On Thursday, United Kingdom voters go to the polls for the third consecutive year. Little over two years ago, voters chose a Conservative government and a Prime Minister who announced that a referendum would be held on the question of whether the UK should remain part of the EU.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now a new Prime Minister – Theresa May – is seeking a mandate to negotiate a Brexit, though the whiff of opportunism is in the air given the apparently dire state of Labour, the main opposition party. Early polls suggested a Conservative landslide, but at the time of writing, Labour has enjoyed a surge in the polls, and given the failure of polling organisations to make the correct call in 2015, there remains some confusion about what the result will be.
It is understandable that much of the commentary and interest concerns itself with the personalities and the twists and turns of the campaign. However, it is also worth thinking about the 2017 general election in terms of the UK’s changing economic and cultural landscape, since it is here that perhaps the significance of the votes of 2015, 2016 and 2017 lie.
To understand this we need to go back to the economic crisis of the 1970s, which brought to an end the economic and political settlement that had shaped the post-war decades. From 1945 to the mid-1970s, governments pledged to maintain full employment; bosses and workers agreed to negotiate on wages and working conditions, and the welfare state looked after people “from cradle to grave”. All this crashed on the rocks of the economic recessions of the 1970s. The eventual outcome was a new settlement – at first labelled ‘Thatcherism’ but later ‘neoliberalism’ – based on a belief in the efficiency of the ‘free market’, the right of managers to manage and the weakening of labour power, mobility of workers, and a trimmed welfare state which demanded more responsibility and fewer rights for citizens.
Globalisation kept prices of consumer goods low, and a leaner, meaner capitalism emerged. We know its features very well: the rise of a growing inequality between the super-rich and the majority; economic precarity and slow rates of wage growth, house price bubbles and the rise of consumer debt to maintain living standard, along with a set of regional divisions which meant that from Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast and Leeds, London and the south-east looked like another country. Instead of ‘lean and mean’, the new economy turned out to be ‘fat and mean’.
That settlement came to an abrupt end with the financial crisis of 2008, and as the recession gripped, the 2010 election saw a coalition that promised austerity and hard times to come. Of course, it is important to remember the majority of people did not want, or vote for, austerity. The British electoral system means that elections are decided in a small number of marginal constituencies (225 – about one-third – of seats have remained the same political colour since 1950). However, the 2016 referendum did seem to offer a way of giving a voice to the people who felt marginalised and at the sharp end of rapid economic and cultural change. As one ‘Leave’ voter told a Financial Times journalist the day after – Brexit was a victory for “proper people”. There was a real sense that Brexit was a split between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of the fast, networked global economy – those speeding along the information superhighway, and those on the sidewalk waiting for a bus that never comes. That time, the ‘losers’ won the day.
The upshot is that, as polling day approaches, the UK is riven by a growing number of fault lines. With the familiar tensions of class and region, there are generational, educational divides, urban-rural, and digital divides. Out of all this, there may be signs that a new settlement will emerge. On the steps of Number 10 on the day she took office, Theresa May said: “If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise”. Her government, she said, will “be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few but by yours”.
Whether the policies match the rhetoric remains to be seen. The manifesto has not been received positively by all sections of business, with some worrying that its policies will undermine competitiveness. The fact that Labour has made some headway on a manifesto promising higher taxes for the wealthy and re-nationalisation of the water industries, Post Office and National Grid could suggest the emergence of an appetite for a a more state-managed, welfare-type economy.
Making predictions is risky. Whatever the result, it may be that the 2017 British election will come to be seen as a significant moment in resolving the problems of the shock of 2008.