Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 16 May 2023

Why is there asymmetry in how insurgent political voices on the left and right are treated by the two main parties in the UK?


The attitude of the two main parties to those further to the right (for the Conservatives) or the left (for Labour) is very different. In the case of the Conservatives since Cameron, until very recently at least, the best word to use would be appeasement. We left the EU as a result. The attitude of Labour leaders (with the obvious exception of when Corbyn was leader) can be characterised as exclusion.

Is this asymmetry just the result of the choices of particular party leaders, or is there something more structural behind this. Another way of asking the same question is whether the success of UKIP (in terms of winning votes and influencing policy) could ever be duplicated on the left? Equally will Sunak suffer if he continues to marginalise the Brexit ultras, and would he have the political capital to replace his current home secretary, if he ever wished to do so (which he shows no sign of as yet) ?

The first point to note is that attitudes have changed over time. Prime Minister Heath famously sacked Enoch Powell, and Major was pretty intolerant of his Brexit “bastards”, which is very different from more recent Conservative leaders. The attitude of Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown, Miliband and Starmer is more consistent, and stems from the major internal battles of the 1980s.

A second point is that basic two party theory suggests it makes sense for leaders of either party to lean to the centre, rather than worry about those on the political flanks. A third party on one of the two political flanks breaks that model, but only if voters vote for it. Under a FPTP (First Past The Post) type electoral system, if they do in any numbers they are making it much more likely that the side whose vote is not split will win. If such a third party does emerge, and a political leader attempts to reduce its vote by appealing to potential voters of that third party, it runs the danger of alienating voters in the centre and losing to the other major party.

This basic model is too simple in many respects, and suggests an excessive advantage in playing to the centre ground. In reality new parties are relatively easy to set up, but they find it much harder getting serious political traction. It makes sense for governments in particular to try and stop that happening by appealing to their flanks as well as the centre. Political parties also need to keep their members happy to help win elections, and these members tend to be significantly more to the left/right than the marginal voter.

A final and crucial point in today’s UK environment is that the media is not symmetrical in two important respects. First, what I have in the past called the directed propaganda media (in the UK to varying extents the press and the new TV ‘news’ channels of the extreme right) is weighted towards the right because it follows the money. [1] Second, and just as important, is what is often called the non-partisan media, which we could equally call the ‘manufacturing consent media’, which in the UK comprises the major broadcasters and a few newspapers like the Financial Times. This second part of the media can be asymmetric for two reasons: it may be heavily influenced by an asymmetric press, and it can be intolerant of what it sees as political extremes. [2]

The most successful third party from the flanks of the political spectrum in recent years has to be Farage’s UKIP/ Brexit party. Evans and Mellon argue that the rise of UKIP can be largely explained by one issue, immigration, and the growing linkage of that with EU free movement following the UK government’s decision to allow immediate unlimited immigration from accession countries. While the Conservative opposition did use concern about immigration as a primary weapon against the Labour government, UKIP benefited as well because (a) Cameron was seen by some as too socially liberal on some issues (b) the Conservative leadership was in favour of staying in the EU, and (c) UKIP attracted some former Labour voters who were more left wing than the Conservatives on economic issues.

Yet throughout the Labour government of 1997-2010 UKIP never won more than 3.5% of the votes in General Elections in the seats it contested. UKIP’s power increased immeasurably under a Conservative led government. In many ways Cameron enacted the best possible combination of policies from a Brexit supporters point of view. He kept immigration in the public eye by creating targets for numbers that he didn’t have the means, or was unwilling to use the means, to come close to hitting. Yet he also used immigration as an excuse for the economic effects of his austerity policies. Immigration according to Conservatives was why voters found access to public services more difficult, and competition from immigrants was why your real wages were not increasing. All that UKIP and the the right wing press (and later the Leave campaign) needed to do was link a failure to meet immigration targets with Freedom of Movement, which they found very easy to do.

In this way the Conservative led government of 2010-15 precluded the option of exclusion towards UKIP, so appeasement (and in particular conceding a referendum) was the only option left. As both UKIP and the Conservatives stressed the importance of controlling immigration, and the right wing press did all it could to worry voters about this issue, it was not credible of Cameron to portray UKIP’s stance on this as extreme. Yet Cameron was not prepared to damage the economy in order to meet his immigration targets, and did not want to leave the EU. In addition he made many potential UKIP voters worse off through austerity, yet blamed that on immigration. Thus he handed UKIP all the ammunition they needed to attract socially conservative voters. [3]

If this interpretation is correct, then two things might seem to follow. First, after the referendum result a form of Brexit where we left the Single Market was inevitable under a Conservative government. Anything otherwise would enhance Farage’s threat to the Conservatives. Second, even if Remain had narrowly won rather than lost the referendum Cameron would not have been able park the Brexit issue for long. His only hope of doing so would have been to start declaring the virtues of immigration, but the right wing press would not have played ball.

Could something similar happen with a Labour government and a more left wing political party? The Green party is associated in voters’ minds with one clear objective (tackling climate change and improving the environment more generally) just as UKIP was, and it tends to be more left wing than Labour (just as UKIP was more socially Conservative than the Conservatives). Yet while Labour is in opposition, like UKIP it does much better in local elections than in general elections.

Under a Labour government could the Greens repeat the success of UKIP? A little piece of imagination might help answer this. One of the centrepieces of Labour policy is increased public investment in greening the economy, which they argue is critical to both tackling climate change and improving economic prospects. Most Labour voters and members share that view. Suppose in government Labour continued to talk this talk, but at the same time completely failed to raise public investment in greening the economy because of deficit targets, say. The Guardian runs an article on how Starmer told the cabinet that it needs to “cut the Green crap” to meet those targets, and the economy continues to languish. In those circumstances it is not impossible to imagine the Green party becoming a vehicle of protest for Labour voters. .

The point of this bit of (hopefully) make believe is that the success or otherwise of a UKIP of the left depends rather more on what a Labour government does than what any more left wing party does. Cameron reneged on his pledges to control immigration, while still blaming immigration for the country’s economic woes, many of which were of his own making. Under FPTP if, and perhaps only if, a future Labour or Conservative government makes a central part of their political campaigning an issue central to their voters but on which they have little intention to act, will a party from the political flanks threaten the big two. [4]

[1] Tim Bale calls the right wing press ‘the party in the media’. While this phrase nicely captures the extent of its partisanship, it could be misread as implying an excessive degree of control by the political party. This media is ultimately controlled by its owners, and while on some occasions they may be happy for their papers to follow the party’s lead, on others it may be the party that has to bend to the tunes played by the press.

[2] This may affect both major parties. The non-partisan media tends to be both younger and so more socially liberal and also from privileged backgrounds resistant to radical left wing policies. This may cause difficulties for mainstream parties that push socially conservative policies or left wing economic policies. The former, however, may be neutralised through the influence of the press, or when third parties that are socially conservative have large scale popular support. Finally the BBC, through financial pressure and via senior appointments, has become less independent of the government.

[3] What Cameron and Osborne knew was that achieving a socially conservative goal (much lower immigration) would seriously harm the economy, and that this was the last thing they could afford to do when hitting the economy with austerity. The same was true for another policy favoured by social conservatives, Brexit, as the current government is finding out. Many of the conflicts/contradictions in the current government can be traced to this source.

[4] What is also possible is that, if the leader changes, the party membership may elect a more radical leader, much as Corbyn’s election represented frustration within the membership that the mainstream candidates seem to be accepting austerity just at the point that public dissatisfaction with the policy was growing.

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