Society and Culture

Book review: “The Economics and Politics of Brexit: The Realignment of British Public Life” by Stephen Davies (Part 3)


…continued from Part 2

 

The realignment and the 2017 and 2019 General Elections

Davies believes that his realignment hypothesis explains not just Brexit, but also the outcomes of the last two General Elections. In both elections, the two main parties faced different challenges. The challenge for the Conservatives was that their potential voters were on opposite sides of the secondary alignment issue (economics); the challenge for Labour was that their potential voters were on opposite sides of the primary alignment issue (culture/identity).

Primary alignment issue:

Culture/identity

Nationalism,

parochialism

Cosmopolitanism
Secondary alignment issue:

Economics

Big Government,

Anti-market

Interventionist Brexiteers Woke Socialists
Small Government,

Pro-market

Conservative Brexiteers Centrists,

Liberal Remainers

 

The Conservatives tried to deal with this by clearly positioning themselves on one side of the new primary alignment, i.e. trying to become the party of HP Sauce and Richmond Sausages, and by dropping Thatcherite economics. This already started under Theresa May’s leadership, but it did not bear much fruit yet, because she was not able to communicate this new identity credibly. It was Boris Johnson who would bring it to fruition.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, faced a very different kind of challenge. His problem was not, as initially assumed, that there was not enough support for socialist economic policies in Britain: there was, and there still is. His problem was that the supporters of socialist economic policies were on opposite sides of the cultural divide. Under the conditions of the old alignment, he might well have won an election by forming a cross-cultural socialist coalition much like the one we see in the movie Pride: a coalition of Instagram Socialists and HP Sauce Socialists.

But this was considerably harder under the conditions of the new alignment. To see why, we only need to read the following article by Corbyn’s former media spokesperson Matt Zarb-Cousin, published in 2018:

“A spectre is hanging over Britain, and that spectre has come to be known as “gammon”: older men who […] are confused and angry at the modern world. […]

Gammon tends to believe what gammon reads in the newspapers: “Jeremy Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser” and “immigration is out of control”. Gammons are often seen repeating things the right-wing tabloids have told them […] [O]n Twitter, their account usually has an image of their dog as an avi, or some variation on the Union Jack. […]

[I]t’s a lifestyle choice driven by warm ale. It’s a state of mind, driven in no small part by a regular spoon feeding from the trashy tabloids. […]

I’m told to stop alienating the gammon as Labour needs the votes of gammon to win a majority. But why should Labour pander to the views of gammon […] in the hope that some gammon might vote Labour? […]

[T]hose under 40-years-old […] want change […] This is why Labour won among younger people […], and why it will win the next election.”

This, in a nutshell, is why there was no Pride-style coalition in the Corbyn years. A modern-day remake of Pride would probably show the Novara Media team visiting a Red Wall town, lecturing people on pronouns, calling everyone a racist or an Islamophobe, and giggling every time they see a Union Jack on display.

In 2017, the cultural divide between Instagram Socialists and HP Sauce Socialists did not yet matter all that much. By being ambiguous about Brexit, and generally not saying very much about culture war issues, Corbyn could simply avoid drawing attention to the faultline that ran across his electoral base. So he nearly got a cross-cultural socialist coalition, even if he was not specifically trying to build one. The realignment had not fully caught up with him yet.

But as we now know, it soon would. With a vengeance.

Limitations of the realignment hypothesis 

If you want to make sense of the weirdness of the Banter Era, this book will get you further than anything else I have read on the subject. But I am nonetheless not fully sold.

It is true that Corbyn ultimately failed to build a cross-cultural coalition around socialist economics. But even if it did not turn into an electoral coalition, the socialism revival (of which Corbyn was a catalyst) nonetheless happened, and it was clearly about economics. How can you reconcile that with the claim that economics has been relegated to a second-fiddle issue? Corbyn’s adoring fans – and let’s not forget that even in 2019, he still secured one third of the vote – did not see Corbyn as the embodiment of cosmopolitanism, or even as a woke culture warrior. They saw him as the man who would bring socialism to the UK.

The concept of an “alignment issue” presupposes that we all care about the same issues, whereas what we actually see is that different ideological tribes care about different issues.

Davies’s approach works for large parts of the political spectrum. It works especially well for the political Right, because it is clearly true that most right-wingers today are much more animated about cultural issues than they are about economics. We can see this by how readily right-wing audiences embrace left-wingers who have fallen out with the mainstream Left over a major cultural issue (e.g. Suzanne Moore, Julie Bindel, Paul Embery). But this would never happen in reverse. A left-wing audience would never accept someone who leans left on cultural issues, but who also supports free-market economics.

So the claim that economics is now a secondary aligning issue needs to be heavily qualified. It is for some, but not for everyone. Some tribes can form coalitions on the basis of a shared cultural outlook, even if they disagree on economics. But at least one major ideological tribe, namely the Continuity-Corbynite, woke socialist Left, cannot do that. They cannot form coalitions across either divide – neither with non-progressive socialists, nor with progressive capitalists.[1] For them, both culture and economics are primary alignment issues. (This may explain why their cultural dominance does not translate into electoral success.)

Speaking of “woke”: in Davies’s book, woke progressives appear to be just the most radical subsection of the cosmopolitans. But are they really? I am not convinced. You can be extremely socially liberal and cosmopolitan in your outlook without being woke. Liberal cosmopolitanism requires a live-and-let-live attitude, and in the current setting, nobody is further away from that than woke progressives.

I suppose in Davies’s terms, I am one of those smug, self-satisfied cosmopolitans. I am not keen on HP Sauce or Richmond Sausages, I love Twitter (although I strongly dislike most of its users), I have given up on Brexit years ago, I am in favour of a liberal immigration policy and think a lot of fears around this issue are overblown, and I am indifferent to football, flags, or the Royal Family. If I had to devise a political communication strategy that connects with people in Red Wall areas, I would be just as hopeless at it as Matt Zarb-Cousin. But at the same time, I also find it much easier to get along with “the Gammon” than with woke progressives. The much-maligned “Gammon” still have a sense of live-and-let-live, however inconsistent they may be in applying it. They are not the ones trying to force their cultural preferences on everyone else. They are not the ones telling you what words you are allowed to use, or trying to get you sacked for expressing an opinion they dislike.

Similarly, on the economics front, there is a qualitative difference between those who want a regulated capitalism with a large state, and those who oppose capitalism altogether.

So as a possible extension of Davies’s model, I would suggest a three-way split on both the culture/identity and on the economics front, which would look like this:

Culture/identity
“Woke” Cosmopolitans/

social liberals

“Gammon”
Economics Socialists
Interventionists/

Big Government

Free-marketeers

This may look like it is overcomplicating things, because it gives us nine different combinations, but some of those boxes will be nearly empty. (I struggle to think of an example of a woke free-marketeer, for example.)

Be that as it may – while there is certainly some room for quibbling and possible extensions, Davies’s book is the best guide to Banter Era Britain you will find. If Davies is right, political alignments can easily last for a generation, so it is advisable to get the hang of the current one. We may be stuck here for a while.

________

Recommended reading/watching/listening:

____________

[1] In fairness, Davies does touch upon the Corbynite Left’s inability to form coalition with progressive-minded capitalists, but he makes this about Corbyn’s personality, whereas I think it is an ideological barrier. If you genuinely think that capitalism is the root of all evil, of course you are not going to bond with a capitalist, even if you agree with them on some issues.

Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).



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