Patrick Naylor, OULC member, dissects the Tory myth of rural “self-sufficiency” and analyses how it has affected our politics, including the EU referendum result.
Politicians are nervous about discussing public borrowing. The Tories sermonise on the virtue of fiscal self-sufficiency, whilst Labour has consistently failed to rubbish its causal association with the crisis of capitalism in 2007-8. Instead of ‘borrowing’, both parties use the word ‘investment’. In their 2017 General Election manifesto, the Tories used ‘investment’ 46 times, and ‘borrowing’ only once (to shame the concept: “Borrowing always means spending money you do not have”). Labour used ‘investment’ 51 times, and ‘borrowing’ only once, although they made a crucial redefinition: “Our Fiscal Credibility Rule is based on the simple principle that government should not be borrowing for day-to-day spending, but that future growth depends on investment”. It is not explicit, but Labour aligns ‘investment’ and ‘borrowing’ by indicating that borrowing is appropriate for long-term spending. The Tories are nervous about borrowing because they want to protect their core vote. Labour is worried about borrowing because they know it doesn’t wash well with the Tory voters that they need to convert to win the next election. Who are these voters?
I grew up in a small market town. Its population was small and stable; familiar faces everywhere; the market was regular and friendly; the town was enclosed by expansive dales and moorland, completely unsuitable for housing development. The image was one of self-sufficiency. It wasn’t the reality. Tesco lorries still came to stock shelves during the night. Migrants still came and did hard and unpleasant work. School catchment areas still let families down. The Local Council was penniless. There was still a housing shortage. Class sizes were getting bigger. People relied on globalised forms of labour and national distribution chains: the ‘DPD’ vans came with clothes and ‘Amazon’ orders. But this stuff didn’t register in the everyday life of cobbled streets, church pews and coffee mornings.
The move to Oxford was surprising. Student rooms are boxes rotated through different folk each year. Suddenly I’m looking over my shoulder to take cash out at the hole-in-the-wall. People are homeless. Lots of people, too many, are homeless. The streets are multilingual. They stretch out of sight, and the traffic doesn’t come and go but is non-stop. Buses come in from suburbs that I’ve heard of but have never seen. I’m living off of a student loan, money borrowed from an organisation I have no control over. Moving to this city has made me aware that the market town was never self-sufficient. We are always dependent on things we have no control over. A friend gawked when I said this: he’s from London, and thinks Oxford feels like a provincial town. I can’t imagine what it’s like in the metropolis.
The 2017 General Election result cemented a trend that has been emerging since 1997. Urban constituencies vote Labour, and rural constituencies vote Tory. Labour’s biggest majorities in 2017: Liverpool Walton 77.1%, Knowsley 76.1%, East Ham 70.4%, Tottenham 70.1%, Ladywood 69.5%, Manchester Gorton 69%. The Conservatives’ biggest majorities in 2017: Christchurch 49.7%, South Holland and the Deepings 49.5%, Buckingham 49%, NE Hampshire 48.2%. The correlation is strong and long-standing. It can be explained by drawing an analogy between the imagery of self-sufficiency in rural communities, and the Tories’ austerity-mantra of “living within our means”. The Tories profit in elections by capitalising on images of self-sufficiency. But the government bond markets aren’t like the local village market: they aren’t familiar, but anonymous. Downing Street does a good job of pretending to be domesticated and self-sufficient: street-facing front door, on-street parking, curtained windows, even a couple of cats. But government finances do not end at the gates of Downing Street.
Every day, people in urban communities up and down the country benefit from the mobility and anonymity of the city. From the (multi-)cultural experiences opened up by migration, to the financial and enterprising opportunities enabled by borrowing, people in cities thrive on self-insufficiency.
It is Labour’s opportunity firstly to dispel the idea that a government, a country, can be self-sufficient in a globalised world, and secondly to make the case for self-insufficiency in all kinds of international cooperation.
The vote to “Leave” in the 2016 EU Referendum might make some sense when considered in this self-sufficiency paradigm. It was a vote by certain communities up and down the country for self-sufficiency: “Take back control” of borders, laws, finances. It is a fear of the global that has paralleled the decline of Labour, from 419 seats in 1997 to 232 in 2015. In Blair’s 1997 manifesto he promised a “Britain equipped to prosper in a global economy”, whereas, in 2016, Theresa May told the party conference that “[i]f you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Certain communities have been left behind in the global rush: the government has failed to reform education, which has knocked on to anachronistic industrial policies and resulted in unstable gig economies and low-wage labour markets. These communities have found it easy to blame migration, borrowing, and offshore bodies of government (such as the EU). But borrowing, migration, international cooperation were never the problem. They were only the changing contexts to which successive governments failed to appropriately respond.
But Corbyn’s Labour, whether it is led by the man himself, or the spirit of the man, is something new: it has reimagined the role of public borrowing, and it now has to be frank in making it known. It represents a massive opportunity.