The 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 it nearly 17 per cent of the vote and 44 second places in those places) 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 they do themselves, 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 overlaps any longer with the average voter. The latter 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 world view 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 sex and race 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 life-styles, 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 v right priorities, for example how much to tax the rich or how large a budget deficit is acceptable. But there is one very 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 v right spectrum has faded in recent times commentators have come to talk about a libertarian v authoritarian or open v 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 peoples’) 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 want to live in relatively stable places with a high level of trust, 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 – as it was the party had far more to say about universities than 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 divides 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 benefitted Labour in the context of a broader belief in the party’s economic competence.
The latter 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 and as David Frum has pointed out a large part of the comfortable middle class has ceased to identity 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 “the 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 it is the centre right that 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 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, which caused too many Labour figures to articulate an unconvincing caricature of their opponents, reinforcing the notion that they did not understand the country they were aspiring to govern.
But 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 v 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 this is noticed by voters.
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 Tory party who share much in common with their Labour opposite numbers on social and cultural issues. Many of them 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. Moreover, 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 not govern alone ever 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.
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.