The 2017 General Election has turned out to be an argument about universality. In Labour’s case, that is relatively obvious. Key policies, such as free university tuition and free school lunches, involve re-introducing free and universal services, in areas where policy orthodoxy had switched towards conditionality of various kinds. The New Labour argument, that universality involves taxpayers subsidizing the rich, has been buried for the time being.
The Conservatives have also become identified with universality, though of a somewhat different kind. The pitch that they hoped would settle this election convincingly concerned the basic institutions of national sovereignty: borders, the nation state, Brexit and national leadership. As I wrote here, May’s rhetorical ploy has been to speak as if she transcends party politics, Brexit divisions or class, and can thereby act as a type of ‘people’s’ leader, fighting Britain’s opponents on behalf of everyone.
One way in which May seeks to channel the post-Brexit mood is to give voice to the anger and resentments of peripheral communities and regions. This involves its own appeal to universality, though not so much in offering to help all citizens equally (as Corbyn is doing) but to clamp down on everyone equally – the sort of Hobbesian perspective that May would have had reinforced during her long tenure at the Home Office. Consider the decision to include foreign students in the net migration target of 100,000. By most standards, this is economic and cultural madness, damaging Britain’s already woeful trade deficit and harming the one sector of society (other than finance) in which the UK is still world-class. However, it makes a certain perverse sense if viewed in terms of universality: in May’s Britain, nobody will be treated with special privileges. The ideology of Mayite meritocracy is not so much about supporting the powerless as constraining the privileged – at least that’s how it is presented, and as the UK economy flat-lines, universities and academics can easily be accused of having had it too easy for too long. It is a policy that only makes sense in terms of resentment, and the desire to ‘level the playing field’, only this time downwards.
The tabloids are absolutely integral to this style of politics, to a far greater extent than was the case even for Thatcherism. Seeing as it is a moral and cultural platform, and not an economic one, it depends heavily on support from those controlling the means of representation, rather than the means of production. It rests on an even closer relationship with Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch, seeing as it can’t rely on cheerleading from the CBI or The Financial Times. Absent the loyalty of the conservative tabloids, and May’s pitch would scarcely have any political traction whatsoever. The obsessive paranoid control of May’s public appearances also demonstrates the absolute centrality of cultural symbolism to May’s authority.
The ‘Corbyn surge’
All of which may help to explain what is going wrong for the Conservatives at the moment. Firstly, they bought into the accepted wisdom that elections are ‘presidential’ personality contests, in which voters decide who they like and trust the most. May’s ambition to represent ‘the people’ rests on the idea that policies are trivial in comparison to core questions of belonging, inclusion and exclusion. Their manifesto contained very few actual policies, presumably for this reason (though I also suspect that the party in government right now is probably more realistic than Labour regarding how much can possibly get done, in addition to Brexit, over the next parliament). Yet the signs from this campaign are that policies can make a profound difference to electoral fortunes, if those policies are based on universality.
Many of New Labour’s most redistributive policies (most obviously tax credits) were never viewed as electoral assets, indeed they were often hidden for fear of how the conservative media would pounce on them. By contrast, a policy like free university tuition seems capable of cutting through all the noise of personality politics, debates, “did you meet the IRA?”, “strong and stable” and who mixed up which costing. An affirmation of hopeful universality seems to be an unexpected electoral asset right now.
By contrast, Theresa May’s core pitch is a type of punitive universality, a vision of a country that is no more prosperous, no more socially or culturally advanced, and gradually grinds to a historical halt – but in which the pain is shared around as equally as possible. After all, nobody (other than the most deluded 19th century fantasists on the Conservative backbenches) believes Brexit will make Britain economically stronger. The argument is simply that we now have to enact the will of the people, and to ensure that the resulting suffering is as fair as possible. The most hopeful word that emanates from May’s scant contributions is “safety”. May’s leadership proposition depends on the future being somewhat grim.
The contrast between Labour and Conservatives right now is captured by this yougov poll on manifesto policies. Labour’s list consists principally of gifts, while the Conservatives’ consists of penalties, restrictions and exclusions. This does not mean that Labour will win the election (my hunch is the Tories will end up with a majority of 30-40) but does help explain what the Corbyn bounce consists of and why many Conservatives are so unhappy right now with May’s leadership and campaign. One party has captured the rhetoric of freedom and progress, the other has opted for that of constraint and control. Right now, May seems a little… constipated.
Secondly, the Conservatives seem to have under-estimated quite how broad Labour’s potential menu of policies can now be, post-Blairism. Oddly enough, Corbyn’s lack of credibility as a ‘leader’ seems to work in his favour when it comes to the appeal of his policies. Precisely because he’s a maverick and a socialist, he is able to pledge things that centrist Labour figures never could, and he can do so with honesty. If Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall suddenly came out for rail nationalisation or free tuition, it would be Nick Clegg all over again. If Corbyn does it, people at least accept he believes it. His often-questioned personality and political past mean that he is able to paint on a far larger policy canvas than Blairites, not because the latter are necessarily cynical but – on the contrary – because they recognise they have to be honest about what they stand for, and that that isn’t higher taxation and spending.
Until recently, the obvious retort to Corbyn’s policy platform would have been brutal economics: “how are you going to afford this? There is no such thing as a free lunch”. This is the type of thinking that plagued New Labour, and saw them win the 1997 election pledging to stick precisely to Conservative spending plans for years into the future. But here again, Labour seem to be benefiting from the post-Brexit atmosphere. Economics, in that narrow neo-classical sense of costing, calculating, cost-benefit-weighing, has lost its monopoly on common sense since June 2016. May is not fighting this election on economic credibility, and so it becomes impossible to attack Corbyn on these grounds either. The game appears to have changed (which is not to say that those economic questions will go away).
It’s against this backdrop that we can understand the disappearance of the ‘centre ground’ and dwindling of the Liberal Democrats in this campaign. In a sense, what liberal government does is to carve a path between ‘hopeful universality’ and ‘punitive universality’. It offers principles and techniques to distinguish between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’, between ‘efficient’ use of public money and ‘inefficient’ use. The reason welfare economics is so useful to governments is that it starts from the premise that governments should spend their money on some things, but not all things; they should help some people, but not all people. Conditionality is a symptom of the expert liberal mindset, one which seeks to achieve the greatest demonstrable return on investment. This may be realistic, but it also cultivates resentment amongst a public that demands something less ambiguous.
Until last summer, party politics was primarily a competition over who was most qualified to use this machinery of government. Now it is almost the opposite. Parties are competing to distinguish themselves from the armoury of bureaucracy, technocracy and expert ‘common sense’. The Conservative campaign is doing this by presenting May as a quasi-monarchical figure, wrapped in the flag, acting for the nation; Labour’s campaign is doing it by flying in the face of economic orthodoxy and policy common sense.
This isn’t just the disappearance of the ‘centre ground’, but the shifting of party politics away from the terrain of technocracy. Regardless of what happens on 8th June, this will have momentous consequences. To put this bluntly, there are vast stockpiles of cultural and financial capital in the UK right now (largely concentrated in London) that have no obvious representation in Westminster. As the two main political parties increase their domination, and as the technocratic liberal centre shrinks, there ceases to be a democratic (or quasi-democratic) route through which financial and liberal elites can have their interests represented.
This is an unusual situation, which isn’t sustainable in the long-term. Three possible results suggest themselves. Firstly, that stockpile of cultural and financial capital, and the elites who benefit from it, will gradually depart the UK. This seems like an inevitable consequence of Brexit anyway, but will be hastened by the fact that there is no party willing to act as the technocratic delegate of the business or globally-reputed cultural community.
Secondly, there is the on-going question of whether a new party will be formed, which has received added enthusiasm since Macron’s victory in France. No doubt some such effort will be made after June 8th, regardless of whether Labour does better or worse than expected. However there are obvious ways in which Britain’s electoral system prevents the success of something like En Marche. The dream-team of George Osborne, JK Rowling and Gary Lineker may not come to pass…
The more perturbing prospect is that that stockpile of cultural and financial capital will find additional extra-democratic ways of making its demands and pursuing its interests. This includes those activities that Colin Crouch classifies as ‘post-democracy’ – lobbying and so forth. It also means operating via (and expanding) those parts of government that are very distant from the democratic process anyway. As Abby Innes has argued, in one of the best critiques of the Conservative Manifesto, the state no longer really resembles the flag-waving, centralised, sovereign-power that ‘Mayism’ appears to celebrate and depend on. It involves outsourcing, contracts, hollowed-out services and a whole plethora of arms-length relationships and agreements. Corbyn’s promises of rapid nationalisation face a similar obstacle: the state is no longer really the state. This remains the great long-term opportunity for the technocratic centre, which may no longer be so welcome in Westminster, but not overly bothered by that either