Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Plato on Wearside

In The Republic, Plato had two fundamental arguments against democracy. The first was that the mass of the people lacked the expertise to direct the state (sections 488a-e). The analogy he used was a "ship of fools" whose course could not be decided upon by a squabbling crew. It needed a navigator (a philosopher) to provide direction to a captain (the ruler) if the ship were not to founder. The choice of metaphor owed much to Plato's irritation that philosophers were dismissed as "star-gazers" when that was the precise skill required of a navigator. The second argument was that responding to the people's wishes ignored what was ultimately good (493a-c). The analogy he used was taming a wild beast by satisfying its desires, the "tamers" being populist politicians adept at winning elections but lacking in real judgement. These two fundamental criticisms - that the people lack technical competence (i.e. virtue/excellence) and that they cannot know what is best for themselves (i.e. the good) - underpin much of anti-democratic theory down the centuries.

Far from dying out as democracy has advanced over the last 100 years, Plato's attitudes continue to colour public discourse. This is apparent not only in the growth of a technocratic political and media class that seeks to separate politics from the people, but in the insistence on contingent ignorance as fundamental to the human condition. Opinion polls, the quantified self, the media focus on health and diet, and the spread of self-help and pop-psychology all reinforce the idea that we must treat ourselves as objects for inspection and control. We don't know who we are or what we really, really want, so must seek guidance. It is no coincidence that as politics has been drained from the economic sphere, corporate ideology has become more "Platonic", emphasising the visionary and virtuous CEO, the technical mysteries of finance and a style of personnel management that denies the ability of workers to articulate their own interests. We are living in an era that distrusts democracy outside of the tightly-controlled theatre of TV popularity contests.

It should therefore come as no surprise that the initial reaction to the EU referendum result was heavily tinged with contempt for "their" stupidity, selfishness and vandalism, which in its unthinking bigotry is as bad as Nigel Farage claiming a victory for "decent people". It cannot be stressed enough that while the agents of reaction come from the right, the popular advance of authoritarianism depends on the political centre becoming disillusioned with democracy, both in terms of its technical limitations and the perversity of the people. I'm not suggesting that a junta is imminent in the UK, though we can expect both genuine Fascists and casual bigots to be emboldened by the result, but that we shouldn't be shocked if centrist politicians start to demand a state of exception, as appears to be the case with the Parliamentary Labour Party. In justifying the denial of legitimacy to a popular vote, whether a national referendum last week or a party leadership contest last September, a variety of claims will be deployed, many of which bear the imprint of Plato's thought.

The victory for leave has been explained through a number of demographic dimensions familiar from the simplistic sociology employed by the media. For many this is the latest installment in the war of the generations, with baby-boomers trashing the future of their grandchildren. Though there is a correlation with age, this tells us little. Older voters are generally more xenophobic and nostalgic, but we also know that better-off areas with relatively few youngsters, such as Chiltern and Winchester, voted remain. We also know that the cutover point appears to have been closer to 45 than 65, suggesting that the pivotal voters may be parents with kids in their teens or early twenties rather than OAPs. This hasn't stopped Remainers bitterly complaining about selfish coffin-dodgers or Leavers sneering at lazy students. Articles about family rifts reinforce Plato's idea that democracy fosters avoidable antagonism. In reality, falling out with your parents is a micro-drama of social progress. The alternative is the Burkean tyranny of the past, which is no better than a tyranny of the future that denies the vote to oldies on the grounds that they won't have to live with the consequences.

The trope of generational inequality has often been used to obscure class differences, so perhaps the referendum is best understood as the working class revolt that The Guardian has regularly forecast (Plato's "beast" stirs), but this requires dismissing the pro-EU working class of Scotland and Northern Ireland as exceptional. What the media can't so easily ignore is that London, which has turned increasingly "red" in recent years with the growth in its working class population in the outer boroughs, broke 60/40 for remain. The leave vote increases as you head beyond the capital, with the balance flipping around places like Epping Forest, Bexley and Reigate. These are not working class redoubts. Nationally, Labour voters went 2:1 for remain, and there aren't enough middle class lefties to explain that away. The liberal media's failure to find lots of pro-remain working class voices was due to a lack of interest in finding them. While there is a class correlation with the result, this can largely be explained by working class Tories. You don't have to assume that UKIP is supplanting Labour.

Paralleling the class analysis (and treating class in cultural and geographic terms), is the claim that "the North outvoted the South". Some commentators have seen this as the fruit of a decade of austerity, while others source the problem back to Thatcher and the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. Again, this is substantially true, but the focus on "damaged" communities absolves others of responsibility. The vote isn't really a story of history's losers becoming accidental winners (a story in turn being undermined by the meme of "buyer's regret"). Though the economically depressed estuaries and river valleys of Eastern England saw the highest leave votes, the picture nationally shows that the strongest support for leave was often in relatively well-to-do areas outside the big cities (turnout was highest in the Home Counties and the better-off parts of the Midlands). For example, though London voted Remain 60/40, the South East voted Leave 52/48, mirroring the national average. These voters aren't the "left behind", any more than coastal towns like Hastings and Clacton, which enjoy disproportionate media exposure, are representative of the region.

Another popular interpretation is that the vote reflected education, with the implication being that the stupid voted leave and the intelligent voted remain (as would any Platonic philosopher-king). There is a correlation between university towns and remain, and between areas with low numbers of graduates and leave, but a moment's thought tells you that this reflects economic circumstance rather than average intelligence. Areas of high unemployment, or without many skilled jobs, don't tend to hang on to graduates. Similarly, university towns tend to be better-off than depressed, former industrial towns because they get an economic boost from the business of higher education and its spillovers. Redbrick university cities tend to be liberal if they've enjoyed urban regeneration (Manchester voted remain) and conservative if they haven't (Nottingham voted leave). We should also remember that graduate density is very different between the cohorts that finished school in the 70s and those that did so in the 00s, due to the expansion of further education in the 90s, so the correlation with education is as much about age as intelligence.

A related claim is that the electorate was denied the necessary facts to make an informed choice. Voters who insisted that Parliament should have taken the decision on EU membership were often making a point about politicians shirking their duty, not about their own incapacity, but the media span this as a Platonic criticism of the electorate's incompetence. There was also a suggestion that the two campaigns' reliance on hyperbole and lies was an example of politicians "feeding the beast", and that what was missing was respect for the "experts" (i.e. philosophers in Plato's wider sense). But this was not a campaign in which voters were keen to be swayed by either cogent argument or convincing passion (if it had been, turnout would have been lower due to uncertainty). Despite not being a vote that followed traditional party lines, over half the voters on either side claim to have made up their minds before the start of the year. That may have been on the basis of decades of propaganda, particularly around immigration, but that would be an argument for not holding a referendum on such a misrepresented subject. This was a technocratic misjudgement of epic proportions.

The most self-serving myth that has arisen is that this was a failure of the Labour leadership, and thus justification for the unfolding coup. As already noted, most Labour voters went for remain. In saying he was 70% for staying in the EU, Jeremy Corbyn was pretty accurately reflecting sentiment both among party members and Labour voters. Much of the PLP's antipathy towards Corbyn arises from his belief that he is a representative leader, which is at odds with the Platonic model adopted by Blair: a "strong" leader supported by sophisticated advisors. The idea that a different leader (even with sympathetic media) would have swung a million votes from leave to remain requires us to believe either that he could have increased the remainers among Labour supporters to levels well in excess of the europhile LibDems and Greens, or that he could have persuaded a substantial number of Tory voters to switch. If David Cameron couldn't persuade more Tories, or Gordon Brown more Labourites, why would Chuka Umunna have done any better?

What seems to have swung it for leave were three things: 60% of Tory voters (i.e. excluding those who had already defected to UKIP in 2015) ignored their party leadership and voted out; around a third of Labour and LibDem voters opted for out; and the increased turnout (to 72%) appears to have skewed heavily to leave (the irony of the Leave camp's protest at the extension of the voter registration deadline is that many of those who benefited from this slippage may have been Brexiteers). We can see this more clearly if we examine a specific local authority area. As it was an early and strong result (62/38 for leave), I'm going to look at Sunderland in more detail. This comprises three parliamentary constituencies: Sunderland Central (an unhip small city), Washington & Sunderland West (a 70s new town and the Nissan car works), and Houghton & Sunderland South (a group of former pit villages).

Assuming the split in local sentiment matched YouGov's national exit poll (i.e. Labour votes broke 65% for remain while Tories broke 61% for leave), the 2015 General Election result would have predicted a total remain vote of 55,996. The actual vote was 51,930, suggesting Sunderland was marginally more leave than the rest of the country, which is credible. The projected leave figure on the same basis would have been 61,502, so Sunderland was already due to deliver a 52/48 leave vote based on the opinion polls (i.e. 62k to 56k). The actual leave vote was a stonking 82,394. The reason the final result saw a further 10% swing to 62/38 was partly due to the demographic factors emphasised by the pollsters and media - i.e. being in the North, poorer and less educated - but this only explains 4k out of a 21k increment. The reason leave won handsomely was because they captured most of the increased turnout, which went up 19k from 56% in 2015 to 65% (so 62 + 4 + 16 = 82).

In other words, Labour appears to have been successful in getting out the bulk of its "core" vote, if by that we mean those who have reliably voted for it over the last 15 years. The "Sunderland problem" is that Labour's combined vote across the 3 constituencies dropped from 85,187 in 1997 to 63,234 in 2001 (it was 62,655 in 2015), reflecting a decline in turnout from 60% to 49%. Nationally, Labour's vote went from 13.5m to 10.7m between the two general elections as turnout crashed from 71% to 59%. There has been a gradual recovery since, to 66% nationally and 56% in Sunderland (being safe seats, turnout tends to be lower that the national average). The 22k voters that went missing in 2001 appear to have initially abstained and then gradually drifted to the Tories and UKIP over the course of the 00s (the non-Labour vote grew from 35k in 1997 to 55k by 2015). Had they stayed with Labour and mirrored the polls, remain would have won. Insofar as there is a Labour "contribution" problem, this stems from desertion after 1997, not Corbyn's qualified enthusiasm.

The most striking correlation of the vote is with social attitudes. Leavers unsurprisingly regard immigration as a bad thing, but also multiculturalism, liberalism and feminism, and they are mostly nostalgic about the past and pessimistic about the future. In other words, they tend to be conservatives or even reactionaries. I'm dealing in net figures here, so it would be wrong to conclude that there are twenty thousand people in Sunderland who had their hopes of a revived social democracy dashed by Blair and consequently drifted to the political right thereafter. However, there is probably some truth in that story if we remember that the Labour Party was not particularly liberal in its social attitudes until the 1980s and that those influences didn't fully penetrate the North East until a decade or more later. Nationally, we can also surmise that the recovery to a turnout level last seen in the 90s was helped by the return of the four million conservative and reactionary voters who deserted the Tories in 1997 (from 14m in 1992 down to 9.6m) and who had yet to fully reappear in subsequent general elections.

The conclusion is that Labour has lost a chunk of its "traditional support" in the North and Midlands, but that this loss occured around the millennium and has little to do with either Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn. Assuming this is a socially illiberal tranche, the idea that it can be won back by pandering to xenophobia or reviving some notion of social authoritarianism is delusional (it didn't work in the Blair years). Nothing short of severe immigration controls and the suspension (or even reversal) of liberal social reform is likely to satisfy, which risks alienating Labour's actual "core" support, and it's probable that both of these approaches will be adopted with greater vigour and credibility by whatever political formation arises out of the Tory/UKIP right. A further conclusion is that the neoliberal makover of the Conservative Party, marrying economic and social laissez-faire, has failed (David Cameron implicitly recognised this in his valedictory comments on gay marriage this week).

The right can now see a route to power by energising those millions who deserted in 1997 and have since only reluctantly returned to the Tory fold or who have preferred exile in UKIP. But this will lead to countervailing losses. Big capital and liberal Tories are likely to seek common ground with other centrists, a thought that presumably excites Blairites who, thinking they have learned the lesson of the 80s, hope to do a reverse-SDP in which the left is expelled from the Labour Party on the grounds of deviationism, (unfounded) antisemitism and online incivility (Corbyn is presumably sitting tight not just to defend the will of party members but to resist the purge). The lasting legacy of Cameron, "the heir to Blair", might not be gay marriage but the revival of the Whigs. If both the Conservative and Labour parties split, the clamour for proportional representation (the technocrat's preference) will be deafening, which will please those perversely arguing that PR would have prevented the disaster of a perfectly proportional vote.

To this end, we can expect the liberal assault on "vulgar democracy" to continue. In today's Guardian, David Van Reybrouck advocates sortition (appointment of representatives by the drawing of lots) rather than the popular vote ("a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens"), citing ancient Athens as an ideal. What he fails to note is that the demos of Athens excluded women, slaves and immigrants, and only men over 30 could be office-holders (the electorate was around 10% of the population of Attica). As ever, this is the democracy of the better sort. Plato considered sortition a necessary evil ("in the hope of escaping in some degree from factions ... we are obliged to use the equality of the lot" - from Laws book 6), but he always insisted that politics should be based on the "distribution of natural equality among unequals" and so employ a method that "gives to the greater more, and to the inferior less". Little has changed in the attitude of the bulk of the political class.


  1. Good stuff again. My one quibble is that if you'd found a photo of the two Wearmouth bridges from a different angle it could have featured the Stadium of Light....

    1. Then that would be a view of Monkwearmouth ...

    2. A fine sight for all to behold.

  2. Oh, another slight quibble:

    'the Labour Party was not particularly liberal in its social attitudes until the 1980s and that those influences didn't fully penetrate the North East until a decade or more later.'

    I’m not so sure about that. I’d actually argue that Labour Party policy and politicians have become LESS liberal relative to the Tories and the general public in the past 20 years.

    Orwell was criticising left-wing ‘do-gooders’ back in ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, Tories said ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’ back in 1964, and Labour politicians in the post-war era heavily supported liberal reforms on the death penalty, homosexuality, abortion, race relations and censorship both before and after the acts passed in the 1960s. I think this was possibly slightly obscured by the convention allowing matters involving conscience to be decided by a free vote in Parliament.

    Most Labour voters in 1960s Sunderland would have been aware that their MP was likely to be against capital punishment and racism and favoured legalisation of abortion and homosexuality. I think the crucial factor was that it didn’t matter as much as socially conservative voters were likely to put their class and economic interests first. The irony is that everyday life is much more liberal now, even in Sunderland(!), but political discourse, media obsession and the increased exclusion of socio-economic issues from political consideration have made the UK seem much more small-minded and xenophobic than it really is. Manipulation by professional politicians has a lot to answer for, but seems to be coming back to bite them, at least.

  3. A P.S:

    Legend suggests that Labour had automatically won places like Sunderland for time immemorial, and it is only recently that the ‘white working class’ had deserted it.

    A quick look at Wikipedia shows that Sunderland South was a Tory seat from 1953 to 1964, that Sunderland North was marginal in 1959, and I know that Sunderland council was controlled by the Tories at times into the 1970s. It only became a Labour ‘one-party city’ in the 1980s, as deindustrialisation really wreaked havoc. If Labour could increase its popularity through the midst of all those ‘loony Left’ smears of the 1980s, there’s no reason it shouldn’t now given the right attitude and a willingness to represent people’s economic interests.

    The figures also bear out what you suggest. Working-class, socially conservative Tories deserted ‘their’ party from the 60s onwards, but this is rarely reflected in the myths and legends!

  4. One of the points some of the remainers have made is that if only the outers had known what they "really" wanted they would have voted remain. Luckily the remainers are so much more aware of what the outers really want than the outers are themselves. So, acting in the best interests of the outers means ignoring the vote and staying in.
    There was an interesting video clip on the Guardian site of a woman from Blackpool who voted out, responding to the wave of hostility to the out vote that had hit southern England. "Sometimes" she said, "I think these Southerners think they are better than us." I wonder where she got that idea.

    I came here from the LRB because I enjoyed your posts there

    Ian Browne
    This is an old idea, and as Isaiah Berlin noted, it has its roots in Plato, but quite a lot of other people have chipped in too, notably Hegel.
    I guess i see a not too distant relative of this idea in neo-liberalism, in that it's always telling us that less employment protection and lower wages are good for us, but we're just to stupid to see that these things are in our "real" interests.

  5. Excellent stuff as always, David.

    Following on from Ian's point about the arrogance of the remainers, the "traditional support" trope is a favourite of the Labour Right - they tend to think of these seats as Labour fiefdoms, as an immutable lump of votes that they have the right to expect, parachuting SPADs in as new MPs, while at the same time promoting policies in direct antagonism to them.

    Blair lost 4 million votes - the same ones that you describe in Sunderland. To expect Corbyn to magic these up for remain was asinine at best, but I suspect it is just a cynical excuse for the coup.

  6. Herbie Destroys the Environment2 July 2016 at 10:42

    here may be arrogance on the remain side but I have struggled to hear a coherent reason for leaving from anyone on the leave side.

    There may well be a strong case for leaving, I can't think of one but there may be, but listening to the average jo it seems to be blah blah blah Muslim blah blah blah immigrants blah blah blah Muslim blah blah blah immigrants.

    Call me arrogant but idiocy doesn't even begin to explain it!

  7. Just to expand on David's discussion of the demographics of the vote, it's been entirely typical that the few vox pops of the Leave vote have concentrated on the "thick working class" stereotype, and have almost entirely ignored the reactionary middle classes.