The Brit Left Opts for a Wrong Tomorrow

corbyn IIThe 2015 British election was a turning point for the Labour Party from which it is hard to see it recovering in its present form. Moreover, there is no obvious centre-Left success story elsewhere in Europe which might provide a guide and inspiration for a Labour recovery. The temporary advance of harder-Left parties like Syriza and Podemos is unlikely to survive contact with economic realities and, in any case, is just further competition for the moderate Left.

In fact Labour’s defeat—in part at the hands of nationalists and populists of Left and Right—represents for the party an unwelcome Europeanisation of British politics. The old social democratic alliance between blue-collar workers and the non-business professional middle class—what one might call the Hampstead–Humberside alliance—has long since disappeared in continental Europe. The Tony Blair victories of 1997, 2001 and 2005 turn out to have been its last hurrah in Britain.

There is plenty of space for a rooted, well-led, social democratic party in Britain capable of speaking for two-thirds of the country or more, and able to appeal to both aspirational middle- and lower-income voters and those who feel left behind by rapid social change. It is just very hard to see how Labour with its current activists, MPs and leaders could ever be that party. For it is the party’s inability to understand the cultural anxieties of most British voters that lost it the election. Leaving aside the (admittedly large) issue of economic competence and Ed Miliband, it simply had no answer to nationalism in Scotland, UKIP English populism in the Midlands and the North (which gave UKIP nearly 17 per cent of the vote and 44 second places in those areas) and the free-market modernity of southern England.

The Labour Party is a self-consciously progressive party dominated by highly educated people who believe that they see the world more clearly and understand people’s interests better than those people themselves do, which is the default instinct of both the highly educated and the left-of-centre.

But this de haut en bas political temperament and the wider worldview of the Labour activist barely overlap any longer with the average voter. The average voter has a hotchpotch of sometimes conflicting political feelings about the world, which might be summed up in Matthew d’Ancona’s phrase of “individualism plus the NHS”.

Voters know more clearly what they do not like, and the centre of gravity of the UK electorate—more than 50 per cent of those who voted backed the Tories or UKIP—delivered an emphatic rejection of the Liberal and Labour versions of metropolitan liberalism: against mass immigration, further European integration and living in a transit-camp society. It was also a vote against Labour’s new heartland—London. But it is wrong to see this as a big shift to the Right, at least in the way that people on the Left see the Right.

Faced by the populist threat, too many people on the liberal Left—especially those touched by the romantic spirit of the 1960s—retreat, with relief, into the citadel of “civilised values” which they imagine themselves to be defending against the new barbarians. Such a politics of disdain is tempting but ineffective and is one reason why centre-Left parties are in their current mess. Saying to the millions of supporters of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and so on, that I am morally superior to you, will not change anyone’s mind. It also underestimates the extent to which most supporters of European populist parties remain liberals at least in a loose sense. On their fringes there are authoritarians and racists but that is not the case for most supporters of mainstream populist parties, and it is self-defeating to confuse the two.

It is true that the supporters of populist parties feel uneasy about many aspects of cultural and economic change. Many might be described as “conflicted populists” or perhaps even as “conflicted liberals”—they are opposed to large-scale immigration (as people tend to be everywhere) and suspicious of the centralising and anti-national tendencies of the EU. They usually come from the more rooted and middling sections of society, from small towns, suburbia and former industrial areas, places that often feel the national story has passed them by. They do not share the progressive individualist worldview of the mobile, graduate elite, but they are not reactionaries. Most of them think that their country is a better place for the advances in race and gender equality of recent decades, but also think that somewhere along the way we have lost a sense of moral community and common sense.

The mainstream voter has a Left or liberal side: most oppose unjustified wealth and hierarchies (though might disagree about the definition of unjustified), are suspicious of authority, are comfortable with abroad, and support equal rights. But they also have a conservative or communitarian side: most are suspicious of change, want to live in stable communities, think people should take responsibility for themselves, want to live in relatively traditional families, and without being flag-waving nationalists think that national citizen preference matters. They also generally want a narrower and more conditional welfare state and worry that some ethnic minorities remain too separate from the mainstream. Most are not opposed to gay marriage and similar causes (rights for transgender people is the latest) but think that metropolitan liberals give them too high a priority. They are in the main what I call “post-liberal” rather than illiberal—they want, in other words, a more balanced and rooted form of politics that embraces the individualism of modern life without neglecting tradition and community.

What we are dealing with here is not a contest between good and evil but rather an argument between two different strands of liberalism—“metropolitan” on the one hand and “popular” on the other—based partly on the different lifestyles, experiences and interests of, on the one hand the upper professional class (of which politicians are one part), and on the other hand the numerically larger but less influential ordinary voter of middle or lower income with an average level of education.

Of course, on many central political and economic issues the argument over varieties of liberalism does not arise. This is because the issues are either essentially technocratic—say, how best to manage the energy market—or because they remain strongly subject to Left versus Right priorities, for example how much to tax the rich or how large a budget deficit is acceptable. But there is one big reason why, in recent years, metropolitan liberalism has been losing ground to popular liberalism: metropolitan liberalism is invariably a cheerleader for restless change. When change seems to benefit everyone the conflict between the two liberalisms recedes but when change does not seem to benefit everyone or happens too quickly popular liberalism finds a voice.

One of the implicit promises of modern democratic citizenship is some degree of control over one’s life. That most easily translates into a right to stop things happening; the right, at its most basic, to some stability and continuity in the place and the way one lives. Given the nature of the modern world this is not a promise that is easy for democratic politicians to deliver on.

In the economic sphere citizens are generally ready to accept that non-interference, going with the flow of market change, does deliver incremental improvement to the material conditions of life. The idea of fighting to stop a factory closing and moving to China now seems like battling against common sense. But in the political and social sphere people are still encouraged to believe that they can stop changes they do not like, and when that sometimes turns out not to be the case, populist disaffection is often the result.

This is not just that people are myopic and cannot see that accepting change will bring longer-term advantage or that the cost of change is socially concentrated while the benefits are more widely and invisibly spread, though both of those things are often true. It is also, simply, that metropolitan liberals are usually equipped economically and psychologically to benefit from change while popular liberals are often not, even in the long run.

As the Left versus Right spectrum has faded in recent times commentators have come to talk about a libertarian versus authoritarian or open versus closed spectrum instead. But the latter in particular is just self-serving liberal propaganda. Who believes in a closed world? Nobody. Many people do want immigration to return to more moderate levels and think EU citizens should have to work for a few years before qualifying for tax credits or social housing—in fact a large majority of the population want it—but they are modern “easyJet” people with the mix of political instincts I listed above. They are socially conservative and liberal at the same time.

The more relevant spectrum, as I have argued above, would highlight those different emotional attitudes to change, mobility and belonging. Progressives and liberals tend to welcome change and are comfortable with mobility (their own and other people’s) and not especially bothered about belonging, indeed are suspicious of most group allegiances. Many voters are more likely to see change as loss, and without being sentimental for the often oppressive communities of 1950s Britain they want to live in relatively stable places with a high level of trust, a low level of crime and some degree of neighbourliness. And most people are moral particularists—they place the interests of fellow members of the local or national club before outsiders.

This is the spectrum which finds most voters at the opposite end from the modern Labour Party. And it is not just over questions of geographical mobility. On social mobility too Labour’s graduate professionals seem to be saying: climb those ladders out as we did. Of course Labour should be on the side of ladder-climbers but it has been insufficiently sensitive to the shadow that they cast over those who cannot or do not want to climb with them. Just as London can make the rest of the country feel inconsequential, so those who get to university and into the top part of the hourglass labour market can make those millions of decent, responsible people, doing ordinary jobs, feel like failures.

This is the dark side of meritocracy, and Labour should have thought far harder about how to mitigate it. It had far more to say about universities than about the continuing mess that is non-university post-school education and training. As the Labour MPs Gloria De Piero and Jon Ashworth wrote in the Times a few days after the election:

In the election, it looked like—so far as Labour was concerned—aspiration was just about going to university, hence our promise to cut tuition fees. But aspiration is also finding your children a place in a good school; getting your foot on the housing ladder; or starting a business or learning a new trade. These are becoming harder not easier, but Labour was not talking enough about them, let alone persuading people we had the answers.

A country with a critical mass of strivers but a high floor—both in pay and status—for those who stay put and do basic jobs is something that we have been slipping further away from as the labour market and the education system increasingly divide into insiders (mobile professionals/graduates) and outsiders (immobile people without A-levels doing often basic jobs). This is a problem for all advanced countries and for all political parties but Labour could and should have made this aspect of inequality a central part of its narrative rather than the more remote issue of a tiny number of the super-rich.

Coherent, well presented policies on vocational education and increasing the housing supply would have appealed more to middling Britain, and done more for equality, than rhetorically-pleasing policies such as the mansion tax on expensive houses. But they would only have benefited Labour in the context of a broader belief in the party’s economic competence.

Economic competence is a necessary but not sufficient condition of centre-Left revival. But the Left has not been able to give voice to a distinctive economic argument beyond slightly less severe austerity and a vague belief in a higher trust/higher investment form of capitalism. This is despite the fact that there is no great appetite for small-state austerity, and arguments for high public investment remain popular. And in an era of slow growth distributional issues, whether between classes or generations, remain as relevant as ever.

The centre-Right is potentially vulnerable on these issues. As David Frum has pointed out, a large part of the comfortable middle class has ceased to identify with the richest slice of society and is just as likely to think that the wealth of those at the very top is undeserved.

Yet nowhere in the bigger-picture policy battle does the centre-Left appear to be winning. In the 1980s it used to be said that the Right had won the economic argument for markets and the Left had won the cultural and social argument for non-economic equality. In the very broadest sense that remains true but in more everyday political life the Left seems to be trailing in both the economic and cultural-social sphere. The free-market utopianism symbolised by high finance in the US and Britain in particular has been radically weakened by the 2008 crash, so sensible parties of the centre-Right have adjusted their analysis and rhetoric in a more social democratic direction and placed greater stress on economic intervention, market regulation and, in the case of British Conservatives, “rebalancing” away from finance and the south-east of England. (See George Osborne’s “march of the makers”.) Unlike in America, where a large part of the Right is still trying to roll back the New Deal, this means the Left has nothing especially distinctive to say.

Meanwhile in most of the big social policy areas the centre-Right has been setting the national agenda. On immigration and multiculturalism the belief that we have let too many people into the country too fast and then not done enough to ensure they integrate into British society is an overwhelmingly popular belief and it is the Conservatives (and UKIP) who have given it voice. Labour has merely trailed after with watered-down versions of the same policies. The story is similar in welfare reform and education.

The Left has not noticed, or not wanted to notice, the extent to which the mainstream centre-Right has made its peace with modern Britain: the Conservative Party has long accepted the principles of race and gender equality and now even worries about the extent of economic inequality. In education and welfare it has thought long and hard about the conditions of the poorest and has come up with distinctive policies that do not just rely on the centre-Left default of more public spending.

Another reason for Labour’s poor performance at the last election was the sense of moral superiority, an abiding sin of the Left. Too many Labour figures articulated an unconvincing caricature of their opponents, reinforcing the notion that they did not understand the country they were aspiring to govern.

Even if Labour politicians of genuine talent and imagination were to emerge in the next couple of years with fresh and relevant policies that have bridging appeal to both aspirational and left-behind voters, Labour has a further political problem of what one might call “embodiment”.

Embodiment is vital in today’s politics. As Left versus Right arguments about the state and class interests recede and cultural politics looms larger, so it becomes more important for political leaders and even party members to embody the combination of social democracy and social conservatism that is the only possible winning combination for Labour. But because the majority of Labour activists and MPs are metropolitan liberals, they find it hard to psychologically “own” the socially conservative part of the agenda—and voters notice.

One of the reasons Labour politicians express themselves with so little freedom and vigour these days is that they represent conflicting constituencies: the liberal professionals and minorities of the metropolitan centres on the one hand and the more conservative poor and state-dependent, the losers from economic openness, on the other. Already in the 2010 election Labour got more votes from the three higher social classes (A, B and C1) than from the lower half of the income spectrum. Like most of their continental sister parties they have long since ceased to be the party of the working class in any meaningful sense.

Of course Conservatives also speak to multiple and sometimes conflicting interests but they benefit enormously from a historic reputation for economic competence and from being the party that protects national traditions, even though they have probably done more (at least in their free-market period) to help erode them. It now seems easier for Tories to occupy pretty well all positions on the political map, from small-state economic liberals to blue-collar Tory advocates of the living wage.

There is also a significant constituency of centre-Right metropolitan liberals in the Conservative Party who share much in common with their Labour opposite numbers on social and cultural issues. Many in both parties believe they represent the future but only, I believe, by misunderstanding social trends and exaggerating the reactionary beliefs of their more socially conservative opponents.

The idea that metropolitan liberalism has history on its side because of the growing ethnic minority and graduate electorate, was recently argued by Jeremy Cliffe of the Economist in a paper for the London think-tank Policy Network. In fact mass higher education (as the US shows) changes the nature of the average student, especially as fewer students leave home to study. And most ethnic minority citizens in Britain tend to come from socially conservative backgrounds and are, for example, not much more open on immigration than the white British. A significant part of the more economically successful ethnic minority vote is already shifting to the Conservatives.

The political pendulum will eventually swing back to the left in some form though it seems perfectly possible that Labour will never govern alone again. Most commentators seem to think that some sort of combination of New Labour (for economic competence) and Blue Labour (for social conservatism and reconnection with middling and left-behind voters) will again produce a winning formula for Labour, but it is hard to see the Blue tendency ever establishing strong enough roots in a party that speaks overwhelmingly in the measured tones of the college-educated liberal.

A split into three constituent parts—a metropolitan liberal New Labour party, a left-wing trade-union-backed party and a Blue Labour communitarian party—might be cathartic and would solve the problem of having to appeal to a liberal “melting pot” interest at the same time as a northern left-behind white working-class interest. Instead of being an internal party culture clash it would potentially become a more open and honest matter of coalition negotiations between separate entities. But it would surely mean Tory governments or Tory-led coalitions for a generation.

That possibility will become closer to a certainty if, as now seems quite likely, the Labour Party tears itself apart over the next two to three years over who should lead it. Jeremy Corbyn, who was until recently a sort of joke hard-Left MP, is currently the favourite to succeed Ed Miliband as leader.

How has this extraordinary state of affairs arisen? In the transition from the mild social democracy of Tony Blair to first Gordon Brown and then Ed Miliband the general view has been that the party has remained remarkably disciplined—disappointed by Blair no doubt and shifting somewhat to the left in rhetoric under Brown and a bit more in policy under Miliband—but still essentially the same membership that cheered on Tony Blair, at least until the Iraq War.

But it now seems that a large chunk of the membership were just pretending—they remained old-fashioned socialists after all. And they have been joined by an impatient younger generation wanting the passion and commitment that has been sorely lacking in mainstream Labour for two decades (along with a crazy temporary membership scheme that has encouraged mass entryism from much of the extra-parliamentary Left).

Of course one of the reasons that mainstream Labour has been unable to speak with any clarity or passion is precisely because Labour has been representing groups with conflicting interests: the liberal professionals/ethnic minorities of the great conurbations and the more conservative left-behind voters, often poor and welfare-dependent. This conflict has had the effect of hollowing out the party and making it confused about what it is and who it represents. This has allowed Corbyn’s simple conviction to appear so novel and attractive.

Ideologically he is almost the opposite of the Blue Labour/New Labour combination that might have offered the party some sort of winning direction. He is the embodiment of a sort of scruffy, bearded metropolitan liberalism—three times divorced and a great enthusiast for mass immigration, and he even lives in and represents one of the Islington seats! Yet unlike the New Labour and Tory metropolitan liberals he also believes in extreme statist economics and actually wants to bring back Labour’s antediluvian clause 4 on the nationalisation of industry. It is absolutely the worst possible combination for Labour.

Perhaps that does not matter. Perhaps the Labour Party has served its historical purpose by making certain ideas about equality, welfare safety nets and opportunity part of British common sense. Indeed, a bit of healthy competition for the votes of the least privileged in British society might be long overdue.

David Goodhart is the chair of the British think-tank Demos and the editor-at-large of Prospect Magazine, of which he was founding editor in 1995. An earlier version of this article was delivered at a conference of the Danube Institute in Budapest and published in the Hungarian Review.


3 thoughts on “The Brit Left Opts for a Wrong Tomorrow

  • Jack Richards says:

    The election of an old fool, a left-over from the flower-power generation, like Corbyn shows just how out-of-touch with everything is the British left. Corbyn represents the thinking of the 50s and 60s when everything in Britain was nationalised: British Rail, British Steel, British Leyland, British Coal and so on and so forth and the whole country became unworkable and produced nothing but rubbish from the factories that actually produced anything. I can recall when they went to a 3-day week and started the “I’m Backing Britain” campaign and tried to make someone do something in a land where there was zero incentive to do anything.

    During the 50s they thought they could tax their way to prosperity and brought in 95% taxes on “high incomes” and successful companies. The tax burden for the welfare state, the British “cradle to grave” socialism meant that no industrial enterprise could afford to invest in Research and Development and nothing exemplifies that more than the British Motorcycle industry: Triumph, BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield, Matchless – all went broke – soon followed by all those British car marques: Austin, Morris, MG, Wolseley, Humber, Hillman, Standard, Vanguard, Jaguar … all sold off, nationalised, or just abolished. Another great example of socialism in action was the great metallurgical city of Sheffield. There was a time when Sheffield steel was “world’s best” but that was gutted by ridiculous labour laws, an intolerable tax burden, and interference by civil servants (who knew nothing about steel making) at every stage of production. Eventually the whole industry just shut down.

    I can recall seeing a documentary some years ago about 3 generations of Sheffield men. There was grand-dad, his son and grand-son. Grand-dad was the only family member who had ever held a job but he’d been retrenched when the steel mill where he’d worked for 10 years went broke in 1960. They all lived in “Council” flats, all collected the dole, and did nothing but travel Britain following the Sheffield Wednesday Football team. That was it: they’d meet with all their mates at the local Pub – the three generations of them – and decide how they’d get to London or Manchester or Liverpool and who’d they fight when the got there. Football, brawling and drinking was the sum of their lives. The sad thing was that none of them had the slightest idea, or desire, to change the way things were. They reminded me of that part of Orwell’s 1984 where Winston Smith goes looking for truth amongst the “Proles” and finds himself in a Pub with people whose lives revolve around boozing, brawling and hoping to win the lottery – which Winston knows is a fraud and there are no winners. Much as he tries, he can’t get a sensible word out of any of them.

    That’s the Britain Corbyn wants to create.

    • Jack Richards says:

      I might also add that the Beatles wrote a song about the absurdity of Britain’s taxing system:

      Let me tell you how it’s going to be
      There’ll be one for you and nineteen for me
      ’cause I’m the taxman , yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m the taxman


  • Jody says:

    Corbyn is the gift that just keeps on giving to the Conservative Party.

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