For me the recent general election result – a largely unpredicted hung parliament in which Jeremy Corbyn got within 2% of the Conservative vote, despite being over 20 points behind just weeks before – is part of a wider trend of people choosing hope over fear, the chance of change over the continuance of the status quo. This post is the first in a 3 part series – Context, Campaign and Aftermath – that attempts to put forward a coherent argument as to why political voting has changed so much since the financial crash in 2008 – and what this means for future elections and the direction of politics in general.
The Power of Hope, Part 1: Context
It seems like a long time ago that the UK economy was rising happily and steadily, with New Labour so confident in the stability of the bubble lifting it that they declared an ‘end to boom and bust’. That all came crashing down in 2008, and looking back it seemed an act of breathtaking collective denial that so few people saw it coming. We live in a world in which there is almost inconceivable inequality, not just between the rich and the poor of developed and underdeveloped nations, but within developed nations as well.
This inequality has meant it has become increasingly difficult for the middle and lower classes not just to cling onto the consumerist lifestyles that they are encouraged to, but just to exist at all. It’s important to recognise that rising inequality isn’t just about CEOs taking increased salaries or corporations increased profits out of an economy, it is also the fall in real incomes for almost anyone below this top 5% of earners.
In the beginning it was easier for the 95% to cope with lower wages because families largely relied on one wage earner, the solution was to send both parents out to work. This kept the illusion that growing inequality was sustainable. When even two-parent-wage families still couldn’t meet their commitments, another solution was offered: cheap credit. That meant normalising credit cards, loans, equity release from property values or anything else that encouraged the ‘we can all have the things we want / we can all take part in this boom’ culture. It sustained the illusion that free market liberalism was enriching us all.
But the truth was it wasn’t, it was creating obscene wealth for the few and putting the majority into unsustainable, unaffordable and often unpayable debt. The reality is that under free market liberalism we can’t all afford a house, even if the banks are willing to give us a mortgage. We cannot all afford big TVs, luxury clothes, posh cars or any of the other things that are sold to us from birth as being a vital part of creating our sense of worth and self-esteem – even if loans and credit are offered to us so we can have them. Cheap credit allowed a lot of people to be fooled into thinking that they were part of the boom, that they were enjoying the rewards of a growing economy.
But they weren’t. They were, in reality, poorer than their parents – working longer, harder and in less secure jobs for lower wages and poorer pensions. They faced property prices that were completely out of sync with real earnings and a rental market dominated by private landlords and extremely limited access to social housing. The reality is that all loans, credit cards and mortgages – no matter how cheap they may at first appear – need to be repaid. In 2008 a crisis in sub-prime mortgages spiralled into the realisation that a significant part of the global economy was built on credit given to people who had no capacity to repay it. The bubble collapsed and people realised a new truth: they were being hit with the bill – austerity, cuts, debt to pay down; whilst almost universally the banks were bailed out in an act completely out of kilter with the free-market economics that had led to their de-regulation in the first place.
And so we live in a slightly altered reality, one defined by hung parliaments, Brexit and Trump. The crash in 2008 created a groundswell of anger and disillusion, but this anger was never legitimately directed at those who had caused the bubble and the crash, or the wider system that creates the conditions for a boom and bust economy. Governments that had been so enthralled by the free-market economics of Milton Freedman bailed out their banks in an act that demonstrated that socialism could be applied to the rich, whilst the rest of us were left impoverished by unchecked capitalism.
The long-term consequences of the 2008 crash were unclear. In the UK it spelled the end of New Labour and the start of hung parliaments or barely squeaked majorities. The media narrative sold by right-wing newspapers were that New Labour had maxed-out the credit card and we’d all need to repay it via austerity (whilst ‘bankers’ received a few half-hearted attacks, the newspapers largely let them walk away with the obscene wealth they had siphoned off from the credit bubble). Politics became increasingly right-wing as the ‘centre ground’ moved further and further away from any kind of expectation that the state was able to invest in public services or the economy – and indeed whether they should even attempt to, with the idea of ‘small government’ more traditionally associated with the American right becoming increasingly popular.
David Cameron tried to sell us a sanitised version of this with ‘the big society’ in 2010, where – in its most positive sense – power was given back to the people, thereby shrinking the role, influence and power of government over the people. However, the darker reality was the big society was a rather vague exhortation that people should support themselves and their communities, rather than rely on support and investment from the government. Cameron certainly provided the financial austerity underpinning the vision and eventually gave one decision back to the people in the form of the EU Referendum. Here the Leave campaign utilised this anti-establishment, anti-government feeling, arguing explicitly that leaving the EU was about ‘taking back control’ from distant and unaccountable politicians. Trump would later echo this during his presidential campaign, explicitly telling the American people during his inaugural speech that “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people”.
But what defines the politics of hung parliaments, Brexit and Trump isn’t actually the drive to transfer power from the few to the many, but rather the message of hope and the promise of change that is sold alongside it. Brexit came down to a simple choice, remaining in the EU and maintaining the status quo – the reality of which for many, many people is poverty in every sense; of opportunity, health, education and even hope itself – or leaving the EU, ‘taking back control’ and creating new opportunities of trade and progress as a free nation again.
The ‘remain’ campaign focused on staying in the UK primarily because it – almost undoubtedly – made economic sense to do so – that our growth and prosperity depended on it. Just imagine – you may not even need to – being one of the millions of people living in abject poverty in the UK, watching the current economically strong and secure system make cuts to social services, education, the NHS, local councils, community centres, libraries and so on. To them the reality of the status quo is one that serves only to impoverish them, ‘project fear’ – about the disastrous outcomes of leaving the EU – wasn’t just a negative campaign, it was one utterly powerless to strike fear into people who already felt as if they had nothing to lose. Indeed, telling poor people that staying in the EU was the best way of keeping them economically prosperous seems closer to a sick joke than an effective campaign.
The Leave campaign was able to win, even if only by a slither, because it offered hope. If the known quantity has led to poverty, austerity and division, then it is far more tempting to risk the unknown, because at least that holds the chance of a better future. The choice was simple: change and hope offered by Leave, or the status quo and fear offered by Remain.
Trump framed his election in the same way, Hillary Clinton represented the continuance of politics as usual – which has left millions in abject poverty in the richest nation on earth, Trump represented change and hope. It’s ironic that Obama perhaps created the politics of hope as the foundation for a political campaign, only to see it put a Republican President in the White House after he served his final term. That this President was Trump added significant insult to the injury.
This was the context in which Theresa May decided to call a snap election, one that seemed to guarantee her a crushing majority and might even end Labour as an electoral force. I’ll look at her campaign in Part 2 of this Power of Hope series.