A profound gap between the political elite and the mass of voters has arisen, with serious implications for democracy
A profound gap exists between the “political elite” and parts of the UK population, particularly in England and Wales. This gap helps explain the vote for Brexit in 2016, the support for Brexit that has existed in polling since then, and arguably the potential for a right-wing shift in voting behaviour.
While a struggle for the form Brexit should take goes on amongst politicians and those activists involved, amongst the population at large, there is a widespread indifference to the debate, an impatience and a desire for things to be decided. A common theme is a large detachment from politics and even, amongst certain people, a loss of faith in democracy itself.
This in turn helps explain why Johnson is pitching the struggle as a populist one, “the people versus the politicians”, believing that in the country at large there is a potential right-wing shift, a majority for Brexit and one that could return a sizeable majority for the now Brexiter-dominated Conservative Party. Indeed, the populist pitch is that “the People’s Will” as expressed in the 2016 referendum should be respected over and above the votes of their representatives in Parliament. Hence Johnson is willing to traduce constitutional norms in the knowledge that the public at large are unconcerned, as is borne out by current opinion polls. In the Westminster bubble a constitutional conflict is all-consuming, while “out there” in the country at large, the potential for a right-wing shift in voting is emerging.
The widening gap between liberal democratic politics and the voting public
To many voters all politicians look the same and are seen as unrepresentative of the people they lead. They come from different backgrounds, lead different lives and have different values. This perception is having major consequences.
One way to view this gap is to look at education. Public office today is dominated by the highly educated. In December 2012, the ONS found that 27.2% of the population aged 16 to 74 had a degree or equivalent or higher – about 12 million people all told. In the UK in 2017 3% of MPs had had blue-collar jobs. In the 1945 Labour cabinet half had had blue collar jobs, whereas in late 1990’s there was only one. These people are also much wealthier: over two thirds of Cameron’s 2010 cabinet were millionaires at one point. Today’s politicians come from different backgrounds to their voters, often from white-collar jobs, and are seen as cosmopolitan, distant, and self-serving. The difference is stark.
(2) Exclusion bias
The risk is that policy and influence are increasingly directed towards those who are like these politicians, that there is an “exclusion bias” in policy-making towards the “haves”. Many observers comment on the danger that politics is increasingly dominated by pressure groups, lobbyists and businesses representing the privileged and ignoring the less well-off and that it is lobbyists that are increasingly listened to in preference to other interests in the general population. The current Johnson cabinet have a large number who either have lobbying backgrounds or are connected to lobbyists.
(3) A divide between elites and voters on political issues
Another way the gap can be seen is in the extent of the difference between the elite and “ordinary” voters on political issues. For example, fear of uncontrolled immigration was a driving force behind the 2016 vote. 57% of the political elite thought immigration a good thing, while only 27% of the mass of voters did. Those in power are much more liberal than voters.
There is a widely used term among critics to describe the liberal consensus on social issues, “political correctness”. This is seen as a closing down of debate on controversial issues which were favoured by the perceived remote liberal elite. Some regard this as a kind of “identity liberalism” favouring socially liberal policies, such as on gender, homophobia, race, and “diversity”. Liberals are often unaware of opinion and conditions outside their group and speak as if this “political correctness” is widely shared when it isn’t. Others feel excluded and branded as racists or homophobes. The banning of right-wing groups, while seen as desirable in terms of protecting democracy and social peace, can also multiply a sense of exclusion.
(4) A sense that liberal democracy no longer represents many “ordinary people”
There are a lot of signs that a distrust of democracy has developed in parts of the general population and that a shift away from the post-war liberal democratic consensus is under way.
New polling by Hanbury Strategy shows a general shift away from a post-war “freedom consensus” to a post-Brexit consensus shaped by a desire for “security and belonging”, and that voters are now looking for a government that will protect them and their families, and provide a greater focus on place, community and security. What was striking however about this survey was that along with a shift in consensus were signs that many voters were now rejecting liberal democratic forms of government in favour of more authoritarian models, and that this was especially true among younger voters. 58% of people think that having “a strong leader who does not have to bother with Parliament” would be a good way to run the country and 26% of people say “having the army run the country” would be good. Younger voters are allegedly the most authoritarian. Among 25-34 year olds, 36% support army rule; 66% favour “strongman leaders”; and 26% believe democracy is a bad way to run the country. Older voters are however considerably more democratic. Among over-75 year olds, just 3% of over-75s believe democracy is bad. Among 65-74 year olds, fewer than half (48%) support strongman leaders and just one in ten (10%) people support army rule.
Another such survey, by the respected Hansard Society in April 2019 on political engagement, showed similar views. It makes salutary reading. For example, 54% agreed with the view that Britain needs a “strong ruler willing to break the rules”, while 23% disagreed. This is strong evidence of a right-wing shift in voting potential.
Other signs are also telling. People feel they no longer have a voice, especially among the “left behind”, such as those without college degrees. In an IPSOS-MORI survey in 2017 58% in UK thought that traditional politicians “do not care about people like me”. It is therefore not surprising that the idea of direct democracy as advocated by populists has had an appeal, since it can be presented as a way that their voice can be heard, such as a greater use of referendums. This would reflect a desire for people to have more of a say in how they are governed. While many observers do not think that the British people have yet given up on democracy, and that a desire for authoritarianism hasn’t yet become widespread, the effect of the Brexit crisis, on top of austerity and unresolved domestic problems could be weakening the strength of the attachment to democracy.
When the political consensus changes, the political agenda often moves with it, and the relative success of parties is affected accordingly. A right-wing shift in the consensus would match the right-wing shift in the Johnson government and could affect the anticipated upcoming general election.
Breakdown in traditional post-war political alignments
Signs that the post-war liberal democratic consensus is being eroded chimes with other changes in voting behaviour that have been going on for several decades.
(1) Decline of 2-party system
The post-war pattern was a relatively stable two-party system, where elections were dominated by a broadly left-of-centre party, Labour, and a right-of-centre party, the Conservatives – known as the Tories. From around the new millennium however, this system has been replaced by multi-party voting, low support for the “major” parties and a lack of an overall majority for one party.
(2) Voter volatility
Instead elections have become very volatile, meaning there are very significant shifts in support for parties between one election and the next. In the last two elections, 2015 and 2017 were the most volatile in the modern era: 43% in 2015 and 32% in 2017 changed votes from the last election
(3) Change in party alignments
There have significant changes in alignment. One is the decline of social democracy with the loss of the conservative working class, the weakness of unions, and the loss of traditional large-scale industry which suited unionisation. Related to this trend are a whole range of features of a changing society that have disrupted old, stable voting patterns, such as the fragmentation of the class system, the decline of class as opposed to values in voting behaviour, less tribal loyalty to a particular party (in the 1960s about half of population identified with one traditional party but in 2015 only one in eight), increasing higher level education separating out highly educated people from the rest, a movement to the cities, social trends such as an emphasis on multiculturalism, and the replacement of steady employment with less secure work.
This has hit Labour badly in particular, as seen in a marked distinction between pro-EU and pro-immigration middle class liberals in opposition to those who are blue collar, anti-EU and anti-immigration. Thus after the 2017 election, two-thirds of mostly Remain Labour MPs represented Leave seats.
(4) “Culture conflict”
An increasing trend has been the rise of a “culture war” between competing values. Instead of the traditional importance attached to economic and social issues such as jobs, redistribution of wealth, taxation, or rthe ole of the state, the emphasis in policy issues has shifted to immigration, anxiety about ethnic change, the importance of identity, concern about diversity, and a desire for security as seen with concern about Islamic terrorism
(5) Change in values
Thus it is said that there has been a value shift towards “post-materialist” values. A new, prosperous, educated middle class is no longer concerned with material, economic issues, but instead more with cultural, social and cultural equality and lifestyle issues and are manifesting as culturally liberal and internationalist in their values. However there has been a backlash from people concerned to defend their communities and way of life against developments in cultural liberalism like immigration, European integration, Islam, or the refugee influx, a broad alliance of traditional conservatives and white people with low education levels. Thus cultural issues cut across traditional divides.
(6) Decline in traditional party membership
Major parties have suffered a fall in membership, which has hit their ability to mount campaigns against populists. This fall has posed funding issues and resulted in increased reliance on a small number of big donors, and thus often a dependence on the wealthy. At the same time, there has been a professionalisation of parties, using sophisticated research and campaigning techniques, which has been costly. Parties are relying on hidden donors, raising concerns about “dark money”.
Labour saw a major surge in membership under Corbyn around the 2017 election but it is still half size of 1950’s, a middle class, university-educated, mainly London-based membership, away from the working-class areas where large majorities backed Brexit. Union contributions have fallen as union membership has declined, but also hit by the Tory-initiated change to union members having to “opt in” to being Labour party members as opposed to previously “opting out”.
(7) Low turnout in voting
The gap between the elite and the general population is also seen in the low voter turnout in elections. In general turnout tends to be lower amongst the poor and the young, while over-65’s have a very high turnout. This bias impacts election results. Older voters are more likely to be Brexiters.
There is a low turnout among the young who largely support Remain. They are more likely to over-claim their commitment to Remain and under-deliver in terms of turnout, compared with older voters who have a high turnout. In 1970 there was an 18-point gap in turnout rates between 18–24-year-olds and those aged over 65; by 2005 this gap had more than doubled to over 40 points, before narrowing slightly to 32 points in 2010. Thus the young might be more pro-Labour but fail to turnout in sufficient numbers to make a serious impact.
The low turnout amongst working class voters is marked. It has declined since the 1980’s, such that in the 1980’s the difference was under 5% compared with other social groups but by 2010 it was 20%. In the 1987 general election, for example, the turnout rate for the poorest income group was 4% lower than for the wealthiest. By 2010 the gap had grown to a staggering 23 points. By 2015, almost half of all working class and non-degree holders had stopped voting. By then, nearly 40% of workers who ceased to vote felt that Labour no longer represented them. For more detail, read this article by Matthew Flinders for before the 2015 election here.
There is an important book on the absention by working class voters in Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley’s book, ‘The New Politics of Class: The political exclusion of the British working class‘, Oxford University Press, 2017. This book argues that the changing shape of the class structure (from a ‘big working class’ to a ‘big middle class’) since 1945 has forced the parties to change, which has both reduced class voting and increased class non-voting. There has however been enormous social continuity in class divisions: class has not “gone away”. Yet there has been enormous political change in response to changing class sizes. Party policies, politicians’ rhetoric, and the social composition of political elites have radically altered. Parties offer similar policies, appeal less to specific classes, and are populated by people from more similar backgrounds. Equally, the mass media have stopped talking about the politics of class. These political changes have had three major consequences. First, as Labour and the Conservatives became more similar, class differences in party preferences disappeared. Second, new parties, most notably UKIP, have taken working class voters from the mainstream parties. Third, and most importantly, the lack of choice offered by the mainstream parties has led to a huge increase in class-based abstention from voting. Working class people have become much less likely to vote. Britain appears to have followed the US down a path of working class political exclusion, ultimately undermining the representativeness of our democracy.
It is significant in this respect that the introduction in compulsory voter ID at polling booths mooted by the Tories will, if introduced, affect the young and the poor most of all.
Crucially non-voters returned to voting in their droves in the 2016 referendum. Nearly 2m who had previously abstained voted, while millennials in the middle-class voted far less. The disadvantaged seized their opportunity to vote against liberalism and for lower immigration, regaining powers from EU and claiming back their voice. A new alignment was appearing that saw further results in the 2017 election as pro-Brexit and anti-immigration voters went to Conservatives while cultural liberals, millennials, universities, large urban and multicultural areas and middle class professionals looked away from conservatism towards pro-Remain parties.
In general, what we are seeing is a wholesale reorientation in British politics as old boundaries shift and new alignments emerge under the massive upheaval that is Brexit. In particular there is a widespread questioning of the liberal democratic consensus and signs of a values shift that could support a right-wing shift in voting behaviour. As old alignments collapse, there is a search for new political homes. The gap between the political elite and the mass of the population is having profound consequences.