Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Braverman is a feature not a bug of Conservative electoral strategy this century


Much has been written about how the dividing lines of UK politics have changed from being class based to age based. As John Curtice put it just before the General Election in 2019: “The kind of job that someone does is expected to make very little difference to how they will vote at this election. On the other hand, whether they are young or old may matter a great deal.” [1]

This in turn partly reflects a gradual shift in the subject matter of political debate over the last few decades. The big divisions are no longer over economic policy, but instead are about social issues like immigration and nationalism. Economic issues still matter a great deal to the electorate, of course, but on paper at least the two main parties since Thatcher offered broadly the same policies with relatively small, if important, differences. (The Corbyn years were an exception which did not end well for Labour, although not primarily because of their economic policies.)

I would suggest there are two main reasons for this shift. The first, elaborated in the latest British Social Attitudes survey, is that voters have become much more socially liberal over the last several decades. This includes all groups in society, but not surprisingly the views of the young have moved faster than the old (helped, perhaps, by the expansion of numbers going to universities). This rapid social change is bound to make those left behind by its speed (if not direction) feel uncomfortable.

Differential change creates the potential for political division, but only if political parties wish to exploit it. The second reason for the shift in the nature of the political divide is a deliberate change in emphasis by the Conservative party. Of course the Conservative party has always tended to be socially conservative, although this has reflected their party membership more than the attitudes of most Conservative MPs. What changed in the 1980s was the party and the press making immigration [2] their main line of attack.

To be fair, with Labour adopting large parts of Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda under Blair/Brown, it was to some extent a forced change. In particular, Labour’s shift to the right may have put them to the right of voters on some issues (like public ownership), meaning that the Conservative’s more right wing position became even less attractive. When it came to the main division between the parties, on public service provision versus tax cuts, voters tended to side with Labour.

Nevertheless, it would be going too far to say that the Conservative party and the party in the media were reluctant to shift into promoting a social conservative agenda before the Global Financial Crisis. What really convinced the Conservative party to focus on immigration in the 80s was the electoral maths.

  1. As I have noted many times, the socially liberal young are mainly where the jobs are, in the large cities. The socially conservative old are more spread out among MPs constituencies, which is an advantage under a FPTP system.

  2. The socially liberal vote in England was split among at least two, and increasingly three, parties, whereas (until UKIP at least, and to some extent after) the socially conservative vote was united under the Conservative banner. [3]

  3. Older voters are more likely to turn up to vote

So if the Conservatives could shift the issues on which general elections were won or lost to the socially liberal/conservative divide, they would stand a much better chance of winning those elections. Yet despite their domination of the media agenda through the efforts of the right wing press, the electorate didn’t play ball sufficiently until a major recession was added to the mix.

The problem the Conservatives faced, and continue to face today, is that issues like immigration and crime tend to take second place in most voter’s minds to economic issues. The exception was Brexit, where the Leave side managed (with the help of mainstream broadcasters) to sideline the economics and win a victory based on reducing immigration and a nationalistic desire to take back control. But this apart, the party faces the problem of how to convince enough social conservatives that issues like immigration are more important than issues like the economy, their standard of living or health? That will be particularly so after large commodity price increases, over a decade of almost zero real wage growth and an NHS in crisis.

One way to raise the importance of issues like immigration is to link it to economics using plausible lies. By making claims, for example, that public services are more difficult to access because of immigration, with no mention of how immigrants make a vital contribution to staffing some of those services. Or claims that immigrants steal jobs or keep wages low, with no mention of how new workers contribute to demand as well as production. Claims that it costs a fortune to put up asylum seekers in hotels, with no mention of how this is because the government has allowed huge delays in processing claims.

Another, perhaps unintended, means of minimising the importance of economic issues was to insulate their target voters from the consequences of economic decisions, which I think is the strongest argument against the state pension triple lock. House price inflation, helped by a period of austerity that kept interest rates low, also helped.

But a large part of the answer is also by using fear.

It is easy to see the language used by Suella Braverman as just a play for the leadership after the next election, but there is more to it than that. The same language, involving dehumanisation, wild exaggeration and lies over issues like immigration and asylum, can be found regularly in the right wing press and on GB news. Labelling any asylum seekers who don’t get to the UK via the occasional official route as 'illegal' may seem like just another bit of spin, but it opens up a Pandora’s Box where those seeking refuge from persecution can be equated to the worst kind of criminals.

If you think this kind of rhetoric will only impact a small minority, I suggest you read this article by Aditya Chakrabortty about what happened when the Home Office took over a hotel in a Welsh town. 

As Tim Bale writes, the Conservative party is now the party of Enoch Powell. A lot of this happened first in the United States, of course, where the term culture war signifies the same idea. Here is Brad DeLong reviewing this book:

“I date the start of this democratic decline to 1993, by which point the neoliberal (market-fundamentalist) Reagan Revolution had already failed in policy terms. In the 1994 midterm election, Newt Gingrich, then the House Minority Whip, concluded that since the Republicans could not campaign on policy successes, they would instead run on scorn and fear – of black people, “feminazis,” gays, Mexicans, professors and other clever types, and anyone who had gotten rich the wrong way or would never come to Jesus.”

The problem with a strategy based on fear and outrage is that it invites continual escalation, all the time distancing those who promulgate this rhetoric and those who absorb it from the rest of society, from facts and from science. [4] It becomes a petri dish for both populists and conspiracy theories. It may start with calling asylum seekers illegal, and being against 15 minute cities, but you just need to look at the Republican party today to see where it ends up. It not only changes some on the receiving end of this propaganda but also those pushing it, such that their respect for democracy gradually ebbs away.

Hopefully this descent into ever more extreme social conservatism will do little but please the existing base of right wing parties, and may alienate everyone else. But it would be a mistake, as I argued recently, to think that it will disappear quickly after one or two election defeats. In particular, shifting from social to economic issues would require right wing parties to move to the left, and that is something the money that backs them is not going to allow for some time. Meanwhile there is always the chance that something may turn up which gives the party of Enoch Powell (or Donald Trump) the chance to gain or retain power.

[1] This remains true even if we look at current polling. In this recent YouGov poll, the support for Labour was higher among ABC1 than C2DE.

[2] Some argue that immigration became a major issue because Labour allowed numbers to increase, but in my view this suggests that facts have rather more importance to both the right wing press and public opinion on this issue than they do in reality.

[3] I’m tempted to add, but don’t really have the evidence to do so, that as the left wing political parties became more middle rather than working class (Piketty calls it the rise of the Brahmin Left), their interest moved from redistribution to more social issues.

[4] In part this is because Labour, seeing the electoral advantages in winning the socially conservative vote, triangulate towards the Conservative position on these issues.

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