Uncertainty in the BRICS

The nature of today's economy is uncertainty, and nowhere is that more true than in developing nations.

In the third of these linked blog posts, we return to the general theme of "The Great Uncertainty" to explore the consequences of the shift in the balance of economic power that many discern, broadly from ‘West’ to ‘East’. The issues, we suggest, are rather more complex and involved than we are typically led to believe in popular accounts couched in terms of ‘rising powers’ and the challenge of the BRICS economies.

So where to start? Well, what is clear to us is that there is indeed a shift taking place in the balance of global economic power. That, at least, we can agree on. There is no need, we feel, to fill this post with figures because the broad picture is pretty well established. Indeed, it is captured, after a fashion, in those speculative pieces that we have all read about exactly when China will overtake the US as the largest economy in the world (although this, too, is more complicated a calculation than is often recognised).

The essential point, though, is that the combination of longish periods of (very) fast economic growth in some countries with slow growth, stagnation and recession in others cannot but alter the respective weights of different countries (and by extension regions) within the global economy. It is from that core shift that all the other features that are so much discussed – different patterns of FDI, aid, trade, bond purchases and the like – emanate.

However, the analytical problem is that economic power does not translate easily or automatically into political power. Or, to put it a little differently in what has been a common theme of ours, economics is not political economy. Economic power can be measured statistically by reference to GDP, proportion of world trade, level and direction of financial flows, and so on. Political power cannot. It has instead to be pondered and probed.

What do we find when we do this? Let’s start with China. In a simple sense it is the most obvious candidate to replace the US as the hegemon of the global political economy. But, for all its fast and continuing economic growth, it is in fact beset by a host of problems generated by its particular experience of late industrialisation and single-party politics. These include: a core imbalance in its economy between investment and consumption, considerable ongoing financial instability, deep social inequalities and tensions, and the confusion about intentions inevitably generated by its opaque and increasingly corrupt state structure. And this is not even to mention the big, looming issue of being pressured to move at some point in a democratic direction.

The reality is that, for all the talk a while ago of an emerging "Beijing Consensus", China has yet to produce a style of capitalism that is globally attractive.

Let’s move on to think about India, Brazil and other ‘rising powers’. Here, once more, the political picture is much less sharply defined than the economic one. In global terms India still lives mostly within itself. It has a very strong historical sense of the uniqueness of its continental civilisation and seems content for the moment to deploy an assertively ‘Southern’ rhetoric amidst broad acquiescence in a US-centred world order.

Brazil is best seen politically as the major regional power of South America. Given its location and history, it is always alert to the possibility of overbearing behaviour by the US and is ready to be stroppy if necessary. But it has yet to set out a coherent and convincing account of the global role that it might like to play in the future.

We could at this point go further on down a list to discuss Russia, South Africa, Mexico, Indonesia, even Turkey. But we already know that we are referring here to countries that have a power and a presence in global politics, without yet constituting major players when it comes to shaping policy outcomes in the UN, the IMF, the WTO or any other global, as opposed to regional or ‘Southern’, institution.

In a very interesting recent article, the veteran Indian political scientist, Achin Vanaik, has argued that what is emerging is a ‘new pentarchy’, consisting of the US, the EU, Russia, China and India. Others don’t quite make the grade. In his view, such a pentarchy will not be formalised like the G8 and G20. Nor will it be a concert of equals or near-equals, but rather a hub-and-spokes arrangement with the US at the centre and the others at the circumference.

Vanaik advances this proposition on the basis of an attempt to integrate economic and political power into his thinking. All his five entities have sufficient demographic, economic and military weight to qualify, as it were, but only the US has the soft – or ideological – power to ‘project a social-political-cultural model that is potentially generalisable’. He asks tellingly: ‘How many states and their ruling and middle classes want to become more and more like Russia, China or India rather than like the USA?’ What about the EU in this context? It is dismissed in a single brutal phrase: ‘The EU by its very nature cannot be a single unified aspirational model’.

Now, this is but one recent piece of political analysis. It’s quite persuasive in its way, but things almost certainly won’t work out in quite the manner that Vanaik suggests, and that is really the key point. Political economy analysis is contentious stuff. We don’t ever stand on especially firm ground. We make judgements, and then see how events unfold, adjusting our thinking as we go. Economic power in the world is shifting, but we can’t be certain quite what that will mean politically over the next few years and that just reinforces the sense of the uncertainty of the times in which we live.

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

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

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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.