Academy Annual Lecture 2019 with Matthew Goodwin

26 June 2019

Professor Matthew Goodwin, Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, gave the Academy of Social Sciences Annual Lecture on 20 June 2019.

The Annual Lecture saw an audience of about 100 people with a mix of general public, Fellows and social science practitioners.

Professor Goodwin’s talk was on Brexit and Populism: Under the Microscope – What We Know So Far. The lecture spanned a range of evidence about the causes and consequences for electoral politics of rise of ‘national populism’ in the United Kingdom.

Many have thought that the UK’s two party structure and its first-past-the-post voting system meant that populist parties could not take root here – and this in turn may have reduce the prevalence of such attitudes. Professor Goodwin began his lecture by pointing out some important background factors. There has been a long-term decline in stable party identification, with voters being less strongly attached to either of the two main parties, and more inclined, over the past couple of decades, to switch parties. This has been accompanied by an increase in the number of political parties.

Background social change has also played a part in party fragmentation.  There has been a secular decline in the proportion of the population that are union members, in working-class jobs, in council housing and with no educational qualifications. At the same time there has been a long-term increase in the proportion of the population that are skilled professionals and have university degrees. Again these set the conditions for changes in voting behaviour.

A final background feature presented by Professor Goodwin was an examination of underlying opinions that prefigured the Brexit referendum. He showed evidence that at least a certain degree of Euroscepticism goes back to the early 1990s, and increased markedly in the years before the referendum (when of course it was a political issue for the Conservative Party), and that concern over immigration rose significantly from the early 2000s.

Professor Goodwin then presented a sophisticated argument about the relationship between political attitudes and the party choices available to the electorate. His argument was that the driving forces for the Brexit referendum vote was both economic (at least as an indirect cause) and cultural. With the rise of these issues becoming the source of new political polarisation and new parties arising, both the two major parties face fragmentation of their political bases.

In his conclusions, Professor Goodwin argued that these fundamentals meant we can expect to see more political volatility, providing opportunities for new party challengers. The Conservative Party faces a particular dilemma: if it tacks toward a harder position on Brexit it is at risk from the Lib Dems, but if it doesn’t, it leaves room, in the new more volatile party system, for the nationalist populism espoused by the Brexit party. The Labour Party suffers from the divide in its electoral base between a working class and the ‘left behind’ and a more professional and educated element. The cultural and economic policies that may appeal to these different groups present it too with electoral challenges. In addition, the ‘supply’ of national populism has been transformed:  new donors have been willing to fund nationalist populist parties, and the terms of public debate have been changed, making cultural populist messages less toxic. If the Conservative Party does not re-absorb the nationalist populist tradition, Professor Goodwin argued that it is likely to become entrenched as a permanent fixture in Britain’s political landscape.