Kaleidoscopic Britain and triple tensions

Following the referendum in Scotland last year, 2015 saw an equally tumultuous general election which held a mirror up to Britain and social change. As the ‘father of psephology’ Sir David Butler wrote in the 1950s, “politics are peripheral to the lives of most people; they think and act in relation to their immediate environment … electoral trends cannot be understood without reference to social trends”.

One of the most striking images of the election was of the three female party leaders hugging after the televised opposition leader debate, their presence apparently epitomising ‘Rainbow Britain’. In that same photo, Nicola Sturgeon was centre stage and Ed Miliband was alone (Nigel Farage was out of shot). In the event, the image foretold a terrific result for the SNP and a disastrous one for Labour.

Subsequently, at least within the Westminster bubble, attention focused on Labour’s relevance; what is the party for? An altogether different question – who should lead it? – led to a fraught leadership contest. A year ago no-one expected the election of Jeremy Corbyn, who subsequently had the lowest net rating of any new party leader Ipsos MORI has ever measured. This highlights the apparent gulfs between mass public opinion, Labour activists and alienated young people. Labour must now show they can build beyond the 31% of the vote won in 2015.

Labour is far from alone among established democratic parties in the West in being on the back foot. The Conservatives have few grounds for complacency having failed to make breakthroughs in the north, among the young and poor (which, in part, explains their own post-election emphasis on ‘the northern powerhouse’ and ‘blue-collar Conservatism’). Their huge advantage though, lies in the differential turnout, boundary changes, and ironically, the SNP’s victory over Labour in Scotland.

Herein lies one of the key fault lines in British society and politics; different generations have different worldviews and worries, something we have researched extensively over the past few years. Echoing findings from our Global Trends survey last year, in April we found Britons gloomy about the prospects of the young in terms of their quality of life – much more so than in the mid-2000s. The inconvenient truth, to adapt Harold MacMillan’s claim in 1957, is that many Britons will never have it so good again.

Take housing. While Britons consider property-ownership to be an important way of ‘getting on in life’, most of London’s renters think they will never be able to buy property. The Conservatives fought the election on an unashamed home ownership platform, recognising that voters (not non-voters) tend to consume broad narratives rather than detail. They leveraged eye-catching, easy-to-digest policies like Help to Buy and Right to Buy, talking more directly to how they would help people onto the housing ladder, as well as how parents would be better able to ensure their children will get to go to a good local school, and how the NHS will be reformed so they can get a GP appointment when it suits them.

This is not to say that the centre-right has exclusive command over a more consumerist, aspirational agenda. Nor that the electorate has shifted away from the centre1According to analysis of the British Election Study, the mean position of the electorate was approximately in the centre of a left-right spectrum in 2015, as it was in 2005 and Labour’s high point, 1997: http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-findings/blog-update-is-labour-really-too-left-wing-to-win-an-election and any sort of collectivist or community sentiment; during the election we asked people whether they would prefer a society which emphasises similar incomes and rewards, or one which allows people to make and keep as much money as they like, and they preferred the former by 53% to 43%.2As shown in the graphic, this is a continuation of a trend in favour of this position since the late 1980s Moreover, our Global Trends Survey in 2013 found eight in ten Britons rejecting materialism, and two-thirds thought inequality ‘bad for society’.3Of course, this is what people say. 79% disagreed “I measure my success by the things I own” (lower only in Spain and Sweden among 20 countries), but also 39% agreed that “I feel under a lot of pressure to be successful and make money” and 52% that “I have enough trouble worrying about my own problems without worrying about other people’s problems”

Another constant in our research is that the British are hard-wired to fairness and remain very sensitive to the uneven effects of economic recovery. They have also been conditioned to recognise the lack of money left in the country’s coffers (interestingly, mid-year we found only 1 in 5 able to correctly identify the rise in public debt, and the fall in the deficit). The result is that any big policy statement is met with three immediate questions; 1) how much is this going to cost? 2) where is the money going to come from? and 3) who is going to benefit? – with, a fourth, are they ‘deserving’ of this? The Conservatives were preferred to Labour as being best able to address these questions, but hardly with joyful enthusiasm. Before the general election 60% of the public said they ‘disliked’ the Conservatives: they won because of perceived competence relative to Labour.

The economy mattered and over the course of 2014-2015 the public’s optimism rose in contrast to gloom about Britain. Neither ‘Grexit’ nor the summer’s stock market crash re-set a general sense that the economy was more likely to improve than deteriorate. In contrast, the ‘migrant crisis’ in Calais and across Europe gave even greater focus to immigration4Our monthly Issues Index found concern about the issue touching 50% for the first time in August, reaching a record 56% in September this year with levels of concern reaching record highs.

Of course immigration is possibly Europe’s most pressing crisis and is far from being a peculiarly British problem – in fact, as a nation we are more positive in our attitudes towards immigration than many other countries.5https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3612/Britons-more-positive-than-most-countries-about-immigration-despite-concerns-around-public-services.aspx The countries were Belgium, France, Great Britain, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden But it is at the centre of American-style ‘culture wars’.6http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/21/emily-thornberry-tweet-us-style-culture-wars-identity In these, identity and insecurity increasingly matter with people more exercised by ‘Who are we?’ (and ‘Who are we not?’). And there is a difference in outlook between cosmopolitan, liberal attitudes towards national identity and lifestyle, and more nationalist, socially conservative ones.7http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32021853 See also http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/29/three-new-tribes-of-voters-will-dominate-this-election

This cross-cutting cultural complexity is matched by a geo-political dimension. Politically, Scotland looks like another country.8http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11592040/Election-results-2015-map-whats-changed-since-2010.html Witness, for example, the incredible 40% Labour to SNP swing in Glasgow North-East, the safest Labour seat north of the border and in August we found majority support for independence for the first time since last year’s referendum. Mark Diffley discusses the political situation in Scotland in more detail on p110.

If ‘Scoxit’ hasn’t yet run its course, what of ‘Brexit’? This year we found support for staying in the European Union at a 24 year high despite high levels of dissatisfaction with the European Project, and when we asked people the actual referendum question, ‘yes’ led ‘no’ by a margin of three to one. But opinion swung back towards ‘no’ in the autumn. Opinions tend to change during referendum campaigns,9See ‘Don’t trust your poll lead: how public opinion changes during referendum campaigns’ Alan Renwick in Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, Philip Cowley & Robert Ford (eds.), 2015 and 2015 has hardly been a predictable year electorally or politically!

More now feel the ideal society would emphasise similar incomes for everyone People have different views about the ideal society. Please tell me which one comes closest to your ideal.

Looking ahead, 2016 looks set to be dominated by (at least) a troika of tensions creating very complex territory for Britain’s leaders to navigate; no wonder they are struggling. To return to David Butler’s assessment, social trends are shaping Britain faster than the political system can keep up, and the next 12 months have plenty more in store.

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