How the spaces of place and flows are realigning politics.
After four tumultuous years the European question may finally be settled for the UK in 2020 albeit not fully resolved. Beyond the foremost question of Europe lie the threads and consequences of a political realignment we can barely discern.
We don’t yet know what will happen on election day but it’s worth thinking about what’s happening and what might come next. For me, the most interesting and determinative question in the next Parliament may be how well the Brexit coalition can hold together and to what ends? The broader question is how will politics reconfigure around the realigned outlooks and revised ambitions of the shifting groupings within remain and leave once Brexit is concluded one way or the other?
Roots and Routes
First it’s worth thinking about how the remain and leave coalitions are constituted and how traditional party affiliations have been fractured under the demands of the network society. There are many existing social classifiers that provide lenses on political affiliation such as employment, income, religion, age, ethnicity and education. I’ve been thinking about these can be augmented by borrowing and adapting Castells’ idea of spaces of place and spaces of flows and our relationship to them.
Spaces of place are more fixed, both geographically and by identification with enduring imagined communities. Spaces of flows are more kinetic and mutable; they are the financial, logistical and information networks that connect and circulate.
These concepts allow us to consider the way people are rooted in place and how they are routed by flows as further facets of social classification. People’s political alignment can be influenced by both their affinity for place and their access to flows and this might help explain some of the potential shifts in this election. I think this leads to six broad groupings in the network society that political parties are attempting to organise into a majority.
The Remain Coalition
Remainers are a coalition of two broad groups.
They are the social democrats and conservative/christian democrats: the centre left and centre right of European liberal democracy. The political power they have traded between them throughout the decades of European membership has withered leaving them adrift, bewildered and uncertain but they have found it harder to leave their traditional political boundaries and come together in common cause than leavers.
What remainers do have in common is they are mostly are routed in flows having a more globalist outlook but it’s a globalism that is rooted in a European identity. They live in cities and their metropolitan hinterlands stretching out into well connected villages but they have failed to fully realise the distinctiveness of place or the inclusiveness of flows never mind integrate them into a persuasive whole.
They like the world as it is, it works well for them, so have been motivated to do little more than preserve and extend the status quo and pursue incremental progress. They are beginning to recognise this may not be enough for local community, environmental sustainability and social justice and the space of flows may not be the unalloyed good they thought, having unintended consequences for places, but they are unsure how (radically) to respond.
The Leave Coalition
Leavers seem to be a coalition of three broad groups.
There are those that are firmly rooted in place, having been left behind or chosen to stay behind a more globalist world. These places are Britain’s towns: former industrial hubs, fading seaside resorts, the empty markets and exchanges of the shires, places no longer bustling but hollowed out and disconnected. These are the places Brexiteers and Lexiteers want to protect and revive in the comforting embrace of national pride, solidarity and industry. They want more control over the space of flows. Their lives and their loyalties are increasingly precarious and their votes are increasingly crucial to swing elections.
Their opposites are the libertarian free trading globalists who want to open up Britain even more finding flows that go far beyond Europe and reach even further into every part of our national infrastructure including those services still in public hands. Place and time collapse and blur. Their world is one where Britain (at least its major cities) thrives as a global broker of powerful flows of goods, services, knowledge and money. A world where there are few if any protections only opportunities, where corporations rival national governments, and if you rise to the top you must be the cream.
Sitting slightly in between these positions are the Atlanticist and Anglospherists. They value close connections with former dominions such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and above all the special relationship with the USA. They are the twins of remainers in that they too take advantage of the space flows but differ in that their globalism is rooted in a commonwealth identity, tinged perhaps even with a nostalgia for English-speaking empire.
The Eco Coalition
It’s worth mentioning one other grouping that is increasingly significant but doesn’t weigh too heavily on the present remain/leave organising binary of Brexit politics.
This is the radical green movement, the protectionist but progressive globalists. They are the antithesis of the free marketers: seeking commons not capital in the space of flows. To them the world is both routed and rooted by its materiality: a space where biological, ecological, social and informational systems intersect and where place and flow intermingle.
They are idealistic, mostly young, small in size but growing. They want both connections and protections for all at planetary scale but struggle to find a route to power through traditional local, national, corporate and multilateral structures so their influence, whilst increasing, remains diffuse.
Finding a Majority
To govern the United Kingdom you need a majority. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have each attempted to form a majority that negotiated leave and remain, space and flows by trying to unite remainer democrats with the nationalist precariat (in May’s case with the commonwealth and in Corbyn’s case the climate coalition) with visions for one-nation centrism and radical socialism respectively. So far this hasn’t quite worked.
Boris Johnson’s strategy is different: focus on holding the leave coalition together as long as possible by talking about the future as little as possible beyond immediate objectives to get Brexit done and invest modestly in the key areas of health, education, crime and defence that may also appeal to wavering Conservative remainers.
Despite having very different motivations, these three groups In the leave coalition have coalesced effectively around one short-term aim, leaving the European Union, and are prepared to work together to achieve it. We’ll find out soon whether this focus proves to be electorally successful (again).
If Brexit is achieved though, their unifying force dissipates and it would be interesting to see how the differences between them can be reconciled and how both the rooted and routed can be satisfied.
If not, what will win out: the space of place or of flows?