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Politics through a different lens

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Viewed through a traditional left-right prism of the kind reflexively used by the mainstream media, the outcome of yesterday’s local election is troubling only because it lacks clarity.  The supposed swing to the left that almost defeated Theresa May at the 2017 election appears to have been halted.  On the other hand, there is no evidence that the Tories have won back anything like the number of voters required to win a majority either.

Nor, despite spin to the contrary, will the party leaders be particularly happy with the result.  Labour won more seats, but failed to win their target councils.  Moreover, the lack of a clear swing to Labour leaves unresolved the internal division between the Corbyn and Blair wings of the party.

Similarly, the LibDems will claim that winning back a handful of the seats and one of the councils they lost after their disastrous coalition with the Tories amounts to a victory.  However, the result means that the best they can look forward to is a return to their position in the 1980s; as a fringe party in Parliament and a repository for protest votes at local elections and by-elections.

The Tories appear to be winners in the same sense that Labour was the winner at last year’s general election.  That is, despite being outsmarted at every turn in the Brexit negotiations, despite being plagued by scandals and resignations, and despite seeing the economy decline precariously, the Tory vote held up.  While they lost votes and seats to Labour and the LibDems, they held onto sufficient votes in the right areas of the country to avoid a serious defeat.  At face value, Theresa May herself appears to be a winner by dint of not losing.

For a mainstream media still immured in the pre-2008 neoliberal consensus, the outcome is strangely dissatisfying.  The “country” has neither shifted left or right.  Based on these results, if there were an election tomorrow the result would be almost the same as last year; the Tories would lose a few more seats but still be the largest party… something that, with Brexit looming, could only result in an even greater crisis than the one already brewing.

Seen through a different lens, however, the local election result is entirely in step with the trend of “global Trumpism” that has been growing across the developed states since the 2008 crash.  To understand this, you need to leave your right v left political spectacles at the door, and don instead the new political lenses of globalism/internationalism v nationalism/localism.  Because it is this division far more than the increasingly meaningless left-right axis that has determined the outcomes of the elections and referendums held since the crash.

To understand this shift, we need to move away from the myth promoted by the mainstream media that voters across the US, UK and EU have somehow been duped into voting against their own interests by a series of charismatic false populists promising simplistic solutions to complex problems.  This is a position returned to time and again by Britain’s “Remoaners” – those Remain campaigners who refuse to accept their defeat in the 2016 EU membership referendum.

Typical of this view is this argument from Simon Wren-Lewis, Emeritus Professor of Economics and Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford:

“The view of the overwhelming majority of economists, and all the analysis from serious academics, the OBR, IMF, OECD, and now even the government, is that leaving the EU will involve significant economic costs. Yet despite all this the poll above shows as many people think we will be better off leaving as think we will be worse off. This is the kind of polling that should stop everyone in their tracks, much like the polls before the US election that said more people trusted Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.

“The result in this poll is all the more incredible because so far people are worse off as a result of Brexit. They are worse off because a depreciation immediately after the vote led to higher import prices that have not been matched by rising nominal wages. We have moved from the top to the bottom of the OECD growth league table. A belief that we will be better off has to involve Brexit in some way reversing what has already happened.”

According to Wren-Lewis, there are but two explanations for this – either (as expressed by Michael Gove) people don’t trust the experts, or that the media somehow failed to properly convey the serious economic harm that leaving the European Union would rain down upon the heads of the British people.

There is, however, a third – and I believe far more persuasive – reason why people voted in large numbers against the advice of the experts.  It is a reason that was clear to anyone paying attention in the run up to the vote, and it continues to inform every aspect of contemporary UK, US and European – politics.  We now live in so extremely economically divided and politically polarised a society that each side is now prepared to risk harming itself in order to bring economic ruin on its opponent.  What we are witnessing, particularly in England and Wales (Scotland has a different politics) is class struggle in a post-labour movement era.

Economists like Wren-Lewis speak to a particular class – affluent, young, metropolitan, university educated, internationalist in outlook.  Contrast that with the people in working class Leave-voting areas interviewed by John Harris in the run up to the referendum:

“Hardly anybody talks about the official campaigns, and the most a mention of the respective figureheads of each camp tends to elicit is a dismissive tut – but just about everyone agrees that this is a fantastically important moment, and a litmus test of the national mood…

“In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into clichés, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. ‘I’m scared about the future’ … ‘No one listens to us’ … ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares.’

“And of course, none of it needs much translation. Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system, and retirements built on thin air?”

This is the class whose fathers had worked in the heavy industries so casually destroyed by Thatcher and Blair as they constructed their neoliberalist vision of a globalised, multi-cultural world.  Men (prior to the Sex Discrimination Act) whose wage had been sufficient to buy a house, support a family, run a car and pay for an annual holiday.  These are the inheritors of Britain’s equivalent of the US rust-belt regions that propelled Donald Trump into office; and for much the same reasons.

In both the US and the UK the nominal parties of the political left – Democrats and New Labour – deliberately distanced themselves from their respective labour movements and working class base.  Instead, both adopted “voter farming;” “triangulating” their policies so that they resonated with particular demographic groups such as Blair’s “Mondeo Man.”  Those still residing in the respective rustbelts no longer mattered because they had, it was assumed, nowhere else to go.  This is one reason why Scotland – where the Scottish National Party actively moved into the working class space vacated by Blair’s New Labour – has an entirely different politics to England and Wales.

The problem with this approach is it depends upon generating sufficient economic growth to continue offering electoral bribes – tax cuts, public services and new laws – to those – primarily affluent (socially) liberal – demographic groups required to secure a majority in government.  Even under Blair, sufficient numbers from the New Labour demographic had gone over to the Liberal Democrats (the Tories were still seen as toxic prior to 2008) to raise the prospect of UK elections becoming a three-party race.  However, it was the hapless Gordon Brown who reaped the bitter harvest that Blair had sown.

The crash of 2008 changed everything.  As in the US, the British government chose massive borrowing to bail out insolvent banks.  As a consequence, the Brown government was obliged to begin clawing back the various electoral bribes that had kept sufficient numbers of the affluent classes in the New Labour fold.  Brown had promised, but was incapable of delivering; an alternative labour politics that would win back a working class that had become electorally apathetic by 2010.  While the working class stayed at home, the affluent classes switched their votes to a supposedly left-leaning Liberal Democrat Party that jumped into coalition with the Tories at the earliest opportunity.

As with Brown, the pale pink attempt to revive Labour’s fortunes under Ed Miliband failed even to resonate with a discontented working class whose standards of living had been crushed in the course of the previous 35 years.  By this time, a large part of Britain’s working class had been seduced by the false populism of the UK Independence Party with its anti-EU message that blamed the plight of working people on internationalism, multiculturalism and immigration.

It is very likely that the slim majority gained by David Cameron in the 2015 general election was won on his promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.  Cameron himself will go down as one of history’s idiots for this self-inflicted wound, as it is certain he had anticipated another coalition with the Liberal Democrats in which he would be obliged to renege on the referendum promise.  Worse still, having easily won referenda on the AV voting system and Scottish Independence (both using the “project fear” strategy) Cameron failed to do his homework and failed to see his looming defeat.

The one thing, however, that Cameron was abundantly clear about was that Brexit would cause severe economic damage to the British economy.  The first substantive heading in the government’s pro-Remain booklet delivered to every household in the UK was: “A stronger economy.”  The first substantive paragraph reads:

“The EU is by far the UK’s biggest trading partner. EU countries buy 44% of everything we sell abroad, from cars to insurance. Remaining inside the EU guarantees our full access to its Single Market. By contrast, leaving creates uncertainty and risk.”

The booklet goes on to list the thousands of jobs that would be put at risk by voting to leave, together with the damage to living standards:

“If the UK voted to leave the EU, the resulting economic shock would put pressure on the value of the pound, which would risk higher prices of some household goods and damage living standards.”

The booklet also points to the flaw in the pro-Leave argument that the EU has more to lose than the UK:

“Some argue that we could strike a good deal quickly with the EU because they want to keep access to our market. But the Government’s judgement is that it would be much harder than that – less than 8% of EU exports come to the UK while 44% of UK exports go to the EU.”

At the time, the Leave campaign cried foul over this booklet precisely because it was pro-Remain.  In effect, the full weight of government was being deployed in support of the Remain side.  Moreover, as the campaign went on, Bank of England Chairman Mark Carney was drawn into the pro-Remain camp as that institution also pointed to the severe economic harm that Brexit would cause.  This was followed by various luminaries from international bodies like the World Bank, the OECD, the G20 and the IMF joining the pro-Remain side because of the economic harm that would result from Brexit – drawing Gove’s infamous retort:

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” (My emphasis)

This would seem to support Wren-Lewis’s argument that Leave voters understood the economic harm message, but refused to believe the experts who were delivering it.  This is superficially plausible, since it plays into the “classism” (or whatever the equivalent of racism or sexism is when applied to the working class) that spent most of the referendum campaign screaming “racist!” and “moron!” at anyone who openly professed a desire to vote Leave.

Much has been made of the fact that highly educated people were far more likely to vote to remain while uneducated and poorly educated people were more likely to vote Leave.  This, however, is merely to posit a symptom as a cause.  Following the collapse of British industry in the 1980s, education and class became synonymous.  In order to access the dwindling pool of high paid jobs in banking, tech and government and largely in the Cambridge-Oxford-London triangle, even a university degree was insufficient.  Only those who could afford – or could afford to take on the debt – to obtain a higher degree were guaranteed membership of the affluent class.  The growing numbers failed by the education system – including millions barred even from sitting exams because their predicted failure would affect their schools’ position in the league table – were increasingly stuck in places where there were no jobs to be had, and where periods of dependence upon an unreliable and punitive social security system was a given.

It is no accident that the cities and regions with far below-average wages in the UK in almost every case delivered the highest votes in favour of leaving the European Union… a vote that had as much to do with punishing their own national elite as with the intricacies of the European project.  These were Britain’s “deplorables” refusing to play the role allotted to them by the politicians and journalists residing inside the Westminster Village.

This was a situation decades in the making, and yet it struck the affluent class like a bolt out of the blue.  The big failure of the Remain campaign was not that it did not get its economic message across, but that its message only made sense to the affluent classes living and working in and around the City of London. An open letter to Remain voters from Duncan Leadbetter highlights the issue:

“As regards the UK it cannot just rely on London growing whilst the rest of the UK is left to fend for itself. The high Brexit vote in Sunderland can be better understood by the comments of one would be Brexiteer who after being told if he voted for Brexit the GDP of the UK would fall retorted ‘it is your GDP not my GDP.’”

Leadbetter goes on to explain his reasons for voting to leave the EU:

“The emphasis placed on services in the UK has seen London become the financial centre of the world. Today London accounts for over 30% of all tax revenues and over half of the nation’s GDP. The rest of the UK has been left languishing with a few exceptions.   Despite the success of London, since 1983, the UK has not been able to pay its way in the world. Each and every month the value of its exports, manufacturing and services have been less than the value of its imports. The shortfall has to be paid either by borrowing or selling the nations silver – businesses, land and property. For the past 15 years the amount of tax collected by the government has fallen short of the amount spent by the government. This is despite that up to 2007 there had been sustained increases in growth (GDP) and thus tax receipts. At the same time there was increased expenditure on health, education and social security benefits. The increases were due to rises in the population and a stagnation in wages resulting in 50% of those working receiving benefits to varying degrees – working tax credits and housing benefits. The fact that 50% of those working need help to meet their bills must raise a fundamental question as to whether the economic model of the UK is working.”

It was – and is – entirely possible to point out that these trends would most likely have happened irrespective of whether the UK was in or out of the EU, and that leaving was unlikely to change them… but nobody on the Remain side bothered to do that.  Instead, they tried to pretend that the people trapped in poverty in Britain’s equivalent of the US rust-belt had somehow been equal beneficiaries of European largesse:

“[Ebbw Vale] is a town with almost no immigrants that voted to get the immigrants out. A town that has been showered with EU cash that no longer wants to be part of the EU…

“Wales isn’t just a net EU beneficiary, EU capital funding has been an essential part of attracting firms to come here. All around town are signs marked with the EU flag for the Ebbw Vale enterprise zone. The website notes that as an EU tier 1 area, ‘companies can benefit from the highest level of grant aid in the UK.’”

What they fail to point out is that very little of that money ever found its way into the hands of ordinary people in the most deprived areas of the UK.  Instead it was funnelled through devolved governments, local councils and development agencies into the hands of people from the same affluent class – those who make a living out of addressing, but somehow never getting around to overcoming – the plethora of social problems that stem from poverty and inequality.  If you were looking for a symbol of that European largesse, look no further than the EU-funded cable car that links Ebbw Vale town centre with the college and the railway station:

“A £2.3m mechanical lift in Blaenau Gwent has broken down more than 250 times at a cost to the council.  The cable car, which links Ebbw Vale town centre with the former steelworks site, opened in 2015.  But BBC Wales has learned the lift, which costs £52,000 a year to run, had to be stopped 252 times from 2015-17…

“The lift was installed in 2015 to help pedestrians travel easily between Ebbw Vale town centre up and down a steep hill to the former steelworks site – which is now home to a college campus – a school and the Gwent Archives.

“It was paid for with part of a £12m European Convergence Programme grant.”

While the company that built and installed the overpriced cable car walked away with £2.3 million, the people of Ebbw Vale are left in an even worse position as a result of it because their hard-pressed local council has to foot the ongoing costs even as its budget is being cut by the UK and Welsh Governments.  Repeat that result across the regions of the UK that have “benefited” from EU funding and you begin to understand why people might come to regard the EU as part of the problem rather than the solution.

In any case, as the Bevan Foundation – a local think tank that conducts research into poverty and inequality – points out, EU-funding is actually a drop in the ocean and nothing like the intervention that would be required to rebuild places like Ebbw Vale:

“A huge deal has been made of Wales’ EU structural funds over the years. Such has been their prominence that a row over match-funding toppled Wales’ first First Minister, Alun Michael, in 2000. And they’ve taken up an inordinate number of headlines and Assembly debating time ever since.

“They frankly don’t deserve this coverage, because the actual spend – about £4 billion over 20 years – is a drop in the public spending ocean. The average annual allocation of about £200 million (i.e. £4 billion divided by 20) is just 1.5% of the Welsh Government’s budget. Indeed EU funds are tiny compared with mega-cash splashed by the UK Government, like £9 billion on the 2012 Olympics or £14.8 billion spent over nine years on Cross Rail 1. Even England’s Regional Growth Fund – which may well have passed you by – beats Wales’ EU funding with £3.2 billion over five years.

“EU funding pales even further into insignificance when the huge problems Wales faced are taken into account. Over the 1980s and 1990s parts of Wales had seen their local economy devastated as a result of coal and steel closures and multiple recessions. In truth, EU funding simply wasn’t enough to address problems on this scale.”

Thus, one of the few attempts made by the Remain campaign to point to a benefit of EU membership turned out to be of little relevance to those voters who tipped the balance decisively in favour of Brexit.  Far from being ignorant of the economic arguments, or not believing the dire warnings issued by economists, Britain’s working class understood full well what they were doing in June 2016 – they were obliging Britain’s affluent class to consume a little of the fayre they had been treated to for decades.

The political manifestation of this is blurred by the lens of a left-right divide that ceased being relevant in the 1990s.  The contemporary division that has opened up on both sides of the Atlantic is between nationalism and globalism.  And since the process of globalisation in which people’s jobs were offshored to Asia and their public services privatised and sold off to Russian oligarchs, Chinese bureaucrats and Arab oil sheiks, the nationalists were always going to win their votes… hence Brexit… hence Trump.

Seen through a national v global political lens, the real story behind yesterday’s English local election results is the one that the mainstream media is studiously failing to mention… the collapse of the UK Independence Party; the party that has arguably set the political agenda in Britain for most of the last decade.  At the previous (2014) local elections, UKIP won 17 percent of the vote; making them the third largest party in the UK.  Yesterday they held onto less than four percent; confirming that following the Brexit result there is no clear reason for them to continue to exist.

The reason for the UKIP collapse, however, is both simple and alarming – the hard-Brexit Tories are now the driving force in government.  This is terrible news for the Tory Party in general and Theresa May in particular as it simply adds to their Brexit woes.  This is because the globalist v nationalist divide exists within parties rather than between them; making it impossible to adopt either position.  While the hard Brexit Tories have the upper hand, there is a sizeable bloc of pro-Remain Tories and, more importantly, a donor base in the City of London that will be devastated when the UK leaves the EU without a deal.

Labour meanwhile has a similar problem.  Although Corbyn was among a minority of Eurosceptic Labour MPs, the wider Party is formed from the young, affluent metropolitan class that desperately seeks a means of reversing or ignoring the referendum result.  Indeed, a large part of the swell in support for Labour in the run up to last year’s election came from that section of that class that felt cheated by the referendum result.  This matters because – as yesterday’s results demonstrate – that class is a minority (albeit a large and vociferous one).  So while Corbyn and labour have been pulled grudgingly in the direction of remaining in the customs union/single market, Labour cannot win a general election from that position. For Corbyn’s Labour to win a general election on a globalist/pro-EU ticket they must somehow either persuade a large part of Britain’s working class to stay at home or win them over to a programme of economic reform that realistically promises to reverse the privations of four decades of neoliberalism.  Neither looks likely in the short-term.  Indeed, it is far from clear that any programme of government can reverse the decline of Britain’s rust-belt regions; particularly if it is constrained by the current EU rules.

The one consolation is that Theresa May’s position looks increasingly untenable.  Her attempts at fudging Brexit in order to hold her party together are wearing increasingly thin with the EU’s negotiators (who may use the Irish/Gibraltar border issue as a pretext to force Britain to choose between a hard Brexit or remaining in the EU in all but name) and with her own hard Brexiteers (who will likely use Tory dependence upon the support of ex-UKIP voters as reason to replace May with one of their own the moment she wavers in the negotiations).

Beyond this, of course, is the very real spectre of economic dislocation caused by Brexit at a time when the global economy as a whole is on the edge of recession.  So far, despite the misery of austerity and the ensuing collapse of public services, the Tory government has avoided a broader economic crisis.  However, we are now in the second longest (and weakest) period of growth on record.  That has to come to an end sooner rather than later.  And when it does, like every other recession before it, the crisis will be blamed on the government.  When that happens, the road to government will be open to Labour provided they can reconcile their own globalist v nationalist divisions beforehand.

As you made it to the end…

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