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The Truss debacle (or how party selectorates are holding Britain hostage)
In the last fortnight, the UK Truss government has presided over a debacle. Following the government’s mini-budget which cut taxes, financial markets reacted negatively, triggering U-turns and political turmoil. On Friday, Truss sacked Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, seeking to salvage her premiership but probably only postponing her own demise.
On this blog, I often emphasize the limited influence of politicians and ideology, arguing that structural forces restrict agency. The Truss U-turn is a classic instance of this, meriting our attention. Though many compare the affair to the Major government’s 1992 ERM disaster, the 1983 Mitterrand U-turn is a better comparison. The early Mitterrand presidency was very left-wing, yet markets forced a volte-face which confirmed the hegemony of free market ideology.
Like Mitterrand, Truss went against the spirit of the age, market disapproval of her tax cuts underlining the trajectory of modern political economy; unlike the 1980s, tax cuts and deregulation are not in fashion.
More broadly, this confirms the primacy of structures over ideology. The ideology of the Truss government ran contrary to markets and public opinion, yet the latter were more powerful, disciplining the government and re-establishing equilibrium.
This readjustment was painful, the pound losing value and the UK’s credibility diminishing. Resultingly, many excoriate Truss, some calling her the worst prime minister in memory! I agree with much of this. Truss is a poor communicator – bizarrely, she seems to have been better as a teenager – and should have anticipated the consequences of her plans. Leadership rival Rishi Sunak predicted these.
Yet this interpretation is something of a red herring. Many countries have poor leaders – some would mention Boris Johnson (!) – yet such market attacks are rare. If policy agendas are congruent with prevailing trends, incompetent politicians can preside over successful polities. In liberal democracies, heads of government have limited influence, power being diffuse and institutions such as civil services being strong.
More feasibly, we might see Truss as the agent of ideas which, although unviable in the long term, have wrought great damage in the short term. Why did Truss occupy such political space? Crucially, this reflected the logic of the Conservative leadership election, party members choosing between two candidates. Truss had the credibility to advance very neoliberal policies – years ago, she co-authored the radical Britannia Unchained – yet the leadership election particularly rewarded this stance, members preferring tax cuts. But the Conservative membership is very unrepresentative of the UK electorate, comprising about 200,000 activists who tend to be older and right-wing.
We may ask how party memberships became so influential, this telling us much about UK political economy. Partly, this reflects the nature of majoritarian electoral systems, such as first-past-the-post. In these systems, governing programmes are decided before elections within broad church parties, rather than being, as in proportional systems, negotiated by narrower parties in post-election coalition agreements.
Therefore, control of party leaderships is crucial. In an age of populism, stakes are heightened. Certain populists have thrived in other majoritarian systems, the Trump Republicans being the prime example, yet the UK has been badly affected. Since 2015, extremely unsuitable candidates have become leaders of both main parties.
This reflects several factors. Aside from the foolishness of architects of party voting reforms – years ago, members had little influence on the election of leaders – the UK has experienced a sharp rise in populism. Party membership is low, facilitating entryists with views which markedly diverge from those of median voters. And the UK is an extreme majoritarian system - scholars dub it an elected dictatorship – raising the value of the prize.
All countries have incompetent and extreme politicians, yet few enable them like the UK. If the UK is to achieve a stable post-Brexit trajectory, reformers must confront the woeful influence of party selectorates.
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