Summer of discontent: railway workers at an RMT picket line earlier this year © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Britain’s breaking point

Looming recession, the cost-of-living crisis and rising inequality are pushing Britain to the brink. Is a popular uprising on the way?
September 8, 2022

Several large liberal democracies are, to quote Lenin, “pregnant with a revolution.” Though all have centrist administrations, powerful anti-liberal forces from both the right and left, in parliament and outside, have built up their strength over the course of a decade. The leaders of these forces, poised to take control when elections allow them to test their popularity, base their policies and rhetoric on opposition to the liberal establishments that scorn them, on nationalism and a championing of the  working and lower middle class majorities at a time of stagnant or falling wages. 

In at least three liberal democracies—Italy, Spain and the United States—these anti-liberal forces are likely to enter government within around two years. Until then, the liberal administrations currently in power will need to reckon with the most brittle of atmospheres, manage a relentless attack on living standards and preside over greater hardship for the lower paid. Will anti-liberal forces, in that time, revolt against democratic politics itself? Do we have the makings of a widespread campaign demanding a fundamental shift in wealth and political power away from elites? Presently some form of confrontation seems more likely than not.

Italy, the most fragile of Europe’s large economies, is set to vote—as it did in 2018—for an anti-liberal government. The non-elected prime minister and former head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, brought in by the Italian president Sergio Mattarella in February 2021 to head a coalition of the centre, finally resigned on 21st July as the coalition dissolved beneath him. Polls show that the administration likely to emerge from elections set for 25th September is one of the combined right—the Brothers of Italy (FdI), the League and Forward Italy—and that it could command a formidable share of the vote.

Italy has been without an elected prime minister since 2018: Draghi’s predecessor, Giuseppe Conte, was also appointed by Mattarella from outside parliament. This denial of popular choice has benefitted the far-right, especially the FdI led by Giorgia Meloni. She kept her party out of the coalition and has been rewarded with poll numbers putting the FdI ahead of all other parties. The September election could put her in the prime minister’s seat, setting up Italy to join Poland and Hungary as a member of the European Union’s awkward squad. 

Spain’s Vox, which rose through its opposition to mass immigration and Catalan independence, is polling better than the conservative People’s Party (PP) from which it split in 2013. The governing Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) retains a narrow lead over the PP and Vox, but if the two parties of the right can agree on a coalition, they could secure a 30-seat win in the December 2023 elections. If Vox retains its primacy, Santiago Abascal, the party’s hardline president, should become the next Spanish prime minister.

Although Emmanuel Macron won this April’s French presidential election, his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen won a remarkable 41.5 per cent of the vote. Macron’s party then lost its majority in the June parliamentary elections, forcing his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, to compromise with opposition parties. The two largest—Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s hard left La France Insoumise and Le Pen’s National Rally—are still sniping from the sidelines. Both parties are eurosceptic, with an aversion to globalisation and a strong appeal to disgruntled low-income voters. Their leaders have greatly increased their parties’ representation in parliament and are likely to stir up popular resistance to Macron on the lines of the 2018 Gilets Jaunes protests. 

An early sign of the brittleness of French politics came when Borne did not ask parliament for the traditional (but non-obligatory) vote of confidence when she resumed her duties as premier after the election. As Bruno Cautrès, a research fellow at Sciences Po, observed, Borne had no choice because she otherwise risked losing the vote, or relying on the support of National Rally to win it, which “would be very badly received by public opinion.”

Lights, camera, strike action: Mick Lynch gives  an interview outside Euston station in London © Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo Lights, camera, strike action: Mick Lynch gives an interview outside Euston station in London © Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

Lights, camera, strike action: Mick Lynch gives an interview outside Euston station in London © Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

By far the most important of these countries is the US, where an unpopular, ageing Democratic president would struggle to prevail if he came up against former president Donald Trump in the 2024 election. That will be especially true if, as the polls indicate, the Democrats lose the House of Representatives or the Senate in November’s midterms. The testimonies from former Trump aides to the US House Select Committee investigating the Capitol attack on 6th January 2021 attesting that he encouraged the riots have not dented his popularity with his base. One protester, a 56-year-old woman from Michigan, told a reporter that “we weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overturn the government.”

The conservative anti-Trump commentator Robert Kagan, in an essay in the Washington Post, forecasts that the US is heading into its “greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.” Trump, he writes, represents millions not so much because of their being economically “left behind” (though that is part of his appeal), but because he “speaks without embarrassment on behalf of an aggrieved segment of Americans, not exclusively white, who feel they have been taking it on the chin for too long.”

How does Britain, after several years of political turbulence following the 2016 Brexit vote, compare with this gallery? Unlike the three other states, it has so far developed no far-right party with ambitions to govern: Nigel Farage’s parties—Ukip, the Brexit Party and now Reform—had the particular end of exiting the EU. Boris Johnson had something of the appeal that Kagan attributes to Trump (his supporters saw him as a way to “get Brexit done” and enjoyed the eccentricities and wit that accompanied the journey) but the British political system could not tolerate him as prime minister for long. That is not to say, though, that a party shaped for “British yellow jackets” could not succeed. The discontent that allowed Johnson’s rise will, if anything, get worse as economic conditions deteriorate. 

Social class, with its cultural and economic characteristics, often resists definition—the proportion of people who consider themselves working-class has not changed since 1963, even though the real size of the working class has shrunk. Writer and firefighter Paul Embery, in his 2021 book Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class, offers one vivid description—“the stratum of society whose members often do the toughest and most grinding jobs (consisting, for example, of physical labour or work in blue-collar industries, factories, call centres, retail or frontline services); those whose wages and social status are generally at the lower end of the scale, who own little or no property or wealth.” A large slice of this class has, in the past few years, twice shown a large-scale dissent from the positions of the main political parties. 

They first did so through the majority vote for Brexit. Under the National Readership Survey system of classification, used widely by polling companies, the upper working class and lower working class were heavily represented in the Leave vote. Both groups showed a 64 per cent preference for Brexit (compared with 43 per cent of the upper middle class and 49 per cent of the lower middle class). More often remarked on is the fact that, according to pollster Ipsos, 70 per cent of those without any higher qualifications voted Leave. It’s pushing it to say this was an avalanche—but a substantial majority of working-class voters rejected the status quo.

The second revolt came in the 2019 general election, when the Conservatives won with 43.6 per cent of the vote (Labour got 32.1 per cent), relying heavily on traditionally Labour-voting pro-Brexiters. The working-class vote has become politically footloose. Now, with an untried Conservative prime minister succeeding Johnson, and Keir Starmer, a former barrister with limited personal appeal as Labour leader, where will this group go for a third revolt? Do these voters still identify with Labour’s values, or think the party approves of theirs?

The leaders of the organised working class—for three decades relatively quiescent—are now choosing a more forceful rhetoric, sharpened by the cost-of-living crisis, and their members’ disproportionately large part in keeping the NHS running, transport moving and shops open during the pandemic. Christina McAnea, general secretary of Unison, the country’s biggest union, told her conference in June that “poverty is a choice made by the powerful… we see the very people whose courage and dedication got the country through the pandemic now having to rely on charity.”

One protester at the Capitol said: “We weren’t there to steal things. We weren’t there to do damage. We were just there to overturn the government”

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), whose railway members have been on strike this summer, talks of a “wave of resistance.” “The working class is back!” he said, in an uncompromising speech at the launch of the “Enough is Enough” campaign in August, adding, “we refuse to be poor any more.” For perhaps the first time since the 1984–1985 miners’ strikes, which Arthur Scargill hoped would batter the Thatcher government, union leaders are orienting disputes about wages or conditions around class poverty. “This current administration acts in their class interests, it’s time to act in our class interests.” Lynch told the Enough is Enough crowd. The miners’ strikes, called without the support of a national ballot, when the government had high coal stocks and GDP was rising, ultimately split the union and weakened the power of strike action. This time, millions of low paid workers face real poverty, the government is deeply unpopular and further restrictions on industrial action are being prepared.

Among groups whose unions have called or will call for strike action are train drivers, teachers, refuse collectors, communications workers, health service and local authority workers, Post Office staff, and bus workers in Yorkshire. One threatened action, by British Airways workers at Heathrow, was called off in late July after a salary settlement was reached—Unite said it was worth 13 per cent, above inflation at the time, but now nearly 5 per cent below the projected January level. 

Real wages, for most average and lower-paid workers, have been falling for a decade: McAnea reckons they have fallen in the public sector by 20 to 25 per cent since 2010. In early summer this year, a squeeze on real wages (after inflation) resulted in workers being nearly 4 per cent worse off than they were a year ago—the deepest pay squeeze in a decade, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). On 26th August, Ofgem announced that an 80 per cent uplift in the energy price cap will come into play in October, contributing to a cost-of-living calamity. McAnea, a moderate who became Unison’s leader after tough clashes with the hard left, says calmly that “strikes are likely in the NHS in the autumn because the wage offers (around 5 per cent) are so low.” Asked if she would back a general strike, she smiles. “I’m prepared to entertain the possibility.”

Lynch has threatened a general strike if the incoming prime minister brings in anti-union legislation. Such measures were prominent in both contenders’ leadership campaigns. Rishi Sunak pledged to do “whatever it takes to make sure that unions cannot dictate how the British people go about their daily life.” Liz Truss said her government would introduce legislation in the first 30 days of the parliament to guarantee a minimum level of service on vital national infrastructure—making strike action less effective. She also proposed to raise the minimum threshold for voting in favour of strike action from 40 per cent to 50 per cent, and the minimum notice period for strike action from two weeks to four. Her government would also seek to limit the number of strikes a union can mount after a successful strike ballot. Lynch called this a return to Victorian times, and a fundamental attack on civil rights. McAnea agrees. 

Wages for many of the 1.3m union members she represents have long failed to keep up with living costs. She quotes wages for carers and teaching assistants at £9 an hour. Carers are so demoralised that four in every 10 of them are leaving. “The members are angry—this is coming up from below,” says McAnea. “The mood has certainly changed. They are trying to make the point that something in our public services, not just the pay, is fundamentally wrong.”

The phrase “Poverty is a choice made by the powerful” is displayed in five-foot letters in the reception of Unison’s headquarters

During the pandemic, the working classes went out to work while the middle and upper middle classes stayed at home. Research by scholars at Nottingham and Warwick shows that working-class women were more likely than middle-class women (or men) to have their hours cut to zero in the first months of lockdown, “with potentially severe financial consequences.” Those who kept their jobs were “far less likely to be working from the relative safety of home than women in managerial or professional roles—80 per cent of working-class women said they were never working from home in June [2020].” And they were “the most likely to be keyworkers in roles with close contact with customers, clients and patients.”

It’s widely accepted that inequality has increased and will continue to increase: in the UK, the share of income going to the top 1 per cent of the population increased in the 1990s and 2000s, and the UK has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world, though lower than in the US. 

According to the Resolution Foundation, the richest families in Britain—the top 5 per cent of them—increased their real wealth by 37 per cent between 2006–2008 and 2018–2020. Low-income families are most vulnerable to the cost-of-living crisis because they lack any “savings buffer”: the tenth of families on the lowest income are four times more likely to have no savings than the richest tenth. A third of British families—32 per cent—have no savings at all, and “will need to rely on family and friends to cope with income shocks.” They are much more likely to have already fallen behind on bills than higher income groups, before winter has even begun.

Meanwhile, the very wealthy have reached unprecedented levels of acquisitiveness. The pay of British CEOs, cut during the pandemic, has rebounded to an average of £3.6m. Demand for ever-larger super yachts, some bigger than naval destroyers, is unprecedented. Bill Duker, the venture capitalist owner of a 230-foot yacht called Sybaris (named after a 7th-century Greek city famed for its wealth and excesses), was quoted in the New Yorker as saying: “If the rest of the world learns what it’s like to live on a yacht like this, they’re gonna bring back the guillotine.” 

The official left is not channelling this anger properly. It is unlikely that a centrist Labour government would champion the kind of radical redistribution proposed by French economist Thomas Piketty, because although the British public think -inequality is too high, they shirk at the word “redistribution.” 

Instead, left-of-centre parties everywhere have adopted what Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, terms “left modernism”—a merging of leftist programmes and rhetoric with those of the professional managerial classes—to make an ideology that is destructive of tradition but supportive of a borderless universalism and rapid technological development. 

What had been the domain of the left—criticism of and resistance to transnational capital and unaccountable power—has been claimed by what is usually termed the “populist” right (and sometimes far left). In their book The New Politics of Class, political scientists Geoff Evans and James Tilley argue that “the Labour Party’s strategy to decouple itself from traditional class issues has led some of its former core working-class base to endorse new parties, most notably Ukip. But more importantly, the consequence is that the working-class electorate is increasingly not voting at all. In 2015, over half of people with low levels of education in working class jobs did not vote.” 

Parties of the left are downplaying policies concerned with fairness, equality and redistribution. Instead—according to Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian and biographer of Keynes—the left has shifted significantly to “questions of personal identity arising from race, gender, sexual preference and so on.” These issues, Skidelsky says, “now dominate the spaces vacated by the politics of distribution. Redressing discrimination, not addressing inequality, became the task of politics.” Centre-left politics is increasingly aimed at what has become the largest reservoir of votes—the urban middle class, who are more moved by cultural than material arguments.

Keir Starmer’s ambivalence towards recent strike action—sacking one minister, Sam Tarry, for attending a picket line, while letting another, Lisa Nandy, go without penalty—led several trade unions to express their disgust. Sharon Graham, general secretary of Unite—the second largest union, and largest donor to the Labour Party—told the Guardian that “it is undoubtedly the fact that Labour is becoming more and more irrelevant to workers. It’s unfortunate, but it is a fact. There’s no point giving money to a party that is basically sticking two fingers up to workers. It’s almost like an abusive relationship. You are the voice of workers in Westminster; we are their voice on the ground.”

Fired—then rehired? Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention in July 2016 © Simon Dack News / Alamy Stock Photo Fired—then rehired? Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention in July 2016 © Simon Dack News / Alamy Stock Photo

Fired—then rehired? Donald Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention in July 2016 © Simon Dack News / Alamy Stock Photo

There has been, for some years, a current in the Labour Party that agrees the party is no longer a natural home for working people. In his book The Dignity of Labour, the Labour MP for Dagenham Jon Cruddas laments the end of the centrality of labour to the day-to-day practice of politics—especially on the left. “It is a withdrawal that has come at great cost, for it has truncated our moral critique of capitalism and hedged our anger at the degraded work our fellow citizens are forced to perform,” he writes. In an interview, he pointed me to a food bank set up in Queen’s Hospital Romford for its staff: “A food bank mainlined into the public service! It tells you something about what’s happening,” he told me. Asked about the likelihood of a general uprising against “what’s happening,” he says that “you can see the possibility of a revolt: you can see it in some of the public sector strikes. They are getting more support than you would have expected. They are not playing by the usual rules, the aims are broader. There’s a renewed sense of a claim for a sense of justice, not confined to higher pay.” 

Paul Embery, who lost his seat on his firefighter union’s executive for speaking at a pro-Brexit rally, and who is close to Cruddas politically, is more scathing in Despised. He believes Johnson to be a “fraudster,” but saw the Brexit vote as an encouraging rebellion from below against a politics of“cosmopolitan liberalism” that had taken over Labour. He believes it has also taken over the Conservatives, after a promising commitment, now apparently dropped, to “level up.” Embery, disillusioned with the Labour Party, envisages a different kind of working-class organisation: “There is a space for a leader, a party, who could put a reasonable case for patriotism—belief in good solid jobs—a sense of pride in work.”

It isn’t just our social and economic system that is broken. The framing of democratic politics, having not -radically changed for a century, is being shattered. Politics takes place in the shells of 19th- and 20th-century institutions, especially parliaments. The debates which were their founding purpose are increasingly formal events, enjoyed by insiders who appreciate a good political joust but rarely, beyond the highlights from Prime Minister’s Questions, making a mark outside. Laws are passed: but their true impacts are obscured from the public by special interests, lobbyists and NGOs.

In a recent Radio 4 series, Rory Stewart, a former Tory MP and international development secretary, bewailed the steady disappearance of “a good argument, which is a debate conducted in good faith.” The Aristotelian virtues for public figures—character (ethos), emotion (pathos) and reason (logos)—are now, he believes, largely absent as criteria. As a result, ordinary people are left with only empty words and posturing. Society has lost a comprehensible structure to political life, in which democrats of the left and right could argue in good faith.

Instead, debates are fodder for soundbites and websites. Politicians perform at each other for a social media audience. Jonathan Haidt, a longtime critic of social media, believes that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other similar platforms are dominated by extremists and activists who insult and punish opponents while most of the audience is passive—and in doing so, “unwittingly dissolve the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.”

Politics thus becomes performative, and the prize goes to those who perform best. Trump performs best for his supporters because he blasts the liberals they believe despise them, and whom they despise in turn. Johnson, a dedicated performer, won Brexit and exulted in “taking back control” for British citizens in the face of strong pro-EU opposition after the narrow Brexit majority. 

These two politicians, together with Farage—all more or less unemployed—might constitute a new axis of exit from the institutions and constraints of the democratic political framework they have broken. They could develop their axis into a formidable political machine, and would have little difficulty in raising large funds with which they could, in the “age of quite radical uncertainty” (see Bill Emmott in Prospect, Aug/Sept) take advantage of that uncertainty.

None of these men have much, if any, patience with the slog and grind of power. Instead, they all excel before audiences of supporters, and have the gut instinct to single out themes which reflect mass concerns and to supply simple solutions. These are not “men of the people,” but present themselves as “men for the people,” who have at different times been chosen by “aggrieved segments,” in Kagan’s phrase, to bear a standard the liberal elite has trampled on. Against the backdrop of these difficult economic times, a popular eruption may come from anywhere, led by anyone—or by no one in particular. But chafing in their temporary absence from power, these are the possible leaders of a populist insurrection. 

For years commentators have warned that increasing inequality is threatening the solidarity needed for democracy. Breaking point might be closer than we think. The question then becomes even more pressing: how much longer should those, whose prospects are so inexorably deteriorating, tolerate the status quo?