On 18th April, Prime Minister Theresa May, made an unscheduled announcement that the UK would go to the polls on 8th June in a snap general election. This decision was seen by some as a cynical move to capitalise on healthy poll ratings, which, according to the Guardian could see her return with a majority of 140 MPs. From the outset, PM May framed the election in terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union, arguing that the moment presented a ‘one-off chance to get this done’. Fast forward to the evening of 8th June and the exit poll prediction revealed the likelihood of a very different picture; ultimately, not only did the predicted increase not materialise, the Conservative party lost its majority and a hung parliament was declared. Conjecture wrapped up as analysis followed post haste and has continued almost unabated since. While there have been claims that the combined votes gained by the major parties (who both support Brexit) indicates a change in levels of support to leave the EU, that seems unlikely. Firstly, Labour did better than expected and the Conservatives worse, so attributing one issue as motive seems to be something of a stretch. Secondly, social media indicate that many set Brexit aside during the general election; indeed, there is an online petition asking the Labour party specifically not to make the assumption that remain voters had changed their position on the issue. Furthermore, polls suggest that most younger voters who took part in the referendum voted to remain and that the majority of younger voters who took part in the general election voted for Labour. There is a similar pattern among all voters under age 45. Read together, the probability that this indicates support for Brexit is slim.
Those younger voters have however, been the subject of much debate. Some 64% of 18-24 year olds on the electoral roll voted, representing an increase of 21 points from the 2015 general election, 62% of whom voted Labour according to Ipsos MORI. Just to add a cautionary note, these figures are best estimates and as UCL Global Youth point out may be contradicted by the British Election Survey, which will be published in the Autumn. Nonetheless, the increase in voter turnout is not in question and indicates a shift away from the disinterest that is often argued as apathy among younger voters. Indeed, this explanation for disaffection from the political process was never entirely accurate in any case; research shows that younger voters have largely viewed politicians as self-serving and policies irrelevant to their lives. In other words, not voting has been an active, not passive choice. So, the question remains: Why did more people vote for the Labour party than the pollsters (with the notable exception of Survation) and psephologists predicted?
Damned if you Do… Damned if you Don’t….
When it became clear that young people had shown up in significantly increased number the accusatory claims of apathy and laziness that followed the Brexit referendum were never going to hold water. Instead the commentariat lined up to denounce their naivety (Times), flightiness (GQ) and self-interest (Mail). ‘We wanted you to vote’ they seemed to say, just not like that. The significance of university fees, which was described as a bribe is not as clear-cut as perhaps it may appear; while certainly an important issue attributed to the rise and subsequent fall in popularity of the Liberal Democrats and the subject of student protest, it remains the case that less than 50% of school-leavers attend university. In addition, those who plan to go to university are in general too young to vote and those already there would not benefit from the change. If scrapping tuition fees were the only motivating factor, then clearly young people were not simply voting in their own self-interest but from a sense of fairness. In my (wholly unscientific) viewing of news and current affairs programmes, young people themselves said they were motivated by more, including social care costs for the elderly and the withdrawal of universal winter fuel allowance proposed in the Conservative manifesto. In the absence of substantial evidence to the contrary, it must be assumed that people voted for a whole slew of reasons and attempting to homogenise the electorate (even into smaller age-based groupings) can simply open a debate, not conclude it.
There are however, some things that we know. Since coming to power as part of a coalition in 2010 and subsequently a majority (2015), now minority (2017) government, the Conservative party have advocated cutting public spending with the aim of reducing the budget deficit. In the words of Nobel prize-winning economist, Paul Krugman, the ‘case for cuts was a lie’ and there are certainly clear signs that it was ideological rather than economic rationality that prevailed. Indeed, as Krugman argues, the obsession with reducing the deficit is simply a drive to shrink the welfare state. Underpinning the austerity measures, which are claimed to secure fiscal consolidation, has been an adherence to economic neoliberalism. This not only positions the market as outside of politics, but also positions the state as the guarantor of the conditions under which the market can thrive. Although there is insufficient space here to fully rehearse the economic or political arguments, research shows that the impact of austerity politics is most keenly felt by the poorest in society (see De Agostini et al, 2014). The impact is not however simply economic. Together with cuts to benefits and services, the rhetoric of division that brings forth such rhyming couplets as strivers and skivers, or workers and shirkers, means that one of the most consistent features of austerity has been a discourse of shaming those who have least. To be clear, this morally loaded language is used to imply a society that is damaged by wilful dependency on state provision. Further, as binaries, they suggest a shift in emphasis towards creating a workfare state rather than a welfare state (McRobbie, 2009), framing employment decisions as a choice in an active and lively labour market. This belies the reality of a strictly limited repertoire of options for paid work or training schemes and deftly dissolves any structural explanations for social or economic disadvantage.
What we see then is austerity functioning as a technology of governance that individualises responsibility, undermines collectivity and lets government off the hook. Indeed, I would go further to suggest that recent welfare ‘reform’ is a form of revanchism in which wealth is redistributed upward. The path to this redistribution has been smoothed in part by forcing a discussion about who is more, or less deserving and so far, built upon the illusion of meritocracy, this has been largely understood as just. Drawing on a well-worn trope haunted by a past populated by ‘the social residuum’ (Booth, 1891) or the ‘underclass’ (Herrnstein and Murray, 1995), the explanation of what divides groups is their attitude, behaviour and lifestyle; those making bad choices, who are understood as lazy, and/or irresponsible in contrast to those who are hard-working, morally upright and self-responsible. Perhaps then voting in the general election can be understood as indicating the turning of a tide; one that questions such assumptions and whether those who are ‘undeserving’ can be neatly split off from the rest of ‘us’.
In November 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of Disabled Persons found that UK welfare reforms have led to ‘grave and systematic violations’ of disabled people’s rights. They further reported that disabled people were negatively portrayed as ‘dependent or making a living out of benefits, committing fraud as benefit claimants, being lazy or putting a burden on taxpayers’. There is barely a week that goes by without a further claim that the NHS is in crisis and more recently the education budget has come under closer scrutiny. As austerity encroaches on more lives, there is a growing awareness of some of its impact and (borrowing from Leonard Cohen) ‘there is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in’. The cracks in the case for austerity are beginning to shed light on just how unreasonable it is to expect low-income families and individuals to simply accept a situation where a bed, or food, or clothing are luxury items. Where children who live in the most deprived areas have worse health outcomes than those from affluent areas, and where there are established links between poverty and mental health; educational attainment; and crime. Despite lip service paid to the plight of the poorest in society, there is little evidence that any commitment to improve lives has translated into sound measures. Yet, wanting better for people is not only about fairness, it is about the benefits we all share when there is justice. Since the general election the horror of Grenfell Tower being engulfed in flames and the loss of as yet unknown numbers of lives, has for many been read as a consequence of raging inequality. When the public conversation is that some people are worth less than others, it’s hard not to wish that things were better and to vote for a way that at least promises to change the conversation.
McRobbie, A. (2009) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage.
Jacqui Close is a Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University. Her recently completed PhD is a sociological exploration of contemporary motherhood and the role of government, think tanks and media in the production of the doxa of mothering.