The British Crisis and the ‘End of Neoliberalism’

By Pia Riggirozzi and Jean Grugel. Pia Riggirozzi is Senior Lecturer in Global Politics at University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu) and Jean Grugel is Professor of International Development at University of Sheffield. You can find more posts by Pia here.


There are many useful lessons to be learnt from the Latin American debate about ‘post-neoliberal’ political economy.

The crisis in British politics, from the slow, partial and uneven economic recovery to the exhaustion of the Westminster model in the wake of the Scottish referendum, is in the news. Academic commentary following the financial crisis in 2007-8 has focused on political disaffection, anti-politics and the disintegration of apparently established political allegiances and the emergence of new protest parties.  But, in order to understand fully the crisis in British politics, we need to put it into a global context.  Observers of British politics would benefit from looking outwards, and reflecting on experiences elsewhere.

Tony Payne’s recent SPERI blog sets out an argument that traditional patterns of governance in Britain are collapsing due to a combination of citizen frustration with an insulated and arrogant ruling elite and insensitive political leadership and, more profoundly, a political-economic project that not only fails most families but seems to be cutting away, wilfully and needlessly, at the welfare system and social contract that have hitherto guaranteed social peace in Britain.

Payne asks why it is so difficult for British leaders to manage the structural changes reshaping Britain and wonders whether we are in the midst of a political economy that could, as he boldly puts it, lead to ‘the unravelling of neoliberalism’: the Right is failing to impose an economic model based on rising inequality and the Left unable or unwilling to refashion a social contract of ‘caring capitalism’ or ‘capitalism with a human face’.

We agree with Tony Payne that the British political debate urgently needs to go beyond narrow discussion of partisan politics and short-term election strategies to embrace a more profound engagement with political economy.  But, as already indicated, we also suggest that there is much to be learned about the British crisis by putting it in the context of what has happened elsewhere or, put differently, by looking at it through the lens of a genuinely global political economic analysis.  What this might reveal are interesting and unexpected points of comparison with the politics and the economics of middle-income countries in the global South, where demands for better management of neoliberalism and calls for a ‘more intelligent state’, as the late President of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, put it, are the stuff of everyday political debate.

One place to start would be the rich debate in and on Latin America about whether a ‘post-neoliberal’ political economy is possible.  The political-economic crisis in Latin America in the early 2000s led to calls for an end to neoliberal rollback, a new social contract negotiated and managed by a more active state, and the construction of a social consensus that was both respectful of economic growth and sensitive to urgent need to address the poverty legacy, invest in education and create welfare.  As we have ourselves shown, so-called ‘post-neoliberal experiments’ have combined a pragmatic attempt to refocus the direction and the purpose of the economy through state spending, increased taxation and management of exports with a project of enhancing citizenship through a new politics of cultural recognition in Bolivia and Ecuador and attempts to recreate the state-sponsored pact between business and labour in Argentina and Brazil.

Of course, post-neoliberal governance in Latin America is not problem-free.  Inadequate state capacity, the scale of inequality, personalist political leadership and a worrying lack of institutionalisation of reform – plus the threat of external discipline from creditors – all undermine some of the early gains achieved by new left governments.  But, despite their problems, and in the face of often profound criticism from international organisations, ‘post-neoliberal’ governments have proved remarkably durable at the polls, as the recent re-elections of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Evo Morales in Bolivia and the support for the re-election of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay show.

What’s more, these governments draw support not only from the rural and urban poor but also from the middle classes.  Indeed, the key to understanding calls for an end to a governance model subject entirely to the uncertainties of the global economy in Latin America has been the impact of unregulated markets on private and public sector middle-income groups.  Put simply, the absence of a proper social pact able to balance private profitability with welfare and public investments in the 1980s and 1990s led to immiseration of the middle classes, most dramatically in Argentina where the ‘new poor’ were the motor of the 2001 protest movement and factory take-overs.

There is surely much to reflect on here for analysts of the current crisis in Britain and indeed in Europe more widely.  Despite the difficulties so many people face simply in getting by, set out clearly in the recent Resolution Foundation’s recent report on Low Pay, the political parties in Britain seem unable to take their concerns and needs seriously enough.  One of the lessons from Latin America is that political leaders need to fashion an alternative to neoliberalism as part of their offer to the electorate if they want to win.

So, to go back to Payne’s question: are we in a situation of electoral rebellion, crisis and rising inequality on a scale that could lead to the unravelling of neoliberalism in Britain?  Despite the evident problems, we are sceptical as to whether the current crisis is really the prelude to collapse. Markets are deeply embedded as mechanisms of implementation (even in universities, schools and hospitals); and there are scapegoats that are, worryingly, being forced to carry the blame – immigrants most notably.  British citizens may not yet be ready to turn fully on their political leaders.  In Latin America, the challenge to neoliberalism came from electorates that refused to accept parties committed to free markets but did so in the context of a global political economy that gave Latin American citizens some hope for the future.  Whilst Latin America is part of the ‘rising rest’, Britain, however, is struggling with relative decline.

These important similarities and differences help put the British crisis in context.  Our key point is that the debate Tony Payne has opened about the future of neoliberalism is to be welcomed and we call now for genuinely comparative and global consideration of what ‘post-neoliberal’ political economies might look like, in Britain and elsewhere, and what might be needed to bring them into existence.

Polling Observatory #42: Sharp drop in Labour support adds further confusion to the most chaotic election in living memory

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This is the forty-second in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 01-11-14 anchor on average

In last month’s Polling Observatory we noted remarkable stability in the polls despite a hugely eventful political month. This month we find the opposite pattern. A relatively subdued political month has been accompanied by one of the largest shifts in opinion we have observed since the beginning of this parliament. Labour’s vote share, at 31.6%, is down 2.8 points in just a month, erasing nearly all of the fragile lead over the Conservatives that the party have been clinging to over the past six months. This plunge in support is among  the largest shifts in opinion we have recorded since 2010, and implies that about one in twelve Labour voters has drifted away from the party in the past few weeks. A significant part of this drop may be the result of the seismic shift in opinion north of the border, where support for the Scottish National Party has surged dramatically, threatening Labour’s long hegemony in Scottish Westminster polls and votes. The Conservatives, by contrast, have recovered some of the ground they lost last month, rising 0.6 points to 30.7%. The top two parties are now within just a single percentage point of each other, pointing to a tightening race with just six months to go to the general election.

Meanwhile UKIP have consolidated their large gain last month, and are stable on 15.2%. However, as the widening dashed lines around our latest UKIP estimate indicate, there is an unusually high degree of uncertainty about UKIP support at the moment. This reflects the substantial spread in UKIP support in the polls. Some pollsters are showing the party at 20% or higher, and indeed in the aftermath of the Clacton by-election one Survation poll reported UKIP as high as 25% (and another ComRes poll put them on 24% around the same period). In contrast, other pollsters have them stable in the mid-teens, for example with both Populus and YouGov often finding UKIP support in the 13% to 15% range.

As we have discussed previously, our method makes it possible to estimate the ‘house effect’ for each polling company for each party, relative to the vote intention figures we expect from the average pollster. That is, it tells us simply whether the reported vote intention for a given pollster is above or below the industry average. This does not indicate ‘accuracy’, since there is no election to benchmark the accuracy of the polls against. It could be, in fact, that pollsters at one end of the extreme or the other are giving a more accurate picture of voters’ intentions. In the table below we report the ‘bias’ towards or against each of the parties for all current polling companies. From this, it is quickly apparent that the largest range of house effects are found in the estimation of UKIP support, with Survation’s figures 4.3 points higher than the average pollster, followed by Opinium at 2.8 points higher and Lord Ashcroft at 2.1 points higher. In contrast, ICM put UKIP 2.6 points lower, ComRes (telephone) 2.5 points lower and Ipsos-MORI 1.8 points lower. As when we reported on this previously, the uncertainty seems to be associated with the method a pollster employs to field a survey. All the companies who poll by telephone (except Lord Ashcroft’s weekly poll) tend to give lower scores to UKIP. By contrast, three of the five companies which poll using internet panels give higher than average estimates for UKIP. The diversity of estimates indicates the continued uncertainty about the extent to which UKIP is reshaping the political landscape at the present time, where the lack of a clear precedent means that pollsters have little previous information to use to calibrate their estimates.

With the top two parties effectively tied, and the pollsters divided about the performance of the surging insurgents who may decide their fates, the outcome of the 2015 election has never been less certain.

House Mode Adjustment Prompt Con Lab Lib Dem UKIP
ICM Telephone Past vote, likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.3 -0.8 2.7 -2.6
Ipsos-MORI Telephone Likelihood (certain) to vote Unprompted 0.5 0.3 0.5 -1.8
Lord Ashcroft Telephone Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.9 -0.6 -1.0 2.1
ComRes (1) Telephone Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.1 0.1 -2.5
ComRes (2) Internet Past vote, squeeze, party identification UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 0.3 -0.7 -1.0 1.8
YouGov Internet Newspaper readership, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 1.9 2.1 -1.3 -0.4
Opinium Internet Likelihood to vote UKIP prompted if ‘other’ -0.8 -0.8 -2.2 2.8
Survation Internet Likelihood to vote, past vote (2010) UKIP prompted -1.7 -1.4 -0.3 4.3
Populus Internet Likelihood to vote, party identification (2010) UKIP prompted if ‘other’ 2.4 1.7 0.1 -2.1

Another polling sub-plot which emerged this past month has been the emergence of the Greens as yet another potent force in the fragmenting political landscape. A number of polls have put their support at 6% or 7%, a massive increase on their 2010 showing of less than 1% (though this is artificially deflated as the party stood candidates in less than 50% of constituencies), and close to or even above the struggling Liberal Democrats. We do not currently estimate support for the Greens, but will investigate adding them to our model if the current surge in support is sustained. Currently, we have the Lib Dems at 8.5%, up 0.3 points on last month. Although falling behind the Greens is symbolically bad for the party, and provides seasoned poll watchers with an exciting new story, the substantive impact of this new twist is likely to be limited. The Lib Dems’ fate still depends on how well they can hold on to votes in their traditional constituency strongholds.

Despite the sharp fall in their support this month, Labour still hold important structural advantages thanks to the biases in the electoral system, which mean their votes translate more effectively into seats. Lord Ashcroft has been doing the psephological community a huge service by systematically polling the individual marginal seats which will decide the result next year. Using this method, he has already identified enough prospective Labour gains to put the party ahead on seats next year, and he still has many more strong prospects to poll. However, as Lord Ashcroft’s himself wisely reminds us, polls are a snapshot not a prediction, and Labour’s leads in many key marginals look awfully fragile. The opposition remains, slightly, in front for one more month. But there are six more to go, and if just one of these looks like October, the contest will be thrown wide open.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

In Defence of Revolution

By Meg Sherman, a student of Modern History and Politics at University of Southampton. Meg also has a personal blog.


(Cross-posted from http://ms3g11.tumblr.com/)

Revolution, Russell Brand’s new book, is devoted to asking how we build an egalitarian society and awaken our higher skills, a trunk full of hot thoughts about spirituality, spectacle and cultural politics in late capitalist modernity – the age of made-up FTSE symbols as he inimitably puts it. Traversing an ocean of anecdotal evidence spanning the democratic proto-panacea of Occupy to the kangaroo court of Newsnight, the clown-cum-inquisitor gives short shrift to dominant political orthodoxies. It’s not a typical manifesto, although, like in Marx, the cadences matter. Revolution sings to our minds, Brand playing on his lexical flute and telling a true story of how human lives were entombed in bad rule and a deadly consumer culture sacralising destruction. It is the ultimate fantasy of mindlessness. All in all he gives us a bright light for seeing with in gloomy times.

There’s the urge to spring to attack like Murdoch’s rotweiler and do a hatchet job. Of late, the self-styled comic philanderer has turned heads trying to carve out a new reputation for seriousness, undercutting old privilege networks in his spare time with eloquent whimsy and panache, all stylish and rumbustious in conch calls for change in The Trews. It’s precisely because he’s been accused of being a demagogue that his ideas ought to be contested, but a tranche of abusive rebuttals seem only to reiterate an astute claim made throughout his prose and performance comedy: modern media ceremonies of iconoclasm are hurtful, a fruitless spectacle distracting us from collective issues the whole Earth faces as industrial civilization surges humanity to a doom-laden precipice. Is now time to expend energy on hatred? Only if you’ve lost course. It’s time to attain understanding, quickly.

It should seem conspicuous how by focusing attention negatively on a singular comic persona, press machinery conveniently relieves itself of acknowledging or meaningfully contemplating the many and varied ideas on politics and IR, self and the world, derived from solid research and joyfully drenched in iridescent prose in the wave-making books and videos. Their value is the range of their sympathy; forget celebrity.

Hardly anyone in the reviews is calling Revolution’s argument profound, despite the fact the main argument spiralling through the text, although not all Brand’s own, is genius still: if we began thinking and living as communities in harmony with one another’s fundamental needs, the amount of energy necessary to transform the governance of our society would be of an order of magnitude smaller than that which we put in to keeping up a rotten orthodoxy, predicated on corporate power, materialism and possessive individualism, which makes more people dead and depressed quicker, meanwhile emancipating corporations and the exponentially rich from social obligation, and – the apocalyptic icing on the anthropogenic cake – senselessly accelerates ecocide.

On Earth the collective daily lot is human and ecological disaster fixed by an elaborate system of hoarded wealth and power, as concurrently people born in to low-paid lives, ever more restricted by government policy, are in want of facilities to feed, house and take care of themselves. Cruel world that Brand accuses “the bejewelled fun-bus”, the 85 people who have as much wealth as half the world of wanting the ogre system in the heart of the gumdrop gingerbread village to stay cosy, to stop us from realizing our common cosmic plight.

We know liberal democratic governments are plutocracies and that candidacies tend to be sponsored by financial elites and that these states have become more authoritarian in time. The topsy-turvy reality of politics is tucked out of sight and censored from narrow and selective narratives of mainstream media. Establishment forces, although having broad, complex and diffuse strategies, all have tendencies for managing information, eliding from the public knowledge which might cast hegemonic discourse in a dubious light and topple methods of control (see: Manufacturing Consent.) Far from being assemblies embodying a transcendent collective will, our governments are intricately entangled with big businesses and unaccountable multinational corporations, systems which irrationally let profiteers expand margins and extract more labour by practices only legally differential from slavery, proven to have brutally deleterious effects on human lives, animals and planetary ecosystems. That’s the problematic, not just for Brand but for everyone.

Much of what is said about politics in the public sphere today is still governed by the erroneous belief that there is no alternative to capitalism and that we have less in common with the migrant labourer on our street than members of parliament dressed in privilege. With that in mind a lot of people have told a lot of lies and we have put faith in those lies. Today the real demon doesn’t live within overseas people in desperation of survival and happiness, but inside the premeditated, segregationist idea that immigration has been making citizens worse off. Inequity is the real source of destitution – a manipulation of truth generated from the heart of the establishment itself. Yet despite differing views of self-interest in separate echelons of society, based on grinding materialism and individualism, the outcomes of our behaviour are converging and getting worse for everyone (see: Tragedy of the Commons.) Climate change has no romantic attachment to nationality or class, and it will get us all somehow; unless you have a moon-rocket and have sussed the physics of living in an airless, frozen mass. The barriers and cliff-edges making a gulf between us in society aren’t true in nature; that is to say they are artificial, man-made. The sooner we realise it the sooner we can put our minds to creating beneficial, joyful ways of living together.

Expounding on these themes Brand affirms:

Chomsky says that at this point history alternative visions for society are vital and those based on cardinal human values of sharing and being ecologically minded deserve serious consideration.

In the same breath he quotes his friend Daniel:

“We can create a peaceful planetary civilisation, entirely powered by renewable sources of energy, based on cradle-to-cradle practices, where everyone on earth enjoys a high quality of life… The transition is from a paradigm of competition and domination to one of symbiosis and cooperation, from greed to altruism. It begins with the realisation of our shared responsibility for the future of the earth, and our inherent unity with each other ad with all of life.”

It’d be hard to find a practitioner worth their salt who seriously disagreed with that. The facts in Revolution are not inaccurate or invented. So you have to wonder why a lot of high-minded criticism is spiteful in tone and neglects to mention the book’s key points.

Brand’s audience isn’t a tiny anglophone elite, and he speaks to our times. His scheme is to subvert sensationalist journalism and swivel our minds towards the thoughtful critique of Noam Chomsky and soaring poetry of Buckminster Fuller, to get us all sentient and soul-deep in the truth. The unrelenting media claw has been clenched round his waist since he sprung up on telly as Paxman’s adversary, rafting the sensible idea that when “democracy” is tantamount to a singular act of voting for a corporate, elitist party on one day in every 1826.21 – concurrently we possess the technological and informational capacity to comprehensively include people in policy making, just look the voting stats for X Factor – it leads one to question if the status quo is behaving for common purposes. Sound reasoning.

His emphases on channelling non-violent spirituality in to revolution, a theory of moral action, echoes his hero Gandhi, who personified a supreme opposition to British imperial rule through the attainment of understanding and co-ordinated civil disobedience, as opposed to violence, and said:

“Non-cooperation is not a passive state, it is an intensely active state – more active than physical resistance or violence. Passive resistance is a misnomer. Non co-operation in the sense used by me must be non-violent and therefore neither punitive nor vindictive nor based on malice, ill-will or hatred.”

There’s a whole world with ears for Revolution’s truth and proto-communist sentiments. Its greeting started a sparked rebellion in my own mind anyway. There’s a sunrise of hope risen above the gnarly mountain ranges of consumerism, a renewed faith that self-sufficient communities where lives and the environment are more sacred than profit are plausible are growing now. Don’t underestimate the strength of the message. It’s not for nothing that the media cloud that view. The ogre of selfishness and acquisition has been gobbling up the planet in one long cosmic breath for a lot longer than it should’ve. Russell Brand is at heart still a rainbow-headed kid who wants what’s best for the world. And why can’t that be an ocean of strength and prominent in the universe?