It’s time to talk about England and consider what has happened to the English political centre. The political creature that Leo Varadkar is negotiating with this weekend is completely different from anything in living memory.
We are dealing with an extremely unstable political entity, where the centre has been abandoned to the radicals on either side.
Not too long ago, Tony Blair won three straight elections from the deep centre. Given the fact that the DUP now holds the balance of power, it is important to remember that Blair won his elections with huge 120-plus seat majorities. Blair represented a broad wing of the Labour Party that could be described as its social democratic centre.
That Labour Party is now dead. The party is now controlled by an extreme socialist wing whose policies are a 1970s student manifesto. Going back further and at its most basic, the people who built the UK welfare state, Ernest Bevin and the like, believed in the market. Jeremy Corbyn obviously doesn’t.
On the other side of Westminster, the Tories, once the “one-nation” party of commerce, are being dragged to the weird nationalist right by a man who recently dismissed business with the colourful quip of “fuck business”. The one-nation, centre-ground party of Major, Heseltine, Clarke, Cameron and Osborne is gone. It has been replaced by the Brexiteers, enthralled by the tyranny of nostalgia.
A few weeks back, I wrote about being in the audience at Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech in 1988. That speech, when seen from the radicalism of today’s Tory Party, is a centrist plea for less federalism rather than the rallying cry for Brexit.
Thatcher never once mentioned exiting anything; her position was actually to the left of where May and Hammond have positioned themselves. At the core of centrist Tory economics was commerce, wealth creation and ultimately economic growth.
Today the Brexiteers have eliminated one-nation conservatism and replaced it with the type of nativism that economic history tells us will result in less, not more prosperity.
The social democratic wing of the Labour Party has more in common with the “one nation” Toryism of the Conservative centre than it has with its own leadership. The same is true of the Tory centre; they have more in common with Labour’s social democratic wing than they have with Rees-Mogg and Johnson.
The centre ground of English politics has been obliterated and, despite the fact that elections tell us that the centre represents the aspirations of the majority of the English voting public, it is politically irrelevant.
The question is why is this happening in the UK now?
Economics is central to the explanation. Economically, the centre is being rejected because centrist politics has failed the English/British public.
For example, the recent IPPR Commission on Economic Justice shows that in 2018, average (median) earnings were still 2-3 per cent below their level in 2007-8 and are barely higher than their 2002 level. To grasp how long ago that is, think Saipan. Average (median) earnings are not forecast to recover to their 2008 level until 2025.
If the forecasts up to 2020 are correct, the 2010s will be the weakest decade for average real earnings in 200 years, the era of the Napoleonic Wars. The UK is one of only five developed countries where earnings are still below their 2007 level.
Over the past 40 years, half of the UK’s population has barely shared in the growth of the economy. Between 1979 and 2012, just 10 per cent of overall income growth went to the bottom 50 per cent of the income distribution, while the bottom third gained almost nothing. Meanwhile, the richest 10 per cent took almost 40 per cent of the total.
In the mid-1970s the Bank of England calculated that the “labour share” of national income was almost 70 per cent; today it is around 55 per cent, meaning people who work for a living – as opposed to those who live off rents and dividends – have been falling back dramatically.
Almost a million people in the UK are now on “zero-hours contracts”, which provide little or no security at all. Overall, 14 million people (22 per cent of the population) live on incomes below the poverty line after housing costs; this includes four million children, or nearly one in three, and the number is rising.
There remains a six-fold difference between the incomes of the top 20 per cent of households and those of the bottom 20 per cent. This makes the UK the fifth most unequal country in Europe – that’s including some kleptocracies in eastern Europe.
The gender pay gap has remained stubbornly higher in the UK than the European average; median hourly pay among women is 18.4 per cent lower than for men. And we see a similar racial wage gap between white and black workers.
In London, the UK has the richest region in northern Europe, yet the stark fact is that the UK also has six of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe, making the UK the continent’s most geographically unbalanced economy.
In contrast, the figures from Ireland on every corresponding measure show a much richer and more equal society. Ireland is currently fourth on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) ranking, while the UK is at 14th.
One component of those HDI rankings is real gross national income (GNI) per capita. This strips out much of the multinational influence. On this measure, Ireland’s income per head at $53,754 (€45,736) is 37 per cent higher than the UK’s at $39,116 (€33,279).
Again, based on UN calculations, the stock of immigrants as a proportion of the population is 16.9 per cent in Ireland compared to just 13.4 per cent in the UK. Yet we have no anti-immigrant movement.
The centre provides political ballast for a country and that ballast is a function of economic performance. The UK has abandoned the centre because the politics of the centre didn’t deliver. This should be a lesson to all of us.