A Political Realignment? An Evening with Stephen Davies

By Harry Troise, First-Year French and Spanish.

Last week, a group of students from the Durham University Conservative Association and the Durham University Free Market Association gathered in Elvet Riverside to listen to a lecture on political realignment by Dr Stephen Davies of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Over the past decade, Davies has been predicting a worldwide political realignment, with the right becoming more nationalistic and left-wing on economic issues. The main opposition to this state of affairs is liberal cosmopolitanism. When one considers the current political situation in France and Poland, this realignment appears complete. But how did this new political landscape emerge?

Davies began with an obvious statement of fact: across Europe, the centre-left is performing abysmally. Let’s put this into perspective. Following the 2018 Swedish general election, the Social Democrats received 28.3% of the popular vote. This is the first time since 1911 that their vote share has diminished below 30%. For a party that has achieved first place at every Swedish general election since 1917, this is a truly dire result.

In 2017 in France, the Socialist Party came 5th in the presidential poll and won just 30 out of 577 seats in the National Assembly. For France’s main left-wing political party, this is a major embarrassment.

the centre-left in Europe is almost extinct.

In 2017 in Germany, the Social Democrats gained just 20.5% of the popular vote – their worst result since March 1933. Currently, the party does not have a permanent leader, it is on 15% in the opinion polls, and before her resignation, the party’s previous leader Andrea Nahles was favoured by just 13% of Germans to become the country’s next chancellor.

This is without mentioning that in the UK, the Labour Party has not had a general election victory since 2005. Even the Liberal Democrats have been in power more recently than the Labour Party.

Realignments are inevitable.

With the exception of Portugal and Spain, where this trend appears to have been bucked, the centre-left in Europe is almost extinct.

Realignments are inevitable. They reflect generational shifts, the rise and fall of political investors, social and economic change, and an exhaustion of individual salient issues.

the very notions of left and right can change.

One notable example in the UK was the Irish question after 1922. Following Ireland’s independence, the doctrine of Irish Home Rule was simply not an issue for the British political establishment any longer.

In some cases, the very notions of left and right can change. After 1994, Tony Blair altered the Labour Party to such an extent that the current Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell accused him of being a “paternalistic conservative.” Equally, in the United States, we have seen the Democrats move from the centre to the radical left, and the Republicans move from the centre-right to the populist right.

So, what does political alignment look like in practice?

Throughout the twentieth century, political factions were divided into four groups. At its most basic, this categorisation displays the differing factions’ attitudes towards state control.

Social democrats favoured state control of the economy but not moral issues; free-market conservatives favoured state control of moral issues but not the economy; consistent libertarians favoured no state control of either of these categories; and consistent authoritarians favoured state control of both of these categories.

According to Davies, the new alignment is one of cosmopolitanism against nationalism – in other words, “citizens of nowhere” against “citizens of somewhere”.

This reflected the two principal contemporary salient issues in liberal democracies: a planned economy vs. the market economy and sociocultural liberalism vs. sociocultural conservatism. Compared to today’s new alignment, it is somewhat simplistic.

According to Davies, the new alignment is one of cosmopolitanism against nationalism – in other words, “citizens of nowhere” against “citizens of somewhere”. This doctrine is the primary salient issue while economics takes a distant second place.

Here are the categories of this new alignment in tabular form, with their definitive features and some appertaining political figures.

RADICAL LEFT Globalist, although anti-globalisation,
state-controlled economy and high taxes,
environmentalist, socially libertarian
Jeremy Corbyn Caroline Lucas
Bernie Sanders
COSMOPOLITAN LIBERALISM Globalist and pro-globalisation,
free market and low taxes, environmental consciousness, socially liberal
Emmanuel Macron
David Cameron Barack Obama
NATIONAL LIBERALISM Nationalist,
free market and low taxes,
very little environmental consciousness,
somewhat culturally conservative
Nigel Farage Donald Trump Vladimir Putin
NATIONAL COLLECTIVISM Nationalist,
dirigiste economy/planning,
very little environmental consciousness,
very culturally conservative
Matteo Salvini Marine Le Pen

There is a particular figure whom I have not included: Boris Johnson. He is certainly not within either the radical left or the national collectivist categories. In reality, he straddles both cosmopolitan liberalism and national liberalism. Johnson is pro-globalisation, socially liberal, free market and low taxes with an environmental consciousness. But he also appeals to culturally conservative sentiment such as toughness regarding law and order.

So, this is the new alignment. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the most recent national elections in both France and Poland indicate that this realignment process is complete in these two countries.

In France, the 2017 presidential election was fought between a cosmopolitan liberal (Emmanuel Macron) and a national collectivist (Marine Le Pen). Likewise, in Poland, the legislative election of October 2019 was fought between the national collectivist Law and Justice party and the cosmopolitan liberal Civic Coalition.

Note the absence of the social-democratic centre-left in the table above. This ideological tendency has been eradicated – the majority of social democrats have adopted cosmopolitan liberalism or the radical left.

Many individuals hold former prime minister David Cameron personally responsible for our nation’s current deadlock. But I emphatically do not.

But after so much digression, let me cut to the chase and discuss the UK – specifically Brexit – which is an indicator of the realignment process and the growth of national collectivism in Britain.

Many individuals hold former prime minister David Cameron personally responsible for our nation’s current deadlock. But I emphatically do not. When his reasons for calling the referendum are dissected, one discovers the logic behind his decision.

All those in high office within the Conservative Party noticed that there had been a rapid surge in national collectivist politics in the UK in the form of the growth of UKIP. The party had enjoyed great success in local elections in England and Wales. In the 2015 general election, UKIP gained almost 13% of the popular vote, meaning that they overtook the Liberal Democrats – a party of government at the time – in terms of the vote share.

Cameron noticed that UKIP voters were very firmly anti-immigration, anti-European Union, anti-establishment and traditionalist regarding their social views. Equally, they favoured a dirigiste economy. At the time, up to 80% of UKIP voters favoured re-nationalisation of the railways and 85% favoured re-nationalisation of energy supply in the UK. Economically, this placed them to the left of the Labour Party!

Cameron recognised that this combination of social conservatism and greater nationalisation of the economy was increasingly favoured by Eurosceptic Conservative voters, leading to a growing divide between national collectivists, national liberals and cosmopolitan liberals within the Conservative Party.

Consequently, we can understand Cameron’s reasons for calling the referendum. It was neither for his own political gain nor to keep the Conservative Party together, regardless of what commentators may say, because the Labour Party was suffering exactly the same problem – a divide between the radical left, cosmopolitan liberals and a minority of national collectivists. In some ways, the Labour Party should be grateful for his intervention. But no one, including himself, could foresee the current paralysis of our nation.

Fast forward to the present day: a general election is upon us in the UK, so let’s take a look at Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson.

I have sympathy for Corbyn.

I shall now say something truly astounding: I have sympathy for Corbyn. He must bring together two warring factions of the Labour Party: the radical left that is concentrated in major metropolitan areas such as London and small university cities such as Cambridge, with the national collectivists concentrated in post-industrial areas such as rural Derbyshire and rural County Durham.

Uniting these factions on the basis of the European Union is impossible. Nevertheless, they can be united on economic and domestic issues – and this is why Corbyn is spending so much time discussing the NHS, poverty, nationalisation, childcare and education.

What about Boris Johnson and the Conservatives? Since 1886, the Conservatives have been in power approximately 70% of the time. No other centre-right party in Europe has been so successful. Why? Because the Conservative Party regularly goes through a process of re-adaptation – for instance, Thatcherism during the 1980s and social liberalisation under David Cameron after 2005.

Until the dissolution of Parliament a few weeks ago, vast swathes of the British population, to put it simply, were unrepresented.

Now, the Conservative Party is very gradually moving towards national collectivism. It is a significant gamble of Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings in the run-up to the general election in December. Can they lose middle-class Remain voters (cosmopolitan liberals) and make up their loss with working-class Leave voters (national collectivists)?

Such a gamble by Johnson and Cummings points to the significant revelation of some profound problems of representation in the UK. Until the dissolution of Parliament a few weeks ago, vast swathes of the British population, to put it simply, were unrepresented.

We had a variety of MPs from the radical left (most of Labour, Plaid Cymru and Green), the cosmopolitan liberal (SNP, some Labour, Liberal Democrats and some Conservatives) and the national liberal (most Conservatives) factions.

But very few MPs were of the national collectivist faction. Considering that many Leave voters were national collectivists, we have had a fundamental underrepresentation of these citizens in the House of Commons. Historically, a significant proportion of pre-Second World War Labour MPs had been consistent authoritarians. Many had even favoured capital punishment, a very rare position among Labour MPs.

the most striking statement made by Davies last week was that with the advent of national collectivism, the Conservative Party could move away from free-market economics

This group of Labour MPs had been consistently supported by the working classes. Now that this group has disappeared from the political establishment almost entirely, one can understand the lack of representation for the working classes among modern centre-left parties and thus, their subsequent decline.

It does not simply affect EU referendum alliances – for instance, up to 17% of Scots favour both independence from the UK and Brexit. No major political party currently represents both of these positions.

This realignment has been in process for a few years in the UK. In the 2017 general election, Corbyn won a larger share of the middle-class vote than Tony Blair did in 1997, and Theresa May won the largest share of the working-class vote for the Conservatives since 1964. Perhaps it will crystallize after the 2019 election. Perhaps it will take much longer. 

But undoubtedly the most striking statement made by Davies last week was that with the advent of national collectivism, the Conservative Party could move away from free-market economics. The party of Thatcher could end up re-nationalising the railways in the future.

Personally, I think this appears fanciful – after all, the Conservative Party has to distinguish itself from the current radical left Labour Party somehow. There are simply too many Conservative MPs and activists who advocate private enterprise and a culture of economic liberty for such a marked change to occur. But these are turbulent times. Who knows what could happen tomorrow?

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