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General Election 2017: What’s at Stake?

8 Jun

TCM contributing editor Philip Cunliffe recently spoke at an event organised by the Liverpool Salon on this topic. You can watch the discussion here (with thanks to Pauline Hadaway).

 

General Election 2017: The Politics of Nostalgia

8 Jun

The Labour Party – especially its leader, Jeremy Corbyn – has had a surprisingly good election campaign. Labour started 23 points down from the Conservatives; the latest polls put the Tory lead at anything from 12 to just 1 point – a historically unprecedented surge. Corbyn’s hunch that the more people saw of him and his policies, the more they would warm to Labour, was proven correct. Despite two years in which he had faced internal plots and sabotage, massive media hostility, a second leadership election, the EU referendum, and a snap election, Corbyn’s team had somehow managed to develop concrete, costed policies, that appear to have resonated strongly with some of the public. Because of the electoral system and other factors, the surge is may still not translate into Labour gains in parliament. Nonetheless, the Labour turnaround – coupled with UKIP’s ongoing collapse – clearly gives the lie to every defeatist Remainer who argued that Brexit would mean the immediate death of leftist politics in Britain.

The Labour surge partly reflects the dreadful campaign waged by Theresa May’s Conservative Party. May’s political strength before calling the election was exclusively based on the Conservatives’ unambiguous commitment to respect the result of the EU referendum. Conversely, Labour was in profound disarray, torn between a pro-EU metropolitan base and parliamentary party on the one hand, and northern and Welsh working-class Leave voters on the other, and led by a north London leadership with little apparent appeal in the traditional Labour heartlands. Because most British people are democrats, May’s position won support, with the so-called “48%” rapidly melting away. However, the Tories apparently mistook this as support for May and her agenda. In truth, May is a hollow, incompetent, technocrat with little vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future – and the election left her disastrously exposed. Despite calling a “Brexit election”, she had virtually nothing to say about it beyond slogans and platitudes, and the ground quickly shifted to matters of public spending and security, where she was far weaker. May’s comical avoidance of the public, awkward flailing under the slightest scrutiny, and frequent U-turns, made a mockery of her “strong and stable” mantra. She was not even able to hold her own base, threatening Tory-voting pensioners with a “dementia tax”, followed by a shrill retreat. Even if she is returned to office, as most commentators expect, she will be enduringly weakened and this cannot fail to influence the Brexit talks.

Corbyn, meanwhile, has drawn the largest crowds to political rallies seen in Britain since the 1950s, reflecting his desire to rebuild Labour into a social movement, not the zombified electoral machine it has become. While this ambition is very far from being realised, his campaign has been an important challenge to politics-as-usual in two respects.

First, he has made Labour the first major European political party to openly challenge austerity since the 2008 financial crisis, thereby tackling directly the paralysing mantra, promoted since the 1980s, that “There Is No Alternative” (TINA). His pledges to open a £500bn investment bank, abolish tuition fees, revitalise public services and renationalise railways and the Royal Mail are premised on the slogan “it doesn’t have to be like this”. However backwards-looking his agenda may be – on which, more below – this is a welcome challenge to TINA. The idea that our social, economic and political system is set in stone, susceptible to only minor tweaks, has crippled progressive politics since the 1980s, and any revival must tackle it head on. For the Labour Party, it is a dramatic – albeit not deeply shared – abandonment of the “Third Way” centrism practised since 1988. Of course, the groundwork for thinking that voting can induce dramatic change was laid by the EU referendum. And, while Corbyn perhaps dare not say it openly, reflecting the party’s internal divisions, his proposals include policies that would be ruled out under EU state aid rules. In this sense, he is connecting – however faintly – with the democratic ideal of “taking back control”.

Secondly, Corbyn has openly challenged Britain’s approach to foreign and security policy, garnering public support for doing so. This is striking given that his main weakness was always assumed to be security, given his previous antiwar postures and engagement with groups like the IRA and Hamas. However, increasingly desperate attempts to use these associations to smear Corbyn, while perhaps resonating with elements of the Tory base, have largely fallen flat. Again, the experience of two decades of adventurist foreign policy seems to have persuaded many to conclude that Corbyn has perhaps got a point. His response to the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London – highlighting the “blowback” from Britain’s foreign interventions and craven relationship with states like Saudi Arabia, as well as austerity-driven cuts to the police – resonated strongly with the public. It spoke to their common sense after 16 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Tory bluster that Corbyn was “blaming the victims” failed to cut through. Corbyn’s position is, again, unique among major party leaders in Europe and among Labour leaders since 1983.

In short, the British public is being offered a starker and more meaningful choice today than at any point in the last 30 years. This speaks to the wider revival of democracy, and political contestation, flowing from the EU referendum, which has – again contrary to Remainer defeatists’ expectations – actually shifted the centre-ground leftwards. Immediately after the referendum, the Tories scaled back their austerity targets and began appealing to the “just-about-managing”, and now they are running on a washed-up version of One Nation Toryism, plagiarised in part from Ed Milliband’s “Blue Labour”. However weakly, May has emphasised the “good the state can do”, talked up an “industrial strategy”, and pledged to promote equality. This may yet win round some working-class voters – especially those who had previously defected from Labour to UKIP – but on this terrain, Corbyn has the more convincing record.

Nonetheless, there are many unanswered questions and weaknesses surrounding Corbyn’s campaign. The most striking aspect of Corbyn’s platform is its backward-looking, defensive character, premised heavily on the defence of the crumbling national-welfare state. Even the £500bn investment bank is premised on Keynesian pump-priming, not a vision of a future economy. There are serious structural challenges in contemporary capitalism that Corbynism does nothing to address, like the productivity crisis, the growing de facto labour surplus, and looming automation. Radical solutions, like universal basic income, shorter working weeks, and full automation, mooted in academia, are actually being trialled, in part, elsewhere in Europe. Corbyn’s vision for Brexit involves clinging onto EU regulations that stifle scientific experimentation, like genetic engineering. He and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, look at Uber and see only the problem of zero-hours contracts and poor pay – not the promise of a fully automated transport system, potentially under public, not private, control. In this sense, Corbyn’s platform is far more conservative than Labour manifestoes in the 1960s and 1970s, when leaders like Harold Wilson talked about embracing the “white heat of technology” to transform the economy and society. Corbyn is channelling the Spirit of ’45, in the words of Ken Loach’s nostalgic documentary, not 2017, let alone some future year.

This same conservatism applies to Labour’s attitude to Brexit, which is all about dampening its economic effects, rather than charting a clear path for political and economic renewal. Despite May’s evident weaknesses, she earns cheers when talking tough on Brexit, just as she is booed when discussing public spending. Corbyn’s position is the opposite. Asked about Brexit and immigration, his responses on “managed migration” are stilted concessions to concerns about the “white working class” and its “legitimate concerns” about migration. It is a reminder that the Labour party remains caught between contradictory social bases. Corbyn has been unable to articulate a vision that squares this circle in a truly progressive manner. He has capitulated to the idea of migration as a “problem” by opposing “gangs” of migrant workers being “brought in” to “undercut” British wages (largely discredited as a myth) and proposing structural funds to relieve “pressures” on public services caused by immigration. He has not challenged the basic notion of the economy as a zero-sum game that causes people to see immigrants as competitors, because national-welfarism is ultimately premised on this notion of creating benefits from which “outsiders” are excluded. He has not even explicitly tried to link anti-immigration sentiment to neoliberalism, to encourage people to see the economic system, and not their fellow workers, as the problem. Instead he has made vague appeals to British traditions of “decency” and “care”.

A final problem is Corbyn’s politics of security. He treats this issue like all the rest: pump in more resources. But arguably there is only a tenuous connection between police numbers and security from terrorism. Moreover, Corbyn has rightly made his name opposing the bloated security state. Lacking here, as on the right, is any credible analysis of, and systematic solution to, the root causes of – especially home-grown – terrorism. Corbyn’s blaming of foreign interventions leaving “ungoverned spaces” merely rehashes tired clichés and does not explain why people within governed spaces – our own societies – end up terrorising their fellow citizens. Moreover, the historical response to “ungoverned spaces” has been to seek to govern them, through interventions to build “state capacity”, which have more often than not gone very badly wrong. What looks like an anti-interventionist agenda could very easily turn into an interventionist foreign policy.

Thus, Corbyn does not resolve the problems of Labourism, even if his campaign represents an important challenge to the status quo and potentially creates important space for progressive alternatives. Although a Corbyn government would be more decent and humane than another Tory administration, it would lack a clear, forward-looking vision for a post-Brexit Britain capable of addressing our many social and political problems. However, so would any Tory administration. The campaign has exposed Theresa May’s inability to fill Brexit with political content, beyond macho rhetoric and even more backward-looking and delusional proposals, like an “Empire 2.0” trading system with the ex-colonies and the recreation of the seventeenth-century Board of Trade. In that sense, Labour and Conservatives are both trading on a politics of nostalgia; the poetry of the future remains to be written.

Lee Jones

France’s anti-system election

21 Apr

This article was originally published in Juncture, the journal published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article was published in the spring issue of 2017 (Volume 23, Issue 4).

 

On the 22nd January 2012, the then Socialist Party candidate for the presidential elections in France, François Hollande, delivered what many believe was his election-winning speech. Speaking from a venue in Seine St Denis, a poor urban conurbation north of Paris given an edgy chic in the late 1990s by the French rap group, Nique Ta Mère (F*#* Your Mother), Hollande lurched to the left. “My real enemy is finance” declared a politician considered generally to be on the right of the Socialist Party.

Hollande’s speech that evening cemented his journey towards the French presidency. However, in a curious book published last year under the title of A President Should Not Say That, Hollande recounts how the speech was so nearly derailed by a shoe thrown at him by one of the thousands of people crowded into the hall.[1] The shoe landed in front of him and slid towards his lectern. The television cameras missed it and the incident was not picked up by the press. Had it hit me, remarks Hollande, I would probably have lost the presidential election.

This story captures in a dramatic fashion the fragility that has come to characterize mainstream political figures in France. With their popularity always in the balance, politicians feel as if they are stepping on egg shells. This is why they hide behind empty slogans and stock phrases, derision and opprobrium never very far away. Hollande’s presidency always had a quality of the improbable about it. His victory owed more to the strength of anti-Sarkozy feeling than support for his own program. The more leftwing elements of this program – such as the proposal to tax at 75% earnings over a million Euros – were gimmicks, conjured up on the hoof by his closest advisers and quietly shelved after Hollande’s victory. Though Nicolas Sarkozy’s win in 2007 had much greater momentum than Hollande’s in 2012, a similar dynamic was at work. Sarkozy chose to celebrate at a notoriously swanky Parisian restaurant on the Champs Elysée, Le Fouquet’s, and then to holiday off the coast of Malta on a yacht owned by Vincent Bolloré, one of France’s wealthiest industrialists and close friend of the newly-elected president. Throughout his presidency, Sarkozy was never able to shake-off the impression that he was obsessed with money. The soubriquet, ‘le Président bling-bling’, stuck with him throughout his five years in office.

The weak authority of France’s political class did not develop overnight and the causes are many. One is the drifting away of parties from their traditional social base. The French Socialists, for example, pretend to stand for the country’s blue collar workers but they have long been an urban, bourgeois and middle class party. The very idea of an identifiable social base has been challenged by deindustrialization and the emergence of chronic unemployment amongst French youth. Whereas in Britain supporters of the UK Independence Party have typically been retired ex-Conservative voters, in France a core part of the National Front’s vote today comes from the young. The political divide between rural and urban voters, softened greatly by the ‘Golden Age’ of French capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s, has opened up once again with National Front supporters concentrated in rural and semi-rural areas.[2] Even for the National Front, however, there is no real core vote: since 2002 its support has undergone multiple changes including feminization, proletarianisation and secularization.

There has also been a waning of the ideologies that once underpinned the left and the right in France. Mitterrand’s embrace of the European Single Act in the mid-1980s put an end to the left’s hostility to the market but without proposing any new ideology or vision for the left. The French right has conventionally been viewed through the lens of the French Revolution and associated with three different traditions – counter-revolutionary, liberal and Bonapartist.[3] However useful that may have been to understand the likes of de Gaulle or Giscard d’Estaing, it does little to explain the appeal of Marine Le Pen whose recent electoral gains have been concentrated in communities that traditionally voted on the left. And as commentators have remarked, François Fillon’s campaign is an odd collection of all of these right-wing traditions, without capturing any in particular.[4]

The weakness of the political mainstream has become a structuring element of French political life. Without an identifiable social base or any coherent set of ideas, mainstream parties are adrift from society and fail to command much authority, At this point in a presidential election, a duel should emerge between the candidates of the left and the right: Mitterrand/Chirac, Chirac/Jospin[5], Sarkozy/Royal, Hollande/Sarkozy. In 2002, the failure of the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, to get into the second round run-off was an electoral earthquake and experienced as such. No such duel is looking likely in this election. The two candidates leading in the polls are campaigning on a platform of ‘neither left nor right’ (Marine Le Pen) and ‘both left and right’ (Emmanuel Macron).

Of these two candidates, the most enigmatic is Macron. A relative newcomer to French politics, and someone who has never held elected office, Macron has become a darling of the French media. He represents the acceptable face of anti-system politics: young, progressive and pro-European. He has even been cited by those despairing about Brexit and Donald Trump as the savior of the global liberal order.

This desire for something new has been present for some time in France. In the 2007 campaign, Ségolène Royal – the Socialist Party candidate who was snubbed and maligned by the party’s chauvinist elite – established her own movement, Desirs d’Avenir. This went nowhere after Royal’s defeat but Macron is picking up where she left off. Macron’s movement – En Marche – is mainly an electoral platform but is part of the splintering and fragmentation of political organization in France seen also in its more radial cousin, the Nuit Debout movement that filled the Place de la République in Paris for a few months last year.  Macron’s main weakness is his program: after weeks of grandiose speeches but no real policies, En Marche has gone into policy overdrive, churning out endless proposals that seem disjointed and ad hoc.

If Macron is a revolutionary in search of an idea, Marine Le Pen is quite the opposite. The ideas are there and some of them have not changed much since the party was first founded by her father, Jean-Marie, in 1972. The National Front’s program is an arduous read made up of 144 propositions that cover most aspects of public life. Whilst Le Pen has been a vocal defender of ‘Frexit’ – France’s exit from the European Union – her program states that France will seek to renegotiate its place in the EU and then put the results of this renegotiation to a popular vote, much the same approach taken by former British Prime Minister David Cameron. In contrast to Macron, Le Pen is in many ways the quintessential political ‘insider’; she is, after all, running a party set up by her father. Her challenge to the system is in part ideological: she vituperates the political establishment for having given up on ‘the people’ and opposes her nationalist solutions to the ‘globalist’ policies which she believes have failed France.  Le Pen is also threatening to disrupt one of the only unifying forces of French politics that remain: the desire to keep the National Front out of power. This goal has contained the powerful disintegrative tendencies at the heart of French political life, at least until today.

Anti-system candidates are currently leading in France’s presidential campaign. There will be some who welcome Macron as a centrist and a unifier, as many did with Alexander Van der Bellen’s victory in Austria’s presidential election late last year. This misses how much of an outsider Macron is, and how unconventional and unexpected his victory would be for the politics of the Fifth Republic. Macron may yet fall into third or fourth place as his competitors pile on the pressure but at present he is neck-and-neck with François Fillon for the coveted second place in the first round ballot.

A Macron victory, just like a Le Pen victory, would represent the collapse of the political mainstream in France and its traditional system of parties. It is unlikely that French politics would revert back to its traditional patterns and rituals. François Hollande was saved in 2012 by the few meters that separated his lectern from the shoe that was thrown at him. Mainstream candidates may not be as lucky in 2017.

Chris Bickerton

[1] Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme (2016) Un Président ne devrait pas dire ca… (Paris: Stock) p18.

[2] Pascal Perrineau (2014) La France Au Front (Paris: Fayard) p38.

[3] Rene Remond (1982) Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne)

[4] ‘Le discours de François Fillon à la loupe’, Le Monde, 16 December 2016.

[5] For the Chirac/Jospin run off in 1995, Chirac’s place in the second round was a surprise as the candidate on the right expected to get through was Edouard Balladur. However, what was not in doubt was that there would be a left/right run off in the second round.

Labour’s Brexit crisis is May’s opportunity

18 Apr

Cynics will read Theresa May’s U-turn in deciding to call an early general election merely as an opportunist move to exploit opposition weaknesses. The Labour Party is deeply divided and at its lowest ebb in the polls since 1983. UKIP has imploded, with four leaders in the past year and the defection of its only MP. The LibDems remain decimated after their 2015 rout. May sees an opportunity to inflict on Labour its worst defeat since the 1930s, and mop up UKIP voters, cementing Tory domination at Westminster. The government’s slim majority will be expanded, giving the executive far greater room for manoeuvre; it will be better able to face down calls for another Scottish independence referendum; and it will be empowered to push through its EU negotiations without risk of eventual defeat in the Commons, and strengthened against the Lords.

None of this is wrong – May’s own speech makes some of the motivation explicit – but is one-sided. It doesn’t account for why the opportunity she is seizing exists: why is the Labour Party in such dire straits? Why are the LibDems again so marginal? Why is UKIP imploding? A simple answer is: Brexit.

UKIP’s situation is obvious. Its entire raison d’être has been to force a referendum on EU membership. Having succeeded, it is now defunct. Last year’s foolish predictions of a Farragist take over in the event of a Leave vote are exposed as nonsense. With its agenda snatched by the government and its big beasts, major donor and even councillors abandoning it, UKIP is rudderless and its vote share is flat-lining.

The misnamed Liberal Democrats have explicitly sided with “the 48 percent” – the defeated minority in the EU referendum. They have no intention of respecting the outcome of that vote and have done nothing but conspire – wholly ineffectually – to thwart it. As reality moves forward, the LibDems have less and less to say about it.

But the real disarray is Labour’s. At least the LibDems have a clear position on Brexit, one that is likely to gain them some Remainer votes. Labour’s position is demented. Put simply, it is because Labour has nothing coherent or meaningful to say on Brexit that May can win so big in June. However, Labour’s incoherence on Brexit represents something much deeper than Corbynite-Blairite divisions within the parliamentary party, on which many media and academic pundits focus. Labour’s Brexit problem is an expression of its fundamental and inexorable political and structural decline.

In its heyday, the Labour Party sought to further the interests of working people through state intervention in capitalist markets. The party was forced to abandon this distinctive Labourist political tradition by Thatcher’s decisive defeat of the wider labour movement in the 1980s. Labourism was replaced with the “Third Way” of New Labour, which accepted the market’s primacy but sought to combine it with social inclusion and social justice through a less ambitious yet more repressive deployment of state resources. New Labour abandoned the explicitly working-class component of the old Labour programme, triangulating rightward to seek votes among middle-class middle-Englanders, but it retained the party’s more fundamental orientation to the institutions of the British state as the agent of social change.

As the British state was transformed into a member state of the EU, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the Labour Party’s ideological attachments transformed with it.  The EU’s thin cosmopolitanism and its very limited protections of workers rights – so-called “social Europe” – provided one component of the party’s progressive-sounding, Third-Way cover story for its steady abandonment of the interests of its traditional, working-class voters. This story also appealed to the public-sector middle classes that had long supported the party’s high state spending and social programmes, upon which their own livelihoods depended. As their social base shifted and narrowed, then, Labour leaders and active supporters gradually joined a politico-bureaucratic elite that was increasingly cosmopolitan and transnationally networked. A party with strong Eurosceptic traditions was thereby converted into a pillar of the pro-EU consensus.

The party’s internal contradictions were initially moderated by modest, Third-Way social spending and privatised Keynesianism under Blair and Brown, but were dramatically unmasked by the global financial crisis and, especially, the EU referendum. Labour is now caught between two, increasingly incompatible social constituencies: a disaffected, mostly Northern working class, increasingly withdrawing from politics or shifting to UKIP in protest, battered by economic decline, concerned about immigration and increasingly Eurosceptic; and a metropolitan, mostly Southern middle-class, largely benefiting from economic liberalisation and more committed to the EU.

Faced with the EU referendum, a defining political moment, Labour sided with the existing institutions of the British state against the party’s traditional supporters, and with the EU against popular sovereignty. Whatever his own Eurosceptic, Bennite proclivities, Jeremy Corbyn could not align Labour with the Leave campaign without risking its metropolitan support base, and with them many urban seats. Sacrificing his own principles for party unity, he waged a weak and pragmatic Remain campaign.

Corbyn’s true colours showed after the referendum, when he insisted on respecting the result and invoking Article 50. But the party’s profound political crisis remains. Labour cannot mimic the LibDems without losing its residual working-class base, yet it cannot truly embrace Brexit for fear of alienating middle-class, urban voters. It therefore remains stuck in limbo. Its MPs voted to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and only then, having wasted any leverage it had, did the party it issue any conditions for its support in leaving the EU. At best, this makes Labour a bystander for the two years of Brexit negotiations and then a potential spoiler when the final deal is put before parliament. The can has merely been kicked down the road, presumably in the vain hope that – as Tony Blair and others wish – opinion will shift, making an eventual “no” vote more electorally viable.

Labour’s crisis is May’s opportunity. After all, Theresa May is hardly a political colossus. In many respects, she is incompetent, flailing around on core issues and reduced to pilfering policies from Corbyn’s own disastrous predecessor. What allows her to bestride the political stage is not any great political mind, nor any deep popular affection for her party, government, or policies. It is that, alone among the main UK-wide party leaders, and against her own personal sympathies as a cautious Remainer, she is willing to represent the will of the majority of voters as expressed in the EU referendum. This allows her to posture – entirely credibly – against the unelected Lords and the opposition parties as the only person who will act on the referendum’s verdict.

The election campaign will bear this out because, as we have previously argued, the last nine months have been wasted in pointless wrangling over whether to respect the vote, and who gets to pull the Article 50 lever, rather than on the terms of Brexit. UKIP has absolutely nothing to say. The LibDems will merely re-run a referendum campaign that they lost, appealing only to the most embittered Remainers. Labour faces a stark choice. If it cannot now develop a meaningful manifesto for Brexit, an articulated vision for post-EU Britain, rather than a laundry list of things they oppose plus Corbyn’s high-minded rhetoric, it is doomed. All the signs suggest that it cannot rise to the challenge. Labour MPs and mainstream pundits will blame Corbyn for the defeat; left-wingers will defend Corbyn and blame Blairite disloyalty. Both sides will deflect attention from the real rot at the party’s heart. Brexit has exposed the fact that Labour’s entire political tradition is bankrupt.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Trumped: The Nadir of US Representative Democracy

17 Nov

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should. Unfortunately, too many have been quick to reach for a familiar and self-serving excuse: blame the electorate. In 2004, when George W Bush was re-elected, the Daily Mirror spoke for many in asking how 59,054,087 people could ‘be so dumb’. This time around, voters are not only being derided as ‘stupid’, but also misogynist – because they rejected a highly-qualified female candidate for a nasty, self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and also racist – since voters backed Trump either because, or in total disregard of, his intensely racist and nativist campaign rhetoric and policy pledges. But, while sexists and racists doubtless supported Trump, this does not explain how he was able to win the election. Indeed, the ‘whitelash thesis’ only distracts attention from the actual cause of his victory: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

In brief, the ‘whitelash’ thesis is that white, middle-class and especially male voters reacted against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, drawn to Trump’s racialized promise to ‘take their country back’. The thesis draws on facts like the following. 67% of white men backed Trump. His supporters prioritised the (racialized) issues of immigration and terrorism over the economy. Trump voters were not the poorest, earning under $50,000 per year (they voted mostly for Clinton); they are the middle-income workers (who in the US are generally referred to as ‘middle class’), who care more about affirmative action allowing minorities to steal jobs from whites than they care about trade offshoring jobs. So they voted Trump not out of real economic plight, but because they feel their white privilege slipping away to non-whites and, for men, to women. They felt that ‘eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough’, blaming their economic grievances on a black president instead of Ronald Reagan, whose policies actually started the rot. And they voted ‘against an economy they believed was giving women a step up’. The most subtle versions of the thesis admit that not all voters may have been motivated by such concerns, but they nonetheless ‘gave force’ to these retrograde views by endorsing Trump.

No doubt this ugly portrait describes a certain hard-core minority of American voters. Nonetheless, there is no way that this thesis can account for Trump’s victory.

The simple reason is that there was no surge for Trump, even among the white working class; on the contrary, support for the Republicans fell – it just fell much more for the Democrats. In fact, the hallmark of the 2016 presidential election is the radical disengagement of vast numbers of citizens from the democratic process.

This is obvious merely from turnout data, which is being scrupulously analysed on Facebook by Kole Kilibarda. As he puts it: in 2012, the two major parties got about 125m of 130m votes cast, while 90m eligible voters did not vote; in 2016, they got 122.5m of 130m votes cast, while 100m eligible voters (higher due to population growth) abstained.

capture

White voters did not support Trump significantly more than Mitt Romney in 2012: there was only a 1% swing, to 58% for Trump/37% for Clinton. That is, disproportionate white support for Republican presidential candidates is a longstanding fact (going back to Lyndon Johnson’s repudiation of the ‘Dixiecrats’), and did not substantially change in 2016. Evidence from the five ‘rust belt’ states that fell unexpectedly to Trump shows that he only picked up about 300,000 white working class votes. This makes it hard to sustain the idea of a whitelash against Obama.

Indeed, overall, Trump not only got fewer votes than Clinton but also about 400,000 fewer than Romney. He was not a popular candidate whose ideas and rhetoric enthused most Americans. He won just 47.2% of the vote, or 21.6% of the eligible electorate. Many who did vote for Trump did not like him: 57% of whites thought him untrustworthy; a quarter said he was unqualified and lacked the right temperament; and only 42% of his supporters ‘strongly favoured’ him, while 61% of citizens had an unfavourable view of Trump. Many Trump voters also disagreed with key policy positions like deporting illegal immigrants. Trump did not boost his vote with his ‘whitelash’ trash-talk – he didn’t even hold up the Republican vote from 2012. At best, he managed to rally the traditional Republican base – and little more than that.

So the question is not so much why Trump won, but why Clinton lost to such a poor opponent. The fact is that while the Republican vote declined, the Democrat vote collapsed. It fell from 69.5m in 2008 and 65.9m in 2012 to just 61.3m, despite the electorate increasing by over 18m over this period. Turnout was especially bad in states that Clinton lost. Kilibarda’s analysis of the Rustbelt-5 shows that while Trump picked up 300,000 working-class votes, Clinton lost 1.5m as voters either went for third-parties (about 500,000) or abstained. As Kilibarda puts it: ‘Trump did not “flip” these states as much as the Democrats lost them.’ Problematically for the whitelash thesis, Clinton’s collapse was worst among minority voters: compared to Obama in 2012, she was down 8 points among African-Americans and Latinos, and 11 down among Asians. Accordingly, 8% of blacks, 29% of Latinos, 29% of Asians and 37% of ‘other’ minorities voted Republican. This was particularly devastating because demographic change was supposed to work against Trump, with the white share of the electorate declining from 72% to 70% from 2012-16.

So the truth is that white and minority voters abandoned the Democrats en masse; but white voters did not rush for Trump. Far from being the gullible fools of much liberal commentary, somehow believing that the oligarchic Trump was their saviour, they refused to vote for either party, backing third candidates or simply abstaining. Indeed, the 100m citizens who did not vote are the crucial force in this election, dwarfing the voters supporting either main party. Put simply, Trump could not even maintain Republican support levels from 2012, winning thanks only to 107,000 votes in just swing three states. If Clinton had been able to mobilise just 1% of the non-voting population in key states, Trump would have lost.

Her failure to do so cannot be understood independently of racism or sexism. It is true that local laws requiring voters to show photo ID tend to affect (or indeed target) minorities more than whites, which one study suggests depresses Democrat votes more than Republican ones. We will not know their true effect until turnout data is clearer. It is also true that Clinton was down 5 points with men, including Democratic men, while gaining only 1% among women on 2012, and her big collapse among black voters was with men, not women – providing stronger support for a sexism thesis than a racism one, particularly when we consider how many voters had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, race also intersects here: as one commentator puts it, if white working class women had split 50/50 instead of 62/34 for Trump, Clinton would have won.

Nonetheless, invoking these factors as a primary explanation implicitly assumes that Clinton’s platform was good, especially relative to Trump’s, and so a lack of support can only be attributed to malign forces and motives. But actually, many people did not feel her platform was good. No more voters felt enthused by a Clinton presidency than a Trump one – just 4 in 10 for each. 44% of eligible voters viewed her unfavourably. Obama at least offered ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with big ideas on healthcare and the like – though his failure to deliver much arguably explains his waning support in 2012. But Clinton was a pale imitation. She is the quintessential establishment candidate; her sole claim to ‘change’ was to be America’s first woman president.

This may have put off some male voters, as stated above – but it clearly failed to enthuse women, too, given their tiny 1% swing towards Clinton. Some commentators have been quick to blame ‘internalised misogyny’ or female ‘sexism’, especially among whites. But perhaps – just perhaps! – women wanted a bit more and so refused, in Susan Sarandon’s words, to ‘vote with their vaginas’. They stand condemned because they refused to obey the diktat of neoliberal identity politics, preferring instead to vote on other issues.

The same goes for the so-called ‘middle class’ – not the poorest citizens, who are kept afloat by Democrat policies and vote accordingly, but middling workers who, despite working hard, are experiencing declining living standards and feel pessimistic about the future (a parallel here to Brexit). Certainly, some of their grievances may take a racialized form as they blame immigrants or minorities. But what alternative form did Clinton suggest that it take? Unlike Bernie Sanders, who promoted an explicitly class-based framework, it is impossible to say what Clinton offered these people, because she barely addressed their concerns. Clinton has been a leading figure in an increasingly technocratic political class that, since the 1980s, has largely ignored working people, abandoning them to the mercies of the free market, neoliberal trade deals, and stagnating real wages, while cosying up to Wall Street and billionaire donors. ‘Middle-class’ voters would be foolish to believe that Trump would do much differently, but nor can they reasonably have much faith that Clinton will depart from form. Her elitist disdain for Trump’s ‘basket of deplorables’ simply compounded her enormous distance from ordinary voters.

The 2016 US presidential election, then, is a sad story of the hollowing out of America’s representative democracy. The rot was halted temporarily by Obama’s promise of hope and change, but resumed quickly enough. The so-called ‘Grand Old Party’ could not generate a single serious candidate to rival a perma-tanned reality TV star, and even this wild populist could not maintain – let alone increase – Republican support. And the best the Democrat establishment could field was someone loathed by much of the electorate. A hundred million Americans felt so divorced from the political process, so unrepresented by either political party, that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. The result is a president that only a small minority of American voters actually wanted.

Of course, it may still be objected that it is all very well for white workers to abstain; thanks to their ‘white privilege’ they won’t bear the brunt of Trump’s nasty policies. While those pushing this line still struggle to explain (i.e. conveniently ignore) the millions of non-white voters supporting Trump, the more important response is this: in a democracy, a settlement that serves the interests of minorities cannot be created without simultaneously appealing to the interests of the majority. For this reason, fragmented identity politics won’t do. An inclusive socialist platform, capable of appealing to workers of all sexes and ethnicities, remains essential.

Lee Jones

Misinformed Voters: Another Brexit Myth that Refuses to Die

12 Sep

The Electoral Reform Society’s latest report, It’s Good to Talk, recycles – in the politest possible way – a treasured middle-class Remainer myth: that the Brexit vote was simply the result of ill-informed (or simply stupid) people voting to sabotage the country.

The ERS claims to show that there was a huge gap between voters’ very high levels of interest and their very low levels of information. Accordingly, they call for an inquiry into the conduct of referenda, and suggest mandatory six-month campaign periods, and the empowerment of the Electoral Commission or some other neutral technocratic body to issue official rule books, publish a ‘minimum data set’ to establish a truthful basis for debate, and to ‘intervene when overtly misleading information is disseminated’. The ERS is thus joining a growing chorus against ‘post-truth politics’, echoing similar calls for more political regulation – already criticised on TCM by James Heartfield. The ERS also calls for a more deliberative approach to referenda, pushing its own approach of online toolkit plus face-to-face discussions, which it trialled during the campaign period.

Yet there is no real evidence that the public felt any less informed in this referendum than at any other time they are asked to vote. The ERS displays its own prejudices by starting its report with the worn-out canard that the phrase ‘What is the EU?’ was extensively Googled the day after the vote. In fact, fewer than 1,000 people did this. The ERS’s own data shows that the proportion of people feeling ill-informed shrank throughout the campaign, from 46% to 28%, while the proportion feeling very well/ well informed doubled to 33%.

The ERS still tries to claim that voters were more poorly informed than during the Scottish referendum, where ‘56% felt informed’ or 59% felt they could make an informed decision’. Yet, if one adds those reporting an ‘about average’ level of information to those feeling well/ very well informed, the overall number feeling ‘informed’ is clearly higher for the EU referendum, at around 63%. This figure is also higher than for the general election in 2015, and previous polls.

Nor is the ERS persuasive in arguing that voters’ sources of information were unduly limited. The data show that people drew from a vast range of sources, including media, political campaigners, social media, and their friends and family, to make up their minds, with no single source dominant. Voters certainly did not rely only on the claims of a few big name political campaigners in making their judgement – quite the opposite. That is surely a good thing, and surely preferable to relying on the Electoral Commission as the singular fountain of truth, as the ERS counsels.

The report also shows that people were incredibly sceptical of what they were hearing. 46% of voters felt politicians on both sides were mostly lying, versus 19% who thought they were mostly telling the truth; the figures are virtually identical for both Remain (47%) and Leave (46%). A majority also saw both campaigns as overwhelmingly negative.

So there is simply no evidence that people were particularly ill-informed, still less that ‘stupid’ voters were ‘brainwashed’, as many Remainers suggest. Most people displayed normal or above average levels of information; drew liberally from many sources; and assessed those sources sceptically. In other words, most people took their duty as citizens very seriously.

This is not to say that the campaigns were good – far from it. As TCM has argued, they were lamentable, with the nature and operation of the European Union barely discussed at all, whereas issues like immigration, taxation and healthcare were liberally and sometimes irrelevantly canvassed. If British citizens did their duty, it was in spite of the poor mainstream campaigns. But nonetheless, there is no solid evidence here to suggest that voters were any less informed in the referendum than for any other electoral event, such that special rules and regulations for referenda are urgently required. The standard of any campaigning period will naturally reflect the general quality of a democracy – and there are certainly no technical fixes for the profound malaise that British democracy finds itself in. Arguably, under the circumstances, citizens did pretty well.

If the data don’t support the idea of ill-informed voters and post-truth politics, why does this canard continue to be recycled, including by respected bodies like the ERS? Arguably it reflects a simplistic, elitist and technocratic outlook. In this worldview, there is an objective and neutral ‘truth’, established by ‘experts’. Any disagreement with these experts must therefore result either from a lack of access to this information (if one is being generous or polite), or sheer stupidity or malice (if one is not). This is why the ERS recommend both improved citizenship education in schools, intervention by technocratic authorities to establish the truth and quash campaigners making ‘inaccurate’ statements, and their own programme of ‘deliberative’ discussions, which allows experts and academics to dialogue with the great unwashed and correct their misapprehensions.

This is a naïve and degraded view of political contestation. It implicitly assumes that politics is no longer a fundamental clash of different values or interests, but instead a problem-solving exercise of comparing the costs and benefits of policy options, with appropriate technical input to ensure we make the ‘right’ choices. That political life is often conducted in this way is something to be lamented, not encouraged. All it reflects is the entrenchment of policies preferred by particular social groups as the only valid way of doing things, and the pre-defined exclusion of more transformational alternatives.

This viewpoint also expresses a childish notion of ‘truth’. It is absurd to imagine that the Electoral Commission can become an arbiter of truth by publishing a ‘minimum data set’ and intervening to correct ‘untruths’. First, all but the most rudimentary facts are inherently open to interpretation and contestation in political life. For instance, the Commission could have intervened to say that the UK’s net contribution to the EU was not £350m, as Leave campaigners claimed, but about £149m. But it could not have debunked the Leave campaign’s statement that £350m would be added to the NHS budget – because that is a political claim about the future, not something one can prove or disprove with reference to facts. Whether it comes true or not depends entirely on what political actors do next, including the general public. The same goes for the Remain campaign’s threat of a ‘punishment budget’ and two additional years of austerity – depicted as absolute necessities and since swiftly abandoned.

Secondly, even apparent statements of fact are often no more than vague predictions or preferences dressed up as scientific ‘evidence’. How would the Electoral Commission have been able, for example, to address competing claims that Brexit would either cost households £4,300 per year, or leave them better off? If the Commission had surveyed the experts, given the Remainer consensus among professional economists, the Treasury, the IMF and so forth, it would have presented the £4,300 claim, or something like it, as ‘fact’. Yet, their predictions have so far been found wanting. A mild recession seems possible, but not the economic collapse most ‘experts’ predicted.

How, then, are voters meant to make sense of such competing claims? How can they reach ‘the truth’ without some enlightened expert to tell then what it is? A partial answer is that each individual must judge the matter for themselves, and it not democratic to dictate the terms on which that judgement must be made. Ultimately politics is irreducible to ‘facts’; it always involves value judgements. We can seek to make these judgements better informed, but not through technocratic regulation. Rather, the answer is, ironically, a process the ERS itself favours: deliberation. Interestingly, as claims and counter-claims mounted, the proportion of voters relying on friends and family as ‘important sources of information’ grew to over a third, leading the ERS to highlight, positively, ‘an increasing reliance on real-life deliberation’. Once we abandon the childish notion of infallible truth in politics, as JS Mill argued, we can only move towards relative truth through open discussion that subjects different truth claims to sceptical scrutiny. All the evidence suggests that this is precisely what the British public did – in far greater numbers than the paltry 500 participants in ERS forums.

Lee Jones

The racism excuse

28 Jun

Last Wednesday, just before the UK referendum on membership of the EU, TCM pointed out that the true nature of the European Union had not been discussed in the UK referendum campaign because that would have required an honest confrontation with the political void between the rulers and the ruled in Europe. Neither the Remain campaign nor the Leave campaign was willing to address the breakdown in representation that left the interests of millions of voters effectively unrepresented and at the same time led national governments to seek refuge from political accountability in the EU.

In the days following the referendum, that void has been impossible to ignore. Realising that the in-out vote would give them a one-off chance to have a real political impact, millions of traditional Labour voters in the relatively impoverished provincial towns and cities of England and Wales seized the chance that the referendum offered to give the finger to the political class in London and voted to Leave. Divisions between the constituent nations of the ‘United’ Kingdom were also sharpened by the result. A majority of voters in Scotland backed the separatist SNP’s call for a Remain vote, and a majority of voters in Northern Ireland also voted to Remain, leading Sinn Fein to demand unity with the Irish Republic.

The practical exposure of the lack of authority commanded by the British political elite has generated an unprecedented political crisis. In the first of a series on what the referendum tells us, Lee Jones looks critically at the idea promoted by many on the left: that the result is a consequence of rampant working-class racism.

***

The EU referendum has exposed a deep class and cultural divide in Britain. Overwhelmingly, the data show that the lower social classes, particularly those who have lost out from the neoliberal socio-economic revolution of the past thirty years, voted Brexit. Immigration was undoubtedly a huge issue, too. 80% of those seeing immigration as a force for ill voted to Leave, while 79% of those seeing it as a force for good voted to Remain. Although the top reason Leave voters gave to explain their choice was the issue of democracy (49%), the second was immigration and border control (33%).

Accordingly, the dominant reaction of many Remain commentators and voters has been to call Leave voters are stupid, uneducated, and racist. The same attitudes were expressed during the campaign, particularly after the murder of Jo Cox MP, by someone who appears to be a white supremacist, and the release of UKIP’s notorious ‘breaking point’ poster. After the vote, Twitter and Facebook have been flooded with warnings about a ‘race shitstorm’ and ‘Brexit England… expecting the trucks to turn up next week deporting Poles from their council houses’. Leftist commentators openly prognosticate about ‘neofascist nightmares’. This has led many to demand that the referendum be re-run (3.9 million signatures and counting) and propose various other ways to overturn the result.

This response is as revealing as it is absurd. Even at its nastiest, the Leave campaign never proposed removing migrants already in the UK – just restraints on future immigration. There is no reason for any Leave voter to expect any deportations, and there are probably more Remain voters suggesting this, irresponsibly whipping up a frenzy of anxiety among non-citizens. It is, of course, undeniable that a minority of Britons harbour racist attitudes. Likewise these attitudes are – as with the EU vote – correlated with social class, and have risen recently with large-scale immigration. But the proportion describing themselves as ‘very’ racially prejudiced is just 3%. No doubt this small minority feel emboldened – reflected in a reported outburst of verbal abuse. But the idea that we inhabit ‘Weimar Britain’, with racist hordes slavering to take advantage of a Leave vote just doesn’t ring true. Far-right groups like Britain First can barely muster a few hundred protestors. The far-right British National Party received just 1,667 votes in the 2015 General Election. By contrast, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. To treat them all as racist xenophobes is itself an exercise in prejudice and stereotyping worthy of any racist. It is a sign of the ugly elitism that too many on the left seem willing to promote.

Much of the concern around immigration is obviously driven less by racism than by deindustrialisation, rising job insecurity, flat-lining or declining real pay and pensions, and deep cuts in social services. If voters blame those problems on immigration this is not solely a result of the influence of the right. The Labour Party and the wider left is also responsible for failing either to win people over to a pro-immigration position or to mitigate their relative economic decline.

Postwar British politics has always had a strong anti-immigration streak, and Labour and the trade unions have made major contributions to hostility to immigrants. The postwar Keynesian-welfarist settlement was always partly secured through constricting the labour supply by excluding foreigners. From the 1960s onwards, the Labour Party both supported Tory restrictions on immigration, and enacted its own. Left-wing elites only began to move in a more cosmopolitan direction from the 1970s, eventually coming to support large-scale immigration as they embraced wider market deregulation. Following the labour movement’s crushing defeat in the 1980s, left wing parties across Europe were reconfigured from a channel for working-class interests into ‘third way’ electoral machines, ruthlessly triangulating their way towards ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. Increasingly staffed by cosmopolitan lawyers and professional politicos, their links to working-class communities were severed.  They pushed state policy in a formally anti-racist direction at exactly the moment that that their embrace of the market forced them to take their wider working class constituency for granted as mere electoral fodder. The Labour Party’s abandonment of the working class has now come back to bite it.

As argued by James Heartfield, Chris Bickerton and TCM, the EU expresses and entrenches this elite estrangement from the masses. Political elites have retreated into the structures of the state and then networked their states across borders, creating a transnational system of regulatory governance. Decisions that were once exposed to political contestation have thereby been transformed into matters for inter-bureaucratic bargaining and secret diplomacy. This has allowed elites to pursue policies that would not command democratic majorities at home. The free movement of people is just one of these, and part of a broader, neoliberal ‘economic constitutionalism’. Elites present these policies as beyond their control, as immutable outcomes of EU membership – when in reality they reflect and entrench their minority preferences, and those of big business.

The gulf between elites and the masses on immigration was obvious by the early 2000s. After coming to power in 1997, New Labour did nothing substantial to reverse two decades of deindustrialisation, under-employment and widening inequality. Social dissatisfaction rose noticeably as immigration surged – it was not created or ‘unleashed’ by the EU referendum – but politicians either sneered at it, or politely ignored it. Gordon Brown’s infamous description of a Labour voter concerned about immigration as a ‘bigoted woman’ spoke volumes.

New Labour did nothing to win people over to a more positive view of immigration, abandoning the electorate to the right, which was happy to blame foreigners for people’s troubles. Indeed, Labour’s response to rising support for the British National Party was to promise a curb on immigration – a pledge reiterated in the 2015 general election, after years of inaction as austerity fuelled anti-immigration sentiment.

Importantly, both sides in the EU referendum campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, not just the Brexiters. The Remain campaign stressed that Britain is outside of Schengen and that David Cameron had negotiated a curb on benefits that ‘draw’ EU migrants to the UK.

immigration labour photo

The present anti-immigration mood – not just in Britain but across Europe – is not, therefore, a result of a sudden profusion of racist xenophobia; rather, it reflects a structural disconnect between elites and the working classes. The left in particular has abandoned the working class to the economic and political margins, not bothering either to persuade them of the benefits of migration or to do very much about their relative material decline. Instead, Europe’s political parties have clubbed together through the EU to impose their policies without popular consent. They have relied on EU treaties to justify free movement rather than winning the argument for open borders. The referendum outcome reminds us that one cannot rely indefinitely on undemocratic institutions to maintain policies that do not command popular support. This is equally true for those policies, like workers rights and environmental protection, that left Remainers wished to defend by staying in the EU, even while recognising its fundamentally undemocratic nature.

It is crucial for Remainers to recognise that staying in the EU would not have contained this dynamic forever. It is a structural product of the void between rulers and ruled. The idea that the EU is a bulkwark against right-wing populism is nonsense. It is the EU that causes populism to thrive by entrenching the elite-mass disconnect. Right-wing populism is rampant across the EU; indeed, it is stronger on the continent, and inside the Eurozone, than in Britain. There is no prospect of the EU closing the void. On the contrary it intends to rely on increasingly undemocratic methods to block right-wing populists from power.

If Remain had won, the void would still be there, with the opportunities for populist predation only increasing. The view that politicians are ‘all the same’, and ‘only in it for themselves’, is widespread, with many analysts warning of a crisis of democracy. Half of Leave supporters believed the referendum would be rigged, possibly by MI5. Having been systematically ignored for so long, many people do not believe that voting changes anything. Some Brexit voters openly expressed shock that their ballots – apparently cast only in protest – might actually compel political change.

If the rise of Donald Trump tells us anything, it is that these conditions are ripe for exploitation by the most opportunistic, unprincipled and dangerous forms of populism. Remainers who thought they could avoid this outcome by redoubling the conditions that produce it must now come to their senses. In the long run, it is far healthier for democracy that this situation be confronted now, that politicians be forced to engage with the masses, to actually listen to and have to argue with their views, and win genuine mass support for an open society.

The accusations of racism are an excuse for the failure to represent the interests of poorer workers. The left needs to stop branding people idiots and racists, and think about where it has gone wrong. If the left fails to do this, it will only help to create the very outcome it fears.

Lee Jones

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