Thomas Prosser explains that the government’s turn towards more redistributive policies is an attempt to appeal to its changing support base, specifically those who combine more authoritarian cultural views with left-wing economic ones. He writes that there are nonetheless limits to how far a Conservative government can go on redistribution.
The Conservative Party is not associated with redistribution. This is changing. Not only was the party successful among lower classes in the 2019 election, but the Johnson Government has made signals about redistribution, and the 2020 Budget confirmed initial prognoses. Aside from major investments in public services and housing, the Budget raised the National Living Wage and loosened conditions attached to welfare. Treasury analysis shows considerable increases in spending per household, concentrated among lower-income deciles.
Yet there are limits to Conservative ability to achieve redistribution. Not only does the party continue to be supported by businesses and the rich, but the March Budget made less progress on tax and benefits. In this area, gains were concentrated among richer deciles. Despite limitations, the Conservatives are placing more emphasis on redistribution. Some disagree on this, yet there is a need for interpretations which move beyond older conceptions of the party. Important parts of the Conservative base are now low-income voters, not to mention swing voters in 30 or so Labour seats with small majorities. Theories of redistribution predict that parties target such groups.
This kind of politics has precedent. In Poland and Hungary, right-populists have implemented major redistribution. The Polish case is particularly notable, the PiS Government implementing welfare reforms which have transformed conditions for the poorest. Though redistribution and cultural conservatism are not usually associated, this is a Western anomaly: a recent study of 99 countries found that it was more common for right-wing cultural views to be coupled with left-wing economic views, particularly among poorer citizens. In Poland and Hungary, right-populist governments are better known for attacks on institutions such as the courts and media. The Johnson Government appears to have similar designs, recently threatening reform of the BBC and courts.
There is a link between redistribution and attack on liberal-democratic institutions. Because low to middle-income groups tend to prefer redistribution yet also hold more authoritarian values, these demographics are natural supporters of movements which advocate such measures. Admittedly, the Johnson Government has restricted ability to combine authoritarianism and redistribution. Aside from the maturity of British liberal-democratic institutions, richer Conservative voters will frustrate the development of redistributive policies. These differences mean that the Polish case will not be fully replicated; support for the PiS Government is concentrated among low-income groups. The government will also eschew the welfare chauvinism found in Hungary, the Orbán Government combining expansive policies with sanctioning of out-groups such as the unemployed and Roma. Though the Budget contained chauvinistic measures, restricting the access of European migrants to benefits, these are comparatively mild.
Despite differences with other countries, the British political space increasingly lends itself to this kind of agenda. Because of the declining popularity of Labour among low-income groups, the Conservative Party have greater scope to appeal to voters who favour authoritarianism and redistribution. Most obviously, there are lower-class Brexit enthusiasts, many of whom are first-time Conservative supporters. Given their wider sympathies, hardened during post-referendum battles, such voters would relish attacks on the BBC and courts. Redistributive measures would increase Johnson’s appeal, locking these voters into the Johnson support base. Aside from such cases, redistributive policies will satisfy voters who hold mixed opinions on cultural issues associated with Brexit.
Authoritarians are successful when key sectors of society remain silent. Groups placated by redistribution historically gravitated towards Labour, creating a virtuous circle of redistribution and liberal-democratic standards; this is unravelling, with attitudes of Conservative voters towards democracy being particularly troubling. In a recent British Election Study, respondents were asked whether a country is best run by a strong leader who ignores parliament and elections; less than 50% of Conservative voters disagreed.
Any ‘great realignment’ of British politics will remain incomplete. Many lower-income voters will stay with Labour, particularly ethnic minorities and young people. Were the Labour Party to be competently led, there would be further resistance. British politics nonetheless appears likely to move towards this equilibrium. This is associated with Brexit. Even if redistributive authoritarianism can develop within the EU, as Poland and Hungary show, Brexit has created a new authoritarian-liberal cleavage, largely favourable to a right-populist Conservative Party. For the moment, most other Western European countries will resist sweeping changes. Though similar trends exist in the region, the endurance of established politics means that changes will remain incremental. Brexit has nonetheless transformed British politics, creating space for unforeseen alliances.
About the Author
Thomas Prosser (@prossertj) is Reader in European social policy at Cardiff University.