Going for Gould

R.W. Johnson

  • Apocalypse 2000: Economic Breakdown and the Suicide of Democracy 1989-2000 by Peter Jay and Michael Stewart
    Sidgwick, 254 pp, £12.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 283 99440 1

Election post-mortems concentrate, reasonably enough, on how the electorate actually behaved – which class, which region or which sex swung most. In 1987 the most striking finding was surely the highly differential way in which the sexes behaved. Among men the pro-Labour swing from the Tories was a mere 0.5 per cent, but among women it was nine times greater, at 4.5 per cent. (All figures here are based on the vast MORI sample of 23,396 voters interviewed in the course of the campaign, weighted to the actual outcome.) Further analysis of that swing shows a peculiar age distribution among women: among the 35-54 age-group women moved only 2 per cent towards Labour; the 25-34s swung 6.5 per cent; and the 18-24s a massive 11 per cent. (The shift among men aged 18-24 was only 1.5 per cent to Labour.) The real peculiarity is that women aged 55-65 also moved 4.5 per cent to Labour and women over 65 showed a 7 per cent Labour swing. That is to say, it was the middle-aged who were the odd women out: not only did far more younger women swing to Labour, but so did many more older women. Without doubt, most of these middle-aged women who stuck with the Tories lived in the South: Southern women showed a pro-Labour swing only one-third as great as that of Northern women. Even so, women in the South did show a pro-Labour swing, while the men swung clearly towards the Tories.

This sex difference remains striking even when one holds class constant. Male trade-unionists actually showed a 0.5 per cent swing from Labour to the Tories, while among women trade-unionists there was a 6 per cent pro-Labour swing. Among the unemployed, men moved 5.5 per cent to Labour, but women swung twice as much (11 per cent) in that direction. The result of all this was that the normal Tory advantage among women was completely wiped out, but that was all: the proportion of women who voted Labour was no greater than the proportion of men who voted Labour – the big change is simply that there is no longer a statistical difference in the way the sexes vote. But if there is no gender gap now, there soon could be. Among the 18-24s – the face of the future, perhaps – the Tories had a healthy 5 per cent lead among men, while Labour had a huge 11 per cent lead among women. In other words, if the electorate had consisted entirely of young women aged 18-24 there would now be a Labour Parliamentary majority of over a hundred. That all this should be happening under the first woman prime minister is not the least ironic aspect of the situation.

The sociology of the election as it affects our political élite has been less remarked upon. In the Sixties Labour’s Front Bench was dominated by Oxford graduates – often by Oxford dons. Over the last two decades that élite has been progressively squeezed out, so that in 1987, for the first time in over half a century, Labour went into the election with a leader and deputy leader both of whom were recruited from outside Oxbridge. Anyone who is, like me, an Oxford don has been perfectly aware for some time of what has been happening. In the first two decades after the war, the cream of the Oxford PPE School (Wilson, Healey, Jenkins, Crossman, Crosland etc) tended to gravitate to the Labour benches, lending the Party an intellectual authority which was crucial to its appeal beyond the traditional working class. Whether or not such men were any good in government, they had the decisive effect of making Labour appear and sound socially legitimate in this acutely class-conscious country – and in making the Tories seem the ‘stupid party’. (The substantial Oxbridge intake onto the Tory benches always contained a far smaller proportion of the intellectual high-flyers.) When, by the early Seventies, it was clear that Oxford’s best and brightest were no longer heading in Labour’s direction, only fear of being accused of intellectual snobbery prevented one from saying that trouble lay ahead for Labour. The reason they stayed away was largely instinctual: they no longer felt at home with Labour, and some tried their luck there only to find that holding an Oxford degree was now a positive disadvantage in many CLPs. One bright and strongly Labour young graduate of West Indian origin I know applied for a job in a Labour-ruled South London local authority on going down. At his interview he was accused of having betrayed both his race and his class by having attended Oxford. Had he not been black, his reception might have been worse.

By the early Eighties it was clear that Oxford’s best and brightest had found a new home – the Alliance, especially the SDP. Indeed, the SDP was the Oxford party: three of the Gang of Four were Oxford graduates (the fourth came from Cambridge); the rumpus over the Thatcher honorary degree made the same point, which the election of Jenkins as the University’s new Chancellor only confirmed. Up and down the country, the SDP adopted Oxbridge candidates in large numbers. Had the 1987 Election marked the Alliance breakthrough which only a few weeks before had seemed quite possible, we would have seen the massive re-entry into Parliament of the Oxbridge élite deflected from Labour. In a hung Parliament they would, no doubt, have renegotiated the old terms of alliance with Labour’s proles and petty bourgeois, this time making sure they could never be squeezed out again.

It was not to be. On the Opposition side the sole Oxford don to remain in Labour’s ranks, Bryan Gould, rose like a rocket to effective number two or three status in the Party. The young Oxbridge SDP hopefuls were scythed down in their scores and now find their party in ruins. Politically, they are a homeless group. A lot will depend on where they turn in pursuit of their political future. It is far from clear that Labour can win without them. Kinnock’s presidential campaign was widely judged a success, but the truth is that it wasn’t. Overall, Thatcher emerged with a leadership rating (pros minus antis) of +8, while Kinnock scored – 13: a gap of 21 points as compared to the 11-point gap which separated the Tory and Labour Parties. Whatever the media slickness of the Kinnock campaign, the fact is that he was a large net drag on his Party. At the risk of all the obvious accusations, I would venture the opinion that a man who needed to re-sit his exams in order to gain a Pass degree from Cardiff is never going to carry intellectual conviction and authority with the British electorate. For better or worse (worse, I’d say), that electorate is used to its figures of authority speaking from the background of an Oxbridge education. The same is true, a fortiori, of that key constituent of all winning coalitions, the young Oxbridge best and brightest. They might well turn to a Labour Party led by Bryan Gould: a slick media campaign is not going to cause them to discover virtues in Neil Kinnock. It may be sad or even wrong that it is so, but it is so.

The election in the two Oxford seats this time was a neat little microcosm of the dilemmas of Opposition. In Oxford East, Labour needed a swing of just 1.4 per cent to take the seat from the Tories, while in Oxford West and Abingdon the SDP needed a 7.2 per cent swing from the Tories to do the same. That is, on one side of Magdalen Bridge an anti-Thatcher voter was wasting his vote if he didn’t vote Labour, while on the other side he was wasting his vote if he did. The possibilities of this situation were quickly apparent, with activists in both constituencies attempting to do a deal whereby Alliance voters in East Oxford agreed to vote Labour in return for the delivery of Labour votes to the Alliance in West Oxford. The respective candidates were well aware of what was going on but could not afford to give public encouragement to such horse-trading: to do so would have been to stab their colleague in the neighbouring seat in the back and to incur the wrath of their party leaderships. In general, Labour activists were more willing to conclude such deals than their Alliance counterparts: one met many Alliance activists who on tactical grounds were voting (and even canvassing for) Labour in Oxford East, but far fewer of them were willing to risk trouble with their party by advertising what they were doing. This was fairly ironic given that the SDP, needing a bigger swing to win, had a much greater incentive for striking a deal. In the end, this timorous behaviour cost them dear. Both seats saw a 2.7 per cent swing away from the Tories, which meant that Labour romped home in Oxford East while the SDP, though it did better in Oxford West than almost anywhere else in the country, still fell some way short of winning.

Labour strategists would do well to study the Oxford East result. The constituency has been undergoing considerable social change with a large inward migration of academics, computer yuppies, teachers, medical researchers, journalists and the like – archetypal Alliance fodder, one might have thought. Yet in Oxford East these people are massively pro-Labour, so much so that the area has one of the largest and most active Labour Constituency Parties in the country. Quite why this should be so is something of a puzzle, but the fact that Oxford East gave Labour its solitary gain in the whole of the South-East makes a point of unmistakable significance.

With the parochial excitements of the election out of the way, considerable attention has begun to fasten on two prognostications of impending global doom, one by Felix Rohatyn in the New York Review of Books, the other by Peter Jay and Michael Stewart. It is perhaps too easy to mock Apocalypse 2000 as being full of Oxford PPE clevernesses, and some of its predictions (e.g. the maintenance of military rule in South Korea) look like going wrong very quickly (a more annoying fault in a book full of predictions of social strife is the inability to spell the word ‘guerrilla’). Rohatyn, Jay and Stewart all believe that the combination of Third World debt and the runaway US budget and trade deficits could – or even will – cause a new world crash of catastrophic proportions. The US will find that its need to suck in huge amounts of foreign capital will doom it to high interest rates, while its concern to cut its imports will make protectionism irresistible. Either way, there will be a large contraction of US demand for foreign goods which will produce knock-on slumps among its trading partners and the open default of a host of Third World states, already prevented from paying their debts by their inability to export enough. The debt collapse will then bring down the US banks and the whole international financial system with them. In the Jay-Stewart version this leads to extreme political reaction everywhere. The Americans retreat behind their tariff walls and elect a Pat Robertson fundamentalist as President – Reagan with knobs on. The Japanese undergo a similar reaction when both US and European markets are closed to them and begin to feel that Tojo might have had the right ideas after all. Europe, meanwhile, is united under the sway of a racist right-wing demagogue.

All of this could happen, but it’s also worth saying why it might very well not. First, it might be sensible for Keynesians, such as Jay and Stewart, to hang on a bit tighter to the fact that the US deficits constitute a tiny fraction of US GNP and that America emerged from the war with a public debt which was, proportionately, enormously greater than anything we can now even dream of. Thirty years of unrivalled prosperity followed. Secondly, they probably don’t allow sufficiently for the fact that the US could simply emulate Britain’s gentle slide via repeated currency devaluations. True, this would mean that foreign investors in the US got burned with each successive devaluation, but as every investor knows, the only real question is whether investment at today’s (not yesterday’s) price might not still be worthwhile. Each devaluation would reduce the US trade gap and cut the real worth of the national debt: but it would also mean that you could buy that many more US assets with your yen or D-Marks. This could go on for a long time. The devaluations would, of course, push up US inflation, but that would also help to reduce the real value of the national debt. Finally, it’s difficult to know when markets are going to react – or whether they will, at all. Thus in Britain’s case, we are repeatedly told that we are soon to face a £4-5 billion trade deficit which will cause the currency to collapse. Maybe. But all such prognostications depend on a. more oil not being found in the North Sea, b. the oil price not going up, and c. the market taking a panic-stricken view of such deficits despite that fact that well over £100 billion of national assets have been piled up in foreign investments. If you think about it, we could draw on those assets for a very long time to meet our debts without anyone feeling that panic was appropriate. Some of the same considerations apply to the US: foreign confidence in the strength of the massive US economy may be so fundamental as to prevent foreign investors in the US ever getting as panicky as Jay and Stewart think they rationally should.

Polyanna-ish? Well, maybe. But simple projections based on what happened in the Thirties are not a very sure guide. For one thing, we now know what happened in the Thirties, and, more important, the political forces which require and demand international free trade are very much stronger than they were then. Not only American farmers, but US banks and stockbrokers, the whole US aerospace industry, indeed the whole US military-industrial complex, together with many other giant high-tech companies (not to mention American television and Hollywood) – in a word, all the interests which are highly competitive in world markets – will fight like cornered tigers to keep free trade, as will the giant Japanese and European multinationals and banks. Collectively, this represents a coalition of such strength that it is difficult to believe that a simple collapse into world-wide protectionism is as likely as Jay and Stewart think. They are, perhaps unconsciously, more in thrall to the world of the Thirties than they would, in their determinedly futuristic way, want to admit. Consider the political world they predict: an isolationist and inward-turning America racked by poverty and civil strife; an equally inward-turning and chauvinist Japan, reviving traditional culture in a right-wing guise; and a united Europe under a racist dictator. Haven’t we seen most of this before? What Jay and Stewart have done is not so much to predict the future as to imagine a past in which Hitler has won the war.