UK post-referendum politics is starting to take shape. The Conservatives have occupied the ‘stability’ vote and look to have won back some of the English nationalist vote that passed over to UKIP temporarily. UKIP is already struggling for an identity amidst organisational chaos and a Government that is working on Brexit- UKIP’s raison d'être. The SNP watches and waits. And Labour is collapsing around itself in the shadow of an ideological fight to the death.
Much has been written about the ‘revolt of the right’ by Matthew Goodwin, Rob Ford and others. Indeed, the cultural and economic drivers behind the rise of right-wing populism was one of the themes of my own recent book, Left without a Future?. Attracting less attention until relatively recently is the revolt of the left – at least in Britain. Yet, this could prove to an historically equally potent force as the populism of the right is proving to be (think armed officers on a Cannes beach asking an elderly woman to remove some clothing). The response to the rise of Corbynism on the left has usually been to see it as a form of neo-entryism in the digital age. My sense is that this interpretation is badly wrong.
A single data point can sometimes be very revealing. Amidst the relentless bad news for Labour in recent polls is one exception that requires explanation. According to Ipsos MORI Labour is now polling around 50% of 18-34 year-olds. At the election, it polled 43% amongst 18-24 year-olds and 36% amongst 25-34 year-olds. It is gaining support amongst the relatively young.
At this point, you then hear the old political hands come in with ‘there’s no point building your support amongst those who are least likely to vote’ and, in essence there’s a truth to this (though it proved very wrong in the EU referendum!). It’s equally true that the young on average have more voting years left in them than older age groups. So if there is some generational divide it matters for political trajectory. And, in their droves, younger voters are shifting towards the most left-wing Labour party in living memory. The same process is happening in Spain, in Greece, and in the US. Whilst this may be fleeting there may be a sense that something more fundamental is occurring.
It’s fashionable to dismiss to drift to populist forces as a form of ‘post-truth’ politics. But again, this misses a fundamental truth. The rise of the populist right is entirely explicable as a coalition of a cohort of voters, many relatively well-off, who are concerned at a perceived pace of cultural change – whether or not they sense it in their own communities – and a group of voters feeling a sense of economic exclusion and anxiety. Many of this latter group are older working class voters who have been at the sharp end of industrial change over the past few decades. Sometimes these impulses mix – economic and cultural anxiety combine.
In the case of the revolt of the young – towards the left – it is in part a generational anxiety. The young are always attracted to the left but there is something deeper than youthful anti-establishment sentiment that appears to be taking place. Systematically, the politics and economics of the country seem to be operating away from them and towards older generations. This is in many ways disputable (for example, there is a much greater variety of good employment and access to University than a generation or two ago) but there are some eye-catching elements to this: student debt, private rent soaring, an insecure labour market for many, lack of access to asset ownership, and public expenditure priorities that are skewed towards older voters (see the triple pension lock and politically immovable funding increases for the NHS). Then there is Brexit which only thickens this atmosphere of political disconnect. So whilst populist forces might deploy ‘post-truth’ tactics, there is a fundamental truth to the social forces they are plugging into – hence their appeal.
Being (very!) slightly older than the 34 year-olds and below I can see a different edge to this rise of youthful leftism than was the case in Generation X. We had a degree of political idealism but it was never embedded in a sense of generational injustice (generational cantankerousness perhaps but not a sense of personal injury and injustice in the main). Generational and economic anxiety could prove to be just as potent a force for political change as cultural and economic anxiety have been on the right.
Many leading commentators caution us against such a political reading of the world. The latest was Rafael Behr, writing in the Guardian this week, who notes that most voters take a fleeting, albeit serious, interest in politics. He is indisputably right. However, there are very significant minorities that are more politicised and the most significant of these minorities is increasingly younger voters. Conservatism can afford to pitch to that English default of moderation and restraint. However, for those seeking significant change, which every party apart from the Conservatives does, then moderation can never be enough. The trick is to build coalition between the enthusiastic and those who are more safety first inclined. That is increasingly difficult in a divided society.
For Labour, this coalition presented itself in the 1990s. The enthusiasts compromised with the moderates for a while and that coalition endured for at least a decade. Tony Blair questioned this week whether his brand of politics had had its day. It’s an open question. Perhaps if the youngish radicals move into home ownership in their mid-thirties, become more sceptical of tax and public expenditure, and gradually pay down their student debt things might change. But I wouldn’t bank on it.
Instead, the politics of issues such as the generational distribution, student debt, access to good work are likely to remain acute. This should challenge the mind-set of moderate politicians. For example, whilst tuition fees might make sense in policy terms, in the context of generational politics they could become even more toxic than at present. Debt amnesties and like will move up the political agenda.
None of this is likely to result in electoral success in the short term. Right-wing populism is leaving its mark on British and European politics despite vanishingly small electoral success. But there’s a bigger point. One of the biggest, if not the biggest driver of western politics currently is insecurity - of culture, generation, economy and, perhaps, technology increasingly also. The successful political movements of the future will respond to this central fact – hopefully in ways that bring us together rather than fuel our divides. We are a long way from that.