Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 26 March 2019

Left behind movements do not just reflect deindustrialisation, but also geography, inequality and lack of representation.

There was extensive analysis after the UK EU referendum of the characteristics of those who voted for Brexit and those who didn’t. A robust finding was that those who voted for Brexit tended to be older and had less years of education. But some noted a link between a tendency to vote Leave and areas of deindustrialisation. The idea of the ‘left behind’ was born. It gained force when rest-belt states in the US swung to Trump in the same year.

This characterisation of the left behind was attractive to many on the left, who have been critical of the globalisation they saw as the cause. Yet as Martin Sandbu points out, the period of what is often called hyper-globalisation is the 1990s, and much deindustrialisation occurred before then. Some of that was a result of automation rather than globalisation, and in the UK 1980s deindustrialisation was hastened by a large appreciation of sterling caused by a combination of discovering North Sea Oil and monetarism. Why the 30 year delay for the left behind to finally find its political voice?

If we look at the geography of the Brexit vote, areas of deindustrialisation is not the only thing that strikes you. Much more obvious is that people in large cities voted against Brexit, and those in smaller cities or towns or the countryside voted for Brexit. The same was true for Trump, and Trumps core support comes from rural areas. Is this simply a consequence of differences in age and education already discussed?

It could well be. As the Centre for Towns showed, UK villages and towns have been getting older and cities have been getting younger. Jobs that attract the university educated tend to be in cities rather than in towns and villages.The old tend to be more socially conservative, and so are attracted to the anti-immigration message that was a key part of the Leave and Trump campaigns.

There is no doubt these factors are important, but do they explain all the the geographical nature of the support for Brexit and Trump, or is there more to it? I think the gilet jaunes from France can shed some light on this question. As John Lichfield outlines, the gilet jaunes come from peripheral France: the outer suburbs and countryside. That may include some areas of deindustrialisation but it goes well beyond that. Their protests are self-organised and remarkably persistent. They do not fit any clear left/right categorisation. Immigration, or race, are not high up among their concerns, which is why they do not feel represented by the far right party of Marine Le Pen.

What do the gilet jaunes want? Specific demands are varied and often contradictory. But a dominant theme is that they want to be valued and represented. They feel that the centres of power in France, the government but also other organisations, do not speak for or even respect them. They think the major cities are getting all the benefits of growth while they are falling behind.

The gilet jaunes tend to be working or lower middle class, sometimes self-employed, sometimes retired. Initially their protests were sympathetically viewed by most French voters, which was one reason why Macron responded with tax breaks for pensioners and low income workers. As time goes on and the violence has continued their popularity among French voters has waned. Whether they have a future as a coherent force may depend on whether they can transform themselves into a conventional political group that wins seats in the forthcoming European elections, a process which has already led to some fragmentation along traditional left/right lines.

Macron’s election as President of France had led many to think that the wave of populism influencing democracies around the world could be held back or even beaten. What the gilet jaunes show is that this cannot be done just by electing a charismatic President. Indeed the character of Macron, clearly part of an affluent city elite, may even have been a provocation.

Can the gilet jaunes tell us anything about those who voted for Brexit or Trump? All three movements come from outside of the main cities, so perhaps geography is more than just an incidental factor. What is unique about the gilet jaunes has been self-organisation, made possible through social media, and the variety of their political demands. In contrast Trump is a Republican, and Brexit is a very specific cause. But perhaps this difference just reflects the ability of some politicians and parts of the media to capture the discontent of the geographical areas that feel left behind?

The EU was not considered an important issue among most voters until the referendum. Immigration was, but a good part of that was because the government and press had managed to deflect anger at declining public services and wages on to immigrants rather than their own policies. Whereas the gilet jaunes had to organise themselves using social media, Brexit and to some extent Trump had sections of the conventional media to do that job. While many gilet jaunes want to overturn the government, Brexit supporters succeeded because they had the help of politicians and the media.

Underlying causes in all three cases include geographical and financial inequality, and a feeling of being ignored by conventional politics. In the UK, looking mainly at the first decade of the century, a NEF report found that nearly all of the 20 fastest growing constituencies were in cities. Often the prosperity of towns depends on the success or otherwise of a nearby city. Those in the periphery see money going to projects like crossrail or HS2 while local bus services are cut.

People look at others to measure their own prosperity but they also look at their own past. In the UK real wages are still below levels before the financial crisis, and in the last year the disparity between the incomes of most people and those at the top of the income distribution has started to increase again. (It is one reason why the Chancellor is getting more tax receipts than he expected.) In the US most of the proceeds of growth have for some time been going to the top of the income distribution.

We can see the same thing, although to a lesser degree, in France. Here is a revealing graph from a study by Thomas Piketty and colleagues. It shows how average annual growth rates of pre-tax income has varied by where people are in the income distribution over three time periods. To the right we have the richer income deciles, including at the end the top 1%, 0.1% and 0.01% respectively. In the two periods before the 1980s incomes at the top grew less rapidly than all other groups. From 1983 to 2014 the opposite has been true: growth rates of top incomes have been up to three times those of everyone else. In addition the growth rate of incomes of the non-rich have been historically low.

Low average growth in most incomes together with much faster growth in incomes at the top is provocative, particularly if you are in parts of the country that are stagnating with few prospects. I do not think it is any coincidence that a week ago we saw the gilet jaunes targeting the exclusive shops and restaurants of the Champs-Élysées.

Inequality based on incomes or geography is not enough to get the gilet jaunes on to the streets, to get UK voters to want to take back control, or Trump voters to vote for the worst President in a century. This also requires a feeling that your voice is not heard in the political process. In the UK a feeling of powerlessness was hijacked by politicians and the press who pretended it was a result of the EU, or in the US by Trump who pretended to speak for ‘real America’.

Speaking up for those left behind should naturally be something parties on the left do. Yet in the UK, as the NEF report shows, Labour have been increasing their vote share in dynamic cities and the Conservatives from areas in decline. This may be part of a longer term trend in both the UK, US and France, where the left party that once represented the less educated now is the party of the educated. The chart below taken from another study by Piketty shows this trend, which he calls it the emergence of the “Brahmin Left”.

Yet I think this alone is an incomplete explanation. To explain recent developments we should add the adoption by traditional left parties of a neoliberal framework which discouraged regional, industrial and redisributive policies that might have transferred more of the benefits of city dynamism to the periphery. That created a left behind that went beyond areas of deindustrialisation, that felt unrepresented and deprived, and which in the UK and US was open to capture by a populist right.


  1. Is wage/price rigidity part of the story? If the periphery had its own currency, would it have depreciated significantly compared to the cities thereby making them more attractive for investment?

  2. Typo "rest belt" -> "Rust belt"

  3. This is a great piece of work, as expected. I am just wondering what you're suggesting in terms of policy prescriptions? Redistributive policies can be very hard to enact (due to entrenched interests, unpopularity, etc.). Is there really any way to reinvigorate regions that are declining in an age where the only way rich countires can compete with cheap labour is by embracing the economies of scale cities offer?

  4. Excellent analysis. You hit all the main points. I would add that traditional left parties are also often seen to be responsible for the sorry state of affairs of the "left behind". They are viewed as guilty for sustaining liberal economics such as free trade and free markets. Unemployment is seen as their fault. So they'll vote for anyone who's NOT part of the political establishment and offers "change".

  5. An important point and a very interesting column. In the USA, many scholars seem to resist the left behind idea; they are more interested in finding excuses to condemn Trump voters than in understanding them. Instead, they prefer to ignore the massive demographic and economic changes in rural and suburban areas. Trump's policies offer these people nothing but more heartache, but his words offer them hope. I suspect that much the same is true in the UK.

  6. "A robust finding was that those who voted for Brexit tended to be older and had less years of education."

    Yes older people when they were young had less opportunity for education today's young people. And your point is?

  7. "Much more obvious is that people in large cities voted against Brexit, and those in smaller cities or towns or the countryside voted for Brexit."

    Yes, I live just outside the green belt in a village where the current draft Local Plan proposes a doubling of the number of houses within the next 10 years and further growth beyond. They are already in the process of completing a new settlement of 1,500 houses a couple of miles away. Not surprisingly Freedom of Movement isn't very popular in these parts. I recently visited a London suburb where I saw not a single building site, people there were very much in favour of Freedom of Movement.

    It is all very well for the residents of Hampstead and Dulwich Villas voting to remain in the EU but they don't have to bear the consequences of the population influx. Journey times to work in my local town have doubled in recent years yet still they keep building.

    A while back you suggested that future Governments should tackle the root causes of the Brexit vote. I would suggest abolishing the green belt and bulldozing the leafy suburbs of London to rebuild at a housing density similar to that in the new settlements around here.

    I would very much regret seeing the desecration of the London suburbs but there again I very much regret the desecration of our village and the local countryside here. I would prefer that we didn't have a laissez faire policy towards European migration and that we could restrain population growth to a rate consistent with a tolerable rate of building development

  8. The plane wreckage from the Smolensk crash of 2010 has tested positive for explosives. The tests were carried out at the UK's Forensic Explosives Laboratory at Fort Halstead, Kent.
    Donald Tusk went to extreme lengths to cover up this crime and faked forensic reports into this mass assassination of Polish dignitaries, including his arch-enemy President Lech Kaczynski.
    More testing is being carried out in Belfast and Rome. Liberal Democracy is dripping with blood.

  9. For me the credit crunch casts a shadow here because it showed the ruling class and the establishment do what it does; regardless of party or country, the common response to a disaster of their own making was to look after their own in ways that financially punished the rest of us.

    The guilty were early retired off or left to leave of their devices with handsome golden parachutes, because that’s just how things are done old boy (whereas Fred Goodwin, for example, could arguably have been summarily dismissed for breaching multiple HR policies). Taxpayers bailed out banks on easy terms in the US, less so in Britain, but in both cases the goal was the same; a return to the status quo.

    The great and the good mounted wilfully interminable investigations, politicians showboated, all to give the impression something was and must be done, but as already said, the goal was returning to a status quo that’d produced the credit crunch in the first place and all that meant and means in terms of inequality and injustice. For an example of class at it’s most raw compare the legal treatment of the Euribor fraudsters with the special court sittings held and punitive sentences handed out to English rioters, heck it’s enough to make you take to the streets.

  10. Simon for God's sake stop referring to immigration opponents as "social conservatives". You know full well that many of them oppose it over purely economic fears, even if those are ill-founded. Why tar all with the same brush and antagonise your audience so unnecessarily?

  11. Excellent piece. You are perfectly right to note important factors other than deindustrialization/globalization as drivers of current discontent in many democracies. The emergence of the "Brahmin Left" is particularly important in the failure of left-leaning political parties to appeal to the discontented. American commentator Thomas Frank has flagged this development - making the "professional class" the new party base - as the major cause of the failure of the Democratic Party to counter the regressive policies of the Republicans.

    One slight niggle - I think the answer to your question: Why the 30 year delay for the left behind to finally find its political voice? - might simply be that often it takes a generation for people to realize they've been screwed and to get fed up enough about it to rebel. The dynamic of a slow-burning political fuse can be far more complex than is apparent. So the older screwed folks vote for the likes of Trump and Brexit, and battle 'Macronism'; millions of their children are driving the rise of Jeremy Corbin and Bernie Sanders. (What will happen in France remains to be seen; at present there doesn't seem to be a comparable leftist political leader to attract the same sort of support.)

  12. How about comparing employment (do you work for global business? Local business? Public sector? Manufacturer? Finance? EU-subsidised?) against referendum vote? I think that might strongly influence your Brexit outlook.

  13. One of the interesting things is that Leave wasn't just a movement of the economically left behinds. There were a lot of relatively prosperous areas along the South Coast, for example, that went Leave (if only by relatively small margins). For example, these are some of the Leave voting constituencies from Kent, Sussex and Hampshire which are in the bottom 50% of the 2015 English parliamentary constituency deprivation index (1 is the most deprived English constituency, 533 the least):

    Worthing West: Deprivation 335, Leave 56%
    East Worthing and Shoreham: Deprivation 336, Leave 54%
    Bexhill and Battle: Deprivation 356, Leave 58%
    New Forest East: Deprivation 411, Leave 60%
    New Forest West: Deprivation 452, Leave 55%
    Eastleigh: Deprivation 461, Leave 54%
    Fareham: Deprivation 505, Leave 56%

    If these towns are "stagnating", it's from a very high initial state. And apart from Eastleigh, which elected a Liberal Democrat between 1994 and 2015, these have all been safe Conservative seats for at least 20 years, so it's hard to see them as politically unrepresented. The prosperous South Coast leave vote doesn't fit the dominant economic narrative about Brexit, so it tends to get ignored, but it all helped Leave get that small overall edge.

  14. While it may be to some extent true that "we should add the adoption by traditional left parties of a neoliberal framework", I think it misses something important if we do not attend to the reasons for such adoption.

    I cannot speak knowledgeably about France, but if we look at the US, then the first jump on the graph corresponds to the Johnson presidency, and the second to the Reagan presidency. I don't think that one can reasonably consider the Johnson presidency to be a shift away from traditional policies (nor even those of the Carter presidency, in any significant way). Similarly in the UK, the jump in the graph corresponds to the Thatcher government, and not any particular changes in policy by Labour (at least to my knowledge, though I am less informed here).

    The conclusion I would draw is that the changes in policy positions by "traditional left parties" are as much an effect as a cause (at least in the US and UK), as such parties attempted to chase voters who were no longer supportive of "traditional left" positions.

    One could argue that the adoption of neoliberal positions has harmed the chances of traditional left parties, but a contrary point would be the situation here in the Netherlands, where parties (such as the SP and Groenlinks) who have never adopted such positions have nonetheless not been rewarded by voters, who have chosen instead to move from 'liberal' parties to 'populist' ones.

  15. Tragically, the "left behind" white public in Europe, the UK, and the USA have mis-identified how to solve their problems. It is not a bad guy who will burn the house down or drain the swamp who can redistribute capital, jobs and public resources. Transnational capitalism- I call it the Marketocracy -is the culprit. Corporate sovereignty is trumping national sovereignty, representative democracy, and civil society around the world. The process accelerated rapidly during the Reagan administration and is accelerating now. It transfers wealth and sovereignty from individuals and governments to primarily U.S.-based transnational corporations, and transfers increasing numbers of regulatory and judicial processes to their trade courts. As a result, the relationship between civil society and governments and between governments and TNC’s has deteriorated. The US government’s primary focus is less on the public funding of civil society, and more on facilitation of currency speculation and the free flow of investment capital. We are seeing less of a government in which natural persons make the rules, and more of a government in which corporate persons make the rules.
    Human rights and environmental protections are being marginalized and trivialized. Sustainability – the carrying capacity of the planet – is rapidly approaching or has passed its limit.
    All “cures” require recovering regulatory control of the TNC’s. Some tools: establishing an international rule of corporate crime as preventable harm, marketing sustainability models in contradistinction to the current “free trade” model of trade; democratization of the WTO, a global tax on currency transactions, a debt arbitration mechanism for debtor nations, the empowerment of global civil society such as the World Social Forum is now fostering, and building a non-Anglo-Saxon global media.

  16. Another example from BBC News as to why London is happy to vote for freedom of movement.

    "Ms Smith is one of hundreds of residents placed at Terminus House in Harlow by councils in and around London, often many miles from everything and everybody they once knew."

    No wonder the residents of London Boroughs have no problem with Freedom of Movement if they can export their excess population elsewhere. No wonder too that Harlow voted 68% Leave.

    The interesting point here is that there is no suggestion that the residents of Terminus house are immigrants or from ethnic minorities. So if the residents of Harlow have voted against Freedom of Movement, then it is a vote against the effects of increasing population rather than xenophobia.


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