A detailed study showed that cuts and industrial decline were a more significant indicator of the likelihood of a Brexit Leave vote than immigration – and that spending on public services, not immigration controls, might have changed the outcome.
I’ll guarantee you that when the facts are all in (not the exit polls), a link will be found to economic factors. Trump’s voters will turn out to be richer on average than Clinton’s, but the key swing voters will be downwardly mobile working or middle class whites. This is the same voter coalition that Leave created.
It was obvious on the night. Democrats mocked Trump for campaigning in the “safe” rust belt, while Clinton focused on swing states. They were wrong. Just like insurgent parties from Syriza to the SNP to Le Pen and UKIP, he found the soft underbelly of all western centre left parties: areas where industry has given way to permanent un- and underemployment. Areas that have voted centre-left for years and gotten very little in return. We have only ourselves to blame – we didn’t learn from history.
After World War 2, we said “never again”, and built an international order designed to prevent the re-emergence of fascism in the West. Systems were put in place across Europe to provide full employment and affordable housing.
In 1943, with his country still occupied by Germany, the Polish economist Michal Kalecki studied the plans for this system. He agreed that it would work, but posed a question: why did business prefer economists who were against government spending to create full employment?
He lists the short-term reasons, then presciently adds that after a long period of full employment, the sack would become less of a threat. This would lead to strong trade unions and industrial strife, which would provoke a political backlash. That is exactly what happened in the 1970s in Britain and America.
He then says that if we try to keep the economy going by cutting taxes and interest rates instead of by government spending, we will end up with negative interest rates and negative income taxes. That is exactly what has happened.
He didn’t predict the consequences it would have for the centre left parties. The crisis of the 1970s and 80s shattered the trade union movement, which had traditionally turned out the working class vote. Communities became atomised, and drugs flooded in.
35 years on, there are fewer and fewer voters who remember the trade unions, cooperatives, labour clubs and brass bands. They vote centre-left out of habit, they don’t get much under any government, and since the credit crunch they’ve become desperate enough to gamble on something different.
Political change in communities can happen in a rush. There are political groupings in every community, and often one has hegemony. At first, people feel differently but don’t speak up. If everyone around you is Labour, you’re less inclined to speak up for another party. Maybe you’re less likely to vote.
Trump won over some people who voted Obama, but he will also have brought the local racist right out of the woodwork to campaign, and they will have found the old obstacles to their rise, the shop stewards, the party, rotted from the inside out. His vote turned out, and the Democratic vote didn’t.
Now we have to prepare for what the far right might do next. Kalecki says that fascism made full employment “safe” by enforcing discipline throughout society. No strikes, no disorder.
Time will tell if the new populist right has the same intention. We’d best hope not. We have to work out what we can offer to suffering communities, whether in Detroit or Glasgow, while there’s still time.