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1 February 2017
I am as appalled as anyone by the early actions of President Trump (the Muslim travel ban, the wall, the abortion funding order). I say that upfront, because there’s a chance some will misinterpret what I say next. I am equally appalled by the rhetoric of those who have written off the almost 63 million voters who put Donald Trump in the White House. (Full disclosure, I may feel this particularly acutely because I am part of the 52 per cent who voted for Brexit.)
I was in America at the time of the election. Two things struck me as revealing – and relevant to the UK.
Firstly, speaking to Uber drivers in Florida (admittedly a very small sample) none would call the election. There was a definite sense of uncertainty about which outcome would be best. One in particular, a young mum of two school-age girls, talked about how her medical coverage was worse with Obamacare, that at her place of work employee hours had been restricted to reduce the cost of Obamacare to the business, and that her premiums were rising (on average, premiums are set to rise by 25 per cent in 2017). Obamacare’s objective – to provide health coverage for low income families who lack it – is a no-brainer, but as with any policy, there are trade-offs and likely unintended consequences. For this Floridian – and many others like her – Obamacare does not feel like the good thing it should be, and her practical experience was a consideration in her voting intentions. She also talked about her belief in personal responsibility, and how she felt Obamacare had interfered with that. In the UK, the declining legitimacy of the welfare state could be seen in a similar light. Services have to work for all, something Theresa May understands well.
Secondly, watching the news as results came in, the perplexed response of pundits asking ‘who are these people, where are they from?’ seemed a perfect example of the impact of media and political echo chambers. Much as the Brexit result highlighted, the surprise (which I shared) shown at the US election result revealed the ‘establishment’ had been talking amongst itself. In the UK, the narrow backgrounds of those in power helps explain the shock. As does the fact that most are based in London. Analysis by the Social Mobility Commission (2014) found that 58 per cent of MPs went to a private or selective school, as did 80 per cent of the top 100 media professionals and 84 per cent of Whitehall permanent secretaries. Just 11 per cent of pupils attend these types of school. Nationally less than one in 100 people attend ‘Oxbridge’, yet for those professions the numbers range from one in four to one in two. As Alan Milburn argued:
Where institutions rely on too narrow a range of people from too narrow a range of backgrounds with too narrow a range of experiences they risk behaving in ways and focussing on issues that are of salience only to a minority but not the majority in society…This risks narrowing the conduct of public life to a small few, who are very familiar with each other but far less familiar with the day-to-day challenges facing ordinary people in the country.
In a year from September 2013 to July 2014, 37 per cent of Question Time guests went to private school and 43 per cent to Oxbridge. There’s a reason people refer to the ‘Westminster bubble’.
Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart details the fragmentation of American society along socio-economic lines. Elites are increasingly creating metaphorical gated communities. In the UK, social housing makes such geographical isolation harder (though not impossible), but, as in America, our elites are detached from the experiences of ‘ordinary’ people. Those setting the national discourse and making the decisions are seen as ‘other’.
After the EU referendum I wrote a blog entitled Stop patronising Leavers, start making the economy work for all. The argument – that large parts of the country have been left behind – is well rehearsed by commentators across the political spectrum. But it is nonetheless worth restating. The traditionally Democrat rust belt, much like the traditionally Labour North of England, are not feeling the benefits of globalisation, and many of those crumbling communities feel ignored by Washington and Westminster.
It is not, in the UK, that power is more concentrated in elite hands than in previous decades (though David Cameron’s chumocracy did no favours for perception), but division becomes more obvious in tough times. Wages for those in low pay were stagnating well before the recession, and whilst recently living standards have been recovering after the crash, average real pay remains lower than it was 11 years earlier. Indeed a 2014 labour market report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills acknowledged that the impact of the recession and recovery was “strengthening existing differences and raising the risk of further entrenching social inequalities”. Both “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control” are slogans that, in this context, for many represented the rejection of a detached establishment and a cry for a greater stake in their respective countries.
This polarisation is only likely to worsen. A report by the Resolution Foundation this week argued that “income growth is set to slow to extremely low levels and in a way that is highly regressive, with income falls for poorer households”. As the labour market continues to evolve and technology enables people, starting with those in lower and middle skill roles, to be replaced, job security will also erode. The economic implications are obvious, but it is the social ones that are perhaps more dramatic. A secure job is key to wellbeing (a fact not lost on President Trump). And whilst neither protectionism or a universal basic income are the answer, few alternatives have been put forward by those in power.
So whilst I cherish the right to stand vocally for what you believe in, those condemning supporters of Trump and Brexit for their intolerance should take the time to ask why millions of people, both sides of the Atlantic, felt the status quo was not an option (particularly in the context of well evidenced status quo bias). And in doing so they should look both to recognise the multiplicity of reasons why different people voted for change, and seek to understand how those who feel ostracised can be reengaged. A good start would be talking to those outside our bubbles. Inclusion, after all, cannot apply just to those you agree with.
Charlotte Pickles, Deputy Director and Head of Research, Reform