This story was first published at Jacobin, June 2017
So much about the 2017 Labour election campaign has been heartening: the energy, the conviction, the full-throated embrace of remaking government in the service of the many.
All of the main campaign pledges — from free tuition to thousands of new homes to a stronger National Health Service — will change where money and resources flow in the UK, from those who need them least to those who need them most. But one set of proposals, if implemented, would go further, starting to transform the foundations of the economy.
A few months ago, a group of Labour Party researchers quietly delivered a report titled “Alternative Models of Ownership” to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. Its core message is simple: the Left must begin to democratize the economy.
An abandoned creed
And democratizing the economy means challenging the most important fundamental of capitalist economics: the primacy of private ownership. In particular, private ownership of capital, of all the things — the buildings, the machines, the tools, the hardware, and the software — that we use to make other things. Without a say in how tools are used, workers themselves become passive tools. Being able to actively participate in decision-making and ownership go hand in hand. Democratizing means taking ownership.
These ideas are not new, but they have been suppressed under the decades-long advance of right-wing ideas, including within traditionally left-wing parties and movements. In the UK, one of the last major proposals for democratizing the economy was the Lucas Alternative Corporate Plan. It was put forward by unionized workers at the Lucas Aerospace in 1976 in response to imminent restructuring that would see many of them fired.
The unions at Lucas canvassed their members and produced a detailed plan for an alternative kind of restructuring that would see the company transformed: from one with half of its output going to the military, to one producing socially useful products. Expanding on existing technology, workers proposed retooling to make everything from sorely needed kidney dialysis machines to early solar cells to hybrid power drives for vehicles. Despite a global campaign, the Alternative Plan failed without adequate government pressure on Lucas. With the election of Margaret Thatcher a few short years later, the window on any similar push for economic transformation was shut.
“Alternative Models of Ownership” is one example of the window’s reopening. Many of the document’s ideas have subsequently found their way into the Labour Party election platform. The right-wing press has used it as evidence that Corbyn would “take Britain back to the ’70s.” But they’re wrong: the plans are firmly oriented to the future.
Why take control
The UK today is in a low-investment, low-productivity trap. And workers are feeling the brunt of it: long-run wage growth is hitting lows not seen since the nineteenth century. Inequality has grown steadily since the financial crisis. The economy, in short, is not working for most people.
“Alternative Models of Ownership” makes the case, rarely heard today, that we can tackle the roots of economic injustice and inequality, not just manage their effects. Democratizing ownership can move the UK economy away from the short-termism of the rich, who profit from unproductive, low-wage work. Socialists have always sought a high-productivity economy, where common ownership translates productivity gains into less work, more leisure, and a better life — as Corbyn says — for the many, not the few.
Instead of the usual fearmongering about robots taking jobs, the report argues that we can, and should, share in the benefits of automation and technological progress. Owned in common, technological advances of the future could free us of drudgery, rather than merely leave us unemployed and destitute.
And while it still makes too much of the dreaded automation, which has yet to show up in the productivity statistics, the document avoids uncritically repeating the wildest prognoses of imminent catastrophic unemployment. Democratic control over production, it says, is a goal regardless of whether robots are doing 20 percent, or one day 90 percent, of the work. Automation can be a threat or a promise depending on the structure of the economy:
The bigger immediate challenge is not the imminent rise of the robots but that too many people will remain trapped in robotic, drudgery-filled and low-productivity jobs. In this context, accelerating automation is a key political project. The goal should be to embrace the technological potential of modernity, accelerating into a more automated, productive future with all its liberating possibilities, while building new institutions around ownership, work, leisure and investment, where technological change is shaped by the common good.
How to take control
So if more economic democracy is the end, Labour’s plans focus on three means of reaching it.
First, there are co-ops, membership organizations where ownership and decision-making are shared by the members. There are many types of co-ops, from consumer co-ops where members do nothing more than elect boards of governors every few years to fully worker-run co-ops where shop floor decisions are subject to democratic deliberation. At their best, co-ops ensure new technology is implemented quickly but work is redistributed so that jobs are not lost.
Unsurprisingly, the Labour document focuses on worker co-ops. It relies on three main examples — plywood processing in the US Northwest, the region of Emilia-Romagna in Italy, and the Mondragon network from Spain — to make the case that worker co-ops can be as efficient (if not more efficient) than their privately owned counterparts. This argument is key to presenting co-ops as a cure to the diagnosis of low productivity.
Next there is “municipal and locally-led” ownership. This broad category includes everything from community shops to farmers’ markets and development trusts to social enterprises. Many of these are halfway houses between capitalist enterprise and direct economic democracy. The important fact is that they are responsive to their communities, are limited, partially or totally, in using profits for anything other than reinvestment in the community, and have broader social or environmental goals.
Because of their generally small size and precarity as outcrops of democracy in rough capitalist seas, both co-ops and locally led institutions require other “anchor institutions” to sustain or protect them. For instance, co-ops have a harder time accessing finance because lenders cannot gain rights of control if things go wrong. Local social enterprises, on the other hand, often find it difficult to get off the ground without procurement contracts from local authorities for what they produce.
The third category of economic democracy, national ownership, is usually on a vastly different scale. Where co-ops or social enterprises are most often quite small, state-owned enterprises are usually found among the “commanding heights” of the economy.
Even conventional economics grudgingly admits that there may be “natural” monopolies, sectors where fixed capital costs are so high that any number of firms greater than one is too costly. The post service is one example: a network of post offices that serves the entire population is a very costly thing to create. Not only does it not make sense to have two; anyone trying to create a second one will most likely fail, consumed by the high start-up costs (unless, of course, the government goes out of its way to hamstring or dismantle these monopolies).
“Alternative Model of Ownership” argues for state ownership where natural monopolies exist, in sectors where only the government can carry out the long-term and risky investment that scares off private investors, and where high-quality services are needed. This third category is — rightly! — kept quite broad. Economic democracy is not a narrow niche.
While state-owned enterprises give the government direct control over such things as pricing and production, there are no guarantees that they will be significantly more democratic, neither for their workers nor the citizens who use their goods or services. Labour’s report holds out the promise for a different kind of state, one that recognizes public ownership is a means for more democracy, not an end in itself.
In a more democratic state, workers might elect front-line managers within a national railway company whose board included representatives from unions, passenger rights groups, and local government. Community councils of patients could help chart the strategy of a public hospital — an idea the NHS briefly flirted with in the 1970s. Economic democracy is far more than public ownership.
What to control
Of the ideas within “Alternative Models of Ownership,” the one that figures most prominently in the Labour manifesto is nationalization. Or rather, renationalization. Corbyn has pledged to take crucial services such as rail and mail back under public ownership.
The privatization of the British railroads has been a textbook disaster: service has decreased, fares have skyrocketed, and ridership has dropped. The UK is a total laggard in the construction of high-speed rail — precisely the type of high-cost, high-risk endeavor with huge social and ecological benefits that is largely undertaken by state-run rail companies elsewhere.
The Royal Mail has seen some of the same dynamics in service quality and cost since becoming a for-profit business. Labour has committed to taking both back into public hands step by step: taking over rail companies as their franchises expire and reversing Royal Mail privatization.
A third major sector of the UK economy that’s gone from public into private hands is power generation and distribution. Unlike the cases of rail and mail, the pledge to bring the energy system back under public ownership draws on the second plank of “Alternative Models of Ownership”: Labour has said it will create a decentralized system where a single nationally owned grid is framed by a network of new municipally owned energy providers. The plan is to create new municipal entities alongside existing private providers, outcompeting and eventually replacing them with a combination of lower costs, better service, and mandated green power.
Moving the debate forward
John McDonnell has also spoken regularly about expanding co-ops, especially in cases where companies are failing and workers risk being laid off. Additionally, McDonnell has spoken of the “Right to Own,” a key proposal of Alternative Models of Ownership, which McDonnell says would give workers “first rights on buying out a company or plant that is being dissolved, sold, or floated on the stock exchange.” Labour is right to include co-ops as a potential source of economic democracy but its report isn’t as critical as it should be. In the first instance, there are times when businesses are struggling for good reason, whether due to technological obsolescence, a change in fashion or some other cause. Funds should then be directed not just to taking over the firms but to reorienting them.
This is what the precursors to Labour’s current policy at Lucas Aerospace wanted — and it is a much bigger project, one that may require far more than just buy-out funds: retraining, technical expertise, retooling, perhaps at least temporary nationalization to obtain funding. More broadly, co-ops under capitalism often end up adopting capitalist business practices, even against the best wishes of their members. Wage disparities, an increasingly professionalized cadre of managers, arbitrary shop floor discipline — all of these are symptoms that have come to plague long-standing co-ops, for example ones in the Mondragon network. Others, such as those in the US plywood industry, have slowly died as the industry transformed.
There is nothing inherently good about small scale. It can, sometimes, root producers in communities and create some semblance of democratic ownership. But it can also generate inefficiencies, smaller cushions for risk, and provincialism — more parochial management or a lack of innovation.
Starting small may be easier, but ultimately more control over economic decision-making means more control over investment across the economy. Democratic planning has always been dogged by the question of directing investment. Alongside local experiments, we must be thinking about the heights of the global economy, the heart of our modern capitalist planning apparatus: the financial system. That it is missing from “Alternative Models of Ownership” shows the long road to more wholesale transformation.
In some sectors, economic democracy will be easier at the local level, in others larger entities will be more stable and resilient. There is an old left argument that capitalism creates its own conditions for being surpassed. Today’s enormous corporations pay poverty wages, despoil the environment, and are run as personal fiefdoms. But they also increase technical productivity and bring masses of people together, revealing the unquestionably social nature of work.
Despite the myth of meritocracy, workers in today’s global supply chains and massive service operations can see immediately that no one person, no Sam Walton, no Richard Branson, is responsible for making them run. We are bound together by a grand machinery. Under capitalism, the machinery distributes its growing bounty unequally, destroying human lives and nature in the process.
“Alternative Models of Ownership” returns to a key demand of the Left, one posed since the nineteenth century: that we take over the machinery and fundamentally retool it — that we take a private system of production and transform it into a social organism under democratic control.
Doing so requires steeling ourselves for a big fight. The report offers many proposals for democratic end goals, but we must also devise strategies for the inevitable struggles to achieve them. We cannot fall into a technocratic trap. Nationalizing industries or instituting municipal control are not neutral proposals but class demands. Labour’s surge in the polls and its fantastic campaign are a start – but we need a long-term focus on building the power that will be capable of making these ideas reality.
“Alternative Models of Ownership” is a real step forward, reviving the demand for economic transformation. It is an ambitious document and, undoubtedly, one of the most radical we have seen in mainstream politics for a long time. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is proposing not just that we have a bigger slice of the pie, but a bigger say over how it is made.
NYT, 10 June 2017 – Democrats’ problems are even bigger than they think
Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, writes in his Prospect essay:
The Democrats don’t have a “white working-class problem.” They have a “working-class problem,” which progressives have been reluctant to address honestly or boldly. The fact is that Democrats have lost support with all working-class voters across the electorate, including the Rising American Electorate of minorities, unmarried women, and millennials. This decline contributed mightily to the Democrats’ losses in the states and Congress and to the election of Donald Trump.
Greenberg voiced an exceptionally sharp critique of his own party and its candidates. First, he takes on Barack Obama:
Working-class Americans pulled back from Democrats in this last period of Democratic governance because of President Obama’s insistence on heralding economic progress and the bailout of the irresponsible elites, while ordinary people’s incomes crashed and they continued to struggle financially.
Hillary Clinton does not escape Greenberg’s wrath: In what may border on campaign malpractice, the Clinton campaign chose in the closing battle to ignore the economic stress not just of the working-class women who were still in play, but also of those within the Democrats’ own base, particularly among the minorities, millennials, and unmarried women.
Greenberg does not stop there, shifting his focus from individual Democratic politicians to the Democratic Party itself:
Past supporters “pulled back because of the Democrats’ seeming embrace of multinational trade agreements that have cost American jobs. The Democrats have moved from seeking to manage and champion the nation’s growing immigrant diversity to seeming to champion immigrant rights over American citizens’. Instinctively and not surprisingly, the Democrats embraced the liberal values of America’s dynamic and best-educated metropolitan areas, seeming not to respect the values or economic stress of older voters in small-town and rural America. Finally, the Democrats also missed the economic stress and social problems in the cities themselves and in working-class suburbs.”
Along parallel lines, three analysts at the pro-Democratic Center for American Progress, Robert Griffin, John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira, argue that:
Rather than debating whether Democrats should appeal to white working-class voters or voters of color — both necessary components of a successful electoral coalition, particularly at the state and local level — a more important question emerges: Why are Democrats losing support and seeing declining turnout from working-class voters of all races in many places?
Griffin, Halpin and Teixeira argue that
Democrats allowed themselves to become the party of the status quo — a status quo perceived to be elitist, exclusionary, and disconnected from the entire range of working-class concerns, but particularly from those voters in white working-class areas.
In the 2016 campaign, they continue,
rightly or wrongly, Hillary Clinton’s campaign exemplified a professional-class status quo that failed to rally enough working-class voters of color and failed to blunt the drift of white working-class voters to Republicans.
For Democrats who argue that the adoption of economic populism is the best way to counter Trump, Guy Molyneux, a partner in Garin’s polling firm, warns in his American Prospect essay, “A Tale of Two Populisms,” that voters drawn to Trump are anti-government, deeply wary of a pro-government Democratic Party. “Many analysts and leading Democrats,” Molyneux writes “have attributed Donald Trump’s impressive 2016 vote margin among white working-class voters to his embrace of economic populism.” He quotes Bernie Sanders’ postelection comments:
Millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own…. Donald J. Trump won the White House because his campaign rhetoric successfully tapped into a very real and justified anger, an anger that many traditional Democrats feel.
While “Democrats can take obvious comfort in a story about Trump winning in large measure because he stole our ideas,” Molyneux writes, “this assessment misses the mark in important ways.”
Why? Because Trump’s brand of populism — and more importantly, that of working-class whites — differs in important ways from the populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
While the populism espoused by Sanders and Warren is economic, challenging C.E.O.s, major corporations and “the billionaire class,” Trump is the messenger of what Molyneux calls “political populism,” which “is, fundamentally, a story about the failure of government.”
Molyneux writes: “White working-class voters’ negative view of government spending undermines their potential support for many progressive economic policies. While they want something done about jobs, wages, education, and health care, they are also fiscally conservative and deeply skeptical of government’s ability to make positive change. So political populism not only differs from economic populism, but also serves as a powerful barrier to it.”
Or, as I have written elsewhere, Democrats cannot simply argue in favor of redistributive government on economic matters because defecting whites are deeply hostile to a government they see as coercive on matters of race. For decades, the perception that an intrusive federal government promotes policies favoring African-Americans and other minorities at the expense of whites has driven anti-government animosity.
In May, the Public Religion Research Institute released a report, “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump.” It found that more than half (52%) of white working-class Americans believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities and that “four in ten white working-class Americans agree” with the statement that “efforts to increase diversity almost always come at the expense of whites.”
In a separate argument, Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, professors of political science at Duke and Vanderbilt, challenge a basic premise on the left — that the populism of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren could have stemmed the loss of non-college whites to Trump. Carnes and Lupu contend instead that the oft-cited theory that Trump won because of support from the low-income white working class is itself wrong. The two scholars provide data showing that “among white people without college degrees who voted for Trump, nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution” and that “white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters.”
Democratic pessimism today stands in contrast to the optimism that followed the elections of 2006, 2008 and 2012. At that time, the consensus was that Democrats had found the key to sustained victory. The party saw its future in ascendant constituencies: empowered minorities, singles, social liberals and the well-educated. Democratic activists saw the Republican Party as doomed to defeat without a radical change of course because it was tied to overlapping constituencies that they viewed as of waning significance — for example, older, non-college, evangelical white Christians.
Today, in a world of angry, fearful voters, it is liberal optimism that is at a low ebb — buffeted by a drumroll of terrorist incidents, rising levels of hostility toward immigrants and a broad animus toward difference, the unknown and the other. Before 2016, no one, Democrat or Republican, thought that the man who would bring about radical change would be Donald Trump, except, perhaps, Trump himself. For all the harm he has done, continues to do and proposes to do, Trump has successfully forced Democrats to begin to examine the party’s neglected liabilities, the widespread resentment of its elites and the frail loyalty of its supporters.
In a new book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America, Joan C. Williams argues that much of the analysis of this class has been misguided and condescending. So too is the general cultural attitude toward the white working class from society’s more fortunate members. The result, Williams says, is a white working class increasingly isolated from the Democratic Party, with dangerous consequences for our politics.
I spoke recently by phone with Williams, who is also a distinguished professor of law at University of California Hastings College of the Law. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Trump’s view of his own voters, the role of racism in class resentments, and whether there is any way to avoid being “condescending” to Trump’s supporters.
Isaac Chotiner: What aspect of this subject did you feel like was not being understood when you decided to write this book?
Joan C. Williams: I think my book differs from a lot of what’s out there, and that it really talks about a broken relationship between two different groups: the professional managerial elites and the white working class. The argument I make is that the broken relationship between these two groups has driven the United States further to the right and ultimately into the arms of President Trump.
And you think that the relationship is broken because of what you see as condescension from elites, and a dismissiveness about white working-class culture?
Why is it that when the condescension comes from someone like Donald Trump, who gets up at his rallies and says things like, “I don’t have to be here, I have better things to do,” who brags about how rich he is, who has his own products made overseas, none of that sticks? Trump embodies everything people claim to hate about the elite as much as anybody I can imagine.
He just completely bald-facedly lies to them as if they’re morons.
I think you make some really good points, and I’ve been very open that I’m not a fan of Mr. Trump. I think that Trump is brilliant at channeling the anti-elitist theory of the white working class, and I think the reason he’s so good at that is because he felt condescended to his whole life. Now, how could that be: He’s a “self-made man” who started out with nothing but a little more than a $14 million loan from his dad? Donald Trump is from Queens. Queens is not a fashionable borough. Trump’s casinos basically would be looked down upon as the epitome of garish bad taste. And so I think Trump has been so effective at channeling this elitist fury because he feels it himself. And I also think he’s been so effective because Democrats have been completely unaffected.
One of the most important quotes I think about the election was from an Ohio voter, if I remember correctly, and he said we voted with our middle finger. I think that Trump, like Bernie Sanders, was attractive to people just because he was so transgressive within his own party. And he was felt to be a way for the white working class to kind of stick that thumb in the eye at the elites and let them have it.
And I think Democrats didn’t do anything effective in response to that. What the Clinton campaign did, and at last what I see all too many Democrats still doing, is just attacking Trump, attacking Trump, attacking Trump. Which, in my view is just going to make Trump stronger among this key group of voters. I think what we need to do, and what this book is designed to help people do, is to identify what is a legitimate economic grievance that the white working class has.
I think you and I both agree that the role of politicians is not to get up and call half the country stupid. Yeah probably not a great idea.
But as for people like us, we should have some commitment to honesty. What attitude should we be taking toward people who voted for a racist buffoon that is scamming them?
Here’s the absolutely sobering truth. A lot of them saw those aspects of Trump, and yet they thought he was the best candidate. Democrats have given the Republicans the precious gift of being the party that’s out there talking about jobs for people who lack college education. Two-thirds of Americans aren’t college graduates. And sometimes the message that they have heard is, “if you want a future, graduate from college.” Two-thirds of Americans are not college graduates, and what Trump said was, “I am going to offer you good jobs even if you don’t have a college degree.” The policy solutions he proposed were supply-side economics, bringing back coal, and chitchatting with a few employers. Those are not effective policy solutions, but as long as Democrats don’t say anything but that you guys are racist, are voting for a racist, they’re going to keep on voting for Trump.
I watched a lot of campaign speeches last year, and I can tell you the single biggest topic of conversation in Trump campaign rallies was Donald Trump. And if you tallied up the time that Hillary Clinton spent talking about jobs for the American people versus Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton spent way more time. And if you look at their websites Hillary Clinton has more plans, or had, for Americans without college degrees than Donald Trump does, and the more sensible plans, at least by my analysis and I think your analysis. Don’t “average people” have some responsibility to learn this.
No I think that’s completely unrealistic.
I agree it’s unrealistic, but I am not sure whose fault that is.
I am. I think the Democrats are—I’m damn sure they are at fault for that. The reason that Trump won was about 80,000 voters in Rust Belt states. Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and others were begging that Hillary Clinton campaign in those Rust Belt states and talk to those people about jobs and about other concerns that blue-collar Americans feel very, very strongly about, and they were told no. And they were told to adhere to a script of Donald Trump is unqualified, and Hillary Clinton is super qualified and wouldn’t it be awesome, and a progressive gesture to vote for a woman for president. Let’s break the glass ceiling. That is an incredibly well-designed message to alienate these voters. And if you are interested I can explain why.
The glass ceiling is a very ineffective message. Not only for the men, but also for the women, because what does glass ceiling mean? It means women like me, born with a silver spoon in my mouth, get to have jobs like the jobs my husband and father had. Why should working-class people care? You know, newsflash, they don’t care. Also Donald Trump is a, what did you call him, a buffoon?
Attacks on Donald Trump are perceived as the elite attacking the person who is transgressive and is standing up for us, the forgotten people. So that didn’t work.
Donald Trump is a con man who is taking advantage of his voters and using them to enrich rich people and himself, while doing nothing for them. I’m sitting here saying Donald Trump is a con man, and he’s doing this, and it’s really bad because people in this country need help, and he’s not going to help them, and instead he’s using them. And it seems like what you’re saying is that I’m somehow being more disrespectful to those voters than he is, even though he is the one using them.
Donald Trump has a long line of blue-collar–trades people, who he has stiffed and not paid. Or paid pennies on the dollar. One of those people should have been at every campaign rally possible. That is a really different message than, “Donald Trump is taking you for a ride, and Hillary is super qualified, and breaking the glass ceiling would be awesome.” Just calling the guy a buffoon is not calling him on it effectively.
If a Trump voter asks me what I think Trump is doing for his people, and I say that I think he is conning them, how does that conversation progress? It is inherently judgmental about those voters. It’s a hard conversation.
I don’t think it’s a hard conversation at all. Just imagine that this is a conversation within your family. Either you can say, “You’ve got it all wrong: Your anger is misplaced.” Or instead you can say, “I’m hearing you’re really angry because you feel the American Dream slipping out of reach. Have I got that right?” You can have the one conversation or the other, but I think the second conversation is going to be far more useful in healing the political dynamic we face today.
It’s harder to have that conversation if you’re married to a Muslim or an immigrant, and you are bringing them into the family, and maybe you think your Trump-fan relatives should be the ones reaching out.
I’ll tell you what I think about that. I think that there’s a broken relationship between rich white people, middle-class white people, and guess who’s paying the price?
Uh, all of us, when the Earth melts etc.
My attitude is if you think this is working for the climate, for immigrants, for Muslims, for people of color, I disagree. I think this is why people should get their act together so that we change this dynamic, so that these groups aren’t being so openly targeted and living in fear.
Let’s switch to race. If we have a country where 46 percent of people are willing to vote for a racist—again, I get the political strategy of not wanting to say to everyone, “you’re a racist,” but how are we supposed to talk about that? How are we supposed to think about that?
I think that, actually one of the things that a number of sociologists have pointed out is that often elite whites displace blame for racism onto less elite whites. And I think for privileged whites to be refusing to listen to the legitimate economic woes—and they are legitimate—of working-class whites on the grounds that those other whites are racist is truly off. Now I’m not saying that we should accept racism, sexism, or homophobia from working-class whites or anyone else. I’m not saying that. I think that using the charge of racism to turn your ears off to legitimate economic concerns from less privileged people, is kind of not where we want to be as progressives.
These folks, what they care about is jobs. Jobs that yield their version of a middle-class standard of living. Which, by the way is what the professional managerial elites already have. I care really deeply about trans bathrooms. Partly because I’m incredibly alarmed and upset at the high suicide rate among trans youth. But I have a good job, and my kids have good jobs, and if they didn’t, and if I didn’t, I don’t think that would be my first priority.
Do you really think Donald Trump could’ve ever gotten the kind of support he got from the white working class if he had not shown himself to be a bigot?
I don’t know. I’m kind of a data girl, and I just don’t know. He definitely approached a whole group of voters and brought out their worst selves. That’s for sure. The question is if Democrats had addressed the economic concerns and spoken to them with dignity, and attempted to bring out their best selves. I think we would’ve seen, not among everybody, but among a lot of these voters we would’ve seen something very different.
So Trump won by appealing to people’s worst instincts, but Democrats could have beaten him by appealing to their better instincts?
We’re not going to stoop there. Our only interest is in appealing to people’s best sides, right?
To discuss the election results, I spoke by phone with David Runciman, a professor of politics and international studies at Cambridge University and the author, most recently, of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present.
Isaac Chotiner: So what happened?
David Runciman: She’s lost her majority, the Labour Party can’t form a government, it’s chaos.
OK, so what the hell just happened?
Uh, yeah. [Laughs.] Two things happened: Young people voted. I am in Cambridge. This seat should have been very, very close. It was a complete blowout. The Labour Party just won a huge victory because students voted for Labour in massive numbers. It’s a mixture of students voting, people under 25 or maybe 30, and the U.K. Independence Party, UKIP. Everybody, including me, assumed that when their vote collapsed most of their voters would go to the Tories, even though a lot of them had originally been Labour. But a lot of them went back to Labour. That’s the big driver of this. Corbyn could have gotten the student vote out and still lost heavily. But these voters switched back and the question is why. It’s probably because Corbyn neutralized Brexit as an issue.
At one level you seem to be saying that Corbyn’s particular ability to be economically populist and fudge Brexit was a big help, but also that he is a political liability, and that if a more mainstream person had been running, Labour might have won outright. There’s a tension there.
Yeah. It’s complicated and I am not sure. This is like Brexit and Trump—the third time I have sat up all night and found myself in a state of amazement. This is a different country, or world, than I thought it was. But the Labour Party campaigned to shore up its support. It didn’t really campaign to try and form a majority government. It didn’t go out into the parts of the country it didn’t think it had a chance in. It hasn’t gained a huge number of seats, but it has held almost every seat it had before. It was a slightly defensive campaign and very skillfully done. It’s at least possible that given the weakness we have seen from May and the Conservatives, that a leader who could actually reach out to more middle-ground voters might have done better. It’s shored up Corbyn’s position and he is more or less untouchable now, but it didn’t look like a campaign that could deliver a Labour victory. But if there is another campaign in six or 12 months, this is a platform in which all sorts of people are going to be looking again at the Labour Party. The Labour Party looked broken, and now—that’s the amazing thing about democratic politics—the Conservative Party looks at risk of being broken, and the Labour Party is united.
So, do you think the larger issue here is May’s massive screw-up in calling an early election, even though she was popular when she called it? What specifically did she do to blow it?
The first thing she did is call an election when she didn’t have to, and she didn’t explain to people why we needed to have it. She has a very tight circle of advisers that put together a manifesto that fell apart quite quickly. It’s never happened in modern British political history that a party leader has abandoned part of a manifesto in the middle of a campaign. You stick to it. So people started to believe she was flaky when her chief selling point was that she was tough and unflappable negotiating Brexit. That started to look weak. I wrote about May a few months ago and said that even though I wasn’t sure people liked her, they thought she might quite like them, in the sense that she seemed quite nonjudgmental and relatively comfortable with ordinary conservative people. And as the campaign went on, she became more and more insular and uncomfortable. People started to look at her and wonder whether she felt comfortable with ordinary people. The Tory Party is going to get close to 43 percent of the vote, which is what [Tony] Blair got in his landslide. They are going to have close to a majority. The catastrophe is for her personally, not least because I think the biggest fall in British political history is the fall in her approval rating. It has completely collapsed in six weeks. I have never seen anything like it. Campaigns aren’t meant to matter that much.
Do you have any sense of what impact the terrorist attacks, and perhaps Trump’s intervention, had?
There was an initial thought that it would help her because it often does parties of the right, and security was a big issue for her. It clearly didn’t help her. I’m not sure Trump’s intervention played a lot here. This was a remarkably insular election. Very domestic. Very little focus on what the rest of the world was thinking.
No David, it’s about America.
Yeah sorry, I forgot that. The thing that surprised people is that Corbyn and his people went after her on cutting police numbers when she was Home secretary, and they tied that into a message about austerity, and there was a kind of political genius in connecting austerity with security. I’m not sure that made a huge difference, but it neutralized a Tory advantage that might have come.
So you think May is done?
She could limp on for 12 hours or two weeks or two months, but she is never going to recover her authority.
There has been a big debate on the left about whether the white working-class in countries like the U.K. and America, which has been drifting rightward, could ever be won back. Does this election show it is possible?
I think it is possible. I think it could happen. London has become another country. It is Labour through-and-through. The white working-class in the north of England didn’t just flip to the Tories. Roughly half of them came back. The challenge for Corbyn, as with all mainstream parties that want to form a majority, is that he has to form a bridge between those people and all the students who voted for him, and they tend to see the world very differently. Young people don’t usually vote as much, and so politicians can focus on old people. And now Corbyn has promised he would abolish tuition fees, which costs a lot of money. He’s also promised older people to keep their pensions intact, which will also cost a lot of money. And he has promised a lot of benefits to the National Health Service. The challenge for him is not to bring all of the working class in the north back, but to hold together a coalition with students. But that’s a traditional challenge of leftwing politics. It’s a better problem than having lost more of the white working class.
Do you think this paves the way for larger thinking among parties on the left in other countries?
As I said, I look at this and think Sanders could have won. I mean, who knows? But the other thing I look at is Trump, Macron, and Corbyn not winning but doing better than anyone thought. Completely different kinds of politicians. These different electoral systems are producing distinctly quirky results, which show that all sorts of things are possible. Macron is not really of the left but is putting together a new kind of politics. Corbyn is putting together a leftist politics with some unusual elements. It’s possible for new kinds of politicians to emerge. But the extent of the welfare state in different countries makes things different. Corbyn is defending universal healthcare in a country where everyone defends universal healthcare.
So are you saying the appeal of Sanders and Corbyn, say, is that they are outsiders as much as economic populists?
Yeah, the outsiderness helps. Corbyn has been in the Labour Party a long time but comes across as different. He’s untainted by governing decisions. Outsiders can do remarkable things at the moment. But it is important to emphasize that the Labour Party did not win this. They gained a few seats, but Labour will not form the next government. There will be a Conservative prime minister and it might well be Boris Johnson, who is the kind of politician they most hate. It could be their worst nightmare. They did better than expected but it’s not a win.
It is all about Brexit. Labour persuaded these UKIP voters that they were willing to be a party of Brexit, and that was what got them the hearing, and then they got a hearing for preserving pensions, putting money into the NHS, and so on. So it looks like you need your equivalent of Brexit to get your hearing. I don’t know what it would be in the States. If Labour had fought this on a Remain campaign, they would not have come back.
The irony is that Corbyn, who is seen as an ideologue, managed to do better than expected by fudging this.
There is also the view that in his heart-of-hearts, he is quite keen on Brexit. But anyway, Labour did not fight an ideologically purist campaign. It was all things to all people. The manifesto had all sorts of promises, and was put together by a committee. It read like a committee’s shopping list. Throw it all in there, and talk about it in a passionate way, and talk about hope. He talked about hope a lot. Hope beats doom, or gloom anyway. Corbyn did this as a comfortable-in-his-own-skin, hopeful welfarist person who would not push back on Brexit. If you can find an equivalent of that, good luck.