Today the citizens of the UK will go to the polls to elect a new Parliament – again. With the exception of 2018, this country now had a referendum or a general election every year since 2014 and the political quagmire has only become worse with every election. Let’s hope we will get a stable government and a solution to Brexit this time around.
I won’t bother you with the latest opinion polls, which are far less reliable in the UK than in the United States, for example. If you are interested in UK politics, you probably have seen way too many polls and election forecasts by now.
Instead, I wanted to point you to an interesting study by Mirco Draca and Carlo Schwarz from the University of Warwick. They tried to identify the roots of our current political polarisation and looked at the different waves of the World Values Survey from 1989 to 2009. The World Values Survey is a global survey of citizens around the world that asks them about all kinds of issues ranging from religious beliefs to trust in government institutions etc.
Draca and Schwarz used these global surveys to identify political clusters in each country. They essentially differentiated between left- and right-leaning voters and within each wing they differentiated between centrists and so-called anarchists.
Anarchists here is a catch-all term for people on both sides of the political spectrum that have lost trust in police, the armed forces, the civil service, politicians, large corporations or the press. In short, anarchists have low trust in the institutions that run the country and the economy. On the left side of the spectrum, the most reviled institutions tend to be the military, the church, and large corporations, while on the right side of the spectrum the most reviled institutions tend to be civil servants, the press and large corporations (again).
What their study shows is that even before the onset of the financial crisis, the share of anarchists that were ready to reduce the influence of these elites or even destroy them altogether was rising in many countries around the world. In the United States, this share of anti-establishment voters rose an astonishing 16% while the UK experienced an increase of a little more than 6%. And these anarchist voters are the ones that are likely to vote for populist parties and movements, both on the left and the right.
Change in anarchist voter share between 1989 and 2009
Source: Draca and Schwarz (2019).
Hence, what their study shows is that the roots of our current political divide go back several decades. All that was needed for populist forces to come to the fore was a trigger that would activate these voters. And the Global Financial Crisis together with the high unemployment and the anemic recovery afterward provided that trigger. Just like inequality and dissatisfaction with the elites came to the fore with the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930s and provided the platform on which populist (and back then fascist and communist) parties could rise, so too are populist parties today able to exploit the rise in inequality and the dissatisfaction with elites that grew in the late 20th and early 21st century.
In the UK, this rise of the anarchists is so strong, that Draca and Schwarz estimate that today there is just a small majority of 56% available for centrist parties. Particularly right of centre, the electorate is roughly evenly split between centrists and anarchists, a fact that has been all too obvious with the rise of UKIP and the Brexit Party as well as the split of the Conservatives under Boris Johnson.
In other words, the centre cannot hold anymore and no matter the outcome of today’s general election, the UK will be largely ungovernable in the foreseeable future because there is neither a clear majority for centrists or anarchists, left-wing politics or right-wing politics. The split in the population is always close to 50/50. And this means that no-one will be able to garner a clear majority in Parliament for long. The Tories or Labour may be able to mobilize their voters and gain an absolute majority in any given election. But that majority is so fragile that it can essentially be held hostage by the extreme wings of their party, be it the European Research Group within the Conservative Party or Momentum in the Labour Party.
Estimated voter share in the UK today
Source: Draca and Schwarz (2019).