This isn't the Great Recession, it's the Great Uncertainty

There's power in a name. But we have to get the right one.

Labels matter in orienting our thinking about, characterising and constructing different eras in the global political economy. They are also invaluable shorthand and these days we all increasingly write, and possibly think, in shorthand.

It’s also striking that many such labels have come to acquire the declaratory claim of being the ‘great’ variant of whatever it is they announce. Some of these are now so widely used that we hardly recall their origins.

Think of the "Great War" or the "Great Depression" (although the latter is usually attributed to the book of that name by the economist Lionel Robbins first published in 1934). Keynes, by the way, preferred to talk of the ‘Great Slump, but for some reason that did not catch on in the same way.

Other eras lack an agreed label; and some even lack the epithet ‘great’. John Ruggie generated many citations by proposing the notion of "embedded liberalism" to capture the essence of the post-1945 era, but the phrase never spread beyond the academy. The French, of course, talked of "les trente glorieuses" to describe the period of steady growth up to the mid 1970s, but that too never infiltrated the global English vernacular. Nobody, however, tried out the "Great Growth", or the "Great Expansion", or the "Great Social Democracy"!

Coming closer to the present we have now lived through what some describe, in a rather odd way perhaps, as the "Great Moderation". This phrase was coined by two American economists, James Stock and Mark Watson, in a 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research publication and was then popularised by Ben Bernanke, then a member, now the chairman of the US Federal Reserve, in a speech he made in 2004.

The term is grounded in the claim that, starting in the mid-1980s, a series of institutional and structural changes in the economies of leading developed countries caused a reduction in the volatility of normal business cycle fluctuations, thereby diminishing the influence of traditional macroeconomic policy. Now wrecked by events, it was always a complacent take on reality and our colleagues in CRESC at the University of Manchester have fought back by dubbing this whole period of boom the "Great Complacence"!

So where do we sit now? At one level the answer is simple: we live – at least those of us in the West – amidst the "Great Recession". The New York Times journalist, Catherine Rampell, has recently provided a nice etymology of the use of this term. It’s spot on, of course, but it doesn’t catch the deeper elements of our current conjuncture.

For the honest answer is that we don’t really know – yet – where we are, not least because where we think we are will determine how we get out of this mess and we still seem a long way from that. Many suggest, or maybe just hope, that neoliberalism is over. But the neoliberals don’t think so and in any case new eras always take longer to emerge than people think. Thus far, neoliberal dispositions seem to have been reinforced by the crisis – for in a sense that is exactly what austerity is all about.

It is important, though, to remind ourselves that getting from the Wall Street crash of 1929 to the Bretton Woods conference of 1944 took fifteen years. The other great recent period of shift – the "long 1970s" – is even harder to date with precision. But, again, it took a lot of pounding by the neoliberal right to move us from the first signs of the crisis of "embedded liberalism" in the late 1960s to the hey-day of Reaganism and Thatcherism in the early 1980s. So perhaps fifteen years is about standard for these sorts of transitions …

In these circumstances many analysts fall back on Gramsci, reaching for The Prison Notebooks and quoting that bit where he writes that "the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born", adding that "in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear". However, we have opted to take up the challenge implicitly laid down here by Gramsci by trying to think through the key elements of the confusion and contradiction that dominate so many attempts to chart our position.

We label the current era the Great Uncertainty and suggest, by deliberate use of this term, that the present conjuncture is being shaped by a remarkable, and hugely challenging, coalescence of three major processes of structural change occurring simultaneously and interacting in all manner of complicated ways. They can be distinguished analytically as follows:

  • Financial crisis: a largely Western crisis brought about by neoliberal excess and now rendering the resumption of economic growth a severe conundrum for the US, Japan and nearly all major European economies and a problem at least for the rest of the global economy;
  • Shifting economic power: the recent intensification of longstanding movements in the locus of economic power in the world characterised by the rise of countries like China, India, Brazil and several others too;
  • Environmental threat: the eventual realisation that climate change is both real and accelerating and is now asking the most serious questions about the ongoing viability of traditional notions of economic growth and indeed the good society itself.

The key point, though – and the reason that this all adds up to the Great Uncertainty – is that these processes of change are all taking place now and arguably will come to a head at broadly the same time. They also feed off each other in extraordinary and unexpected ways, with the politics flowing both through and between them in highly complex fashion.

This web of change is what SPERI was set up to research and help us understand. In subsequent blogs we will analyse further each of these three interlocking features of our uncertain times.

This is the first in a five-post series on the "Great Uncertainty".

Photograph: Getty Images

Professors Colin Hay and Tony Payne are Directors of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.