It is obvious that we live in extraordinary political times in the UK. On the last two occasions that the British electorate has been called to the polls (for the EU referendum and the 2017 General Election), the results have confounded expectations. Taking a longer-term perspective on British political trends might help to explain why
Post-war British political history can be divided into two long eras of consensus that are book ended by shorter periods of ‘contest’ (or challenge to the consensus); periods from which subsequent consensus emerged.
The first consensus began in the early 1950s following Labour’s surprise landslide in 1945. Though initially contested by the Conservative Party, a political agenda based around support for the welfare state and a significant level of state ownership of strategic industries survived until the 1970s.
This consensus was contested throughout the 1970s and resulted in the election of the Thatcher governments. Eventually, as the Labour Party tends to take longer to adapt to the new political mood than the Conservatives, a new consensus emerged with New Labour embracing many facets of the established neo-liberal economic order by the 1990s. Certainly, all General elections between 1992 and 2010 were fought not on fundamental differences in ideology, but on relatively modest differences in fiscal policy (some social issues aside, these elections were effectively debates about the allocation of a couple of percentage points of GDP).
In periods of contest new issues emerge and politics becomes less predictable. For example, Labour’s shock landslide in 1945, Heath losing the ‘Who governs?’ election in 1970 and closely contested elections with hung parliaments. The parallels with our current era are obvious.
We are not suggesting there is any inevitability about this, it is merely an interesting hypothesis. If the hypothesis is right, the key question would be to identify the issues at stake in the new contest and identify the characteristics of new consensus that might emerge. Recent political debates have been dominated by Brexit and the UK’s place in the world. However, this focus masks other deeply felt cleavages in British politics and society around issues such as intergenerational fairness (as exemplified in the debates around pensions, care and housing), inter-regional fairness (as London and the South East are on different growth trajectories to the rest of the country) and even the role of government itself (as antipathy towards politics and politicians grows, this is more than a mere lack of trust and more a questioning of the legitimacy of politicians to govern).
The outcome from this is far from clear, with some tensions suggesting a lighter touch for central government and others calling for greater intervention. However, on balance it does feel like any new political dawn will involve a re-orientation of the political centre ground further to the left than in the previous era, particularly in relation to the regulation of business, the regulation of markets and in terms of workers’ rights.