Viewing British political history through the prism of ideological waves shows distinct variations in the ideological positioning of British governments. The post-war settlement entrenched Keynesian demand management. With the stagflation crisis and the IMF bailout, Thatcherism brought in quantitative monetary policy, privatisation and market openness. Following the political failures of the Conservative Party under Thatcher and Major, New Labour presented a social democratic version of the Thatcherite consensus, neoliberalism with a human face. With this came the introduction of public-private partnerships in the NHS, education and transport infrastructure and the introduction of corporate management techniques into the public sector, flexibilising both the state and social democracy.
Following the 2008 financial crisis, the consensus of corporate proceduralism and high public spend was ended. With the 2010 coalition government, austerity was implemented and a lean state introduced. More aspects of the public sector, particularly social care and council services were tendered out to the private sector (or just outright privatised). Significant budget cuts were made in local councils and particular government departments. The language of spending cuts became pervasive, with the Labour Party under Miliband also accepting that cuts were needed to sort out the UK’s budget deficit and restore economic confidence. Through these ideological disjunctures, underlying patterns can be seen. Each governmental wave had running through them a focus on centralised corporate managerialism. The post-war settlement of demand management and nationalised industry integrated pre-war industrial leaders and the divisionalised organisation of industry into a nationalised system. Thatcherism privatised this structure while maintaining its corporate form and introducing greater financial market involvement. New Labour and the Coalition government continued these dynamics with new public management techniques and further privatisation and outsourcing. These dynamics instituted the growth “of clerical, administrative, and supervisory work”.
However during the New Labour years and following into the coalition government’s time in power, another consensus had emerged which also never sat right with the wider public, that of higher levels of immigration across significant areas of the UK, both from EU and non-EU countries. A high level of cultural complexity followed that many previously settled populations (in market towns and inner cities) couldn’t cope with. This isn’t just a matter of local public services being inundated (of which there is mixed evidence) but a change in the demographic and values structures of nation-states such that in a short period (such as from 2004 when EU immigration was liberalised) there is a higher component of non-English populations which brings with it changes in neighbourhood composition and a lack of assimilation (based on linguistic markers and new cultural-economic symbols, such as religious buildings and new shops that cater to this population). At the national level this means changes in the conceptualisation of nationhood and citizenship, with a move toward multiculturalism as the defining national narrative. This has created cleavages between a liberal modernist perspective and an ethno-traditional nationalism (which seeks to balance assimilation with migration numbers to maintain the predominant national traditions).
Throughout these governmental long waves of ideological disjuncture, there are visibly rising levels of socio-economic and cultural complexity, evidenced by increasingly centralised narratives and institutions (corporate management in public and private sectors, and top-down cultural administration) which create divisions between public perception and the possibilities of public management. With the difficulties associated with managing immigration numbers, this was acutely seen with the Conservative Party and their promise to reduce numbers to 1990s levels. The demand for agricultural labourers and new labour market structures to plug gaps in social care and healthcare meant such a promise was extremely difficult to meet. As a result immigration became an ever more perceived problem that needed to be addressed, with political parties like UKIP entering the space left by established parties to make promises of immigration reduction through leaving the EU and taking greater control of national borders. To counter this the Conservative Party promised an EU referendum if they were elected with a majority in 2015 (which they duly were). Thus the rising complexity of UK governance and its difficulty in meeting public needs/demands came to a head with this promise, whereby these complexities were provided a new divisional nexus through which they could conflict. The EU referendum encompassed a number of issues under the rubrics of Leave and Remain, including the breakdown in trust between disenfranchised voters and political parties; high levels of immigration and cultural complexity; a distrust of bureaucracy and proceduralism; and a dislike of centralised, unaccountable power.
The Current Conjuncture
What came from the eventual vote to leave was a conjuncture, a break with the prevailing socio-institutional system without a solution. If Brexit introduced the possibilities of a realignment, its capacity to create distinct political classes or groupings is limited. This break and subsequent realignment has mapped onto current political realities, producing multiple conflicting identities and policy positions. As Brexit and other events (particularly the financial crisis) have produced a political conjuncture due to increasing levels of economic and cultural complexity, coherent identities have yet to develop that adequately represent this change. The Labour Party has attempted to sublimate the cultural concerns of core elements of its voting base into an economic narrative of empowerment, ignoring that the primary reasons for voting leave were cultural. Brexit was the expression of opposing socio-psychological values structures (represented through prisms such as university education, opinions on the death penalty or views on political correctness). These can be seen in Pat Dade’s settlers (“psychologically conservative”, seeking the preservation of their multi-generational group and its attendant identity markers) or Bauman’s figure of the gamekeeper (seeing order as the natural way of things).
In this conjunctural era, with the failures of the neoliberal state perforated by the 2008 financial crisis and compounded by the rise of populism and cultural backlash with Brexit, the capacity to found a new settlement has not been developed, with both main parties harking back to previous eras in their policy history. If one party has at least begun to recognise the fraught climate, it is the Conservatives who through their 2017 and 2019 manifestos indicated a shift in perception about what the important issues were, realigning issues into a cultural language that spoke of those lower-middle class and working-class families who were struggling to get by and a recognition of regional inequality. While Labour’s 2017 manifesto pointed in a similar direction, speaking the language of fairness and us-vs-them, the 2019 manifesto showed that the technocratic soul of policy-management was still present in Labour, with the difference being a change in policy not a change in pattern.
Going from ideological long waves and looking at the microcosm of the last 4 general elections, there has been increasing tensions and contradictions that have riven the prevailing Labour and Conservative parties apart and produced multiple political identities into the fray. The 2010 general election showed a general apathy as the processes of “double liberalism” and technocracy removed accountability and a sense of purpose to elections. The 2015 election showed the power of potential choice as Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum presented the capacity for real political change (particularly following the mobilisation seen in the Scottish independence referendum where despite failing to get independence, the face of Scottish politics was changed forever). The 2017 and 2019 elections have been about trying to bottle such populist energy in dying political binaries, as the multiple contradictions of UK electoral politics that have grown and metastasised since the financial crisis move beyond the continuity politics of the last 20 years. The main reason, as Mary Harrington has identified, for the Conservatives unequivocally winning the 2019 election is not because Boris Johnson is particularly popular or the manifesto was well liked, but because of decades of political mistrust and increasing apathy due to lack of choice and lack of purpose within technocratic politics. When Johnson says he wants to deliver Brexit, this resonates because this has been one of the few consequential choices where a substantial element of the British public has had the ability to shape the country’s future, rather than wait every 5 or so years for a vote that feels more and more meaningless. Brexit was the representation of a backlash against difficult-to-understand complexities that successive governments have managed passively or allowed to fester.
The 2019 general election then is a continuity of the Brexit conjuncture, with a new political settlement lacking as the Labour Party now finds itself in an internal conversation about what it is and what it represents, and the Conservative Party finds itself at the head of a fragile coalition of middle class suburbanites, shire voters and Red Wall constituencies. From this election as well as the previous ideological long waves, we can see a dissolution of the class society that defined Britain for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, as value structures become the central referent for voters in their ideological positioning. New binaries have developed which are fracturing the electoral map, showing a fragmentation of identities and narratives which are not cohering into new modes of citizenship or national politics. The conjunctural nature of politics in the UK currently means a splintering of the friend-enemy dichotomy along multiple axes, and with it the growth of new electoral coalitions and voter tribes with incommensurate understandings of how society should be governed. Cultural and socio-economic complexity are not being sublimated to any of these narratives but instead cherry-picked into alternate reality structures so as bolster one’s tribe or group.
One of the primary vectors of political organisation has been class politics and the distribution of wealth and power between classes. Within this the Labour Party represented the working classes and their institutions (trade unions, workingmen’s associations, friendly societies, etc.) and the Conservative Party represented capital owners and the upper classes (businessmen, professional associations and the like). Since the 1980s and deindustrialisation, capital has become liquid and flexible, not being fixed to any particular locale, while labour has become inflexible. It is easier to move goods and stocks compared to labourers and service workers. As a result the class composition has become more fragmented and disparate. There is no substantial industrial working class anymore, and nor are there any identifiable industrial leaders (in the sense of the early 20th century trusts). Rather we have an economy focused around administrative, financial, retail and care services. This means a class structure of greater complexity and depth, as with the Great British Class Survey’s identification of a precariat; an elite consisting of CEOs, managerial directors, financial managers, medical professionals and solicitors who have both high economic and cultural capital; an established middle class; a technical middle class; a primarily self-employed class of affluent workers; a traditional working class; and an emergent service sector of care and retail workers. And of course these classifications are riven with thoroughfares and junctures that mean a self-employed worker can find themselves precariatised due to lack of adequate governmental or social protections. Members of the technical middle class can find themselves on the track to being a highly paid professional in the elite. As the survey also measured cultural capital, it presents value structures into the composition of class identity, suggesting a non-economic factor in the ways in which class is composed and thought of.
This class complexity today can be understood as a response to the lack of a binding economic perspective through which such issues can be examined. The move toward increasing centralisation and automatisation that marked much of British policy history served to depoliticise questions of regulation. Combined with narratives of entrepreneurialism (“The dedication, subjective motivation, and the work on the self preached by management since the 1980s have become an injunction to take up on oneself the costs and risks of the economic and financial disaster”, thus precariatisation and affluence in the realms of the service economy) and flexible labour markets, a lack of economic agency without recourse to alternate or opposing institutions developed. This can be seen in the NSR model or the Great British Class survey, where rather than having a contiguous hierarchy of working, middle and upper classes, there is a variety of subvariants and niche classes that exist along multiple axes of identifiers, including culture, work and ethnicity. In governing such a wide array of real and imagined identities, it is increasingly difficult to make compromises with minimal trade-offs.
An almost ungovernable complexity of competing interests that are themselves not fully defined or cogent comes out of this class fragmentation. Before going onto the outcomes of such fragmentation, as through the post-Brexit political landscape and the results of the 2019 general election, some of the economic and social causes of these dynamics need to be explored in detail to see not just why class composition has changed in the UK, but why it has melded with cultural value markers and why economic understandings have been sublimated to cultural identifications such that events like Brexit and the 2019 general election are just not results of an amorphous powerlessness or a response to precariatisation, but rather class and economic understanding are so splintered and dissipated that no coherent political identity has concatenated a new series of economic imaginaries. Instead the economic fragmentation we see in the UK, in class dynamics, labour market structure, regulatory environments and party identification have amassed out into cultural arenas, producing various divisions and conflictual fields that in our conjunctural era are not subsumable to an overarching narrative.
The Economic Landscape
The economic landscape in Britain has changed from a primarily industrialised manufacturing economy to one centred around the provision of services. This has produced a skew to cities and regions that are service-oriented, particularly London and the Southeast and to a lesser extent the urban agglomerations of Birmingham and Manchester. Looking at gross value added by region in the UK, unproductive activities are primarily concentrated in areas like the Tees Valley, Mid-Wales, parts of the West Midlands and the East Midlands, in other words areas with significant industrial pasts whose economies have not been geared or structured to manage the service orientation of modern economies. This can be seen by the negative gross value added (GVA) scores for the North East and the low GVA of the East of England, while London and the South East predominate as the main sectors of added value in the UK. At the level of regions and growth districts, there is a concentration on low productivity sectors. “These regional data can add to our understanding of UK-level trends. In 2017, at total UK industry level, there were strong increases in GVA(B), in chained volume measures, in motion picture, video and television programme production, sound recording and music publishing activities (14.9%), postal and courier activities (12.5%) and repair and installation of machinery and equipment (12.1%)”.
The concentration here is evident as London predominates as both the financial and cultural capital of the UK, and significant areas of IT infrastructure are concentrated in the South East. The nature of these sectors shows a short-term productivity focus, as most of these are primarily low-productivity activities that require greater degrees of higher education compared to manufacturing or industrial production. Machine repair and courier activities aren’t significantly scalable beyond certain markets, and nor are the skill patterns hugely adaptable to upskilling and redeployment. Such concentration in urban areas such as London is further exacerbated by the effects of commuter flows. ONS figures on regional and sub-regional productivity show the influence of commuter flows on productivity as it significantly influences (and thus inflates) the level of productivity in agglomerated city regions compared to areas both outside these regions and their commuter belts (cities such as Nottingham and Blackpool and rural regions such as Herefordshire and Mid-Wales).
Further, with the increase in the number and spread of regulatory agencies and combined authorities, at the regional level there is a splintering of growth regions and policies, from mayoral districts to councils to local economic partnerships. “In recent years, other geographic areas of the UK have emerged that are of interest to UK policymakers and administrators, and many of these do not match areas within the NUTS classification. This process has been accelerated by events such as the replacement of the UK’s Regional Development Agencies, which aligned to the English regions, with a collection of local enterprise partnerships, many of which cover non-standard areas. The establishment of combined authorities with elected Mayors, and City and Growth Deals, has further devolved administrative responsibilities to parts of the UK, and in many cases the areas covered do not match NUTS regions”.
Here is a context of regulatory arbitrage and lack of coordination, as growth regions emerge in all sorts of sectoral and geographic splits such that the nature of traditional industry as a hierarchical firm emplaced within a community is practically impossible (just look at the number of regulatory regions in Cardiff and Southeast Wales alone). Instead capital flows through a number of agencies and regulatory structures, each with varying levels of power. Councils and LEPs focus on educational (particularly vocational) investment as well as elements of transport and housing, while national regulatory agencies focus on competition measures and the provision of a rules framework. Mayoral districts and combined authorities are given government grants and other funding mechanisms to look at issues such as transportation (linked to national policies) and housing. In this minefield the positioning of a coherent economic identity, one that is cognisant of a class structure and a redistributive mechanism through which conflict and cooperation can occur is blurred if not erased.
Looking at both GVA per head and productivity per hour shows an economy reliant on commuter flows to city regions, rental income, short-term mid-to-low productivity industries and urban concentration. Comparing to class and value fragmentation present in the electorate, the fragmentation we see is partly contributed to by this growing fragmentation of regions and LEPs, such that national identity and class identity are made fractal through multiple lenses, from short-term sectors with increased reliance on fixed-term contracts and low productivity output to the flows of the FIRE economy.
The changing economic landscape of post-industrial areas of the UK thus complicates the questions of values and class in politics. The prevalence of logistics jobs (as one example) in lieu of traditional industries means that the class composition of these areas ranges radically from a precariatised working class (both native and foreign-born) to a professional class of analysts, administrators and managers. The former are less likely to vote at all and the latter are characteristically swing voters, holding little electoral allegiance and being part of the measured middle or modern working life clans or the part of the pragmatic centre – left or right. These value clans or tribes represent a greater desire for affordable housing, better transport and good schooling. Considering the migration volatility of young families and a post-university workforce, values of these kinds define a generic pragmatism that cares little for tradition, place or community (in a settled sense), instead coming from a generation of social networks and mobility.
Trends related to commuting illuminate this trend of mobility, as they point toward the kind of economy that we’re moving to, one focused around large transport infrastructure to produce urban agglomerations combined with the network economy i.e. greater use of teleconferencing and remote work. This is a mode of working attenuated to business and industrial parks, as well as city retail outlets. As a result some market towns and ex-industrial communities are becoming dormitory towns and middle class areas as housing costs in cities and suburbs skyrocket due to increased student accommodation and greater use of shopping malls and office space for both inner city and outer-city developments. This presents further problems of identity as these towns become glorified city suburbs, contributing toward a further commuterisation of UK work life.
The internal migration patterns of the UK show the level of population churn within UK regions that I’m discussing, with a steady incline in the levels of internal inflows and outflows. London’s figures are interesting as they show consistently higher levels of outflow than inflow, suggesting that these populations are moving toward suburban and commuter belt regions. Other large urban conurbations like Birmingham and Manchester show similar dynamics, suggesting a higher rate of outflow churn from cities to suburbs at the expense of smaller provincial cities and rural areas where population churn is relatively stable (outflow equalling inflow except in very deprived areas where outflow is greater). Fragmented class undercurrents are visible, with a largely suburban lower middle-class leaving city centres for cheaper rents and housing prices in the commuter belt, while a precariatised urban working class remains (alongside migrant inflows). In rural and smaller town regions, we see a stability indicative of stagnation, as these cities/regions either become part of this wider commuter belt or remain outposts for non-productive consumption-led sectors, like call centres, shopping malls and other retail-centric activities that rely primarily on consumption over production.
The significant issue that comes out of this are the cities and regions that are neglected by urban agglomeration, from Boston and the Essex coast to the rural Midlands and the fishing communities of the North East. Its in these communities we see the tail-end of cultural and economic complexity. The traditional elements of these former communities are expunged, and they are absorbed into a professional class aesthetic which doesn’t entrench a feeling of fixed identity, instead contributing to its further transience. Or they are left to rot, relying on short-term capital flows (primarily public sector investment) to provide some economic stability. This raises the fundamental question of whether national identity and community really exist in any substantive sense. These are areas with a high exodus of young, working age people and low GVA-based economic activities. Such as areas of Dorset – 123rd on the multiple deprivation index – where there “is an unbalanced age profile, with a much lower proportion of the population being of working age. 36 per cent of the Dorset workforce is aged over 50 compared with 28 per cent in England. Older workers have the benefit of experience and skills, but they will need replacements as they retire. Over the next decade, the population in Dorset aged 16-64 will shrink by 0.1 per cent per annum, a net loss of 2,800 people”. These are regions where such complexity is lashed out against, as in the form of Brexit, where the political personality profile is more authoritarian and less tolerant of cultural diversity.
Social Networks vs Place-Based Identity
As Jem Gilbert notes, “more fundamental, if less rational, than any of these arguments was the real symbolic value of EU membership for many citizens who are not – and never will be – members of the international neoliberal elite. This is a crucial point and it cannot be stated too often. There is a powerful mythology shared by many sections of British political culture: from the far right to the far left, and at every intermediary point along the spectrum. According to this mythology, members of ‘settled’ working-class communities (be they former pit villages in Derbyshire or council estates on the edge of London) simply have stronger, more intimate bonds with each other and with their established habits of life than do other people. These others – from immigrants to university students to metropolitan professionals – are recognised as having a culture, and values, and preferences. But they are somehow assumed to be less attached to them, or to be more easily reconciled to seeing their values traduced. Cosmopolitans, it is assumed, are rootless: aimless postmodern individuals, with no real commitment to anything. These assumptions are central to the discourse of the ‘authentocrats’, as Joe Kennedy has named that range of commentators and pundits who claim to speak for the ‘authentic’ people of Britain”.
While Gilbert is largely dismissive of this narrative, the cleavage between settled and mobile populations is significant geographically and demographically across the UK as it is one of the major markers for how different regions deal with the increasing complexity globalisation, cultural diversity and labour market restructuring have brought. It is not nostalgia for some long-lost form of community that makes particular regions more community-based than others or that informs support for Brexit or opposition to a liberal modernity, but the cultural dislocation that moving from community as defined by geography, ethnicity and boundary to communities as social networks has caused. Networks where being in space and time become de-spatialised and atemporal. Connections that are informed by fluid values and polyvalent identities compared to those defined by an essential community-bound being surrounded by solidaristic institutions. Gilbert’s essay fails to note further that this loss of community is not simply an issue of class-consciousness, but a loss of value structures and institutions that bounded being in more than just economic occupation and a series of class interests. It is also a sense of place and belonging. Of knowing the innate stories and logics of your neighbourhood and town/city.
Alice Mah noted this sense of connection with place in her ethnography of the shipyard neighbourhoods in Newcastle, particularly Walker and surrounding areas. She notes the discrepancies between a collective memory of industrial greatness and the present realities of post-industrial communities, where the bonds that bind them are split open by regeneration and gentrification, which are part of the processes of coping with and moving on from industrialism. “‘Deindustrialization and gentrification are two sides of the same process of landscape formation: a distancing from basic production spaces and a movement towards spaces of consumption’. ‘Liminal’ spaces, or culturally mediated ‘no man’s lands’, are created in these socio-spatial shifts. Walker might be described as one such space, caught somewhere in the middle of a social-spatial shift”. Such liminality creates the conditions of fragmentation between a collective memory of place and the looming impositions of fluidity and mobility that characterise a space of consumption i.e. one premised around the internationalisation and subsequent deconstruction-reconstitution of the supply chain and production space as moving pieces of logistical frameworks that aim at accelerating efficiency and reducing the time between order and delivery. This is a post-industrial machination of non-settled spheres, where movement occurs for the purposes of capital flows and economies of scale. A world of such socio-economic complexity that areas like Walker with their reliance on outmoded industrial behemoths like shipbuilding and a sense of boundedness and relational reciprocity is not able to integrate itself into the scalable networks of post-industrial capitalism.
Thus the opposition within the neighbourhood to Newcastle becoming a growth region centred around middle class housing developments and greater suburbanisation. This is the localised implementation of capital flows that are alien and unsettling onto a declining but settled landscape. Mah’s contrast of industrial spirit with socioeconomic reality shows a fragmentation of identity as the settled patterns of Walker’s demographics face up to the socioeconomic consequences of post-industrialisation with its emphases upon degree-based education and high levels of internal migration. The quote surrounding “cathedrals to the working class” is particularly illustrative, as it shows the primary conflict at play, between a settled form of community and the networked, fluid alternative being presented. There are no cathedrals to the working class because the nature of cathedrals are defined as centralising institutions. Capital flows and networks aren’t centred, but instead use cities and regions as conduits through which they circuit. The notions of place, neighbourhood or local industry are inimical to such a conception in so far as they act as brakes on the speed of these flows. In terms of identity, the class politics of the industrial, post-war era (as represented by the notions mentioned) are over to a great degree as the kind of communities that Walker represents (and this only represents it on a fragmentary, partial level) are few and far between.
This has also happened in market towns and Home Counties where town centres are stripped out, replaced by nightclubs, corner shops, off licences, gambling shops and other varieties of chains or industrialised sin industries that are short-term, ripping the socio-economic heart out of communities. One can look at Evesham, Leamington Spa, Pershore, Hereford, Worcester or various other towns and provincial cities that are by no means materially poor but are increasingly part of the variegated identity of cosmopolitan Britain that is a nationality of nothingness. These communities were previously served by the rhythms of industrial or agricultural economies which centred institutions around these particular facets. However in the de-centred, scalable production and consumption patterns that define modern economic life, a settled network of institutions reliant on a steady rhythm of predictable cycles is impossible. Just compare to the political cycles/waves I mentioned earlier. Since the end of the post-war Keynesian settlement, the speed through which they have evolved and changed has quickened, to the extent that the neoliberal Thatcherite consensus lasted 18 years, the subsequent New Labour compromise of social democracy and neoliberalism lasted 13 years, and the Cameronite consensus around austerity and flexible privatisation lasted 7 years, ending with the Brexit conjuncture and Theresa May as prime minister. This acceleration of political cycles follows in tune with the increasing variegation of economic lifestyles and the fragmentation of class politics as it moved into the realm of Giddensian lifestyle politics and the form of the social network that entrenched this new consensus.
Identities of Despair
And this social network identity that has developed in these post-industrial landscapes, while providing potential for the finding of meaning and one’s being, are by no means causes for celebration. There is a crisis of identity within the UK about what kind of political settlement or citizenship is needed to maintain a sense of coherency and solidarity, that integrates vastly different regions from the four nations down to regions as diverse as rural Wales and South-East England. From this crisis we find the conjunctures of Brexit and its lack of unifying political identity. We find a landscape of multiplicitous identities, some of which can cope with the fluid mechanisms of networked capitalism and the uncertainty of economic livelihoods, while other areas find themselves mired in generational unemployment or short-term unsettled employment, reduced health outcomes, greater inequalities and deaths of despair. Looking at suicide figures across UK regions, one can see marked increases in eastern regions and counties such as Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire (containing many market towns similar to those previously discussed), Staffordshire and Derbyshire in the Midlands, and Lancashire and Yorkshire in the north. Over the past decade in these areas’ suicides have risen from double to triple figure rates, rarely falling below triple figures from 2012 onward. There is evidently an issue here linked to inequalities of both an economic and a cultural origin which show similarities to the US distribution of deaths of despair, with greater concentration within white working class communities in post-industrial landscapes, such as the old coaling communities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
On demographics, similar issues have arisen as suicide has increased by 27.5% for those under-25 and even more markedly for men aged 45-49. As the IFS note “Mortality in middle age has begun to rise. One cause for concern is a rise in ‘deaths of despair’, to use a term coined by Case and Deaton: deaths from suicide, drug and alcohol overdose and alcohol-related liver disease. Research in the US, where deaths of despair have been rising for more than a decade, suggests that they may be linked to a process of cumulative disadvantage for less-educated people. Deteriorating job prospects, social isolation and relationship breakdown may slowly be taking their toll on people’s mental and physical health. Deaths of despair have been rising in the UK too, though on a much smaller scale than in the US. When combined with a slowdown in the decline in deaths from cancer and heart disease, they have contributed to a rise in mid-age mortality in recent years. This comes after decades of virtually continuous improvement”. This again shows similarities with the US experience, where “Overall mortality for whites between the ages of 45 and 54 has held roughly steady in the last 25 years” and there has been a significant increase not just in deaths but in sub-optimal living and health conditions such as chronic pain, as well as a reduction in positive social outcomes with education outcomes lower and marriage declining rapidly.
Cultural-economic dislocation of the kind witnessed across the UK since the 80s (in parallel to similar developments of post-industrialism in the US) have produced landscapes of community-less cities and towns that are hubs for short-term career prospects, student populations and those (both young and middle-aged) with limited opportunity for escape (to economic powerhouses in London or other large cities). There is no easy answer to these issues of dislocation, with a lack of narratives has produced situations where the placement of one’s identity is fragmented and temporary. The nature of a socially networked identity is greater fluidity and cyphering, i.e. the ability to be divided between different scales and locales. It is a process of “ongoing modulation and smoothing of the measurement” so as to integrate into multiple clans or values structures, from workplace to home to alternate social environs. The ultimate divisibility so that “divorces, debts, consumption habits, communication behaviors, travelling habits, internet activities, movements in real space, whereabouts, health, fitness”, etc. are all partial and modifiable toward different socio-economic goals and perspectives. In political terms, this means the multiplication of tribal identifiers and fragments, and the production of various new binaries such as Brexit vs Remain, open vs closed and liberal vs authoritarian as well as a mass of voter clans and tribes that exist within and between them.
Tribes and Clans
Bo Winegard notes that the tribal nature of politics as an evolutionary development of tribal instincts that develop ideological biases and entrench degrees of partisanship. “Tribal biases are quite useful for group cohesion but perhaps also for other moral purposes”. They preserve group identity which extends through various institutions and mechanisms, making bipartisan or multi-coalition efforts difficult to attain. As traditional party bases in the UK have fragmented and the network form of socio-economic organisation has overtaken, this political tribalism has spread out into multiple arenas, particularly the binaries and clans I mentioned. This can be seen as a movement away from a bounded class politics toward a system of status groups.
“Classes are constituted by the market; status groups by a particular way of life and a specific claim to social respect. Status groups are home-grown social communities; classes become classes only through organization. The Trumpist electoral machine mobilizes its supporters as a status group. It appeals to their shared sense of honor more than to their material interests. In this, Trumpism follows New Labour and New Democrat neo-liberalism, which deleted class from their political vocabulary. In its stead, they redefined the struggle for social equality as one over identity, that is, over the symbolic recognition and collective dignity of an indefinite number of ever narrower status groups. Neoliberalism had failed to anticipate that the discovery by experts and politicians of ever new minorities may make the demobilized working class feel abandoned in favor of special interests. Their discovery and celebration inevitably demoted the interests of the working class”.
As the market has become incomprehensible and decoupled from institutional moorings, class as an organising mechanism has fallen behind status and identity as the core of political formation. In other words, as the UK has lost its production bases and become a country of consumption, its politics has followed suit as a suite of identity groupings is much easier to pair with a system of consumption. Each group has tastes, desires and the need to develop a competitive edge to make its demands be met. It requires cultural and human capital to satiate these needs, organising on a fluid, networked basis rather than through a hierarchical system of industrial organisations and trade unions.
This can partially be seen in the complex class composition of modern Britain that NSR and Great British Class Survey models point toward. A liberal middle class holds significant cultural power in multiple institutions, including the media, universities and the arts. This has led to situations where economic power has largely been ignored in the long march through the institutions. Fighting injustices has focused on eliminating racial, sexual and other demographic inequalities while the products of industry and class are made secondary to these considerations. A Giddensian or Beckian politics has grown in its place, with individuation growing above collective considerations that defined the institutions of the post-war world (unions, social clubs, churches, etc.). It’s reliance on the market as the progenitor of further economic progress strengthened this social liberalism, creating new market classes and consumer communities for which advertising and research industries could exploit. However, the crisis of economic liberalism coming on the back of the financial crisis has meant that stagnating wages, rising house prices and the precariatisation of work have made the promise of progress much less believable. With the de-collectivisation of working class industries and institutions, the ability to conceive of an economic perspective outside of a narrow range of interests is limited, leading those left behind in the modern economy to look at things through a collective cultural perspective of nationality, identity and loss.
“The answer liberalism provides is the inevitable progress towards a state of individual human completeness. The pursuit of happiness will lead to happiness. Freedom of speech will lead to the truth. The goal of humanity is to improve itself. There must therefore be a goal beyond liberty that gives human life purpose. But liberalism does not offer one. Liberty, Manent writes, is the best condition for human action, but it cannot by itself give any finality or purpose to it. Faith in progress has been its fundamental tenet. When this faith is lost, when the future can no longer be anticipated, it exposes an emptiness that constitutes a collective and personal crisis of meaning”. Thus the situation of a fragmented Britain, where its “provinces, the ‘peripheral’ spaces within cities, the urban hinterlands and ex-industrial regions were becoming economic backwaters. Much of the old working class had been dispossessed of skilled work and political power. Traditional forms of solidarity had become obsolete and wages had started to stagnate. In the early years of the new century, unexpectedly high levels of immigration from countries that had just joined the EU contributed to the feelings of insecurity and of a government not in control”.
The sense of lacking control is precisely what growing cultural and economic complexity has bred. As class and nationality have become anachronistic markers for identity and meaning, status has produced a miasmic kaleidoscope of differing positions and pluralities that are not contiguous with traditional concepts of citizenship or community. As the multifaceted nature of UK electoral politics and the identities that underlie it become more complex (as voting and decision-making run through multiple conflicting vectors), we see that the UK as a contiguous nation-state is fraught with problems and contradictions, from Scottish nationalism, Ulster autonomy, regional inequality, ethnic diversity, municipalism vs ruralism and other fragmentary tendencies. The solidities of nationalism and patriotism are no longer as solid or premonitory as before, and nor are those of class as expressed through institutional organisation.
Brexit Clans and Cultural Binaries
The lack of solidity produces an evermoving political ground that isn’t necessarily aligned along traditional left-right axes (particularly the popular definitions of these axes). YouGov polling around traditional left and right policies show a discordance between party identification and policy identification. Large chunks of the Conservative Party electorate support rail nationalisation, while large chunks of the Labour Party electorate support reducing immigration and curbing benefits to certain demographics. The lack of coherence between vote and policy preference shows a reliance on values structures and the integration of policies within them rather than a contiguous set of policies related to parties, class and/or institutions. Policies are individual elements to be enacted, rather than as part of a wider ideological viewpoint or framework. “Most tellingly, although 63% of British people are at least fairly clear on what is meant by the left/right terms, the largest group (43%) say they don’t think of their views as being right or left wing”.
While the polling begins to show a realignment of culture vs economy, the conjunctural nature of modern politics means that no party or individual politician has taken up the mantle of aligning these policies as part of a wider platform. What this fundamentally reveals is that policy making goes beyond the institutionalisation of ideologies. We really do live in a Giddensian politics of individuated interests and fragmented political groupings. However, this does not mean that the friend/enemy dichotomy has gone away. Rather it has spread into multiple overlapping binaries that play out in crises events, like the financial crisis and Brexit. This is also reflected in the fragmented value structures and voter groups that have emerged since 90s that go beyond class groupings and political party identifications.
BMG have identified 10 value and identity clans that have been shaped by and are shaping the electoral field. These 10 clans are:
- BTI – Bastions of Tradition & the Individual: Those in the Bastions of Tradition & the Individual clan combine support for a small state and low taxation, with ‘small c’ conservative views on social issues, immigration and family life. Members of the BTI clan are strong supporters of traditional British institutions such as the Royal Family and tend to celebrate Britain’s colonial heritage.
- GGC – Global Green Community: Global Green Community clan members combine an array of socialist views on the economy, with liberal and environmentalist stances on social issues. Their version of socialism has distinctly environmentalist overtones. GGC members have a strongly civic interpretation of Britishness, little interest in the nation-state and want governments to pursue an ethical and inclusive foreign policy.
- PPS – Proud & Patriotic State: The Proud & Patriotic State clan tend to be in favour of redistribution of wealth and nationalisation of key industries, with a strong opposition to the emergence of multiculturalism and freedom of movement. PPS clan members could be characterised as patriotic people with socialist stances on the economy.
- OB – Orange Book: Orange Bookers combine centre-right views on the economy with liberal views on society and immigration. The title refers to ‘The Orange Book – Reclaiming Liberalism’, penned by prominent Lib Dem politicians, and advocates liberal solutions to many social and economic issues. Orange Bookers are the most supportive clan members of free trade, free movement of people and multiculturalism.
- CSS – Common-Sense Solidarity: Common-Sense Solidarity clan members are very strong supporters of renationalisation, trade unions and believe firmly in the redistribution of wealth via taxation. The CSS clan are fairly comfortable with immigration and have mixed views on a number of social issues such as welfare, human rights and parenting.
- NHS – Notting Hill Society: The Notting Hill Society clan are the most pro-business of all clans. Mixing a modern form of conservatism on the environment and society, with traditional views on family life and British institutions, ‘Notting Hill Society’ is a reference to the Conservative party modernisation project under David Cameron and George Osborne.
- SAR – Strength, Agreeable & Respect: Strength, Agreeable & Respect clan member tend to favour authority and discipline, leaning in favour of a ‘just desserts’ approach to crime and punishment. They have a preference for a strong and often uncompromising state, which extends to areas such as defence and Britain’s place in the world. In most other areas of social and economic policy members tend to have mixed or middling views.
- MWL – Modern Working Life: Modern Working Life clan members are strong believers of the value of hard work and social mobility, supporting the view that it is always possible to achieve your goals, so long as you work hard. On balance the MWL clanship believe individuals, not others, should be responsible for their own financial well-being, and tend to hold liberal views on the environment, LGBT rights and gender equality.
- TMM – The Measured Middle: The Measured Middle clan tend to have middling social views, with high numbers opposed to open borders and multiculturalism. On social issues, they are fairly liberal, believing more needs to be done in order to achieve gender and LGBT equality, but are more conflicted on issues such as adolescents choosing their own gender identity. TMM are known for not having very strong political views.
- APY – Apathy: Members of the Apathy Clan are generally disinterested and disengaged with politics, with very few strong views on many issues. They are unlikely to have given much thought to most economic, political and societal questions, either because they are simply not interested, or because they feel alienated by the current state of our politics.
These show the continuing fractionation of British politics away from class-based, materialist concepts to wider values-based mechanisms that represent a wider perspective of policy views and ideological boundaries within and between different geographies and communities. They also show how variegated these clans can be when coalescing around voting patterns and political parties. The 2015 general election demonstrates some of these coalitional patterns, as the Conservative Party obtained a majority through BTI, NHS, OB and MWL voters, showing a cleavage toward general social liberalism and individualist economic liberalism that pulled in centre-right Liberal Democrat voters, traditional Conservative voters and swing voters. Labour voters came primarily from the GGC, PPS and CSS clans. The 2015 election showed a cleavage informed by an economistic method of voting i.e. supporting parties on their economic policies.
However the EU referendum opened up a new cleavage between liberal and authoritarian social attitudes. OB, NHS and GGC clans primarily voted to remain, while PPS, BTI and TMM mainly voted to leave. This is then reflected in the 2017 general election, where both major parties emphasised cultural messages over economic ones. PPS swung toward the Conservatives and TMM and OB swing slightly toward the Labour Party. In effect we have a proportional electorate mapped onto a binary political system that requires fragile associations of voter tribes and clans which can break apart due to polarisation around particular policies. Just look at Corbyn’s loss in 2019 compared to the variety of clans picked up in 2017. Or the shift in Conservative support bases from 2015-2019 as the party shifted from its economic focus on austerity and a general social liberalism to a greater communitarian emphasis and a cultural narrative.
Brexit as a conjuncture has thus revealed the extent to which status groups have overtaken class as the primary vector for electoral decision-making, as a Giddensian life politics of autonomised policy formation plays out over constitutional questions that are conceived through a socio-cultural lens. “Within a given district, a large range factors had the potential to influence voters’ choices–individual beliefs, family traditions, the opinions of peers, the views of local political leaders, a person’s experiences in their neighbourhood and work, as well as their interpretation of the national news stories and politics. Attitudes about the EU, the referendum campaign and immigration are thus formed as a consequence of a person’s local and national experiences”, presenting a British patchwork of identities.
The fragmentation of electoral politics that exploded here is not simply divisible by age, education or geography. They are correlative and form part of a causal chain of ideologies and identities that coalesced into the leave and remain tribes, but these patchworks are not contiguous. Rather they are fractionated within communities and places. Thus the capacity for Leave to assemble a coalition of wealthier shire voters, ex-industrial voters and professional suburban voters into an English and Welsh patchwork that identified with Brexit through a cultural prism. The authors highlight Herefordshire as one of those wealthy shires that voted leave as economically incomparable with Stoke or Boston. However the connective tissue is that all three have had their cultural complexity increased. Market towns in Herefordshire like Leominster and Ledbury have seen increases of foreign-born populations relative to native figures and have seen their town centres increasingly hollowed out by big box stores and e-commerce, being replaced with charity shops, mini-marts and short-term businesses. A cultural exegesis has developed to interpret these complexities, integrating immigration, globalisation and corporatisation into a worldview through which they are critically analysed. Comparing areas of similar socio-economic background further reveals this fractionation. Chelmsford and Braintree or Stoke and Knowsley show how differences are not figured economically or geographically, but rather locally and culturally between open and closed communities.
A Multitude of Divisions
Looking at these integrated variables briefly, we can see the extent to which they are elements of the growing complexity in economies and societies governed through networked forms of information. Globalisation is one the major conflicts that drives through traditional ideological binaries. “The new model of globalization stood priorities on their head, effectively putting democracy to work for the global economy, instead of the other way around. The elimination of barriers to trade and finance became an end in itself, rather than a means toward more fundamental economic and social goals. Societies were asked to subject domestic economies to the whims of global financial markets; sign investment treaties that created special rights for foreign companies; and reduce corporate and top income taxes to attract footloose corporations”. In other words the rise of a global networked economy and the diminution of national and class societies and their systems of obligation. The trilemma of globalisation, democracy and policy autonomy creates contradictions that mean one of the three become downgraded in political considerations. This bleeds into the levels of economic and cultural complexity that have increased since the financial crisis and subsequent crises of legitimacy. As policy autonomy and levels of democratic representation are (or appear to be) eroded, a backlash develops against globalised policy decisions that favours an emphasis on culture over economic or material considerations. Questions of identity, immigration and sovereignty move to the front in electoral politics, whether through referenda or parliamentary elections. And while Rodrik’s prescriptions are eminently sensible, they are attempting to put the genie back in the bottle which may not be possible in present conditions.
A controlled globalisation does not answer the cultural questions that dislodge consensus around relaxed borders and an open attitude to immigration and multiculturalism. And these questions are of significant importance considering the rapid cultural and ethnic change within the UK. Since the early 2000s immigration has stayed at around the six-figure mark, rising in the last decade to 350,000 at its peak. This combined with an ageing population and a growing prevalence of multi-racial coupling mean that by 2060 the UK will be a minority-white country. Ethnic and cultural change over such a short period thus produces a sense of alienation with one’s nation and neighbourhood. As change rapidly encircles multiple areas of the UK, particularly inner cities and rural communities reliant on foreign agricultural labour, demographic dynamics create situations where traditionally white working class neighbourhoods with associated senses of community and solidarity quickly change, as Eastern European and Central Asian populations create their own communities with their own linguistic markers, economic relations and religious institutions. Just look at the changes in Radford and Foleshill in Coventry since the 1970s, or Tower Hamlets or Bradford.
This is witnessed in the development of superdiverse communities in inner cities and the replacement of previously white working class with minority ethnic neighbourhoods (as with Bangladeshi demographics growing in London’s East End). This has also changed the way concepts of neighbourhood and community are identified. “The share of white British who say neighbourhood is ‘very important’ for their identity declines from 36 per cent in the whitest wards to 22 per cent in the most diverse”, while other cultural markers like religion are not considered in either case. On the other hand, minority communities put much greater emphasis on religion as culturally important, the opposite of white British individuals surveyed. Community then becomes denigrated as a concept as both the cultural makeup of areas change (changing the identity markers) and the associated cultural integrity declines (due to the loss of key economic institutions and a feeling of alienation within one’s own locale). This also affects the sense of nationality and citizenship when scaled up to the macro level.
A range of sub-nationalisms and regionalisms have been born from these economic and cultural losses. The rise of English nationalism and identity has had an impact on voting outcomes and perceptions. It cuts across the left-right scale, with the large preponderance of those identifying as English coming from the centre of the left-right placement. “It has been found that Englishness remains a statistically and substantively significant predictor of the Leave vote. More-over, we also know that English-identifiers are more likely to reside in non-cosmopolitan areas, and that this is an increasingly important cleavage in British—or English—politics”. From the research that Denham and Devine conducted they also found it affects party placement perceptions (i.e. how left or right-wing a political party is based on their perception of its policy platform) through a culturally influenced lens. This relates to similar research on the culturally based reasons for supporting Brexit vs supporting Remain. In both these instances economic policies and views are sublimated to a wider cultural (proto)narrative that seeks to explain and decipher the growing cultural and economic complexity created by globalisation and immigration.
Regionalisms have also attempted to fill the gap that an increasingly hollow, ambiguous national narrative has left. The constant creation of local enterprise zones, partnerships, mayoral authorities and combined authorities is the attempt to instantiate growth in previously neglected regions, developing an alter-London to rival the capital’s prestige and cultural capital. However many of these schemes have either been rejected (as during the Blair years where referenda overwhelmingly rejected the creation of regional government structures in the Midlands and North) or are glorified PR projects designed to produce a perception of non-London based growth, as with the Northern Powerhouse or the metro mayor campaigns (many of the mayors being spokespeople for their party rather than their city/region). We can also see some signs of cultural revival as in the attempts to resurrect the Cornish language, but how far these go is difficult to see. At the moment these appear little more than pastiche tourist drives. But as identities fragment into values, we will potentially see an increase in regional identities which will call for greater devolution. How this plays out electorally is interesting, as previous polling around the Northern Powerhouse suggests greater desire for investment in skills and infrastructure as a condition of devolution, further increasing the desire for autonomy away from Westminster. It’s difficult to see how far this goes considering Westminster’s stranglehold over infrastructure spending and inter-regional planning, suggesting greater conflict between regions/sub-nationalisms and the prerogatives of national governments (the conflict between council’s social care commitments and the UK government’s drive to push down spending and costs being a presage of this). The wider electoral fragmentation and development of values-based clans means political drives for decentralisation going up against the entrenched centralism of UK governance.
The 2019 General Election
This is the landscape and framework within which electoral and party politics found itself in the 2019 general election. In this election we begin to see the full effect of the pivoting away from a politics of left and right delineated by economic policies and perspectives (which defined the 2010 and 2015 elections) that saw its first significant affects in the 2017 election. This is a continuation of the Brexit conjuncture as politics takes on cultural characteristics and binaries that sublimate economics. Comparing BMG’s identification of 10 distinct value clans with Datapraxis research on 14 voter tribes that presented themselves during the election, we can see similarities in the clans and tribes and how they view the world. The “Anti-Corbyn Get-It-Done Switchers” are very similar to the TMM clan, as both take generally pro-system perspectives and tended to be swing voters. The “Older Brexit Swing Voters” are comparable to the PPS clan, those who hold strong patriotic views but are economically left-wing, supporting redistribution and nationalisation. This tribe would traditionally vote Labour and be considered part of the Red Wall that Labour lost to the Conservatives. Both of these tribes show significant swings away from Labour to the Conservatives, primarily due to the narrative of Brexit which split these priorities along a cultural axis. “Older Establishment Liberals”, similar to the OB clan, showed a swing away from the Conservatives toward the Liberal Democrats, as did elements of Labour’s voting constituencies in the GCC clan.
These cultural dynamics and their sublimated economic substrates led to a situation where a narrative of pro-Brexit populism was able to gain a Conservative Majority against a backdrop of both major parties losing vote share. A realignment along the lines of Brexit, but also wider than this as it encompassed an opposition to complexity as well as two different types of sovereignty, those who view sovereignty as a modular force to be used and ceded where necessary, thus stripped of any cultural or social bearing except in the loosest sense, as in multicultural narratives of nationhood (logistical sovereignty). And those who view it as an immutable force, to be used in the development in (an often not defined) pursuit of the common good. It views sovereignty along ethno-traditional lines, imputing essentialist characteristics of cultural, linguistic and historical identity markers (cultural sovereignty).
“Labour’s seismic losses to the Conservatives across its traditional heartlands have been a long time coming. While every community is different, multiple factors have combined in a perfect storm. They include decades of economic stagnation and increasingly precarious work; austerity, cuts to local government and the retreat of the social safety net; the decline of the high street with the rise of offshore internet commerce platforms; and the departure of children and grandchildren to study and work elsewhere. These factors have intersected with an increasingly intense scepticism about a system many believed to be rigged against them, strong anti-immigration feelings, a sense that politicians are out of touch, and a belief that social security and public services are being exploited by others. The relentless drumbeat of sensational and misleading tabloid news stories has been taken to a new level, with the rise of social media as a vector for disintermediated communications in which ‘filter bubble’ effects can lead to fake news and sentiment spreading like wildfire. All these dynamics have been decades in the making. But Brexit crystallised them. It provided an imaginary path to national renewal and ‘taking back control’, splitting these voters off from the Labour Party and bringing them closer to the Conservatives or the Brexit Party”. Combined with the decreasing loyalty voters feel to political parties and the autonomised, Giddensian nature of policy formation, this election serves as a watershed for the conjuncture of British politics as it deals with a difficult-to-understand political landscape (which itself reflects the difficult-to-decipher economic and cultural complexities the electorate finds itself faced with).
Looking through the prism of the left-right, authoritarian-liberal matrix, this election played out through shifts toward Conservative support amongst authoritarian-left and authoritarian-centre voters, representing a cultural rejection of Labour rather than a specific economic disjunction. “Labour lost support across all of the value groups. But this was more marked among the least liberal groups. Critical for Labour though is the loss of support among groups otherwise on the left but who were not in the most liberal group. For the ‘left-moderate’ group Labour support fell below half, for the ‘left-authoritarian’ group this fell to fewer than 1 in 3 of those who voted”. The Labour Party’s traditional base fragmented in two directions related to Brexit, to the Liberal Democrats for centrist voters and to the Conservatives for authoritarian-left voters. This values-driven dynamic is further seen in the class splits in voting patterns. There was a class realignment of British political parties, with the Conservatives taking a lead amongst working class and self-employed voters while maintaining a level of middle class support. Labour on the other hand increased its support amongst the middle and intermediate classes. This shows the diminution of class-based voting in the UK, as values and axioms takeover as defining characteristics in how one votes. Thus the talk of class interests have been subsumed to those of group interests and values-interests (like Brexit), particularly as the classes identified by Evans & Mellon split electorally among age and educational demographics. The intermediate and lower middle classes tend to be university educated and live nearer or in metropolitan areas. The upper middle classes and traditional working classes are older property owners concentrated in outer suburbs and rural areas.
There is also the historical element of increasing complexity over the eras of British politics, from the top-down managerialism of nationalised industry to the flexibilised open economies of the 80s, 90s and 2000s imposed through purposeful deregulation and the introduction of private sector management into the public sector. It is this background in which class and nationality have become fragmented, made ambiguous and alienated. “This election was at root about a technocratic style of politics which has been the status quo for decades: an ever-growing range of issues is ring-fenced through mechanisms not easily subject to change via the democratic process. The worldview it enshrines can be summarised as ‘double liberalism’. If Thatcher drove a greater degree of ‘openness’ in the economy, liberalising the financial sector and privatising monopoly utilities, Blair drove something equivalent in society. The new ‘openness’, first of the economy and then of society was entrenched via unaccountable quangos and EU treaties against which, in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, ‘There can be no democratic choice’. The electoral fightback against this is the long narrative arc of Boris Johnson’s path to victory”. The Labour Party, alongside other institutions and organisational complexes that exist within intra-competitive networks of identity formation and narrativisation, found themselves questioned and lashed out against since the conjunctural effects of Brexit and the explosion of political binaries it has produced. It wasn’t that Labour’s policies were particularly unpopular, but rather that their general presentation through the lens of promising a second referendum and appealing to a cosmopolitan, liberal electorate were alienating to significant sections of its base. The Conservatives used the conjuncture to their benefit, producing a populist narrative simple in structure but containing a large number of grievances within it.
The 14 voter tribes Datapraxis identified variegate the electoral field into coalitional-conflictual dynamics that are beyond traditional party bases (which by and large don’t exist anymore). The transitory nature of these coalitional-conflictual dynamics makes elections increasingly message-driven and ambiguous, constantly attentive to different tribes and how they can be integrated into a party’s electoral pact. As party politics has become managerial and de-institutionalised, these voter tribes are representative of the battlefield at play. There are no longer contiguous communities of voters ensconced in groups and institutions focused around a particular political viewpoint, but instead a chaotic sea of short-term decision-making and opinion formation that is increasingly focused on the least best option or the “best of a bad bunch”. Such is the fragmentation of ideology and the dissolution of a binding political settlement.
Political Parties Post-2019
This dissolution and fragmentation then become something of a minefield for the major political parties to traverse. Yes the Conservatives won the election (even though a more accurate take would be that Labour lost the election as they lost control of the voting coalition that kept them relevant for 70 years), but through a loose narrative of getting Brexit done that created an unstable coalition of voters: Red Wall ex-Labour voters who are culturally conservative and economically left-wing; the remaining Notting Hill Set value clan who are upper middle class and generally liberal; rural shire voters who are economically centrist and culturally authoritarian (being a large section of the Brexit-voting electorate); and a series of swing voters (encapsulated by the Moderate Middle clan) who distrusted Corbyn. “Johnson is faced with a tricky balancing act between his increasingly working-class, communitarian constituents and his libertarian, individualist, free-market fundamentalist think-tank brigade who think the answer to everything is more choice, freedom, and tax-cuts”.
In the contradictions of modern British politics, with the Conservative Party ushering in soft social democratic policies to maintain a voter base in lower income Midland, Welsh and Northern seats, it is difficult to see a way past the conjunctural impasse. While Goodhart makes the case that the changing constituency base of the Conservative vote serves as a pretext for greater social democracy and a larger redistributive state to emerge, I’m not so sure. As Harrington noted, the background of this election and for a large part of British political history has been the conflicts between technocratic tendencies (those that favour a top-down managerialism) and distributed, slightly populist tendencies. This doesn’t then naturally presage a larger bureaucratic state, with the conjuncture of Brexit ushering in instead a greater focus on devolution and decentralisation of power to regions and councils, as the Leave vote represented a distaste for both European and Westminster-based double liberalism. Goodhart’s optimism about Brexit and the potential it presents are also questionable. While, as he notes, our future regulatory policies will most likely go along with EU directives in most cases but will diverge in other areas, such as financial policy and labour market regulation, the extent of that sovereignty is not absolute. Other international institutions have significant say in the extent of policy autonomy, and the increasing issues of non-national identities and regional inequality may also pull and distribute power downwards away from Westminster (not to mention Irish unionism and Scottish independence). Further, the contradictions of a Tory voting base composed of lower-income post-industrial voters and wealthier South East and Shire voters will mean policy battles in government and the party will be fraught and difficult to synthesise.
In Labour, similar divisions are present within its voter base, which if it is to reconstitute itself as an electable party requires it to produce a cohesive narrative through which it strains its core voting bases and policy platform. It sits between (what remains of) traditional heartland voters with lower education levels and a greater sense of cultural conservatism, and the modern left who are University-educated and favour social liberalism and an internationalist outlook. “The mixture of old-Left socialism represented by Corbyn and his close allies alongside a mix of students, woke Brahmin liberals, and ethnic minorities is not something one can build a governing party on”. This mixture of an educated middle-class liberalism and a working-class industrial base has been part of the Labour Party since it’s inception (and particularly since the end of World War II), as its history shows.
In the development of the Labour Party, it was not simply a vanguardist vehicle for working class leadership but a broad church of multiple institutions and systems that combined and conflicted but that ultimately cohered around a common narrative. With the Brexit vote and the losses of the 2017 and 2019 general elections, the connection between Labour’s base of working-class support and its leadership are almost gone if not completely severed. As significant parts of the Labour heartlands have switched to the Conservatives for the first time in 80 years, the ties that bind these institutions together are gone. From the 1980s onwards, when many of these Labour platoons were destroyed or died (social clubs, working clubs, trade unions, industrialism, regional economies) the party moved with the times by embracing a market-led economy and attempting to humanise it. With the 2008 financial crisis, such an approach was largely seen to have failed, ushering the way for austerity and greater marketisation.
While Corbyn may have represented a nominal break from neoliberal orthodoxy, the actual proposals and systemic message matched the same technocratic strain of economic thinking that has existed in Britain since the Second World War, that of planners, managers and policy analysts deciding what is best and how it should be structured. These technocratic optics infected the nationalised industries and planning councils of the 60s and 70s, the privatised companies of the 80s and 90s, the public-private partnerships of the 2000s and the policies of Corbyn. It’s not simply a matter of economic reform or revolution, but of the distributive manner of power within it. Nationalising railways or broadband does not solve the problems inherent in them (and can possibly exacerbate such problems) as who controls it is as important as what is done. “The Labour tradition stands for the political and civic inheritance of our self-governing institutions. Politics should be of the people, by the people and for the people. Labour was not a party of violent change but one which protected and cherished the objects of affection of the people”. But this tradition has always existed in conflict with the managerial reality it faced, intertwining with the managerial tradition in the 40s, 60s and 70s through the nationalisation and central planning of key industries so as maintain bargaining agreements and wage policies, and in the 90s and 2000s with the embrace of marketisation.
And as the Labour Party has transformed through this intertwining (mirroring in many ways the ideological cycles of the British state), its internal policies and structures took on their own top-down characteristics. Technocratic thinking still affected policy decisions in the Labour Party under Corbyn, particularly regarding their nationalisation policies. Claims of bringing power back to the people are hollow demagoguery if not combined with solidaristic efforts that go beyond simply decentralising or centralising competences, but instead implement subsidiarity in the way policies are formed and how they are executed. This is one of the fundamental parts of the conjuncture we find, the gap between popular policies and the feeling of empowerment they can bring. It’s one thing to support nationalisation projects (as the majority do regarding energy and rail companies), it is another to construct policies that convincingly espouse a distribution of power away from centralised entities (planning boards, Whitehall, bureaucracies, etc.). “Partly for ideological reasons, the party leadership’s relations with many of Labour’s most experienced and influential local government figures are reportedly distant. The unreformed, hierarchical structures of the unions and the party itself hardly help”. A similar issue of centralistic thinking within Labour has also been noted in its relationships to the rave and grime cultures, and how party officials saw these as vehicles through which policies could be pushed rather than as a cornucopia of different identity and values frameworks through which the problems of meaning and existence amongst the working and lower classes in the UK could be interpreted.
Empowerment must go beyond slick policy proposals, instead also being about trustworthiness and developing a holistic view of the country that incorporates multiple elements into an identity that can be believed in and fought for. The polls of the 2019 general election showed that people fundamentally did not trust Corbyn to deliver on his proposals due to both an historical aversion to politician’s grand visions, and to the dithering nature of Corbyn’s proposals themselves (particularly around national security and Brexit). This must also be looked at through the lens of cultural politics as well, where Corbyn and his coterie of supporters felt like a continuity of the cultural politics of New Labour, that of diversity, multiculturalism and a generally socially liberal agenda. “Labour’s troubles run deep: it’s a party of the working-class floundering for a place in a post-industrial economy, trying to hold together a mutually uncomprehending coalition of the socially conservative in the North and the socially liberal in the South”. But further than this, the Labour Party found its patchwork coalition increasingly despondent and apathetic to the party’s vision, finding in alternative narratives and political binaries a greater veracity of attitude and identity in things like Brexit or being part of a social network (in lieu of a traditional community).
As Seaton notes, “the legitimate argument for Labour’s equivocation on Brexit is that although its own party membership is 85-90 percent Remain, it still wins parliamentary seats—or did—in predominantly working-class constituencies in the Midlands, North, and Northeast of England (Scotland is another matter), parts of the country that the party regards as its historic heartland. In these areas, there are blue-collar voters who are older, more socially conservative, more nationalistic, and generally more anti-immigration than Labour’s far more progressive activist membership, yet the party feels, by all ties of history and sentiment, that they are nevertheless its people. But even in these heartland constituencies, polling evidence shows that actual Labour voters still broke Remain, not Leave; and that a good many of those ‘natural’ Labour voters already defected, either first to the United Kingdom Independence Party or later to its successor Brexit Party. Many of them will have voted Tory in this election on the basis of Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’”.
Here we can see the contradiction clearly – the increasing levels of cultural and economic complexity being felt differentially across the country. As London and other University cities are inherently multicultural, post-industrial areas see such facets as out of step with their ways of thinking. This is compounded by narratives of the benefits of immigration and the patronising attitude of politicians who fail to look through the eyes of working-class people. If, as the author claims, social democracy is dead or dying, this occurred because the Labour Party remained in its technocratic guise when the economic and political crises of Britain demanded a new political settlement that went beyond arguments over policy but deep into questions about identity and meaning in the context of a post-industrial landscape where regional inequality, economic stagnation and distribution of power are paramount issues.
But of course, this new political settlement has not come, and from the shaky coalition of the Conservative Party to Starmer’s Labour Party (whatever it represents), there isn’t much evidence that a narrative is cohering to remove the political system from the current conjuncture. And the technocratic guise of modern politics has not been removed (with the irony being that the legal and economic complexity of exiting the EU may increase this guise). The 2019 election is simply further evidence of a cultural and party realignment that hasn’t fully arrived.
As the left-wing parties become more representative of a culturally liberal and immigrant milieu, traditional heartland areas become part of the electoral flux, becoming new floating voters in unstable electoral coalitions with the Conservative Party due to cultural questions predominating over economic concerns. “The result of the new cultural realignment has been to upend the class composition of the main parties. We see this in the steady decline in class voting across western democracies in the late 20th century. In Britain, for instance, a majority of manual working-class voters plumped for Labour between 1945 and 1975. Even after that date, at least 40 percent voted for the party, with over half backing Tony Blair’s New Labour in the 1997 election. Since then, however, Labour’s support within the white working-class has fallen relentlessly, dropping to only 20 percent among such voters by 2015. Jeremy Corbyn continued the pattern, further consolidating the university-educated metropolitan left and ethnic minority vote while losing white working-class voters in the pivotal ‘Red Wall’ seats of the English Midlands and North that the party had held, in some cases, since the dawn of the current two-party system. It appears that Conservative voters are now more working-class than Labour’s, something unthinkable in 1945 or even 1995”.
Political Futures and the British Archipelago
In this conjuncture we see the continual swirling of narratives, political binaries and milieus through which the germs or patchworks of movements begin to be seen, from the nostalgic centrism of the Independent Group and Liberal Democrats, the wider Remain and FBPE movements, and a technocratic reassertion in the Labour Party through Keir Starmer, to the affirmation of a nascent populism, a variety of regionalisms and sub-nationalisms, and localism.
The centrist overtures that followed the EU referendum and ebbed through the 2019 election have largely devolved into tribal configurations, being a movement of social media with limited political party power. However, with the election of Keir Starmer as the new Labour leader this trend may begin to reverse it slightly as he make overtures toward the centrist elements of the party and attempts to move away from the divisions that dogged the Corbyn leadership. This is a reassertion of the political norm that held greater sway before the referendum, where a strong party leader projects confidence and can quickly detoxify aberrant elements of the party. This is similar to Cameron’s strategy of detoxification when becoming leader of the Conservatives. “Upon becoming Conservative leader in 2005, David Cameron observed that when focus groups heard Conservative policies they agreed with them, but disagreed once they found out that it was the Conservatives that had proposed them. This is why his strategy was to ‘detoxify’ the Tories, rather than embark on a New Labour-style root and branch reform. What needed to change was not the policies, but the image of the organisation and its most high profile spokesperson proposing them”.
Much of this reads like a continuity of the centrist politics that Corbyn’s critics like Blair and the legacy media propose. They want Labour to pivot away from the radical left and toward a sensible program of clearly explained and popular proposals, in effect taking their current platform and streamlining it rather than throwing out the whole manifesto. Further it suggests adding a patriotic gloss to make such centrism palatable to heartland voters. Apart from the fact that such suggestions show the contradictions and issues that flow through modern electoral and party politics, it ignores the effect this pivot to the centre had throughout the 2000s: the loss of significant elements of the Labour Party base throughout the Blair and Brown years, political parties becoming PR platforms and advertising campaigns (where manifestos were seen as popularity pledges rather than vehicles for change/reform), and increasing the sense of mistrust growing toward not just politicians but the technocratic/bureaucratic classes in general (including quangos, journalists, think tanks and others seen as close to the levers of power). While adding new gloss to the Labour Party sounds like a convenient way of circumventing a radical reform of the party and its policies, the reality of increasing electoral fragmentation and the growth of new political identities that don’t just create new political binaries but split across multiple axes means that continuity politics and the simple affirmation of good leadership are hitting against forces and flows that potentially supersede these understandings.
Both what Starmer represents and what centrist thinking wishes for is a return to the pre-referendum political managerialism, where the complexity that dogged significant parts of the country was well understood by themselves. But that world is dead and unlikely to be revived. The conjunctural effects of the financial crisis and Brexit mean the fragmentation of electoral politics and its associated identities is set to continue until a political entrepreneur or social movement is able to gauge a substantial section of public opinion and pivot policy platforms and media presence toward a cohering narrative that integrates them. As has been evident, there is a difficulty of Brexit-based identities mapping onto existing political realities that are widely considered immutable (equalities legislation, acceptance of immigrants, openness, tolerance, etc.). The Brexit voting coalitions (48% and 52%) do not represent cogent groupings but instead criss-crossing groups of voters who came together in the referendum not to develop a new political reality, but to reject the status quo and open means of moving beyond it. “The referendum illuminates the long-term, growing divergence between the politics of social justice and those of identity and belonging – and the need for much broader geographical and cross-class reach of those pursuing progressive coalitions. There will be no successful defence of liberal ‘open society’ values without engaging a much broader coalition than is achieved by the polarising frame of ‘open versus closed’, which pits the confident, liberal minority against the nativist, left-behind minority – but which also leaves most of the public unpersuaded by either camp”. But this broader coalition is already splintering the party bases.
“The problem for Labour is two-fold. Voters do not cast their votes based on economic issues alone, and, more critically, voters on the left are divided on non-economic issues such as justice and immigration”. And as I’ve noted these cultural issues are not just sitting alongside economic ones, but in the case of those who view sovereignty through a cultural lens (i.e. Brexit voters), culture is sublimating the economy as the vector for decision-making and value formation. Here the divide is clear, being split along a cultural axis rather than an economic one. With the shift of Labour Party support from 1997 to 2015, we can see that the socially conservative cohort grew and its attitudes reflect an element of political homelessness that no political party has really picked up on apart from the Conservatives (to a limited extent), who first through Theresa May and now through Boris Johnson have begun to pivot toward a cultural politics that integrates elements of a state-led (rather than market-led) economics. This voting bloc not only represents a new political coalition, but also represents a significant sense of political apathy to the current settlement, particularly in the light of Brexit where it seems positions have hardened, both within the Labour Party and more generally. For these voters, the Labour Party is an institution of the past, informed through their local connections in industrially linked institutions. With those now gone, these voters are tentatively willing to put their faith in a figure like Boris Johnson if he can deliver the Brexit vote and move the country away from the complexity logistical sovereignty and multiculturalism have brought.
On the other hand, the largest sections of the current Labour Party base are now concentrated within cities. Here conflictual lines can be seen between young precarious, city-based workers and retired, ex-industrial workers as their cultural values sit against each other. The proposal by Paul Mason of a coalitional party that integrates these various strands seems suspect as it means an unstable coalition of competing interests that are difficult to negotiate between. “The third and distinct new reality is the radicalisation of the big city workforce. It is younger, ethnically diverse, and while its employment is often precarious, the sheer volume of money and investment in a big metropolis can make this survivable. Culturally, its values have diverged from those of the small-town workforce. Politically it is wedded to social liberalism, the environment and social justice, and since 2008 has become radicalised in a way that leaves it open to left social democracy, but also left liberalism and Green politics”. Such metropolitan interests clash with the social conservatism found in small towns, shires and ex-industrial areas. As Labour’s base has now shifted to University towns and the city workforce, particularly in London and Manchester, such a coalitional base as Mason proposes could be as precarious as the coalitional base currently underpinning the Conservatives. Particularly as the working population of the UK is increasingly made up of professional, administrative and service workers. Here class dynamics fracture into the quality of status groups, as professional associations, lifestyle politics and social media takeover from class struggle and campaigns of solidarity.
And it is difficult to see how Mason’s reform proposals begin to develop the kind of coalitional electoral base necessary to produce a new political settlement in the war of position between these various status groups and patchworks of identity. His proposals for a Green New Deal, a deal for small towns and neglected regions, a strong defence policy and constitutional reform are the kind of meaningless junk that fill the pages of most centre-left think tank reports. His talk of agency begins to come closer to the issues at hand, but then within the coalitional movement he proposes, what kind of agency can be crafted that compromises between the bases that exist today? There are a number of areas that lack “a civic ecology of assets, capital and local institutions”, which in turn breeds the populism that fed into Brexit and has created the fragmented conjuncture we see before us on the electoral map, where both parties require bodged-together coalitions of voters whose perspectives are driven through short-term, policy-led discussions. Mason just proposes a new lick of paint whereby the policy discussions are slightly longer-term in focus and are led by a stronger party leader who can craft a new political centre.
But populism is representative of the feeling of being strangers in one’s own land. In this sense it is a cultural phenomenon brought on by exclusion and impotence, that lashes out against prevailing institutions, looking to deconstruct and remould the social and political networks in which they exist. The traditional institutions of political representation that came through workplaces and social avenues have largely disappeared as industrial economies have transitioned to predominantly service and knowledge-based ones. As a result, the ability to configure a shared economic imaginary is limited, leading to questions of “the people” through a cultural lens. Thus, the development of various forms of identity politics and their focus on things like social legislation and the ability to have dignity in one’s nationality. “It is also politically and morally easy, especially for those of us who have done pretty well under a regime of neoliberal openness. It’s far more difficult to think through what kind of political openness a progressive alternative should pursue and, perhaps more discomfortingly, what kind of economic boundaries might also be necessary to create a more egalitarian society in a global economy”.
It is these economic and cultural boundaries that are the centre point through which the various movements, patchworks and fragments of meaning-making and identity construction move around, attempting to delineate and comprehend the growing complexity societies face. It’s becoming more difficult to craft a national identity and common good as the traditional markers of such things (a hierarchical class system, civic society, a sense of community) have largely disappeared in many areas. As we move into a situation where the young have less opportunities than do their parents and grandparents (to own a house, settle down in one career, move to the suburbs), the political situation becomes significantly different as people’s interests diverge along markers of age, ethnicity and education, to the extent that events like Brexit become identity markers through which binaries are solidified.
“People in post-industrial England felt increasingly cut off from politics. Whatever its inbuilt mendacities, the referendum was presented as a clear, era-defining choice; and whatever their motivations, people voted in good faith”. As the economic picture in the UK becomes more unstable, with high levels of private debt, underinvestment in infrastructure and services, precarious labour markets, stagnant wages and other poor indicators, constructing a shared cultural-economic identity will be fraught with problems and large trade-offs that are unpalatable. Maybe then the issue is not just a matter of party politics, but of the boundaries of our current polity and of constructing a new political settlement beyond our current juncture.
Where this begins to be built appears to be in the existing decentralised systems of policy-making and governance that are outside the centralised Westminster complex. As John Harris wrote, “everywhere I go, there is no end of social innovation happening, usually in the form of grassroots initiatives that prove that some communitarian, compassionate ideals run as deep in the old Labour heartlands as they ever did. But politics too often seems irrelevant. In Grimsby, I spent time at Centre4, which offers everything from financial help for new small businesses, through support for people experiencing loneliness, to a gym. Its volunteers – women, for the most part – talked about the election as an extraneous event that didn’t much interest them”.
Locality’s report also notes the importance of local institutions, as with Shropshire’s Local Joint Committees which are used to coordinate between the county and town/parish councils, using joint governance for the purposes of procurement and sharing funds while maintaining a degree of separability so as to be accountable to their constituencies. There is also the constitution of a large number of community anchor institutions in multiple locales, as with BOOST Neighbourhood Finance in Bristol or the Hebden Bridge Community Association in Calderdale borough. These show changes primarily in the way local government structures use social value frameworks for their procurement strategies, looking at ways of ensuring social value by giving local companies and third sector organisations greater opportunities to tender for public sector contracts. However it also shows a way of navigating and controlling the mass of local governance structures by clearly delineating where their control lies, and providing real agency through the integration of local organisations into decision-making processes (which is particularly useful in the areas Locality highlighted, where they tend to have low productivity and GVA scores and whose main sectors are short-term and non-industrial).
In recognising the decentralised, fragmented character of modern Britain, we begin to see it more as an archipelago of connected islands bound together by increasingly loose narratives of citizenship and solidarity. The UK shows “a striking level of heterogeneity across their localities…full of peninsulas, sub-regions and mountain-enclosed hinterlands, where accents, dialects and cultural allegiances change every ten miles or so. These are in fact conditions in which univocal nationalism does not seem like a natural development”. In this archipelagian reality, the whole concept of a unifying national settlement is questionable, particularly as the cultural and economic power of London isn’t going to be removed by said settlement. Regionalism and localism then appear to be better answers for the conjuncture the UK finds itself within, but at the expense of forever fragmenting the UK into its various status groups and geographic splits. An architectural redesign is proposed by Niven, whereby a North-West triangle is developed as a counterweight to London’s centrality. This would be done through the interlinking of the various urban regions of this triangle, creating interlocking infrastructure (akin to HS3) and new administrative centres that provide hubs through which new networks of governance and cultural power can be built. As the concept of Britishness becomes an anachronism through which people put in and take out whatever they like, a series of cultural-economic regionalisms that exist along the geographic and demographic archipelago of the modern UK seems to better reflect the political realities in front of us.
But it must go further than this, integrating the rural and exurban areas that have been neglected. It must not a recreation of the socially networked capitalist form at a lower level of government, but instead an integrated series of nested governance frameworks that move up to the North-West triangle and down into the community anchors and hubs. It must re-map the complex mesh of centrally-created local governments, integrating and binding the LEPs, mayoral districts, local councils, growth regions and cultural institutions into new pacts that create workable solutions, as with Shropshire’s Local Joint Committees or Preston’s development of a community anchor economy that integrates its LEP and surrounding institutions alongside the city and county councils. Locality’s framework for local economic development is also essential, maintaining locally integrated economies that flow through a cycle of 1. positive flow of money and resources; 2. network of diverse, responsible businesses and enterprises; 3. inclusive finance system with stable financial institutions; 4. positive and productive use of local assets; 5. active and connected citizens; 6. clean and sustainable environment; and 7. good quality services.
The UK is fragmented along multiple dimensions and across a multitude of political binaries. Since the EU referendum, the British political system has found itself in a conjuncture whereby political parties and social movements are attempting to forge a new political settlement that can gear a coherent war of position between an established binary, such that political parties can engage in an agonistic contest with distinct policy platforms. But the story of the past two general elections has been a further sense of the conjuncture embedding itself in political life, as the party’s electoral bases cohere around new identities and become focused on cultural aspects over economic ones. Conflict in the British system has splintered and spread over different elements, from Brexit and economic dislocation to the loss of a sense of community and place as narratives of multiculturalism and openness dislodge them. And behind this is a British political history of increasingly managerial tendencies that this decade has begun to question and dislocate, as well as the growth of a networked capitalism that disregards settled institutions and liquefies borders and identities. The modes of politics we may see will need to grapple with this fragmented landscape if anything coherent is to be developed.
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times
 Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of Indebted Man
 Locality, Powerful Communities, Strong Economies
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 Gerald Raunig, Dividuum
 Gerald Raunig, Dividuum
 Bo Winegard, Tribalism is Human Nature
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 Eric Kaufmann, Whiteshift
 John Denham & Daniel Devine, England, Englishness and the Labour Party
 Locality, Powerful Communities, Strong Economies
 Alex Niven, New Model Island
 Locality, Powerful Communities, Strong Economies