polarisation local elections - RSA

Two countries - polarised until we fix our democracy

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  • Economic democracy
  • Future of Work
  • Communities
  • Community engagement
  • Institutional reform
  • Leadership

The local election results tell us little that is new. They do, however, confirm that the country is divided in similar ways to that seen in the General Election last year. These divides change the way politics and democracy functions. Rather than politics and political expression being a continuum from a left position to a right position with a bulging centre-ground, it is rather two different electorates – or mounds - with their own internal dynamics. And this changes the rules of the game quite radically – and makes a united country at ease with itself more difficult to imagine.

In two essays last year, I explored how the country had become polarised, insecure, and divided and this was, amongst other arenas, playing itself out in the political world. Lots of things are at play here. At a fundamental level, outsiders are increasingly availing themselves of the democratic tools at their disposal – amplified by social media and political filter bubbles.

A divided country

Culturally conservative outsiders – many in post-industrial Britain and many in towns – took the opportunity of the EU referendum to make their voice heard. And when the May Government embraced a hard Brexit position, the passage of these voters, many older and working class, from UKIP and abstention to Conservatism was widened. The modern Conservative coalition of support is a strange amalgam of those who have a vested interest in the status quo and those who want to see it overthrown. This feels like a marriage of convenience but who can say? And who can predict which part of the coalition may jump first? But one mound is an awkward fit of economic and cultural insiders and outsiders.

And so is the other Britain (or, probably more accurately, England). The Corbyn coalition is an equally peculiar amalgam. It comprises anti-Tory progressives or social democrats, the ultimate political insiders in the Blair-Brown years, who, despite deep unease with the Corbyn project see Hard Brexit and continuing Tory governance as the greater threat. Alongside them, is a huge swathe of economic outsiders, generally aged younger than 45 years-old, but comfortable with a socially liberal country. These are generalities of course – there were plenty of older Labour voters who came back to the party during the last campaign, impressed with the campaign itself- but it basically fits the picture.

The driving dynamic in this polarised politics becomes one of motivation rather than persuasion. The movement between these two electorates is likely to be only ever minimal; each party has to focus on keeping together its mound. And it’s interesting to see how this distorts and nullifies the traditional lenses of political analysis. So when commentators say Labour ‘lost’ the ‘expectations game’, it doesn’t particularly matter to the party. The approach is to motivate and part of that is ramping up expectations to generate a sense of momentum (small ‘m’). The failure for Labour today is that this momentum didn’t materialise – and in fact, in places such as Barnet, given the party’s difficulties over anti-Semitism, there may have been a counter-momentum. But ultimately the persuasion model means that the expectations game necessarily plays second fiddle.

Equally, saying that Labour is failing because it’s not doing well in traditional marginal territories such as Nuneaton, Basildon, and Derby misses the way in which the shape of the political map is changing. Where the Conservative mound is strong there are likely to be surprising outcomes; just as Labour seemed to be winning in peculiar places for the party in 2017. The notion of ‘swing’ becomes unhelpful and maybe even misleading in a polarised politics. What matters most is the mound: which of the parties is keeping their mound in tact (and perhaps marginally adding to it)?

None of this is frozen. As indicated above, these mounds are not completely solid. Just as the single mound dynamic disintegrated in the EU referendum and its aftermath, the two mound model is equally as unstable. There has been much talk about a new centrist party coming into the picture. It may be more difficult for such as party to prosper as New Labour did in the 1990s/2000s. New Labour took advantage of a fluid political environment; secured enormous majorities in the process. By 2022, if that is the date of the next election, we would have had almost two decades without any party securing a decent working majority. A new centrist force would have to reshape the mounds rather than just climbing them. But absolutely none of this is set in stone and the two mound model may only be a temporary one.

Changing our culture of democracy

The bigger and more pertinent question is if any of this is healthy. My sense is not. Britain’s majoritarian, winner-takes-all brand of democracy becomes incredibly socially divisive when losers see the alternative as not just undesirable but unacceptable. Anger may well increase. And there’s the small matter of enormous common problems that we face: economic insecurity, environmental degradation, a health and social care system not fit for purpose, the potential impacts of new technology on work, society, and democracy and we could go on. None of these problems can be resolved in winner-takes-all environment or on a single mound.

And so, new spaces for democratic dialogue within communities, within economic institutions, and between filter bubbles become even more important, not simply as pressure valves but as means of exploring common challenges. So a magical new leader is unlikely to be the solution. Instead there is responsibility on civil society (and this is one reason Matthew Taylor will be making a case for greater deliberation in our democracy in a few weeks), its plethora of organisations, to find ways of opening out these spaces. The RSA is just one of these organisations but, in a polarised world, it may be the most important service to society that we can provide.    

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