Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Digested Read

Understanding the Post-Liberal Centre Ground

Adrian Pabst


Arno Mikkor

| 7 mins read

Much of the post-2017 general election analysis has focused on Theresa May’s spectacular fall from grace and the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn. What is lacking is a reflection on the fundamentals of British politics.

A decade of financial disruption, austerity and stagnant wages has produced a popular rejection of market fundamentalism. Weaker civic ties have left many people feeling dispossessed and ignored. In an age of economic and cultural insecurity, the task of politics is more than ever to rebuild accountability to people and democratic participation in the polity.

The liberal centre is in retreat

In my article for The Political Quarterly, I conceptualised the double demand for greater economic justice and more social cohesion in terms of ‘post-liberalism’ – moving beyond the free market dogma of the liberal right since Margaret Thatcher and the identity politics of the liberal left since Harold Wilson. These two liberalisms converged in Tony Blair’s ‘third way’ and David Cameron’s ‘compassionate conservatism’, and the liberal centre that has dominated British politics for nearly four decades is now in retreat.

After the Brexit referendum and the 2017 election, we are seeing a series of paradoxes that cannot be mapped according to the old binaries of either left vs. right or liberalism against the rest.

The first paradox is the return to a two-party contest where neither commands a majority. The Tories ran one of their worst campaigns in living memory, but still managed to get 318 seats on a vote share of 42.4 per cent, up 5.5 per cent from 2015. Corbyn’s lively campaign and popular policies galvanised Labour, which increased its share of the vote by 9.6 per cent to 40 per cent, but the party’s achievement of securing 262 seats remains over sixty seats short of a working majority of 323. Despite the Corbyn surge, Labour lost for a third consecutive time against the backdrop of the slowest economic recovery in 70 years and a government that is anything but ‘strong and stable’.

The second paradox is that the Conservatives lost their majority even as they broadened their electoral coalition, while Labour has built a platform for victory next time based on a narrower electoral coalition. Although the Tories lost support among middle-class Remainers and especially young voters, they are at about 40 per cent among manual workers (same as Labour) and at nearly 50 per cent among people with no educational qualifications (compared with Labour’s 35 per cent).

Labour won 21 extra seats in England, but it lacks support among the over 55-year old voters and in large swathes of the country – especially suburban places, coastal regions and rural communities. The traditional working class are switching to the Tories, while Labour is now the party of the affluent and the university-educated. For now, neither party is building a cross-class and cross-cultural coalition that can win a stable majority.

The third paradox is politics is moving both left and right at the same time, but not in a liberal direction. Since Thatcher’s victory in 1979, parties had to move right on the economy and left on social issues in order to win. Now parties are moving left on the economy and right on some social issues (like controlling immigration). 2017 defied the conventional law that British elections are not won on a left-wing economic manifesto. Both parties promised an active industrial strategy and central state intervention in energy and other markets. And both committed themselves to ending the free movement of people after Britain leaves the EU in 2019.

The fourth paradox is that after the election both parties are retreating into their ideological comfort zones just when the country needs a national popular politics. At first, Theresa May seemed to articulate a more economically egalitarian and socially communitarian politics. She denounced both the libertarian right and the socialist left while promising greater economic fairness and more social stability. The narrative of the much-maligned 2017 Tory manifesto was in fact a fusion of Burke, Beveridge and Blue Labour, as I argued in a blog piece for the New Statesman.

Missing: A politics of the common good

But all the talk about breaking with Thatcherism – “we do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism” – came to nothing. Already in her first year as Prime Minister, May’s initially ambitious proposals for corporate governance reform were watered down and the government’s industrial policy provided nothing of substance. Now the Tory arch-Brexiteers want ‘more neo-liberalism in one country’ as they make plans for a low-regulation, low-tax economy boosted by free trade deals with the other countries of Anglo-Saxondom.

Corbyn’s opposition to austerity continues to be very popular and he has been vindicated for his consistent critique of capitalism. But his utopia of ‘socialism in one country’ is fusing twentieth century-style statism with twenty-first century digital platforms. It offers a future for the new, networked generation of globally mobile cosmopolitans. The rest will subsist on a universal basic income funded by taxing tech companies. Automation and artificial intelligence promise to create a post-capitalist economy without work or workers.

Neither party is currently offering a national popular politics of the common good that can build new alliances across the deepening divides of rich vs. poor, young vs. old, north vs. south, urban vs. rural, university-educated vs. no qualification, and so on.

Post-liberalism may not be the right word, not least because it accords too much significance to the economic liberalism that has lost support. But it does name the ‘new times’ we inhabit – the search for political purpose in an age of upheaval.

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  • Adrian Pabst

    Adrian Pabst

    Adrian Pabst is Reader in Politics at the University of Kent and co-author of The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future.

    Articles by Adrian Pabst