The strangest Tory Party conference in living memory just finished. We had the absurd situation of a Tory Prime Minister, who has been in government as Home Secretary for six years, railing against “elites”. Stranger than that was the sight of the Conservative Party - the party of free enterprise - picking a fight with business over Brexit. Theresa May broke with over 40 years of Tory neoliberalism that goes back to Margaret Thatcher becoming party leader in 1975.
The Conservatives are changing to focus on controlling immigration instead of growing the economy. They had pledges to phase out foreign doctors, cut down on the numbers of foreign students, put landlords in jail for not checking their tenants' residency status and to “name and shame”' companies for hiring foreign workers. May also says she will take the centre ground of politics, which is odd because it sounded like she is moving to the right of previous Conservative leaders. The scary thing is I think she is right. She is taking the Tory party to the centre ground. Not the centre of a left/right political axis, but the centre of a new nativist/globalist political axis.
Politics is in flux now and positions that would have been unthinkable five years ago are now being debated. A recent study has shown that, in Britain, authoritarian populist attitudes are held by 48% of adults - despite less than 20% of the population identifying itself as right wing. People are no longer divided by left or right, but by their views on our globalised, multicultural society.
Joe Twyman, YouGov’s head of political and social research for EMEA, said: “These results show that the old days of left-versus-right have been replaced by a much more complicated, nuanced mix of political groupings,” he also said: “Any political party or movement that can successfully appeal to those of an authoritarian populist leaning could benefit hugely when it comes to elections.” This means we are moving towards a new political spectrum where we are divided between nativists (socially conservative and economically protectionist) and globalists (socially liberal and economically liberal). This will be the important political divide of the future. Put simply by Twyman: “We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century.”
Brexit and the US election already show this divide. The EU referendum tore up existing party political lines, made strange allies and turned party member against party member. The division was simple: do you like the way Britain is going or do you not? Do you vote for the status quo or to smash it? The US election shows the same process: Donald Trump has broken with 35 years of Republican free-market orthodoxy to bring back the divisive politics of race. He is winning over blue collar Democrats while alienating metropolitan Republicans.
This new political axis has been partly created by the crisis in neoliberalism that has been slowly playing out since the 2008 financial crash. Deregulation and free market economics has failed to improve everyone’s standard of living, as was promised. It turns out that voters do not care about the huge inequality that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s, but they do care that they are materially worse off, as many people are now. People are angry at the system and want someone to blame.
This crisis has been exploited by the populist nativists. Free market economics - once so widely accepted that no other political idea could threaten it - is vulnerable to a challenge from socially conservative nativism, because it speaks to those who have been left behind by the last 30 years of unequally distributed economic growth. This is why nativists like Trump and UKIP are taking votes from the left and right. The left behind cut across the current political spectrum.
It is not just economic factors that are tearing up established politics. A major cause is the social changes caused by immigration. Neoliberalism has brought down borders and multiculturalism has led to far greater mixing of different communities than in the past. This has changed established social orders, mainly the status of white people within western society. In the past, being born white came with certain privileges that were nothing to do with what the state provided. In classically liberal Edwardian England and the Butskellist 1950s, white people were socially set above people of colour. This has been questioned over the last 30 years, and the social status granted to someone for being white has declined.
The nativist rebellion against the status quo is as much as about race and culture as it is about economics. Zack Beauchamp makes a strong case that change to the status of the white community in the West is the main cause of the rise of populist nativisim. Nativism predominantly appeals to the lower middle class. They are threatened by immigration and relative decline in status of being white because they feel they have something to lose. There has not been enough scrutiny of the racism spreading amongst middle class whites. It is clear that some whites are very resistant to the loss of this implicit superiority and that is why they are embracing nativism.
There is no space on this new spectrum for traditional left wing views. The Labour Party is caught between the statist nativists and the socially liberal globalists. Left wing values do not sit easily next to nativists concerns about immigration; however, they are not the natural ally of the free market globalists. It is possible that the Labour Party could move to the middle of this spectrum by borrowing the protectionism of nativists and the social liberalism of globalists but this risks drawing fire from both sides.
The Tories can see the way the wind is blowing and they are moving to the centre ground of this new spectrum. They are becoming more anti-immigration to appeal to nativists while still being the natural home of globalist business elites. May might have picked a fight with business, but they are unlikely to defect to Labour or UKIP.
If Labour does not do something it will be left behind. A fairer tax system, protecting the welfare state and well-funded public services will be secondary considerations in the future compared to the question of whether we are an open outward facing society or whether our primary concern is looking after our own people. The Labour Party needs to think about how it will fit into this new political spectrum.
If the left keeps speaking the old language of the past political divide then we will become increasingly irrelevant. I can see a future where British politics is divided between the Tories (a globalist party) and UKIP (a nativist party). Traditional left wing policies will be a fringe interest. This must be prevented if we care about our left wing values. There is no rule that there must always be a Labour Party. The Liberals have declined from the party of David Lloyd-George to the party of Tim Farron. If the Labour Party cannot find out how it fits into this new political spectrum, then it may vanish forever.