Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Waiting for the conservative reaction

It's hard to look at the horizon. All sorts of things get in the way, especially in the hurly-burly of politics and public policy. There's always something to attend to, isn't there? A reshuffle. A Prime Minister's Questions. An opinion poll. A scandal. But what we should be doing instead is looking at the strategic setup: the forces and structures likely to shape the policy battlefield for the decade or so to come. We should be looking to the medium-term future, and if possible beyond it - all the while quantifying, specifying, showing our workings, thinking, and even imagining. Otherwise, it's all just running around and shouting. Fun, maybe, but rather more energising than helpful.

So this week we're going to try to look a bit beyond even the likely Corbyn government that 'Public Policy and the Past' believes is the better-than-evans chance at the next election. Because there are significant dangers to the Left that are much more long-lasting than just a single election or term in power. Yes, there's a popular cod sociology around that looks at young Labourites and older Conservatives, as well as the Tories' shrunken membership, and says 'British Conservatism is (literally) dying out'. But that's a bit like the commentary that said Labour could never win again in the early sixties, because the electorate was becoming ever more bourgeois. Or that Labour could never win again in the mid-1980s, because of widespread affluence among working voters. Or that the Conservatives were doomed by their antediluvian social attitudes in the mid-2000s. What happened next? That party started on a determined walk back into the public's good graces.

Beware the bear market in partisanship. When the last buyer of shares in Labour or the Conservatives becomes a seller, that's when you should pile in. So it is now, when the Tories look to have run out of ideas and renewable philosophy - an impression we have ourselves long chronicled. Because it is possible to divine just the first faint contours of what might be a fierce and determined conservative reaction to the Corbyn ascendancy. Stick with us for a bit: you'll see what we mean.

The first thing to note is that the young have not suddenly become a load of left-wing firebrands. In fact, their views are more right-wing, in many ways, than that of their elders. Take a look at YouGov polling on rail nationalisation. Young people and older Britons take a very similar attitude to that (they are for it), but 18-24 year olds are less likely, not more likely, to be in favour of nationalising the energy sector. Peer into the new Britain Thinks focus group work on young people, and who do they often blame for their travails? That's right - 'scroungers', not the rich elites much-beloved of Labour's new populist foghorn. Think that Jeremy Corbyn is particularly popular among young people? Well, he moved the dial in the election towards Labour among under-35s, but more among thirtysomethings than millennials. And when we turn to Labour's new (and huge) membership, it's oldsters, not youngsters, who first spring to meet the eye.

Young people are hacked off - very, very hacked off, in our experience - not by capitalism, but by capitalism's failure to deliver. Who can blame them, as the prospect of ever buying a house recedes from view across great swathes of southern England and in most of Britain's successful cities, and as real wages stagnate? They are libertarians. They are social liberals. Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexity rhetoric and fearful Daily Mail-style talk, as if everyone without a semi-detached bungalow and a car was a 'saboteur', has turned them off faster than a freezing cold shower. But they're not socialists. They believe in privacy, and personal freedom, and - well - Remain. They are advocates for the environment. They want to be optimists at a time of pessimism. Their whole outlook bears very little relation to Mr Corbyn's Bennism with bells on.

And if and when that project runs into trouble - as every government does - the swing against Corbyn-Labour, which isn't particularly interested in Europe, or really in the environment, or issues of personal liberty, will be much the fiercer for the young's initial swing towards him. Just as his project looks increasingly Blairite, all spin and triangulation over issues as apparently far apart as Universal Credit and the Single Market - and with attendant layers of spin doctors and intellectual praetorian guards - so, one day, Mr Corbyn won't be able to go to Glastonbury, because just to appear will be met with derision. Because: do we really think that Labour's housing targets can be met, especially if immigration dips and wages stabilise? Not really. Do we really think that Britain's long-standing and deep-seated problems with the housing market, particularly its financialisation, the rigidities of the planning system, and the sheer weight of intergenerational capital inequality, can be solved in one or two terms? Er, no. Supply bottlenecks and high prices have defeated many a government since the last really fierce housing drive in the middle 1960s. Without a bit more honesty about the tradeoffs involved, they'll defeat Mrs May's attack on the problem now (such as it is), and the next one too.

So it may be inevitable, from this point, that young people turn rightwards under Labour. Labour's challenge, in this respect, is to use Corbynism as a gateway drug for socialism - just as supporting Mrs Thatcher led to lifelong Conservatism for many in the 1980s. There's little evidence for that yet. But Labour in government will be in a race, to entrench their statist modes of thinking and doing among the under-30s before all the issues that plague the government now begin to close in again. It'll be a hard task. It'll be fertile ground for the Conservatives to offer yet more housing subsidies that throw more petrol on the fire, or tax cuts for younger workers, or more apprenticeships, or all of the above. All we can say is that this will be one crucial part of the battlefield, and that Labour is not so advantageously placed as it looks right now.

The Conservatives will also probably seek to change their image. Mrs May is the epitome of Oxfordshire Middle England, where she grew up: her age and manner and voice all mark her out as trustworthy to older voters who like the impression of hard work and duty. To more liberal ex-Conservative voters, to those great big chunks of Remain Britain that peeled themselves away from her project last year, in the cities, among Britain's ethnic minority communities, and above all among the young, she sounds like a black-and-white BBC announcer from the 1950s. These impressions matter, since they go straight into voters' brainstems in a way that (most) policies never do. But shift the dial a bit, and put someone else in who speaks much more directly to those urban and upscale areas where the Conservatives went backwards last June, and things change quite a bit.

Imagine an election in which the Conservatives were led by someone who looks and sounds very different to Mrs May - who challenges people's presumptions about the Conservative Party far more than David Cameron, that son of gilded privilege, ever could. Ruth Davidson, say (above). A gay liberal kickboxer who wasn't even interested in politics until very recently. Or a Conservative leader who emerged amidst the now-impressive ranks of Conservative MPs from ethnic minority communities - Nusrat Ghani, perhaps, the Conservatives' first Muslim member of the House of Commons, or Kemi Badenoch, who was brought up in Nigeria. That could change things quite a bit. The very different mood this would create might necessitate just such a new Conservative leader, with a wholly novel image designed to appeal to voters lost in 2017, to shove the gears rightwards to keep their party happy. Unlikely? It's no more of a paradox than the apparent leftiness that is at the moment allowing Labour to engage in nearly as much Brexiteering as their Conservative opponents.

Consider also the real roots of the culture of rage that our politics has been incubating for some while. Is it caused by inequality? Well, that great defect of modern societies hasn’t really been going up very much for more than two decades (it has actually trended down from its peak in 1990), though admittedly the headline Gini figure probably under-estimate the influence of the really, really wealthy and over-emphasises changes in the middle of the income spectrum. We're probably just at the start of a period of increased inequality, and wealth inequality definitely has started to rise. So: a bit. Is it caused by the 'left behind'? Well, again, there's some truth to that, but it's limited. The great cry of rage that 2016's Leave vote represented was raised in wealthy old Spelthorne, as well as in Hull and Stoke. It was a cultural phenomenon of perceived helplessness as much as it emanated from poverty. So some of the targets Labour will tilt at in office, trying however imperfectly to rebalance incomes and the economy's spatial inequities, might not aim quite at the heart of the problem.

As we've tried to sketch out before, the roots of the age of hate were planted with other seeds too. Divisive social media, driving a wedge between people where once they could talk. The now-inevitable drain of wealth and power away from the Atlantic world, and towards South Asia and the Pacific. Complex, time-pressured lives among the 'squeezed middle', constantly rushing around each city in their cars trying to get three children to three different schools they've 'chosen' to be at. The hedonic treadmill of consumerism, forever offering you enough to keep offering you more. Tiny inequalities of access and difference that throw up anger via the narcissism of small differences, as you watch people with very similar incomes to you make just slightly different (and rather more successful) choices. And so on. Are these fury escalators going to stop? Well, no. They are encoded into late modernity. All governments will struggle even to address one or two of these trends. Labour will touch any of this hidden wiring's latticework at its peril, though it is probably confident enough now to have a go. But governing at all these days is like standing out in a lightning storm with an umbrella. Sooner or later, the forks will hit you and blast you to bits. Ask Mrs May.

This is an especial danger if you've spent your time in Opposition undermining some of the pillars of civic society. It will not have escaped your notice that one skill Labour's new iteration has mastered is the emission of hatred and threats on social media, coupled with a faustian bargain with 'new' outlets such as the Skwawkbox - purveyors of fantasy news prejudice to the Left that sit nicely alongside Britain's tabloid press in their two-bit makebelieve and poisonousness. That's all very well for now. Such sites regularly gain hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook, all of which rebound to Labour's gain. But when Labour sinks low in government, and it needs to explain its policies, it will find itself faced with the obverse: a whole new raft of right-wing ranters who are watching the Skwawkbox experiment, and sharpening their tongues for when they can give the opposite type of government a really, really good lashing. Put it like this: Labour's most 'radical' MPs spend their time undermining the so-called 'mainstream media', or MSM. When they're hit by a US-style flood of right-wing shock jockery, they'll come to regret that choice of paranoid style over calm engagement. 

Labour are doing really well at the moment. They're surfing a wave of discontent with malfunctioning economics and an economy that just isn't helping under-35s move up the ladder in the way that they are used to - and which they expect to. But there are big risks involved in that strategy. One day the Conservatives are going to wake up and see the opportunities they've been granted by the way the current Opposition plays fast and lose with promises, and indeed with Britain's civic culture itself. Her Majesty's Opposition is slowly bulldozing its way to power, but it's sweeping away all the defences that protect us from the radical Right, as well as from governments formed purely and unequivocally on the Left. Labour are seeking to ride the tiger. But one day they're going to end up inside the tiger - and the rest of us could well end up sitting in there with them.