Early in the morning of 9 June 2017, at the announcement of his re-election as MP for Islington North, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that 'politics has changed' and 'isn't going back into the box where it was before'. What is the nature of that change and how deep rooted is it? These are the questions that we explore in this article.
Undoubtedly, the election campaign itself was marked by change and unpredictability. The Prime Minister Theresa May's leadership satisfaction ratings slumped just as Corbyn's ratings improved, counter to the expectations of most pundits. Commanding Conservative leads in the polls were slashed while Labour's support surged at a rate that was unprecedented for an election in the post-war era. The manifestos presented a dividing line between the two main parties, with popular Labour policies--such as on tuition fees and NHS funding--tending to cut through with voters, whereas the Conservatives' complicated and unpopular plans for care reform--the 'dementia tax'--were most remembered. (1)
The result itself saw the Conservatives increase their share of the national vote by 5.5 per cent from 2015 but lose thirteen seats in parliament. Labour increased its share of the vote by 9.5 per cent and gained thirty seats. UKIP saw its share of the vote collapse by 10.8 per cent, with its candidates losing their deposits in over 300 seats. There were also losses for the Greens and the SNP in terms of vote share, with the latter losing twenty-one seats. There was no Liberal Democrat resurgence, though the party gained four seats on 2015's disastrous showing. On the surface, it appeared that British politics had returned to a pattern of two-party dominance familiar to the post-war period up until the 1970s, with the Conservative and Labour parties sharing 82.4 per cent of votes cast. But nothing could be further from the truth.
What then is the big change that Jeremy Corbyn was referring to? Primarily it is the belief that the 2017 election marked the death knell of the neo-liberal consensus in British politics. The argument is that Labour's campaign tapped into increasing unease about the impact of austerity and concern about inequality and that its clear commitment to large-scale tax and spend, an expanded state, opposition to privatisation and warnings to 'fat cats' and big business marked a break from a neo-liberal policy consensus that had been forged in the era of Thatcher, nurtured under New Labour and sustained by the Cameron governments despite the financial crisis of 2007-08. According to this analysis, a new political terrain has opened that beckons Labour to sustain its challenging and radical agenda and, with the Conservatives in crisis over Brexit, to wait for another election opportunity that will see the formation of a Corbyn-led government. That government in turn would break the spell of austerity and tackle long-standing grievances to bring both economic growth and greater fairness to society. Paul Mason argues that the coalition of voters assembled by Corbyn's Labour 'is unique', being composed of former UKIP voters, mobilised younger voters, Green supporters and a large segment of the liberal salariat opposed to Brexit. (2) What is required for a majority at the next election is a fleshed-out anti-austerity programme, the neutralising of voters' concerns over defence and foreign policy and better campaigning and party organisation.
In this article, we argue that the path to success might not be so straightforward for Labour. We offer a diagnosis of the deep-seated changes that are transforming the terrain of British politics and argue that the significance of these changes goes beyond a revolt against austerity or a rejection of neo-liberalism. The Conservatives are struggling ineffectually to come to terms with this new world. Yet Labour under the leadership of Corbyn also appears to be only partially aware of the scale and nature of the change. Moreover, we argue that the political strategies that have helped to assemble the 2017 Corbyn-coalition are fragile and that it is likely to be difficult to sustain. We conclude that Labour needs a policy rethink that is both more fundamental and arguably more radical than that offered by Corbyn and that the party needs as much a process of cultural renewal as a revamp of its organisation and campaigning.
The changed terrain of British politics
Britain has been subjected to a de facto social experiment which in turn has led to a transformation of the context for politics in a little over three decades. To compare how Labour won electoral majorities in the 1960s or 1970s or even the 1990s with what it will need to achieve a victory in the second or third decade of the twenty-first century is like comparing a Ford Model T with a modern hybrid car. They share some similarities but are so fundamentally different under the bonnet that they require a transformed level of diagnosis. The British electorate is in a very different place to where it was three or four decades ago. It is possible to highlight three main areas of change: economic, social and cultural.
An economy divided by knowledge and connectivity
The idea that uneven development is characteristic of liberal capitalism is hardly novel, but what is new is that the dynamics of the contemporary phase of globalisation has brought the effects of uneven development right into the heartlands of advanced capitalist countries. In very general terms Britain has moved from an imperially supported industrial economy to a knowledge economy located within a highly connected and open global economy. Towns and cities that were the stars of nineteenth and twentieth century industrial production or domestic tourism have found their role diminished while other places have seen a reinvention.
A key development is the growing divide between cosmopolitan and other settlements within the national boundaries of advanced capitalist societies. Some cities and more broadly metropolitan areas have been at the forefront of this development. (3) These cosmopolitan locations have found a niche in the new global, knowledge economy. They are highly connected, decidedly innovative, well-networked, attracting skilled populations, often supported by inward migration and a dynamic university presence. But that experience is not universally shared. There are 'towns, cities and entire regions (that) are experiencing the outflow of capital and human resources, and are suffering from a lack of entrepreneurship and low levels of innovation and intellectual engagement'. (4) The scale of change is such that the processes in operation go beyond cyclical explanations of growth and decline, since the entire system of production, distribution and consumption is being restructured. Successive and continuing waves of technological and economic change have and will bring still more economic disruption and widen the gulf between successful metro areas and smaller cities, towns and rural locations. (5) They have exaggerated a divide that has antecedents in longstanding differences between urban areas as centres for change and rural areas as centres for stability. (6) Moretti describes the regional divergence of educational attainment and productivity as 'the great divergence'. (7) The forces that are driving rampant cosmopolitanism are also driving the gradual withering of other locations which have lost their reason to be. These forces can be viewed 'as a durable, structural component of urban development'. (8)
A more complex social ecology
Major changes in the social structure and patterns of work have added greater complexity to the social ecology of...