This past UK general election result should not have been surprising. Yet it was. We shall discuss why this was the case but let’s dwell on the title of this essay. I think it’s significant that the Conservatives won on the same weekend as V-E Day, the day that Europe celebrates victory over Nazi Germany – the end of World War II in Europe. The complete victory of the Conservatives in the United Kingdom parliament marks the denouement of a long moment in European history that began in 1945; a moment that began with the exceptional Labour victory that year and the systematic pursuit of a collective dream of social democracy. This dream consisted of full employment, free education, universal healthcare, and a party-political movement that aimed to represent the interests of the most vulnerable – the working class. This dream became a nightmare to Thatcher in the 1980s, a neurotic symptom that Blair could never quite work out in the early 2000s, and an irrelevant fantasy to David Cameron today. With his election victory last week, and with the decimation of British social democracy that both preceded his rule and will only continue more rapidly now – we have to reckon with the fact that the moment of this dream has passed. We have put 1945 behind us. The threat of world communism no longer forces us to imagine publics larger than marginal constituencies. The shared horror and triumph of collective participation in war is behind us. The memory of how radical solidarity in the face of global disaster can, in fact, defeat completely the worst manifestations of anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and global capital is long distant, and perhaps no longer a relevant fact to our contemporary experience. Though I, and the honourable musicians of Pink Floyd, would argue that it should be.
Social democracy does not just describe a government providing generous welfare to its citizens, though that is an important feature. It is not simply about a government attempting to achieve full employment through the right monetary policies, though that matters. It is also not all about a strong trade union movement that can allow the most vulnerable workers to stand together and survive against large capital-owners, though that is absolutely essential. A key characteristic of a healthy social democracy is a public sphere that can include within it as expansive and as comprehensive range of voices and perspectives as possible. This does not mean variety for variety’s sake; we can probably find a hundred different contrarian conservative perspectives in Wimbledon, people who take visible joy in their risible opinions – “I’m a Tory because Ed Miliband can’t eat a bacon sandwich, you need leadership qualities to be a Prime Minister for god’s sake!; I’m a Tory because Labour wouldn’t keep the country safe from the Scots; I’m a Tory because Labour would tank the economy; I’m a Tory because radical Islamists have really gone too far in this country”. Of course this doesn’t mean that Tories should be excluded from a social democratic public sphere. A great tragedy is that we don’t get to hear them. They seem to be shy. Why is that?
A healthy, expansive, social democratic public sphere not only includes the hundred contrarian Wimbledon Tories but also the many hundreds of thousands former Labour voters who no longer turn out to vote (three million according to this estimate). For all its limitations, voting (including spoiling ballots) remains a one of the most important public speech acts a citizen can perform. In the marginal constituencies and more clearly in the safe seats, there is a putative Labour-voting majority of working-class and lower-middle class voters who no longer see Labour as representative or even related to their interests. As Seymour notes: “This is not, chiefly, a Tory surge, but the confirmation of a Labour collapse.” More importantly, he finds that
“While relatively affluent voters turned out to support Cameron – with a 75 percent turnout in Thornbury and Yate, where the Tories overturned a 7,000 Liberal majority – working-class constituencies had some of the lowest turnouts in the country. In Manchester Central, turnout was 52.9%”.
If one looks at the declining vote share of Labour in northern England in the past few elections and the concomitant rise of UKIP vote share in the south of England outside London, one sees that the most of the gains Labour made in the marginal constituencies were limited to London. The story of this election was simple. As Lanchester put it: “The Tories smashed it in the marginals.” The way British politics is set up, all it takes for the Tories or Labour to win a majority in parliament is to campaign successfully in a hundred or so constituencies in southern England, outside London. For some intriguing sociological reason, maybe something to do with Englishness and a shared sense of the right thing to do, the marginal constituencies are usually swept altogether by one party or the other – yet strangely, often by tiny margins. This time around, many who formerly voted Lib Dem went straight to the Conservatives. This hyperbolic post on how close some of these marginal results were describes the phenomenon rather well. The Conservatives have usually been able to get a consistent number of people out, Labour have been struggling to get everyone who putatively supports them to go and vote so their “lazy” voters cost them gettable majorities.
The plurality of the voters who turn out in these seats tend to be older, wealthier, and perhaps relatedly, more conservative. They would like a stable economy, some commitment to the existence of the NHS, and safeguarded pensions. They aren’t bothered by the privatisation of public services, rising tuition fees and so on. It’s not really their fight. Both parties, recognising these simple electoral facts, now do all they can to win these voters over. For the Conservatives, this is easy enough to do. You need a charismatic, stately, confident speaker – an Eton Head boy – and you’re set. For Labour, this required taking a bitter pill in the late 1990s accompanied by the dollops of sugar provided by Blair’s grin and Murdoch’s adulation.
New Labour decided to sod their working-class voters, “because they have nowhere else to go”. They decided to give up the working-class identity of the Labour party entirely (as Mandelson, close confidante of Blair, explains). It wasn’t simply about giving up the working-class identity of Labour, because the highly educated, wealthy voters in the marginals would not be fooled by right-wing rhetoric and left-wing policy – they certainly weren’t fooled by Ed Miliband, who paradoxically offered left-wing rhetoric and right-wing policy. It was also about accepting the moral and political presuppositions of the right-wing press. The good life was the “aspirational one”. If you are interested in the development of this vision of the good, this profile of Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail is quite useful.
In this emerging moral-political consensus: welfare had gone too far; benefit scroungers were ruining it for the rest of us; who did these entitled students think they were, reading history and philosophy without incurring any debt?; immigrants, where do I even start? How dare there be unproductive members of society when I work so hard and produce so much? Perhaps a narrow vision of what productivity consists of, but certainly the most commonsensical one. All of this makes perfect sense when you never need to use welfare, when you do work hard and have to pay a substantial chunk of your income in taxes, when you’ve already gone to university for free. It makes sense when, inevitably, your political and moral judgment (as ours will as well) narrows down to your own particular interest.
The fact of the matter is this: British political economy (thanks largely to Thatcher and New Labour) has adjusted itself such that more 50% of the voters – combining the votes gained by the Conservatives and most of the Labour vote, given it’s structural rightward swing that we’ve described above – will consistently support the “aspirational” way of life as opposed to the social democratic one. The bottom 15%, many of whom didn’t vote: the working-class, the vulnerable migrants, the asylum-seekers, perhaps also the idealistic middle-class students who in their callow youth imagine themselves to be living in a better society than they actually are, can either beg, borrow, and steal and be humiliated by the public services merely to survive each winter. Or somehow, usually if they are middle-class students, they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and train themselves to take up the remaining jobs in finance, services, and so on in London – and resign themselves to joining the 50% for whom the system seems to be working admirably well, and perhaps even look forward to shyly voting Tory at the polling station ten years from now.
This is all well and depressing. Two threads remain: our concern for the public sphere and why this result was a surprise. They are part of one and the same phenomenon. No one saw it coming because the pollsters overestimated the Labour turnout on the one hand, and on the other, didn’t account for the impressive English ability to say simply lie to avoid awkward interactions (“Really? You’re voting Tory? Why is that?”, “Labour, I meant Labour.” “Ah, right then.”) More fundamentally, no one saw it coming because the public sphere, the media as well as the party-political establishments have shown no concern for the lives outside the interests of this hard-working, comfortable majority. They will now have to – the rise of the UKIP, a petit-bourgeois formation, will be of interest to this majority primarily because it offers more hand-outs to the well-off, a cultural pride for an England which for too long has been denied its exceptionality, and appeals to a classist stereotype of working-class “racists” that retains a surprising currency in the public discourse. But it is striking to me – and I might be wrong in asserting this – that in this election cycle there has only been one detailed and in-depth story on the many English towns left behind since the 1980s where UKIP has made substantial gains: this fine essay by James Meek. The fact of the matter is that you won’t see writing like this in any of the big papers. As the last forty years have narrowed the moral, political, and economic concerns of the British public to those of the middle classes at the expense of the lowest and most vulnerable – the press has been compelled and persuaded to follow the market. Alas.
No doubt that the moment of the postwar social democratic settlement has passed. At the same time, British social democracy will not go quietly. From the enduring place of Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” on BBC Radio 4 to the runaway success of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”, the British middle-class’s fascination with the country’s history – and the capacity of the BBC to provide riveting stories from it – is unparalleled. Will the next historical drama set in the 1950s and 1960s (flawed and unjust in their own ways) heyday of British social democracy rekindle some enthusiasm for justice?