Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 14 May 2024

The political right is in an illiberal trap of its own making, which offers their opponents opportunities


A new CPS report 'Taking Back Control’, co-written by the relatively sensible and numerate among Conservative MPs Neil O’Brien, proposes a national commitment to return net migration to the historical norm of the tens of thousands. The last government to do such a thing was of course the Cameron coalition, and their failure to meet these targets was a key factor behind the rise of UKIP and Brexit.

Others are more qualified to discuss the report in detail. Instead I want to set it within a much broader political economy framework, mainly focused on the UK but with references to the US where there are obvious parallels or differences. I will begin by describing how the political right of Thatcher and Reagan, which came to be associated with the emergence and then dominance of neoliberalism, ended up becoming an authoritarian party proposing limits on immigration, trade, and human rights. As I have discussed this in more detail in earlier posts I will be more brief here.

If you tend to describe everything that came from Thatcher and Reagan as neoliberal, let me emphasise why there is a huge contradiction between neoliberalism and controls on immigration and trade. If you like to think of neoliberalism as an ideology that favours free markets, then erecting trade barriers or telling firms what labour they can hire is not promoting free markets but instead state interference in markets. [1] I tend to think about neoliberalism as a collection of ideas that helps existing capital in general (e.g. reducing union power), or at least some parts of capital without harming others (privatisation). If you like, under neoliberalism the executive is at least in part “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. In technical terms they represent ideas that are Pareto improvements for capital. Yet immigration controls or trade barriers harm large sections of capital, so how can politicians that enact them be categorised as neoliberal?

Of course neoliberal ideology remains a core part of how most right wing politicians think, and it remains a pervasive influence on society more generally. Yet while it is obvious to describe the Thatcher and Reagan governments as neoliberal, it is much harder to use that label for politicians that erect rather than lower barriers to trade, and politicians who attempt to stop firms hiring workers from overseas.

Party membership on the right has always been pretty socially conservative. Yet this hasn’t been true of right wing politicians in the UK at least. As this study by Bale et al shows, most Conservative MPs tend to be as socially liberal as the average voter (and therefore much more liberal than Conservative party members), but much more right wing on economics. (I don’t know if similar data exists for the US.)

This suggests that for these politicians, the focus on attracting socially conservative voters was at least initially a political tactic rather than anything based on personal conviction. In a sense this is not surprising. Arguing for yet more tax cuts for the rich, or for less regulations in the labour market, may be consistent with neoliberalism but is not likely to attract that many voters. In addition, the UK voting system (as in the US) favours social conservative over socially liberal voters. As I argue here, the initial popularity of Thatcherism was time limited, as the failure of the privatised water industry clearly shows.

The problem with using immigration as an insincere tactic is that it has led, on both sides of the Atlantic, to the dominance of social conservatism on the political right. In the US the Republican’s Southern Strategy broadened out into culture wars, was followed by the Tea Party and then by Donald Trump. In the UK the failure of the Cameron coalition to meet its immigration targets, because Cameron and Osborne knew that trying to do so would harm the economy, led to the UKIP insurgency and Cameron’s Brexit referendum pledge. The rest, as they say, is painful history that everyone in the UK knows all too well.

While the mechanisms that led to Trump and Brexit are rather different, reflecting constitutional differences between the two countries, [2] there are also some common elements. Two in particular are the role of money from rich individuals, and the role of the media (in particular Fox News in the US and the right wing press in the UK). Both signal the growing importance of plutocracy in both countries, which I started writing about back in 2017, and is now becoming more mainstream in the UK (for example see Martin Wolf’s latest book “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” (interesting review here)).

At the time many focused on the populist nature of Brexit and Trump. It is tempting to argue that this aspect, though real enough (enemies of the people and all that), is an inevitable consequence of the triumph of social conservatism over both social liberalism and neoliberal economics. A label often used for social conservatism is authoritarian, because social conservative and authoritarian views tend to go together. Social conservatives prefer dominant, uncompromising leaders. [3] While social conservatism may naturally go together with authoritarianism and populist leaders, in my view it is social conservatism rather than populism that provides the driving force here.

The key factor that led to Brexit in the UK, and which continues to haunt the Conservative party, is the party’s vulnerability to electoral challenge from insurgent parties that can promise stronger action on immigration. This alone will ensure immigration continues to be perhaps the central policy of a Conservative opposition: hence the CPS report noted in the introduction. In truth a Conservative opposition also has little choice as long as a Labour government avoids obviously left wing economic policies and providing that it provides considerable support for public services. If the economy does better than it has over the last fourteen years (and it would be unlucky not to), then a focus by a Conservative opposition on socially conservative issues is inevitable.

The other key factor behind Brexit was the strong support from the right wing press, and for the foreseeable future this will ensure the Conservatives remain a pro-Brexit party, even though this is likely to be unpopular among a majority of voters. In addition, the readership of the right wing press tends to be older and therefore more socially conservative, so this force will help maintain the dominance of social conservatism among Conservative politicians.

Ironically, and in contrast to the US, I believe the composition of party members has been much less important in the UK than insurgency from the right, the right wing press and the influence of wealthy political donors. Although these members do get to choose the party leader, their choice is limited by MPs, and these MPs can ensure that members never get the choice of electing the likes of Suella Braverman. However party members do get to choose new MPs, so their influence via this route will be important over the longer run.

All this means that, barring economic misfortune, the UK political battleground will remain centred on the social conservative/liberal divide. The replacement of class by age as the key division in mainstream politics will persist. I suspect the same is true in the US [4], although it is hard to see past the chaos that even a Trump defeat will bring. In electoral terms this is bad news for the Conservatives. Brexit is likely to become more unpopular over time, if only for demographic reasons. In addition, as John Burn-Murdoch observes, in anglophone countries younger voters tend to be more tolerant of immigration than older voters. The more the right focuses on socially conservative issues, the less likely it is that younger voters will naturally transition to the right for economic reasons as they age.

This in turn will give a Labour government more freedom to adopt more socially liberal policies. They will need that freedom, because just as the Conservatives have had to worry in government about insurgent parties on the right, so a Labour government after an initial honeymoon period will need to worry about losing votes to parties that are either more liberal and/or left wing. This is hard to imagine today, where Labour are trading off government failure to court Conservative voters, and where (as the local elections showed) Conservative unpopularity means that the efforts of Labour, the Liberals and Greens are largely complementary.

Once Labour has become established in government that situation will change. As it seems increasingly likely that Labour will be cautious on using higher taxes to improve public services (i.e. will not follow the approach I suggested here), and the mess the current government has left things in is so great, dissatisfaction with the slow speed of progress is bound to grow. That is much more likely to see the polls shifting towards the Greens and Liberal Democrats than the Conservatives, whose record on public services will persist in voter memories for some time.

That dissatisfaction will only intensify if Labour attempts to fight the Conservatives on their socially Conservative territory. In addition, controlling immigration rather than tackling the causes of immigration does economic damage which Labour cannot afford. The same is true if Labour are too cautious on Europe, and I suspect the Lib Dems will be quick to return to trying to outflank Labour on this issue. (I discussed the importance of a tipping point in public attitudes to Brexit here.) A Labour government will find, if it tries, that trying to follow the Conservatives down their socially conservative rabbit hole will cause way more electoral problems than it solves. [5] Instead they should see that the hole the Conservatives have dug for themselves (and Braverman wants them to continue to dig) is an opportunity for a fresh, more liberal approach.

[1] John Elledge suggested an way in which Brexit could still be described as favouring free markets, if you see ‘free’ as the absence of any government involvement in trade. (Free from rather than free to trade.) While I thought this ingenious at the time, I now suspect that this is an ex-post rationalisation rather than any fundamental division within neoliberalism. After all, there is nothing within neoliberalism that objects to the state making life easier for business, and that is what the international harmonisation of regulations within the Single Market essentially is.

[2] The existence of primary elections in the US allowed those who wanted to elect politicians who would place a greater weight on socially conservative policies in government a direct route of achieving their ends. Money and media influence could be employed to support more socially conservative politicians in elections for Congress and, ultimately, for the White House. That is much more difficult in the UK for individual MPs.

[3] There is more to it than that of course. While right wing economic views are often justified on the basis that they work for everyone (trickle down, efficiency of the private sector etc), with the social conservative liberal divide it is much more clearly a matter of personal preference. In addition, it is clear that over the last fifty years or so social liberalism has been winning. So it suits the social conservative to believe not only in the myth of the silent majority, but also to be attracted by the idea that their views are the ‘will of the people’.

[4] The importance of the Christian right in the US, a force largely absent in the more secular UK, is an additional factor.

[5] Just as the Conservatives in government are prevented from locating their policy positions near the centre of the social conservative/liberal divide because of an insurgent party to their right, so Labour in government will find it dangerous to stay close to that centre because voters will move to a more socially liberal party.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Unfortunately because of spam with embedded links (which then flag up warnings about the whole site on some browsers), I have to personally moderate all comments. As a result, your comment may not appear for some time. In addition, I cannot publish comments with links to websites because it takes too much time to check whether these sites are legitimate.