Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, April 26, 2013

Reviewing British politics - 2

A pair of articles in the April 20th edition of The Economist seem to have been written with comparative politics exam-takers in mind. Recognizing the concepts and understanding how they are applied to what's going on politically in Britain would be great review techniques. The first one was a short op-ed piece. This second one is a longer analysis. Both reflect the magazine's center-right, free-market biases, but students ought to recognize those as well.

England’s two nations: Divided kingdom
IN 1951 Winston Churchill launched the Conservative Party’s general-election campaign in Liverpool. The crowd went wild. “I’m not conceited,” he later told his doctor, “but they wanted to touch me.” The Tories went on to win a majority of votes in the city.

Today such a result is unimaginable. In the 2010 general election the Conservative Party won just 19,533 votes in Liverpool. Labour won 116,285…

Over the years the Conservative Party has been expelled from most of the north of England (and almost all of Scotland). Labour has been virtually driven from the south. Margaret Thatcher once told a newspaper interviewer that economic change has the potential to alter “the heart and the soul” of a people; the double-edged sword of Thatcherism changed the hearts and souls of north and south in strikingly different ways, and with long lasting effects. The differences between them now go beyond economic circumstance—their cultural and political identities are ever more distinct. This represents a daunting but inescapable political challenge… Only in London and the Midlands do the parties seem to be in real competition…

Combining one of the most centralised systems of government with one of the starkest regional splits in party support makes England an oddity. Italy’s geographic division is deeper, economically; but right and left both have strongholds in the rich north and the poor south… America’s division between Democratic coasts and a Republican middle is relatively new… And unlike the peoples of Belgium, Spain and Germany, all of whom enjoy a federal structure, England’s halves must rub along in just one Parliament…

Beginning in the 1960s changing industrial fortunes drove a wedge between the manufacturing-oriented north and the services-heavy south. In the 1980s wealth generated by London’s booming financial-services industry turned neighbouring regions a deeper shade of blue. Mrs Thatcher’s monetarist reforms were accompanied by high unemployment, particularly in northern cities. She defeated the National Union of Mineworkers, accelerating the industry’s decline—many former mining towns in Yorkshire and Lancashire struggle to attract new jobs to this day. The privatisation of the steel industry had a similar effect in places like Teesside. In Wales and Scotland Conservatism was widely viewed not just as malign but as a foreign imposition…

When Labour increased public spending in the north it strengthened its position there. When the Conservative-led coalition began to cut public-sector jobs they strengthened Labour’s position there, too. (The same may yet prove true of cuts in benefits, which are a larger part of incomes in the region.)… At every election, the Liverpool offices of Unite, a trade union with some 250,000 public-sector members, become the engine room of the local Labour campaign. The possibility of the government “localising” public-sector pay, which would mean lower pay for teachers, doctors and policemen in the north, haunts those Conservatives vying for their votes…

But the preference northern voters show for Labour is not merely a reaction to who pays their salaries, or just a matter of the size of those salaries. In the south people in the middle of the national income spectrum favour the Conservatives; in the north, they lean strongly towards Labour. Indeed well-off people in the north are more likely to vote Labour than the poor are in the south…

Thus the north looks hard for the Tories to crack. Judged just by number of constituencies, Labour’s position in the south looks even worse…

The regional divide seems likely to widen, and not just because many public-sector cuts are still to come. Recent by-elections suggest that the decline in Liberal Democrat support will accentuate the gap by widening the Conservative lead in most southern seats and (to a greater extent) the Labour lead in the north. By forging a budget-cutting coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has damaged his party’s prospects in post-industrial northern towns.

The best way for a party to get into the other’s heartland may be to target the changing patterns of work that have perpetuated the split. Mr Green talks of breaking Labour’s grasp on Wirral politics by replacing monolithic provision of social services with a less statist political economy of “mutuals, co-operatives and co-production.” Other Conservatives point approvingly to the government’s moves to curb trade-union power. Labour, in turn, identifies a need to adapt to a larger private-sector workforce. Rowenna Davis, a broadcaster and Labour councillor (who has written for The Economist), points to the party’s moves to encourage companies to pay employees a “living wage” higher than the basic minimum wage...

The temptation to defer investments in opponents’ strongholds is great. But, argue the long-termists, such investments need to be made. The party which first smears its colours all over the map will be in a position to reknit England’s heart and soul on its own terms.

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