party could split the Conservative vote in a general election, but this would probably not be sufficiently concentrated to allow the new party to take more than a handful of seats (similar to the performance of UKIP in 2015). The more likely benificiaries in most constituencies would be whoever came second to the Tories in 2017. The idea that the future electoral map will be defined by Brexit is only likely to be true if a general election is fought on the issue of no-deal, and should that happen then the division will almost certainly be along traditional party lines, with Labour (de facto) backing remain. Brexit isn't realigning British politics, but it is recomposing the Conservative party.


  1. «sociology in which values have taken over from material interests»

    That's the usual hope of right-wingers: that the gullible have-nots can be distracted from the struggle to be less poor by struggle instead for their identity, because "we are all middle class now". But while the middle rentier class has indeed expanded (but it may be shrinking) there are still many who have economic issues.

    «a political dispute can be momentous without being constitutive. That, after all, was the lesson of the EEC referendum in 1975, when the temporary division into "in" and "out" alliances did not prefigure the 1979 general election.»

    Even more recently in june 2017 both Conservative and Labour "Remainers" obviously voted for Conservatives and Labour.

    «The last great realignment occurred in the early twentieth century when universal suffrage»

    There was another one in 1970s and 1980s with equally large consequences, where Labour was superseded by New Labour, and the Conservatives turned more whiggish: the creation of a much larger middle class of have-somethings, people who thanks to the good wages and pensions and cheap housing won by trade unions and Labour then came to regard themselves as share or residential property rentiers and voted for higher asset prices through leverage and focused subsidies.

    The rise of mass rentierism has led to a considerable loss of control by big business and big landowners over the Conservatives, and the eclipse of Labour into New Labour.

    That was not a recomposition, but a realignment: blarism and cameronism were fundamentally outside the parties they found themselves in.

    But it was perhaps a temporary realignment: the newly minted mass rentiers became too greedy and their number is constantly shrinking.

    There has been another slower and far bigger change, that many women have replaced sons with securities and property as retirement assets, and that has been part of the switch to mass rentierism, and it has had a significant political impact, but not as big and notable as the transformation of a large part of the working and middle class into petty rentiers.

  2. Ben Philliskirk9 June 2019 at 14:12

    Since I can't believe that political scientists have only just discovered the existence of working-class Tories and middle-class socialists, I can only assume that the kind of 'analysis' peddled at the moment is either a deliberate attempt to desperately boost the 'centre', or a gross simplification or distortion for the purposes of 'entertainment' (like most of the BBC's political coverage).