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Two cheers for Goodwinism

Is Matthew Goodwin right about shifting to the left on economics?

Artillery Row

Much has been written about the political realignment currently occurring throughout the West, what is driving it and how the establishment is responding. I have written on the subject myself here.

One of the most important voices in this debate is Matthew Goodwin. in his books Values, Voice and Virtue and National Populism, he outlines where the new electoral majority sits on issues of the economy and social and cultural values. 

According to Matthew Goodwin, based on the copious evidence he provides, the electoral sweet spot is centre left on economics and centre right on social and cultural values.

This chimes with the polling analysis of the UK in a Changing Europe. In 2020 it did a study exploring voters’ economic and social values and their choices in the EU referendum and 2019 general election then compared it to the values and beliefs of MPs.

They found voters were indeed to the centre left on economics.

They were also to the centre right on social and cultural issues:

Indeed their conclusion was, “On social values, Labour and Conservative MPs are more socially liberal than their voters. Conservative MPs are significantly more socially liberal than the average voter, with Labour even further away.”

And both UK In A Changing Europe and Matthew Goodwin agree that none of the parties currently represent this electoral sweet spot.

On social and cultural issues I think the case is pretty much a slam dunk. People’s positions on cultural issues are pretty definitive. After all, you either think a person born a man should be allowed to compete in women’s sports or you don’t. 

But is that really the case when it comes to economics? Is that a slam dunk?

Well let’s look at some of the data in detail. Let’s take the issue of public ownership of utilities. In the summer of 2022 Survation published polling which showed that roughly two thirds of people supported water, energy, buses, rail and the post office being run in the public sector.  Seems pretty slam dunk to me.

However, is it really? Let’s look at water. When questioned in more detail what the public actually say they want is a clean, cheap water supply/waste removal system that does not pollute, that prioritises investment in the infrastructure over dividends for the shareholders and does not allow excessive pay for management which does not reflect their role as administrators of monopolies not entrepreneurs who take risks. They do not want regulatory capture — a revolving door between the water companies and the regulator. 

Yes when prompted they may say they want nationalisation. But scratch below the surface and what they really want is an end to the rentier capitalism and corporatism of recent decades. 

When they agree with the UK In A Changing Europe question “does big business take advantage of ordinary people” that doesn’t mean they think big business should be nationalised. It means they think big business has been treating their customers like crap. They think that because — anyone who has tried to get through to their bank or insurance company or telco provider can attest — big business has been treating their customers like crap. My only surprise in the UK In A Changing Europe polling is that anyone at all disagreed with that question.

So what do I believe to be the underlying demands of the electoral majority from studying Goodwin’s and others’ analysis, from the vote to leave the EU and the 2019 General Election result?

They want change. And not tinkering around the edges change. Systemic change. They view the system as run by and for a small minority of the population (10-15 per cent) with outcomes that not just benefit that small minority but actively hurt the majority.

They want a system that not just puts them first economically, but also reflects their values. They want a system run by and for the “somewheres” more than the “anywheres”.

They want to live in a country that puts their needs first, that offers opportunities for their children and grandchildren. The ability to buy a house, get a good job, live and love as they please without state enforced moral (and increasingly legal) disapprobation.

They want to matter and they want their votes to matter. To be able to effect change. For decisions to be made more locally and specific to their needs and to know replacing the people they elect to make these decisions will actually make a difference to the decisions made. 

They want a rebalanced economy. Between the professional and non-professional classes, the University and non-university educated, between services and production and geographically between the South East of England and the rest of the UK. 

Does that mean they want socialist redistribution on steroids? Well no. It is interesting that when the UK In A Changing Europe asked the question “should the Government redistribute income from those who are better off to those who are less well off”, this was the one economic question where the polling showed the voters closer to Conservative voters and even Conservative MPs than Labour members and MPs.

Yes, they want some redistribution but it is clear that what they really want is a fair crack of the whip. A level playing field on which to compete. They don’t want policies designed to bring (for example) the south east down to the level of the rest of the country in order to more equitably share the misery.

No. As with the water companies’ example above, when prompted, people may express support for such policies. But what this actually reflects is their disdain for the present system and the paucity of other expressed alternatives rather than a love or demand for socialist redistribution and state ownership of assets.

When they agree with the question “Ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth” they are simply reflecting the reality of a post globalisation world. Globalisation and mass immigration has raised wage inequality between skilled and unskilled workers in the UK. Has raised wage inequality between the service sector and manufacturing. Has raised wage inequality between the south east of England and the rest of the UK

So is it possible, considering the constraints, to devise policy alternative(s) which can achieve the electoral majority’s wants without being what one would traditionally consider centre left? Yes, I think so. In fact I think that we are fortunate to be living in a time when the global economic river is not just beginning to flow in that favour but accelerating so. 

Instead of trying to hold back the economic tide, as some might have interpreted opinion polls as favouring, we need to embrace and run with the economic shift. And I shall explain more in my next article.

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