The New Normal

iStock_53280524_sunrise-londonSMALLRalph Fevre explores the history behind the Referendum and what next for Britain.

The 2016 EU referendum vote requires a long process of readjustment in British internal politics. For forty years, normal British politics have been about getting a relatively small number of key voters in each constituency to switch from one side to another. Political strategists have assumed these voters share values that happen to make most of them favour staying in the EU.

The 2016 referendum gave a voice to the people who had been shut out
of this normal politics because they did not buy into those values.

This is what the marginalised voters had been saying all along. Back in the 1970s their predecessors included the people who said Enoch Powell was the only British politician who spoke for them. In 2016 they said that much had been done in the intervening forty years without their consent, particularly the dilution of sovereignty and the conversion of the UK to an economy dependent on immigration. What was it about these Britons that made them seem so out of kilter with the times they were living in?

After 2010, the marginalised voters voted in increasing numbers for the UK Independence Party but, no matter which party they voted for, if they voted at all, they did not feel part of a world in which people were supposed to trust to a level playing field and back themselves to succeed along with other “hard-working families” and “world-beating companies”. For those excluded from normal politics, backing yourself against even poorer people from the EU might mean losing your job or your place in the queue for a seat in the primary school class or a hospital bed. Or it might mean backing yourself against very determined European competitors in the market your business relied upon. The 2016 referendum gave these marginalised voters a chance to express their concerns but now they have spoken, will they simply retire to the side-lines so that politics as normal can resume as before?

Normal politics did not resume after the last British referendum on European membership in 1975. With hindsight we can see that politics in 1975 were on the cusp of the great, neoliberal revolution. The older politics of economic nationalism, a big welfare state and strong trade unions lingered on the left. There was just enough life left in this politics for the left-wing opposition to the EEC (the forerunner of the EU) to muster a campaign to leave led by Michael Foot and Tony Benn. A decade later Labour Party strategists were moving the party into the arena of normal politics that had been laid out following the Conservative victory under Margaret Thatcher in 1979. There were the beginnings of rapprochement with the City of London and strong unions and a big state were going to be replaced by an emphasis on rights and modernization.

In order to understand why Labour politicians thought they had to join the Conservatives in the new normal we might look at what happened to views about British membership of the EEC after the 1975 referendum.

Britons voted to join but then seemed to decide they had made a mistake.

At the end of the 1970s anti-European feeling peaked with more than two-thirds of the electorate wanting to leave. Margaret Thatcher, who had also favoured joining the EEC, benefitted by tapping into the underlying reasons for this sentiment to get enough voters to switch from Labour to the Conservatives to win the 1979 General Election. For the next 40 years British General Elections were fought over the votes of this group, a group that had once been desperate to leave the EU.

Thatcher’s Conservatives did not win their elections, and redefine normal politics, simply by turning anti-European. The party was, notoriously, split on the issue for decades. They won by persuading voters who felt they might be marginalised by closer engagement with Europe that politics was now relevant to them. Most importantly, Thatcher’s 1979 manifesto offered to extend opportunities for individual autonomy and self-development to voters who had never felt that this individualism was on offer to them before. Either as employers, employees or service users they had felt their chances were better when their interests were looked after by a strong state or strong trade unions. The reality of European membership seemed to undermine this collective security but the genius of the Conservative strategy after 1979 was to persuade enough voters that they could now trust to their own resources because the world was changing in a way that gave them a fair chance of success.

Some of the policies might be different (council house ownership and privatization for example) but the ideas underpinning the new normal were not really that new. In the nineteenth century, the political right’s vision of individualism meant the steady enlargement of people’s liberty to make a living as they choose and of their opportunities to enjoy the benefits this brings. Its concrete achievements ranged from respect for property to free markets. In order to join the right in the new political arena the British left also harked back to its nineteenth-century traditions. To the left, individualism meant the great social movements which extended to everyone the freedoms enjoyed by the few. It offered the steady growth of opportunities for self-determination through the great social movements like anti-slavery, feminism and civil rights.

From 1979, British politics as normal was defined by the application of these nineteenth-century ideas as left and right battled over the votes that had been won by the Conservatives in that year when a new, relatively small, group of voters were persuaded that individualism had something to offer them. To the extent that they were persuaded by this offer, these voters also changed their minds about the EU. Both right and left in British politics could increasingly admit the EU as worthy of inclusion alongside those great nineteenth-century achievements of individualism. The right lauded the EU’s free markets in goods and services, capital and labour. The left praised the EU’s extension of human rights and, particularly, the rights of women and of employees.

Both left and right are now required to make a play for some of those who voted for Britain to leave the EU in 2016 in order to repeat the electoral coup which Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives pulled off. The prize could be a string of solid majorities and, just as in 1979, the number of votes it would take is not that large. The key to winning these votes would be motivating a relatively small group of people to turn out to vote instead of sitting on their hands as they have been used to doing. What strategy might the parties employ to recast normal politics in their favour, and is it the left or right that is best placed to garner support among those who voted to leave the EU in 2016?

In practice, it will be difficult for any party to win a majority by promising to bring those who feel excluded from normal politics within the individualist fold. Even before considering the effects of any new offer on their existing supporters, there are major difficulties and contradictions in the policies that would be necessary. It might be possible to work out how an offer to make poor Britons more secure in the labour market could also help Britain’s SMEs to keep and increase their market shares but the issue of public services is a great deal more fraught.

In order to reap the electoral dividend of the shake-up caused by the Referendum result it seems inevitable that many on the right will perceive an advantage in a retreat from the very notion of individualism. It is the left that is now better placed to revitalize individualism and extend its reach, just as it did in the nineteenth century. The left was once motivated by beliefs that slaves, child-labourers and women had as much right to autonomy and self-development as any other individuals. What is now required is that the left is galvanized by similar beliefs about the poor Britons who have been left behind in a country that has become ever more unequal since that previous Referendum forty years ago.

Ralph Fevre is Professor of Social Research at Cardiff University and author of Individualism and Inequality – the future of work and politics

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