Leader: The new divides

It's time for the UK to address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector.

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From the French Revolution onwards, politics has been defined by the distinction between left and right. In the UK and elsewhere, conservatives and socialists did battle along socio-economic lines. Class was the best predictor of voting behaviour. However, the division inaugurated by 1789 appears increasingly obsolete. The politics of left v right is being superseded by the politics of open v closed. In the UK, the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU split both the Conservatives and Labour into Remainers and Leavers. For the rest of this decade and beyond, British politics will be defined by Brexit, and attitudes towards immigration will be more important than those towards capitalism.

In the US, Donald Trump’s election similarly reshaped historical loyalties. His political programme of closed borders, higher government spending, trade tariffs and tax cuts borrowed from left and right. Like the Brexiteers, he managed to mobilise formerly inactive sections of the electorate.

Across Europe, nationalists are thriving by the same means. In France, the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen, has attracted former Socialists and Communists by vowing to end “multiculturalism” and by promising a referendum on EU membership. In Germany, the xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland rejects Angela Merkel’s policy on refugees. In the Netherlands, the nationalist Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) continues to lead in opinion polls as this year’s general election draws near. Poland and Hungary are already governed by parties of the far right. Faced with this revolt, social democrats are struggling to maintain relevancy.

Though open v closed is the most salient new schism, it is not the only one. In this issue, we detail five others reshaping politics: graduates v non-graduates, old v young, owners v renters, white Britain v ethnic minorities and metropolitan v provincial. For the Conservatives and Labour alike, the challenge is to bridge these divides. Theresa May rightly recognised that the Brexit vote was not merely a rejection of the EU but a symptom of much deeper unrest. For many in the north of England and the Midlands, the referendum was a chance to protest against decades of neglect. Others voted Leave to reduce immigration – even knowing that economic growth could be harmed.

The lesson here is that the UK must address long-standing defects: our poor productivity, our regional imbalances, our lack of affordable housing and our weak vocational sector. Mrs May has already made progress in some of these areas. In housing, the government has abandoned its predecessor’s obsession with subsidising demand in favour of expanding supply. An additional £1.4bn has been announced for affordable homes, including those for rent. After making no mention of private tenants in their 2015 manifesto, the Conservatives have banned letting agent fees.

The Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly abandoned the goal of a budget surplus by 2020 in order to increase infrastructure investment and to soften planned welfare cuts. He has signalled that the triple lock (which ensures that the state pension rises by inflation, average earnings or 2.5 per cent, whichever is highest) could be abolished after the next general election. All of these measures will help to address the increasing gulf between the young (who endured the largest post-crash fall in standards of living) and the old (whose real incomes rose).

Yet even more than this, the government must unite Remainers and Leavers in a shared project of national renewal. In the postwar era, the National Health Service, the welfare state, the Open University and a Keynesian economic strategy helped ameliorate the class divide. The crises in living standards, social care and housing demand no less ambition today. Mrs May’s challenge is not merely to deliver Brexit. It is to make divided Britain united once more. 

This article appears in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain