Why income inequality implications of May and Corbyn Governments may well be similar

The assertion that implications for income equality of May and Corbyn Governments are likely to be similar admittedly sounds contrarian. There is a very simple reason why this is a reasonable assertion however; social class no longer predicts support for the Conservatives or Labour.

Social scientists agree that the policies espoused and implemented by political parties generally reflect the socio-economic statuses of their bases. Labour Governments have therefore tended to adopt redistributive policies because their electoral bases have tended to be comprised of lower-income citizens, not because Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson were good blokes. For the Conservatives, the inverse is true; these Governments have tended to lead to regressions in income equality because their supporters are richer. A truly fascinating thing has happened in British politics recently. For the first time ever, there is no longer a tendency for the poorer to support Labour and the richer to support the Conservatives. Instead, there are now a lot of poorer Tories (often older) and richer Labour supporters (often younger) who complement the traditional bases of the parties. A more salient dividing line in UK politics is now age. This is attested to by a range of evidence.

Given that this is the case, it is reasonable to expect that the implications for income equality of future May and Corbyn Governments would be broadly similar. Effects on different groups would of course differ, but overall effects would be likely to be about the same. Recent developments appear to suggest that this expectation is valid. Not only have the last two Conservative/coalition Governments redistributed resources to poor pensioners and certain other categories of low-income workers (as I wrote in my last post), but recent policy announcements of May and Corbyn are consistent with this hypothesis. Not only is the Labour manifesto weak on benefits for the poorest (Torsten Bell draws attention to this on Twitter), but the emphasis seems to be on redistribution from richer classes to the middle-classes (particularly the younger, struggling middle classes). The Labour manifesto therefore proposes abolishing tuition fees and nationalizing rail; these are two policies which tend to benefit more affluent demographics, as opposed to the poorest. There have also been strong signs in recent times that Theresa May will continue emphasis on so-called ‘just about managing’ citizens, therefore perhaps intensifying the tendency of recent Conservative Governments to redirect resources to certain groups of poorer citizens. Glen O’Hara has even speculated on Twitter that the effects of a Corbyn Government in terms of income redistribution may be more regressive than those of a May Government.

Do I think that a May Government will have equal/less severe implications for income inequality than a Corbyn Government? Probably not. Though the structure of party support is the main factor social scientists should take into account when pondering such questions, there are also factors related to ideology/party history etc.; in the short-term, these may well mean that the effects of a Labour Government are less regressive. There is also the issue of policy on public services. There has not been enough time for exhaustive analysis of implications of party manifestos to have been conducted, but I am certainly under the impression that the public services programme of Corbyn’s Labour will do more to promote income equality.

It may well be that a Corbyn Government does just as much/little as a May Government to promote income equality however, particularly in the long-term. In line with new dividing lines in UK politics, it may instead be that the primary effect of a Corbyn Government is to redistribute wealth between generations, rather than social classes. Party manifestos give only limited clues. Particularly crucial is the manner in which Governments react to crises; bases are normally protected in such times and it is likely that a Corbyn Government would prioritize their younger core supporters in moments when resources are scarce. The observations I have made in this post are indeed so simple as to be obvious. I especially don’t see how Marxists, for whom the link between the socio-economic bases of parties and actual policy is bread and butter, can disagree with them. More broadly, there are two conclusions one can make:

Firstly, assessments such as this lead to the reflection that Corbynism is primarily a movement of young, middle-class citizens who are under economic pressure. Such citizens have had it tough in recent years; no one needs to be reminded about tuition fees, housing prices, youth unemployment etc. There is also no problem that these people have a political movement; it is just that it should be clearly recognized that this is not the radical working class movement which some (highly problematically) claim. One could even argue that the emphasis on issues such as rights to freedom of movement and opposition to imperialism, which have been a hallmark of Corbynism but admittedly seem to have been downplayed recently, makes serious redistribution less likely by turning working classes away from the Corbyn Labour party.

Secondly, I am afraid that this a further reason why I take objection to the shrill tone of many Corbynistas. If you are a young person who is upset with tuition fees and the cost of housing, the consequences of a Corbyn Government may be much better; however it is far from axiomatic that this is true across the board. Therefore the notion that a vote for Corbyn is a sort of vote for good over evil (I have seen people on social media formulate the choice in this election in terms almost as crude as this), is difficult to say the least.

Would love to enter into dialogue with people about this issue. A satisfactory answer to this question would involve serious research, but I do think that the matters I raise in this post are reasonable.

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6 responses to “Why income inequality implications of May and Corbyn Governments may well be similar”

  1. Sam says :

    I’m a bit perplexed by the idea that the labour manifesto is nothing more than a give away to the middle classes.

    The core argument seems to be that if the middle classes benefit, it’s a subsidy. The tuition fee issue is a prime example. The idea of funding services from general taxation, to allow the widest possible access, is surely a core socialist principle. It’s often suggested, however, that because more middle class people (currently) attend uni than working class this is a middle class subsidy. It seems to me that this critique is applicable to anything. For example, by providing healthcare to lots of middle class people who could afford health insurance, the NHS is by this logic little more than a middle class subsidy. In effect these critiques mean that unless you have proposals targeted at *only* the lowest socio-economic groups it is impossible to be anything other than a party of the middle class.

    Is this right, or am I missing something?

  2. prossertj says :

    Dear Sam,
    Thanks for your comment. I certainly don’t think that the Labour manifesto is nothing more than a giveaway to the middle classes. It is also certainly not the case that all forms of public spending are skewed to benefit the middle classes. In some cases this is true however; it is difficult to deny that tuition fees is not an example of this.

    The key thing I am trying to get at is this; given that there is no real difference in the socio-economic statuses of party bases, it is difficult to see how Labour can be substantially more egalitarian that the Tories in the long-term. Political scientists have long emphasized how the interests of bases make their way into policy; this happens through the kind of issues that are raised in party meetings, the kind of voters chased by party strategists, the groups politicians protect from cuts when hard decisions have to be made etc.

    The key question I would ask to people sceptical of this argument is this one; if the Labour and Conservative bases are now not divided on class lines, what factor will prompt long-term differences in redistributive outcomes?

  3. Sam says :

    Thanks for your quick and detailed response. 🙂 A quick caveat: I’m not a political scientist, so apologies if this comment is naive/covers old ground. Also, please feel free to link me to appropriate papers.

    The idea that socio-economically similar bases leads to policies with similar socio-economic outcomes seems to me to be predicated on a very basic theory of human behaviour. I understand that the interests of the party base can overtime shift policy. But it only follows that socio-economically similar bases will drive similar policies if the ‘interests’ of a group are primarily determined by their socio-economic characteristics. I’m not convinced that all middle class people share the same values, nor the same understanding of how the economy works (for example). We can imagine two people from the same economic class but with different ideas about the importance of economic equality. Likewise, we can imagine two people from the same class but one believing in free-market principles, and the other in Keynesian principles. Values/worldviews (whilst influenced by class), can diverge within classes and drive differing policies.

    I sense (perhaps unfairly), that what you are really getting at is that voters are self-interested and will primarily vote for what benefits them. I see this in your comment about groups being protected by politicians. Again, this strikes me as overly simplistic. We know that people are motivated by a wide variety of factors. Again, I’m making an argument about differing values and worldviews. If I accept an analysis that says I as an educated white middle class male unfairly benefit from the current economic system in ways that working class women don’t, I might be happy to vote against the interests of my class.

    I suppose this divergence in worldviews would be what I see as the driver of long term redistribution issues.

    Anyway, apologies for the long post!

    • Sam says :

      Apparently I’m not that sorry, because here’s a short postscript!

      On public spending and class skew: I understand that you don’t think all public spending is skewed to the middle classes. My point was that the logic of the argument on tuition fees vs universally free education is equally applicable to any universally free service. For example, more middle class than working class people take A levels. So, if universally free degrees is the poor subsidising the rich then surely the same applies to universally free A levels? Likewise the middle classes are more likely to own more cars and to drive more. So doesn’t road and infrastructure spending also constitutes a subsidy from poor to rich?

  4. prossertj says :

    Dear Sam,
    Thanks for your further comments. Your comments are not naïve and I am glad to receive them; one of the reasons I started up this blog was to discuss public policy issues with a wider audience.

    Let me start with the briefer second issue you raise: the issue of public spending being skewed towards the middle classes. I can’t say I know the literature in detail, but I would say that this all depends on the area under consideration. Some policies (e.g. scrapping of tuition fees, possibly even universally free A levels) certainly do tend to benefit richer demographics. Other forms of public spending (e.g. Surestart, housing benefits) tend to benefit poorer demographics. There is also of course the issue of different rates of tax paid by different demographics. In terms of net effect, I am not really sure and don’t even know if such statistics exist; certainly richer classes have tended to disproportionately benefit from public policy in recent decades however.

    With respect to the first issue you raise, the issue of self-interest and its effects on policymaking processes, this cuts right to the heart of my argument in this post. If one examines individual political views, it is admittedly the case that self-interest is often not at the heart of political preferences. When it comes to group behaviour, the assumption of pretty much all schools in sociology, economics and political science is that the primary driver is self-interest. This doesn’t mean that social scientists don’t think that quotidian acts of kindness like helping your grandmother are underpinned by self-interest; this would be a simplistic reading of this position. Such positions also don’t think that ideas like equality, justice etc. can’t play important roles in policy processes; these ideas are admittedly very important in the Corbyn Labour party.

    The key thing, however, is that there is agreement that self-interest tends to drive the preferences of groups most strongly in the long-term. This is after all human nature and, given that average/median forms of behaviour tend to characterize large groups of people, such forms of behaviour tend to predominate in large movements like the Corbyn Labour party.

    I mentioned in my comment above some of the means by which self-interest enters the policy process, but the best example I can give concerns the behaviour of trade unions in continental Europe; this an area in which I conduct research. As you know, trade unions are committed to social and economic justice and the people who work for them tend to believe passionately in these values. In the last few decades, across European countries, what has happened however is that trade unions have very badly let down temporary workers (many of whom are ethnic minorities and female). These workers tend to have very few employment rights and often have little prospect of moving into permanent employment.

    Why has this happened? There is agreement that this is because the members of unions are primarily permanent workers (most of whom are white and male). How did this happen? This has tended to happen because unions have been under great pressure to deregulate labour markets in previous decades. They certainly haven’t wanted to deregulate employment protection for temporary workers, but they have to tended to agree with this/turn a blind eye to it because the alternative is deregulation of employment protection for permanent workers. What has therefore happened is that, when hard choices have to be made, unions are more prepared to allow those workers who are not their members to suffer (even though they may not like this).

    I feel that such a process would happen under a Corbyn Government; when the Government had to make hard choices (which would be inevitable) they would be more prepared to disappoint demographics who do not constitute the Corbyn electoral base. There are also several other mechanisms by which such a process could happen, I have only sketched one above.

    Hope that makes sense. As I also say in the blog however, I don’t think that consequences for income equality of a Corbyn Government would be identical/worse to that of a May Government. One of the reasons why I don’t think this would be the case is because of the important role that ideas of social justice would play in a Corbyn Government. In the long-term however, ideas alone are usually not enough; this is something upon which most social scientists agree.

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