Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth, “but to be young was very heaven!” OK, maybe that’s going a little too far, especially if you didn’t get a wink of sleep on Thursday night. But still. If you were aged 18-24 and you voted, then you probably felt pretty pleased with yourself on Friday morning. Younger voters, it seems, were the key to Jeremy Corbyn feeling like he has won when he has lost. Cue talk of the personality cult surrounding Labour’s sainted leader, of social media memes shared by tech-savvy digital natives and the revenge of young remainers angry that their future had been stolen from them while they weren’t looking (and in many cases, if they’re honest, not voting) in the EU referendum last summer.
But maybe something more fundamental – more Marxist even – is going on. Perhaps the apparent novelty of all the above risks distracting us from a rather more material explanation for what happened on Thursday and therefore for how politics will play out from now on.
Maybe we have grown so used to asserting that politics these days is all about culture rather than cash, about open v closed rather than state v market, that we’ve underestimated just how much the economy will continue to play a role, particularly when its largesse (or otherwise) is so unevenly distributed between classes and demographics. We’ve seen the evidence for that inequality of opportunity, of earning power and of ownership – some of us with our own eyes, some of us in the pages of this very newspaper. But this election, especially after seven years of austerity falling disproportionately on the young and “the just about managing”, may turn out to be a tipping point, something that takes us back to the future.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, much ink was spilled in trying to explain why the right rather than the left seemed to benefit electorally when careless capitalism was so clearly to blame. Certainly, one factor was the reputation of the former (more rhetorical than real, it has to be said) for balancing the books.
Keynes may have been correct to argue that the worst thing to do in the teeth of slowdown is to stop borrowing and spending. But convincing most of us that the nation’s economy is not the same as our household’s is a famously hard sell, hence the infuriatingly persuasive power of the repeated accusation that Labour had “maxed out the nation’s credit card”. But that was a long time ago, an emergency, whether imagined or real, that had to be dealt with, not an agreement on the part of voters to year after year of manifest underfunding of core public services.
Some on the right were clearly hoping that, after a while, this would become “the new normal”, accepted as an inevitable part of our daily lives, helping to keep taxes low and encouraging more and more of us to opt out into the private sector. But it turns out that, in Britain, at least, our sense of what the state can and should provide still runs pretty deep. As a result, just as has happened towards the end of every other period of Conservative government since the Second World War, a counter-reaction has begun to set in that anyone wanting to understand politics going forward has to understand. What is initially swallowed as good housekeeping eventually comes to seem like an ideological attempt to arrest the growth of the welfare state or even to shrink it, producing healthcare and education systems that increasingly, manifestly and tangibly fail to meet rising demand and expectations.
Previously, this pattern played out over a longer period of time: 13 years between 1951 and 1964; 18 between 1979 and 1997. But the current correction has kicked in after just seven. First, because of the speed and scale of the retrenchment attempted by the Conservativesafter 2010. Second, because that retrenchment has been going on (in marked contrast to the 1950s and 1980s) while growth, particularly real wage growth, has been anaemic to non-existent. And, third, especially (but not exclusively) for younger people, housing has become less and less affordable, employment less and less secure and personal debt an ever-growing, sometimes gnawing worry.
But there is one more, essentially political, reason for the process being short-circuited this time around. It’s not just because Theresa May chose to call the election three years earlier than she needed to. It’s that her predecessor, David Cameron, came to power posing as a new kind of Conservative, creating expectations by no means all of which he had any genuine commitment to fulfilling. For well-heeled, well-educated voters, those expectations revolved mainly around promises of a more social-liberal, cosmopolitan stance that would consolidate, even extend, the achievements of the Blair era on gay rights, gender and ethnic equality, justice, civil liberties and Europe.
With the signal exception of the last, as well as on immigration, those promises were basically met. But then along came Theresa May and the detoxification process looked as if it were not only stalling but being thrown into reverse.
Far more important, but far more frequently forgotten, were the expectations that Cameron’s Conservatism was all about embracing rather than rejecting the idea of the fabled centre ground, a claim neatly symbolised by his first setpiece party conference speech as Tory leader. “Tony Blair,” he cried, “once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters… NHS.”
Allowing those words to ring more and more hollow, bleating about “ringfencing” and “record amounts of money” while people’s lived experience of increased waiting times and the rest told them something very different was going on, was something the Conservatives should never have allowed to happen. But they did, slipping back into presenting the essential choice in British politics as, to quote Maurice Saatchi, “efficient but cruel” Tories v “caring but incompetent” Labour.
That depressingly reductive war cry worked in 2015 – but only just. Which was why many genuinely centrist Conservatives, even those who rather regretted Cameron’s self-imposed passing last year, fooled themselves into thinking that a couple of speeches, one in Birmingham and one on the steps of Downing Street, meant Theresa May (she was the future once!) was going to be canny enough to press the reset button.
Brexit might mean Brexit, they reasoned, “control” might be brought back but so, too, would the message that the Conservatives genuinely believed in high-quality, well-funded public services. But a mixture of ideology and complacency – bolstered by the belief that Corbyn would be even easier to beat than Miliband, that banging on about Europe and immigration would win back Ukip voters, and that the Lib Dems were all but dead – seems to have put paid to the emergence of a genuinely post-Thatcherite Conservative party.
This suits Labour as it’s currently configured. Denouncing “the same old Tories” is the political equivalent of painting by numbers on Britain’s left. It neither requires nor generates any new thinking, especially when the weakness of other progressive parties – the Lib Dems, the Greens and, to a lesser extent, the SNP – gives Labour a virtual monopoly on outrage.
Meanwhile, its laudable, but hardly revolutionary, desire to show that it stands for “the many not the few” encourages Labour to adopt something-for-everyone policies focused on fairness rather than developing the kind of productive, high-skill social market economy likely to generate the wealth and security, and to pay for the public services, which most voters understandably crave.
All this means that we are confronted with the prospect of Britain’s two biggest parties being incapable of securing a parliamentary majority even for the second-best solutions they stand for. This might not be so bad if the electoral system and political geography that helps produce that situation did not also mean that the parties on their flanks lack the mainstream views and/or the Westminster seats to resolve it – in a manner consonant with the peaceful coexistence in Northern Ireland and the have-our-cake-and-eat-it Brexit that the majority of voters seem to want.
Politics now and in the future will revolve around interests as well as around identity, but it is badly blocked. After Corbyn’s victory of sorts and May’s equally equivocal defeat, talk of a new centre party has melted like snow in spring. That could be a pity: it might still turn out to be just what Britain needs to clear that blockage.
Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/10/forget-culture-wars-general-election-about-power-cash-opportunity