Like most elections these days it was really still about the economy … we just weren’t talking about the same economy
On the face of it the campaigns were dominated by Remain’s fears about the economy, if we left, and Leave’s fears about immigration if we stayed. These were by far the most-repeated lines offered by campaign leaders and then reported in the media. A superficial analysis says the second fear was greater than the first one. Prejudice and ignorance across the regions led to an old fashioned nationalist vote. Anyone who listened rationally to economists, business leaders, international think tank heads, etc. would see that leaving would be worse for all.
The trouble is that many people weren’t listening to either side much. Campaigners on the ground were aware that George, Dave, Boris and Nigel were all either ignored or deeply mistrusted. They were all part of the self-serving metropolitan elite who hadn’t really suffered during the years of austerity. Arguments about foreign investors, exports, finance, trade, and so on, were all fairly meaningless to people who have watched their local industries and communities steadily disintegrating over four decades. Dire warnings from Christine Lagarde or Barack Obama were even more meaningless. The Guardian’s ‘anywhere but Westminster’ series reveals so much here.
What many did see was local decline. Cheap foreign imports undercut regional industries. Distant CEOs and investors cut wages. And an immigrant workforce contributed to wage stagnation and pressure on local resources. These were all visible things and all related to ‘immigration’ but, at the same time, were related to personal economic concerns. Elites talking about GDP growth, productivity, rises and falls in the FTSE 100, meant nothing. They have meant nothing even in the good times so how can the bad be much different. CRESC’s research papers over the last decade often chart this nationwide decline, a story far too often ignored elsewhere.
Ultimately, ‘the economy’ as it is talked about by political and business leaders has become far too detached from the real economy most people experience. Making models, and numbers add up at the top, is not the same as dealing with real economic issues as felt by ordinary people. Thus it’s no wonder that Gove’s crass remarks about ‘experts’ had quite a bit of purchase.
It was the Sun wot won it … and the Mail and the Express and the Telegraph …
One cosmopolitan-based elite had a greater impact on the vote: the owners and editors of the national media. Studies of Britain’s press have noted an underlying hostility towards the EU running back several decades. MPs and journalists have acknowledged, sometimes with great concern, that it’s been one issue that has been either under-reported or negatively reported for far too long. Periodic surveys show just how little the UK public know about what happens in EU institutions or the consequences for Britain.
The referendum period has witnessed a relentless, aggressive campaign, as strategic as anything that has taken place before. Go to the Loughborough media analysis of news content during the previous four weeks. Their analysis is clear that a large majority of all coverage contained biased reporting and that the large majority of biased reporting supported Leave. If adjusted for circulation, 82% of that biased coverage in total came down for Brexit (see also the Press Gazette).
It was the press that turned the dog whistle racism of Johnson, Farage and others into a full-blown moral panic about immigrants, with the Express in particular offering a daily diet of anti-immigrant front pages. Thus immigration became the focus of those who felt economic decline hardest, just as it was welfare scroungers and over-paid public sector workers before them. The Tory media machine, just as it had after 2007-08, looked to blame anything else but incompetent financiers and politicians.
We witnessed a similar combination of bias and strategic reporting during the 2015 election and, to a lesser extent, in 2010. It’s worse than the 1992 election and has many similarities to the early 1980s bashing of Labour and the unions.
During the Leveson inquiry and since, the press has argued vociferously for the merits of a free press and that any attempts to regulate them would be bad for democracy. The owners of the Mail, Express, Telegraph, Times and Sun were furious with Cameron for putting them under public scrutiny and questioning their activities. It’s no surprise that Johnson and Gove, two journalists by trade, began moving closer to them post-Leveson. It’s no surprise they worked together since and will continue long after, as is likely, Johnson becomes prime minister. By then, we will have government of media, with media, for media.
It’s really time the British stopped thinking we live in a truly democratic country with a free press. It’s really also time that all those media scholars, those who have made careers arguing that ‘media effects’ don’t exist, rethink their position. Whatever the British press once were, they are not so now.
Economic policy has to be taken away from the Treasury and the City
Much of our current economic situation is down to the Treasury and the City dominating economic policy for over three decades. Responses to the 1976 financial crisis, coupled with Thatcherism, worked to hand over economic power to the Treasury and financial sector. The shift has continued through both New Labour’s and Cameron’s time. The results have been a faster pace of deindustrialisation in the UK than any other leading economy, and a turbo-charged financial sector.
Neither the Treasury nor the City have shown any interest in the real economy, traditional industries – even profitable ones, or the regions. The old department of Trade and Industry, as well as the newer department of Business, Skills and Innovation, have been continually run down and made to operate according to an abstract financial market model. It is not just that we have put all our eggs in the financial sector basket. Big finance has been broken and self-serving for many years. It has sucked everything out of the real economy and the regions, undermining new sectors and local economies for short-term quick profits (see Hutton or CRESC here). The odds are stacked against any new industry emerging and being a global success in the UK.
The dominant economic model pursued is based on several mirages: promoting the financial sector in the short-term regardless of long-term consequences, encouraging inward investment (to balance the current account deficit) regardless of what is sold off, and promoting property and other bubbles regardless of the crashes that inevitably follow. With Brexit, each of those things are now going to collapse. The consequences for the UK economy are going to be far worse than the reaction to the crash of 2007-08, even if most of the banks remain solvent (for now). The reality is we never escaped the last economic crisis and we have now run out of conventional tools to deal with this one.
It is the Treasury too, which has continued to encourage immigration (just as the Home Office argues the counter), based on abstract economic models and a boost to GDP and tax take. And it is the Treasury which effectively cut money supporting the welfare state infrastructures which should have supported communities and services which service growing populations. Thus, despite public pronouncements about ring-fencing, schools, social services and health have all suffered real-terms cuts (the NHS, on top of £20 billion ‘efficiency savings’ has had the equivalent of large-scale cuts as it also treats an aging population and has suffered an exponential rise in audit-culture style diktats from the centre).
The political whitewash that followed the 2007-08 crisis cannot happen again. We need a real, public commission to investigate what big finance did and continues to do to our real economy, and the continuing complicity with this of the Treasury and politicians of all main parties.
The Tories will reunite quickly … they just haven’t a clue about what to do next, but then again, nor do Labour
There has been much talk of blue on blue action and about whether the Tory Party will ever be reunited again. However, they will be more united now than if Remain had won. For some decades a large majority of the Party (Parliamentary and rank and file) have been Eurosceptic. They still are. Even Cameron and Osborne are mildly Eurosceptic (as is Jeremy Corbyn). They will find it far easier to fall in behind Johnson, Gove and Duncan Smith.
Did any of them believe anything they said anyway? It was all conducted in the manner of a public school debating club, where winning is all that counts. What takes place in the debating arena stays there too. Johnson used to be more of an inner, Cameron more of an outer. Johnson and Gove were two of Cameron’s closest advisors during his rise to lead the Party in 2005. Blair was their model. Hug a husky one day, green crap the next. Privatise the NHS yesterday and give it all the wasted EU billions today.
The obvious problem is that none of them have any idea what to do next and none of them have any economic credibility. George Osborne is now toast. He picked the wrong side. Today he is standing up trying to reassure the markets but why should anyone listen to a dead man walking?
Gove and Johnson don’t believe in anything other than themselves. They had a plan to lead the Tory party but no thoughts on what to do when they got there, and certainly no plans to deal with what is happening now. Even Cameron and Osborne had a plan of sorts: cut the state and somehow the market fairies will fix everything. Gove and Johnson don’t even have market fairies.
But, no matter how incompetent they will prove to be, Labour are in line to suffer more. As with the Scottish independence vote, it is the traditional Labour heartlands which are drifting off. It’s not just that any Labour regime has to contend with the right wing media, the corporate-financial establishment and a gerrymandered electoral system, they just don’t speak to the regional working and middle classes – neither Blairites nor Corbynites. And when Corbyn is gone, as is increasingly likely, is there a credible candidate that can lead both members and MPs alike while also playing the ‘middle England’ media game?
The only thing predictable at the next election is a record low turnout … unless, that is, the election is linked to a second referendum (now there’s a thought).