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Friday, 11 October 2019

Dreary Steeples

Ahead of the publication of their latest book, Electoral Shocks: The Volatile Voter in a Turbulent World, the British Election Study presented their key findings to the press this week. But what caught the attention of the fourth estate was not the volatility of the last decade but the suggestion that British politics has become extreme. As Lewis Goodall of Sky News put it in a tweet, summarising the words of Professor Geoff Evans: "British politics is basically now Northern Ireland politics. It’s moved away from 90s centrism, electoral incentives no longer at the centre but at the extremes. Centre parties or parties which adopt compromise positions get crushed and extremist parties rewarded." The idea that British politics is being remade in the image of the sectarian division of Northern Ireland is crass and misleading. That this is an interpretation of a government-funded body whose very name disregards Ireland is not the least of the ironies.

The BES's central claim is that we face the "Most volatile British electorate in modern times", which is simply the psephological equivalent of "It's up for grabs now". Of course, volatility is not how most people would characterise the entrenched politics of Northern Ireland. You could argue that the supplanting of the UUP and SDLP by the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively marked a move towards the extremes, but a more realistic assessment is that this was actually a move towards the centre: away from the gun and towards the ballot-box. So what we have here are two claims: that the electorate is more promiscuous in its preferences and that it is attracted to more extreme positions, leading to established parties shifting away from the centre and/or the emergence of new parties on their outer flank. Northern Ireland provides a questionable metaphor for the latter, but none whatsoever for the former.

According to Professor Edward Fieldhouse: "Given the UK's recent history of vote switching and the unpredictability of the current climate, it would be unwise for any political party or commentator to presume how voters will behave in a general election, particularly in the middle of an electoral shock. But we do expect to see big shifts defined largely by Brexit". The contradiction in this statement between the unpredictability of the electorate and the certainty of the Brexit factor is obvious, but it points to what is really being argued here: that Brexit has deranged politics, eroding party loyalties and encouraging the electorate to reform itself along different lines reflecting "values" or some notional "culture war" rather than material interest. This has been a near-constant theme of centrist political commentary over the last two years, hence the warm reception of the BES presentation this week.


The BES sees Brexit as one of five "electoral shocks" that have affected UK politics since 2010, the others being immigration and the rise of UKIP, the 2008 crash, the 2010-15 coalition and the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. But characterising these as shocks, with the implication that they were unforeseen, is dubious. Immigration has been an issue since the 1960s, though its impact on voting has been marginal at best; the 2008 crash was the culmination of thirty years of financialisation, but it didn't reconfigure the political landscape; the Liberal Democrats' volatility between 2010 and 2015, far from being unusual, echoed similar third party yo-yoing at the polls in the 1970s and 80s; and Labour had been hollowed-out in Scotland well before the electoral slump of 2015. Brexit itself is the result of a festering sore in the Conservative Party that dates back to Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech in 1988. This isn't volatility so much as routine political churn.

In terms of longer history, the BES records only two similar periods of voter promiscuity, in 1918 and 1931, though it is questionable whether these can be taken as evidence of volatility given that the first was under a radically expanded franchise and both were won by contingent coalitions that temporarily coalesced the political centre. As subsequent events would show, the basic division between left and right that was introduced by universal suffrage remained in place. The argument for the period since 2010 is that these "shocks" have gradually weakened party identities leading to the current volatile state. An assumption here is that the reversion to the traditional duopoly in 2017, when the Conservatives and Labour combined got over 82% of the vote, does not mark a return to electoral stability, but history would suggest otherwise.

Inevitably, the panjandrums of liberalism have not been slow to spot an opportunity, with Martin Kettle particularly taken by Geoff Evans's question, "Could the Liberal Democrats be the Sinn Féin of all this?". I think it's safe to say that the answer to that is "No". Kettle's take on the "Ulsterisation of British politics" is that Brexit has created two electorates: "But if Brexit is reshaping the electoral battle, it is in reality two separate battles. The Tories and the Brexit party are battling for leave voters, while Labour, the Lib Dems, Greens and nationalists battle for remainers. Very few voters sit in the middle of the road on Brexit or the cultural issues that are so closely associated with it". That Labour actually does sit in the middle of the road on Brexit, and has been loudly criticised by Kettle and many others for that very reason, doesn't seem to give him pause for thought. Nor does he seem bothered that promoting the idea of a new political alignment based on leave versus remain, or proxies such as "open" and "closed", is echoing Nigel Farage.


There is clearly a deeper rationale at work here. It is the idea that the political division between capital and labour is a distraction from the real social and cultural antagonism between progress and conservatism. Though many liberals have made the claim that the capital/labour division is outmoded, they have been making exactly the same claim since the second half of the nineteenth century when the electoral implications of this division became clear. As universal suffrage formalised this division after the Great War, marginalising the old Liberal party in the process, the critique became a polite way of deprecating democracy. Since then, liberals have repeatedly claimed to see the tectonic plates of politics shifting in their favour as populations "became more liberal" under the delightful duress of globalised capitalism. In the political sphere, this led in the 1990s to the post-democracy of managerialist parties and an equanimity in the face of declining voter participation. That the return of politics is regarded as a "shock" tells you how tenacious this anti-democratic mentality is.

As Kettle notes, "Only the Labour party acts as if the election will be about more traditional issues". The Labour leadership is surely right to do so. All the polling suggests that voters are both tired of Brexit and increasingly engaged with other issues, from wages and housing to crime and climate change. As Stephen Bush separately noted, "They think that far from representing a new fissure, the apparent divide over age and education is in fact one driven by the new contours of class in Britain. A socially liberal graduate renting a flat lacks capital or security of tenure – while a socially authoritarian pensioner, living in his or her own home or a council house, has at least one of those, and possibly both". Depending on what happens over the next few weeks, and assuming a general election is going to happen within the next few months, the vote may be largely about Brexit or the topic could have plummeted to a status similar to foreign policy. I suspect it is more likely to be the latter, not least because no party other than the Liberal Democrats wants the election to be a de facto second referendum.

To a degree, the reformation of politics in "culture war" terms is a self-fulfilling prophecy, which probably explains much of the attraction for liberals. The change seen between the 2015 and 2017 general election results was partly down to the more pronounced authoritarian and progressive cues of the main parties, which helped re-establish the sharp division between the Conservatives and Labour in the minds of the electorate. This rather than Brexit "identities" appears to have revived the two-party duopoly after the centrism of the New Labour and Cameron years. What this in turn suggests is that Brexit, and whatever collection of attitudes and values it stands proxy for, will simply be overlaid onto the existing political formation. Ultimately, the better parallel to make with Northern Ireland is that while faces come and go and attitudes evolve, the underlying political division remains stable. As Winston Churchill said in a different context, "The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again".

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