Tomorrow morning, The Conservative Party will have an increased majority and people will either be pleased or disappointed. I am confident of the outcome partly because of the polls but mainly because, despite vast societal change, voting patterns in my lifetime have not changed. A significant proportion of middle class people who, because of demographics, determine tne outcome of elections, vote for the party that poses least short-term economic risk to people like them. Education, health, Brexit and security are all important issues but nothing compared to perceptions of competence to manage the economy in my immediate interests. In this period of low global and national economic growth, our risk aversion has increased which is why, despite a poor campaign, the conservative vote held up.
Part of our economic insecurity includes not wanting to share what we have with others. This sense of competition over limited resource is what drives dislike of migration. It also feeds passive support for policies that cut provision for those more vulnerable than ourselves despite the altruism that is clearly part of people’s lives. It is less economically risky to buy a charity single than to seek a political solution that prevents social issues occuring. While individuals are appalled by homelessness, hospital waiting lists, school cuts, our collective response is to shrug because the solutions pose too great a risk to our ability to choose how we consume material goods, holidays etc. Brexit, which was portrayed as an economic risk in the referendum, was voted for by 52% of the country who saw their own financial security served better outside globalized markets of goods, money and people over which they had no apparent control.
We should pause before castigating or criticising people for protecting their own short-term position. Such behaviour can be seen as part of a shared human weakness that often drives humanity forward. Behaviour is not a simple choice between the ethical or unethical but instead on a spectrum between the two extremes of right and wrong. It is not just a middle-class phenomena. Some of the poorest vote to pull up the ladder that they fear can give migrants access to the scant resources available in their community.
The Labour Party comes out of the election having given a voice for younger people in cities. It has provided a populist alternative which has connected with a third of the population. At least, the election has been made more interesting by their policies. Unlike the last 5 elections, we have not been asked to choose between 3 versions of neo-liberalism. Although the current Labour Party is more a protest movement than an alternative government, they now offer a voice to those who do not share the dominant values of society. Corbyn is a politician of unusual integrity (his very low and scrupulously honest expenses claims over many years told us that) whose weakness is filling positions with friends rather than seeking a broader base for opposition. The party is stuck with him and needs to get used to it but he needs to reach out beyond his friends if he is to provide an effective opposition that goes beyond mass rallies and social media.
The Conservative Party may have the majority that protects their legislative programmes from House of Commons’ rebellions but they have as many problems as Labour. If Brexit leads to recession, May will not survive. She is a politician that people like the idea of rather than the reality. As soon as she speaks on TV or in the Commons, her weaknesses are exposed. She is neither a good debater in the Commons nor a charismatic provider of soundbites. Making the election about her (from the battlebus slogan to the repetition of ‘strong and stable’) means that if things go wrong, the Conservative Party are likely to remove her more quickly than previous leaders. Despite the increased majority, she is in many ways in a more precarious position from which to negotiate Brexit than she was before.
The Liberal Democrats are in the difficult position of being ignored. The public and media are quite happy with the narrative of a political two horse race. In many ways, it’s Liberal Democrat problems in getting publicity that means Labour’s successful campaign has not affected the result. It does not matter how well Labour does in the big cities, if Lib Dems do not challenge Tory seats in the South and South West. They need to reconsider how they can operate an increasingly divided country. If Brexit is a disaster, there will be little political capital in being the party that says, “We told you so”.
Being selfish, my thoughts are also on the impact of the election on schools. The anger over education, expressed during the election, may give the government pause for thought but the cuts will continue. Education is being transformed by the Treasury rather the DfE. The cuts to staff and resources leave primary schools focussed on literacy and numeracy skills with little in the budget for anything else. Large academy chains will continue to grow with high staff turnover, low wages and increased testing. The long term impact will be an increasingly excluded underclass feeding divisions in society.
The greatest issue highlighted by the election is how much more divided we now are than before the financial crash in 2008. Income and wealth inequalities have increased as every section of society pulls up the ladder behind it. We are divided by age in a way that has never happened before. Brexit split the country in two. There is a far greater difference than before between the values of those who live in big cities compared to the rest of the coumtry. We may have voted to limit economic risk to people “like us” but this high level of division and insecurity are a threat to all our futures in a world where the population is growing, natural resources are being used up and, as a result, war, conflict and terrorism are increasing.