Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Who are the Corbynites? by Glen O'Hara

The Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society hosted a recent one-day workshop around the theme of "Populism 2.0", at which Professor O'Hara present this paper.

Corbynism is a strong brand: indeed, paradoxically for a creed that makes a great deal of offering an entirely new economic and social sentiment, its presentation owes a great deal to the present vogue for ‘craft’ and ‘artisanal’ products. Apparently old but in reality new, and theoretically rough-and-ready while being highly packaged and marketable, its supporters and spinners have laboured long and hard to target an audience that then projects a positive image back on itself.

Some of the key elements of that brand have to do with the people attracted to it. The Corbyn appeal is often presented as particularly attractive to young people: idealistic students, passionate advocates for social change, political campaigners, twentysomethings locked out of the housing market. Media coverage of the 2017 General Election reinforced this impression: television images of large and enthusiastic crowds, often full of younger voters, played very (and unexpectedly) well on regional and local news programmes. When Labour did unexpectedly well at the ballot box, the newspapers were full of the ‘youthquake’ that had apparently taken place, with some very high figures for youth turnout doing the rounds.

There are a couple of reasons why this explanation instinctively appeals to us. The first is the rise of generational inequality. Income inequality, and even wealth inequity, has not risen very much in recent years: indeed, on some measures, it has declined a little. But the disparity of living standards (and especially the ownership of capital) between older and younger Britons has become an ever-more noticeable part of our collective life. Rising house prices, in particular, are still making the over-50s richer and richer (at least until they need social care in their 70s and 80s), while younger Britons struggle to get on the housing ladder.

The second reason that such a phenomenon seemed quite plausible was the outlook of young voters. Overwhelmingly for Remain in the 2016 European Union referendum, and just as likely to be socially liberal on a whole host of issues such as immigration, Prime Minister Theresa May’s search for a Brexit mandate – and conservative rhetoric from foxhunting to grammar schools – just became impossibly distant for younger voters who had backed David Cameron in far greater numbers just two years before.

Unfortunately for the mental shortcuts that we often use to assemble mythical knowledge, a great deal of that impression is simply inaccurate. There does not, for instance, seem to have been a ‘youthquake’ in terms of actual turnout. The authoritative British Election Study did not record any such move among young people, and although there has been some criticism of the Study’s techniques and sample sizes, these remain the best figures that we have. There was indeed a ‘youthquake’ in terms of a large swing towards Labour among 18- to 24-year olds, but this was matched and indeed probably exceeded by moves towards Corbyn’s party by voters in their later 20s and their 30s. According to Ipsos-Mori, the swing towards Labour even among 35- to 44-year olds (at eight per cent) was not far behind the ten per cent or so move among Britons in their late teens and early twenties.

Labour’s success among 25- to 44-year olds, of course a far larger group than students and early twentysomethings, speaks to much wider trends in contemporary Britain than can be captured via the concepts of housing scarcity and generational inequality. These literally middling Britons are often dealing with a multiplicity of crises: in health care, in their families, infrastructure, the welfare state. Cuts to school budgets, and the inadequacy of in particular England’s fragmented and inadequate social care system for looking after the elderly, often press in on voters facing care challenges for both their young children and their elderly parents: letters home from head teachers outlining the potential school-by-school effects of education cuts seem to have played an underrated role in the 2017 election campaign. Such voters are often forced to navigate complex lives, suffering frequent delays across Britain’s outdated transport infrastructure while taking children to different schools while being forced into unpaid and unwanted caring roles across both nuclear and extended families. Their resentment – that the Government simply does not seem to be there for them – played a much bigger role in Labour’s appeal than more discrete issues such as unpaid internships or university tuition fees.

Nor does the Labour membership appear to have become younger or more liberal. In fact, according to data gathered by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project at Queen Mary, University of London, the average age of Labour’s members is 53 (as opposed to 57 among Conservatives). By contrast, only four per cent of Labour’s members are aged between 18 and 24. Labour’s membership has surged to over half a million since 2015, but its appeal appears to be disproportionately to graduates, left-leaning voters in London, the South and South-East of England, and to returning ex-members who found the Labour revisionism of the 1990s and 2000s not to their liking. There is little evidence here of a particularly millinerial surge in the party’s support base: the pro-Europeanism and social liberalism that do seem to form two key planks of Labour’s new energy seem to emanate from Baby Boomers and Generation Xers who hold these opinions.

‘The Corbynites’, like any political group, are not a homogenous tribe, though Labour’s new voters and members possess many traits in common. They tend to live in cities, particularly London, but they are also particularly noticeable amidst Southern England’s more radical university centres and faded seaside towns. They are, counterintuitively, not particularly young – and their attachment to Corbyn is focused on a wider rejection of the post-Thatcherite economic settlement than discourses of youthful radicalism, disengagement and campaigning assume. If the Conservatives think that they can counter this appeal via policies aimed only at the youngest voters, they are very mistaken indeed.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. A former journalist at The Independent, he contributes to a wide range of current affairs publications, including The New Statesman’s ‘Staggers’ online politics blog. He is the author of a series of books and articles on modern Britain, including most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He will be discussing many of these themes in his inaugural Professorial Lecture, to be held at Oxford Brookes University on Wednesday 9 May.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Brexit, Democracy and UK Trade Policy by Stephen Hurt

Last week the UK government published its Trade Bill, which formally starts the process of moving towards an independent trade policy. Member states of the European Union (EU) are part of a customs union. This means they operate a unified trade policy, which includes common external tariffs on imports from outside the EU. The UK government has already made it clear it intends to leave the customs union as part of the Brexit process.

Prior to the start of the legislative process, the Department for International Trade published a Trade White Paper on 9 October 2017, which set out the principles guiding the UK's future trade policy. This included numerous references to stakeholder engagement and as part of a consultation exercise it included an invitation for submissions on all aspects of the developing approach set out in the White Paper.

In this post I outline the major points of my submission to this consultation process. The deadline was Monday 6 November 2017 and it was therefore with some surprise that I discovered the following morning that the government was publishing its Trade Bill in parliament. This led to criticism from trade unions and NGOs who had also contributed to the consultation. For example, War on Want argued that given the timing of the publication of the bill it was clear that 'the input of thousands of responses from members of the public could not have been considered'.

Given my long-standing research interest in the EU’s trade and development policy to African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) states, my response focused in the main on the fourth of the five principles outlined in the White Paper, namely ‘supporting developing countries to reduce poverty’. In doing so, I also explored some of the tensions between this ambition and the other four principles ('trade that is transparent and inclusive', 'supporting a rules-based global trading environment', 'boosting our trade relationships' and 'ensuring a level playing field').

My criticism of the White Paper ultimately rests on some of the problematic assumptions it makes about the relationship between trade and development. These assumptions were also demonstrated in an important speech made by Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, in Manchester on 29 September 2016, where he suggested that ‘free trade is often a ladder to the top’. A similar claim was made by former International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, in her speech at the Conservative Party conference on 3 October 2017, when she boldly claimed that 'trade, investment and free markets provide the route out of poverty'.

These claims are advanced in the first half of the White Paper where the role of trade in the global economy is discussed. The conclusion one is supposed to draw from this is that free trade was at the heart of the historical development of the British economy and hence this is something that should be recommended to developing countries today. However, as respected economist Ha-Joon Chang has convincingly demonstrated, Britain employed tariffs for a significant period before it was able to adopt a regime of free trade during the nineteenth century. Chang notes that ‘the overall liberalization of the British economy … of which trade liberalization was just a part, was a highly controlled affair overseen by the state, and not achieved through a laissez-faire approach’ (Ha-Joon Chang, Kicking Away the Ladder, p.24). Hence, what the White Paper suggests are protectionist measures (such as subsidies for domestic industry) could conversely be understood as legitimate development strategies.

The section of the White Paper on UK trade policy and how it can support developing countries includes a commitment that as the UK leaves the EU it ‘will maintain current access for the world’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) to UK markets and aim to maintain preferential access of other (non-LDC) developing countries' (p.32). This is to be welcomed. However, the aim of replicating the EU’s existing Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) is much more problematic. It is clear to anyone who has followed the EU’s negotiation of EPAs with ACP countries, that they met significant resistance from both many ACP governments, and civil society organisations (CSOs) across Europe and regions within the ACP. In part, their concerns relate directly to the assumptions noted above about the ‘policy space’ needed for development. Both the Tanzanian and Nigerian governments have indicated that they are concerned that signing an EPA will undermine their ability to adopt government policies to support industrialization. In Nigeria, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria has been particularly effective in lobbying against the EPA, arguing that it will harm the domestic industrial sector.

Moreover, they have also voiced concerns over attempts by the EU to introduce the so-called ‘Singapore Issues’ (competition policy, transparency in government procurement, equal treatment for foreign investors, and trade facilitation measures) that were rejected at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2003 at the CancĂșn Ministerial. There is therefore a potential conflict of principles in the White Paper between the expressed concern for developing countries and the suggestion that the ‘UK will look to secure greater access to overseas markets for UK goods exports as well as push for greater liberalisation of global services, investment and procurement markets’ (p.27). These are precisely the issues that African states and CSOs have identified as problematic because they would constrain the ability of ACP states to seek to diversify their exports and support the development of an industrial sector.

The White Paper’s strong support for the conclusion of the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) also undermines the claim to be supporting developing countries. TiSA has emerged as a separate arrangement after talks on services stalled within the WTO due to resistance from developing countries. They have expressed concerns that it would allow transnational corporations to turn essential public services into commodities that can be traded.

It is therefore highly likely that the UK will meet significant resistance if it seeks to simply replicate EPAs. African states have been able to demonstrate significant agency in the EPA negotiations and there would be greater scope for this in negotiations with the UK. They have made it clear that rather than deep and comprehensive trade liberalisation, what they want is a gradual process of engagement with global markets, which if it is to be developmental, needs to be facilitated by state support. Therefore, a much better alternative would be for the UK to introduce an improved Generalised System of Preferences that goes above and beyond the EU’s current ‘Everything but Arms’ agreement with LDCs. Hence, I would support the recommendations made by Traidcraft in its February 2017 report for the adoption of 'a preference scheme offering duty-free, quota-free market access to imports from economically vulnerable countries, including but not limited to the least developed countries' (p.16).

My final concerns relate to the democratic accountability of any future UK trade policymaking. These were reinforced by the superficial nature of the process of consultation on the White Paper itself. While it is reassuring to note in the White Paper that there is a plan for regular engagement with stakeholders, it is unclear what is meant by the phrase ‘we will ensure that Parliament, the devolved administrations, devolved legislatures, business and civil society are engaged throughout’ (p.29). Prior to this there is reference to the need for a legislative framework that allows for the quick negotiation and ratification of trade agreements. Trade negotiations are notoriously long and difficult to conclude and this desire for speed should not come at the cost of democratic accountability. As I, and 54 other academics have argued in a recent letter published in The Telegraph on 20 October 2017, modern trade agreements cover a wide range of policy areas. It is therefore vital that government makes a clear and unequivocal commitment that parliament and the devolved administrations/legislatures will have a say in both formulating negotiating mandates and ratifying any future trade agreements agreed by the UK. Moreover, information related to trade negotiations should be made public so that stakeholders are able to provide proper democratic input into the process.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

What does social media discourse around the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum reveal about the interplay between English national identity and globalisation? By Harry Gable

This month's blog post features the work of one of our undergraduate students, Harry Gable, and a summary of his prize winning dissertation. The Politics external examiner considered it to be worthy of publication. Below is a synopsis of the main arguments.

In a recently written dissertation, I conducted research which sought to add to the scholarship around the complex and often contradictory effects of modern globalisation on national identity, using contemporary English society as a case-study. To do this, qualitative analysis was carried out based on the public Twitter discourses surrounding both Remain and Leave campaigns in the immediate build-up to the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU on June 23 2016. The utilisation of social media was central to the aims of the research, since Twitter has become an accessible medium for the recorded expression of opinion across an increasing variety of topics and demographics (Park and Kaye 2017:174). Although there are limits to the reliability of views expressed in a maximum of 140 characters, it provides researchers with a tool for accessing a previously unquantifiable body of public opinion. This helps to broaden understanding of public discussion around complex social phenomena in a way that analysis of conventional policy and media discourse cannot provide. This blog will briefly summarise the key trends evident from the Remain and Leave data-sets (30 Tweets were taken from each side, using Twitter searches of #VoteRemain and #VoteLeave from 22 June 2016). From here, I will consider subsequent implications for the future of English national identity in an increasingly globalised world, before detailing what further research would deepen understanding of this important dynamic.

It is clear from my research that national identity represents an increasingly sharp social divide in contemporary England. Identity politics has become pervasive influence on modern English socio-political culture, and debate over the future of the nation occupies a prominent position in this discourse (Reeves, 2016). The Referendum provided an unusually direct forum for observation of this phenomenon, and it is my contention that the discourse surrounding it is a reliable indicator of significant trends in public perceptions of English national identity, facilitating discussion of globalisation, supranationality and modernity. 

Overall, my research revealed that Remain voters on social media appear to have a positive conception of modern globalised realities, embracing the prosperity it has brought and the need to accept that no country can succeed in isolation. The cohort collectively lends support to the modernist conception of national origins and promote a civic brand of nationalism. In line with the theory that social organisation is a fluid product of macro-economic forces (Gellner 1964, Anderson 2006), the Remain data demonstrates that globalisation is definitely altering, while not necessarily eroding, the nature of English national attachment.

The effect of globalisation on national identity appears to be less transformative among Leave voters; the sample strongly affirmed an emotional commitment to the future prosperity of the nation, although there were many different visions of who should be included and what this prosperity should be based on. In line with the scholarship, the data-set revealed a division between patriotic Leave voters who conceived of a prosperous nation as outward looking and globalised, but “independent” and in complete control of its political affairs, and those of a nationalistic primordialist disposition, who perceived globalisation as a threat to national culture led by a compliantly corrupt elite. The latter argument lends support to Jung’s conception of ‘resistance identities’ (2008:581). On the whole, the split in the data-set between those who were sceptical of the supranationality at the heart of the EU but broadly supportive of economic interconnectedness and those who espoused a brand of anti-globalisation nationalist populism was marked. The fact that opinion was divided in this way serves to demonstrate the complex, evolving and divisive effect of globalisation on English national identity, polarising even among those with a shared scepticism of supranationality.

Although the two campaigns represent a logical dividing line in the debate around English national identity and its relationship to globalisation, there was a surprising degree of similarity between certain aspects of both groups, as well as significant tensions within each cohort. First among these observations was the prevalence of patriotism (see Viroli 1995) within the two discourses. Though they disagreed on the merits of EU membership, the majority of both data-sets espoused a strong commitment to the future of the nation, marked by a desire for economic prosperity and political strength. The existence of such views among the Remain cohort demonstrates a comfortable co-existence between national pride and an endorsement of supranationality, vindicating the conclusions of previous cross-national studies (Antonsich 2009, Jung 2008). On the Leave side, the distinction made by many between supranational union and globalised modernity is extremely important. Crucially, this cohort of the data-set seemed equally keen for the nation to profit from the economic opportunities of globalisation as the Remain sample, but saw supranational cooperation as an inhibiter of this, rather than a facilitator. Contrary to some post-referendum analysis, these views do not demonstrate a belief that the nation should retreat from globalisation (Cowell, 2016), and are more in-line with Hahn’s notion of civic nationalism, as opposed to its ethnically-driven alternative (Kohn in Smith and Hutchinson 1994:163).

This said, there was a very wide spectrum of views across both data-sets, in places revealing a seismic difference in perception of the English nation. This trend could have significant implications for future discourse, suggesting that the intensification of globalisation is having divisive and contradictory effects on elements within English society (in-line with Ariely 2012:462). For some, globalisation appears to be directly weakening national attachment while cultivating global cosmopolitan identities, while those at the opposing end of the scale see globalised modernity as threatening the cultural integrity of the English community. Again, this observation vindicates previous analysis of the effects on globalisation on national identity, which has found that it can precipitate both a resurgence in insular nationalism and a growth in cosmopolitanism across developed societies (Ariely 2012:464).

In the case of England, it looks as if populist nationalism will continue to grow while cosmopolitan attachments remain on the fringe, (In-line with Jung 2008: 581), a trend with perhaps profound implications for future national political discourse (Jones, 2015). While both my research and that of other academics indicate that civic patriotism based on a broad acceptance of globalisation remains the dominant opinion, the growing electoral popularity of nationalist parties in England and across Europe shows no sign of abating (Lucassen and Lubbers 2012:552). If this trend holds true, the tensions between civic and ethic conceptions of the English nation evident in the data-sets can only be expected to widen, further exacerbating the political centre-ground and dragging political discourse to the ideological extremes, a phenomenon that can already be observed in British politics (Helm, 2016). In many ways, Kohn’s (1945) civic/ethnic dichotomy is representative of this divide, as the cleavages separating civic and ethnic identity attachments are neatly encapsulated by the differences between the modernist and primordialist positions respectively (Gellner 1983, Geertz 1963). Since it is almost impossible to conceive of a complete reversal of economic globalisation (Beck 2005:4), these tensions between contradictory visions of the English nation could become irreconcilable, with the potential to seriously disrupt the existing parameters of democratic politics and national discourse.

At the core of these tensions sits the inherent conceptual ambiguity of globalisation, and the unequal distribution of benefits and costs across national societies. Consequently, globalisation, and its institutions like the EU, become symbolic of an immense variety of both opportunities and threats, dispersed among different social groups. In Ariely’s words, “different operationalisations of globalisation and national identity yield very different results” (2012:477). My research has very strongly vindicated this idea in relation to England, suggesting that without amelioration of the systemic economic and social inequalities that characterise modern globalisation, observers can expect the fundamental tensions between globalisation and English national identity to continue unabated. If the nation remains the primary unit of social and territorial organisation, it will be the logical vessel for the expression of grievances against globalisation, since it remains a tangible cultural entity in an increasingly uncertain world (Calhoun 2007:8). For this reason and based on my research, I expect nationalism to play an ever more prominent role in English political discourse in the coming years.

Further research is required to further explore the trends highlighted in this dissertation. The utility of a social media based discourse analysis has been discussed above, but this research model needs to be enlarged upon to comprehensively validate my conclusions.  Foremost among this should be a considerable expansion of the sample size and search parameters to facilitate investigation into the large cohort across both data-sets that espoused an acceptance of globalisation alongside a politically powerful, patriotic nation-state. If the current theorisations about the incompatibility of these two beliefs are proved correct and globalisation continues to undermine the formal capacities of the state (McGrew and Lewis 2013, Mann 1997), tracking the changing views of this cohort using tools like social media, will be crucial to understanding future political developments. Indeed, if contradictory interpretations of the nation can be explained by the differing formulations of globalisation subscribed to, more research is needed to isolate specific visions of globalisation in detail, and their direct relation to conceptions of the nation.