11 March 2016

The old assumptions about politics no longer work


If members of France’s Front National were to walk into the National Assembly of 1789, on what side would they take their seats? Are they the party of order or the party of movement? Are they right wing or left wing? Marine Le Pen’s authoritarian social policy and her egalitarian economic policy pull her in both directions.

A recent study of voter preferences in the UK, produced by Jonathan Wheatley at the Centre for Research on Direct Democracies, has helped shed light on an issue that has frustrated many observers who take an interest in politics. Traditional notions of left and right are breaking down and being absorbed by the identity politics of nativism, on the one hand, and cosmopolitanism on the other.

The study scoped out two dimensions that guide voters’ thinking. The first is an economic dimension, drawing on issues such as the mansion tax, the bedroom tax, and privatisation of the NHS. The second is a cultural dimension, drawing on issues such as EU membership, immigration, same-sex marriage and English Votes for English Laws.

Voter preferences

A number of interesting features has emerged from this study. Most UKIP voters are left-wing, and some more so than Labour supporters. All four main parties are relatively close to the economic centre ground and all could be said to have attracted market liberals, centrists and social democrats to varying degrees. Only 0.31 spectrum points separate the average voters of Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. This compares to 0.47 spectrum points that separate the four parties on social issues that measure whether they are localist or globalist in outlook.

But the key insight is this: leaving aside the Liberal Democrats – Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP all occupy unique positions on the social scale. This suggests that the Tories won the election not just because they were seen as the most capable of managing the economy, but also because they occupied the common ground between Labour and UKIP on the social divide.

Something interesting is happening in Europe and the United States, amounting to nothing less than a fundamental realignment of values and support for parties that represent them. Communitarian parties in Europe, such as the Sweden Democrats, the Alternative für Deutschland and the National Front, combine localist social policy – particularly on immigration – with statist and centralised economic policy. Donald Trump leads the race for the Republican presidential ticket on largely the same agenda.

What unites them is anti-globalism and support for a negative conception of equality based on a sort of Native First policy. Strong trade unions, a generous welfare state and the coordinating arms of dirigisme are all there, but they are there primarily to serve the interests of the Native. In this respect, the New Right looks rather like the Old Left.

The UK Independence Party is no longer an exception. UKIP was founded as a eurosceptic party in 1983 that originally supported the staple diet of the economic liberal: free trade, deregulation, lower taxes and smaller government. But recently, it has come to be home for those who feel they are not well served by metropolitan elites, and they have brought with them their preferences for how they’d like the state to be run.

Western societies have – for quite some time – solved the economic problem. Almost everyone has a roof over their head, access to heating, good food, advanced healthcare, and jobs that can buy consumer delights and a generous supply of leisure. That is not to suggest that Western capitalism works perfectly or does not face several challenges.

Nevertheless, the spread of material comfort has facilitated a rise in the post-materialist politics of autonomy and self-expression. Liberal attitudes on issues relating to gender, race and multiculturalism are perceived to be extensions to liberal attitudes to the market. The same liberal elite which oversaw and celebrated deindustrialisation is also blamed for eroding long-established community ties.

For many voters, these developments have been positive and welcome, but for those who live on the edge of this new politics and feel excluded, change is threatening and manifests in unrecognisable towns, disturbed customs, precarious employment and open contempt for their lives. As Robert Putnam wrote in his seminal Bowling Alone, “social dislocation can easily breed a reactionary form of nostalgia”. It’s no surprise then that we are seeing growing support for parties that define themselves in opposition to globalisation and promote a communitarian politics that strike a deep chord.

The rise in communitarianism can be understood as a delayed reaction to secularisation in Europe, the spread of post-materialist values, and the drain of power and prestige of working-class industrial centres in favour of the new service-dominated centres of the global economy. World cities such as London, Paris, Shanghai and Berlin have more in common with each other than their respective hinterlands, and this has all served to undermine the communal feeling that many, particularly those of the hinterland, still have.

The late Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities, his exegesis on nationalism, that “for whatever superhuman feats capitalism is capable of, it found in death and languages two tenacious adversaries.” Capitalism through open trade can bring the peoples of the world closer together, but through its core methods – specialisation and the division of labour – it offers little to placate the spiritual demands that we all have.

By creating a mass market for the many vernacular languages of Europe in the decades after the creation of the Gutenberg press, capitalism facilitated the decline of Christendom and replaced it with the imagined communities we call nations. The nation is a disinterested and – ideally – immortal entity. For most of its constituents, the nation neither chooses nor is chosen, and because it moves as one through history and offers a way to handle the fatality and contingency of life in the way the great religions have done, it can call for and expect sacrifices from its members.

The nation therefore both transcends the individual and embodies their collective customs, hopes and imaginings. Being a meaningful entity worth believing in, the nation remains an essential comfort, especially for those who are dissatisfied with the development of their individual lives. As George Orwell poignantly wrote in England Your England: “The clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns, the to-and-fro of the lorries on the Great North Road, the queues outside the Labour Exchanges, the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs – all these are not only fragments, but characteristic fragments, of the English scene.” Only someone with an intimate experience of 20th century industrial England could have read and understood that statement, evoking the imagery it called for. The idea of the unchanging nation – even if it has little basis in reality – offers a layer of emotional security and convinces us that, whatever our plight, we are all in it together.

Tony Blair was right when he spoke at Blenheim Palace in 2007, shortly after standing down as Prime Minister.

“If you take any of the big motivating debates in politics today, in Europe or America, international engagement or isolation, immigration – is it good or bad? Free trade – a benefit or a fear? Each essentially has, at its core, this question: “Do we open up – albeit with rules and controls? Or do we hunker down, do we close ourselves off and wait till the danger has passed? Is globalisation a threat or an opportunity?” It’s the same central issue.”

Our notion of left and right is therefore not only outdated but dangerously misleading. We risk missing the fact that cultural attitudes are increasingly driving economic ones in new and interesting ways. Socialism is no longer just an internationalist endeavour. Localists want the state to control immigration as well as to protect their economic interests from globalisation. Likewise, capitalism should not be seen as the play-thing of the boss class. Post-materialist values that emphasise civil liberties and individual liberty can drive a more permissive attitude to the market, though there are no parties in the UK offering this position.

Voters in the LSE study showed more consistency on cultural issues than economic issues beliefs. That is, they were more likely to express a desire to leave the EU and reduce immigration than believe in nationalised utilities and higher taxes.

The challenge is first one of recognition. We have to recognise that the political frontier is no longer exclusively or even mostly economic. Most voters do not have extreme economic views, and many would be satisfied with a productive economy with fair levels of taxation, regulation, social mobility and redistribution. What they care more about, and where there is more entrenched disagreement, is the future of Britain as an imagined community. For this reason, the upcoming EU referendum is just the latest battleground of this new politics.

The second challenge is therefore creating a lasting political space which reflects these emerging trends. Economic policy is still very important, and there is a vibrant debate re-emerging in the UK about the role of the state and markets in political economy. That debate should continue, but it would be an error to assume that these issues cover the full scope of public life. Identity politics is a key part of many people’s lives, and that’s here to stay.

Zac Tate is Deputy Editor of CapX