Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 17 September 2019

On the supposed gap in the centre of UK politics, or the alleged powerlessness of the UK median voter

A remarkable feature of the UK political landscape is how powerless what could be called the political centre currently feels it is. By the centre I don’t just mean individuals that call themselves moderates, but also UK business: capital if you like. How did this happen? It is a long story I’m afraid.

The first and most obvious factor is the UK’s first past the post (FPTP) voting system for MPs. In earlier decades this was thought to empower the centre. If any party drifted towards a less central position in the political spectrum (left/right, or in two dimensions with open/closed), the other would quickly capture that centre ground and would be triumphant in elections. The wishes of the median voter were very powerful. But this assumed that the desire for power would always triumph over a left or right political ideology in at least one party.

The theory seemed to work well in the decades before the turn of the century. When Labour drifted to the left in the early 80s, it ensured its defeat at the polls. Although the Conservatives under Thatcher were also moving to the political right by adopting neoliberalism, that was put down to the median voter wanting the power of the unions to be destroyed, wanting privatisation etc. Labour regained power by adopting many of the elements of neoliberalism, but moved back to the median voter by adding a human face to that neoliberalism.

The Conservatives regained power in 2010 by choosing Cameron as Prime Minister, someone who moved the Conservative party in a more liberal direction in one or two areas, and also was more receptive to the growing concern about immigration. So far you could just about believe in the power of the median voter, and the need for parties to capture the centre ground. I am sure anyone reading those last two paragraphs would have already realised that things were a lot more complicated. But this basic model has had a strong influence on how many interpreted and did politics over this period.

Following this theory Labour moved to the right under Miliband by, for example, gradually giving in to the rhetoric of austerity and immigration control. Given how close the result was in 2010 (the Conservatives could only govern as part of a coalition with the LibDems), you might expect Labour to at least do better than they did in 2010. It did not work. The Conservatives won having pursued in coalition a more right wing policy than under Thatcher. The unemployed, the poor and the disabled were denigrated to a far greater extent than under Thatcher, and so called debt crisis had been used to shrink the state in ways that the median voter did not want. Privatisation continued despite its unpopularity. The hostile environment started.

It is 2015, rather than 2010 or 2016, that is in many ways the critical point in the UK political timeline. Why did the median voter theory not work in 2015?

There is a line that Ed Miliband lost because he was not a ‘natural leader’, by which people generally mean he was unpopular in polls. Strangely enough, Kinnock and Brown also had the same problem, as does Corbyn today. The one exception is Blair. Now it is true that Blair did have qualities that these others did not, but he also had these qualities compared to Major or May or even Thatcher. The other key point about Blair is that he did a deal with the press that helped him win in 1997. One study suggests that this deal was not critical for the 1997 victory, but it was big enough to speculate that the withdrawal of support for Labour by Murdoch in 2010 may have been critical to Brown’s loss.

Labour’s response to the 2015 loss was to stick to the theory and reason that the median voter must have moved to the right. It is a good example of a theory influencing the behaviour it seeks to explain. There was talk by senior MPs of adopting Osborn’s position on austerity. Labour members were understandably having none of it, and elected the only credible anti-austerity candidate. Does the Corbyn election mean the median voter now has nowhere to go? Are we stuck in a new equilibrium, where both major parties were pursuing their ideology? This is the line promoted by many. If true under FPTP the best hope for the median voter is the very risky one of hoping the LibDems can gain enough MPs to hold the balance of power.

Most people in the media do not talk about the influence of the media, for obvious reasons. But the blind spot goes well beyond this. I once asked a political scientist why no regression studies have looked at the role of the media in influencing the 2016 Brexit vote, and their response was because it probably would work too well. This is not quite as bad as it sounds, because there is a real problem in distinguishing between a symptom (Brexit type voters like reading the type of papers that support Brexit) and a cause (Brexit readers are influenced by the paper they read). But just because that problem is difficult to solve should not mean the issue is swept under the carpet.

As I have noted many times, the studies that do try to solve that symptom/cause problem typically find a large causal influence. The most recent was a study discussed here which shows how the Sun boycott in Liverpool (because of its coverage of the Hillsborough disaster) increased the Remain vote there in 2016. Obviously the more united the media is on an issue, the more powerful its influence.

That is what happened in 2015. With few exceptions the broadcast and print media decided that the goal of economic policy was no longer economic growth (the slowest recovery for centuries) or personal prosperity (the biggest decline in real wages since WWII) but reducing the deficit. This created the view that Osborne had been more competent in handling the economy than Labour (whereas he had been the most incompetent Chancellor for decades), and this was the only strong card of the Coalition government. The other factor that may have swung it to Cameron in the last few days was the Conservative line that Miliband would be in the SNP’s pocket, and the broadcast media decided to lead on this rather than Labour’s favoured topic of the NHS. (The English nationalism that is such a strong part of Brexit was evident then, and earlier in Cameron announcing English votes for English issues immediately after Labour had prevented Scottish independence.)

The media persuaded the median voter to elect in 2015 the most right wing government since 1945. Critical to the victory (and to some extent the 2010 victory as well) was the adoption of deficit phobia (a key part of what I call mediamacro) by the broadcast media, and particularly the BBC. After 2010 the BBC began to look more like state media, promoting the interests of the Conservative party, because of relentless pressure and threats from the right. The BBC had managed to remain roughly balanced towards the end of the Labour government (deficit phobia aside), but from 2010 onwards things began to change. What made the difference, or why did Labour’s attempts to intimidate the BBC not end their balance? Again the right wing press plays a crucial role, and in addition the Conservatives have a trump card of threatening to abolish the BBC.

Does this leave the centre nowhere to go? Remember the median voter's power in a two party system comes not from voting for a centre party, but in voting either Labour and Conservative, depending on whichever is nearer the centre. The theory only breaks down if both parties are miles from the centre in different directions but roughly equal distances, and that is not the case at present. Opposite a right wing party adopting authoritarian and undemocratic actions we have a Labour party pursuing fairly solid social democratic policies, as their 2017 manifesto made clear. To put it another way, while Labour are mainstream Europe, the Conservatives are now Trump’s USA.

The leaderships’ left wing baggage has had some effect. It made its leadership an easier target for the media, particularly as a result of Corbyn’s strong support for the Palestinian cause. It also created a group within Labour and beyond whose primary aim seems to be to bring Corbyn down. More importantly the leaderships’ historic Lexit position meant it failed to follow its membership on Brexit quickly enough, which in turn allowed the LibDems to return from obscurity. But in substantive terms such as monetary, fiscal and taxation policy Labour would be considered too right wing in the 1970s. Elsewhere, like a National Investment Bank, and support for public transport as part of a Green New Deal, few except the most ideological neoliberal would think this wasn’t essential. Their Brexit policy of unconditional support for a referendum means Brexit would end under a Labour government.

In contrast, the Conservative party has morphed into a Republican party led by our version of Trump. It was heading that way before Brexit, and Brexit has pushed it over the edge. It is as imperative to remove the Conservative party from power as it is to remove Trump, and ensure that it does not return in its current form. Just as the need to remove Trump is not conditional on whether they are opposed by Biden or Sanders or Warren, so the same is true for Johnson. That cannot be done by the Liberal Democrats in 2019 anymore than it could in 2010, and it cannot be done by forcing the Tories to be a minority government. Only a prolonged period in opposition will convince Tory members and MPs that Brexit, extreme neoliberalism and Trumpian authoritarianism have all become toxic. The median voter still has a natural place to go, and that is to Labour’s European social democracy rather than the Conservatives as Republicans and Johnson as Trump..


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