Lewis Goodall: Labour is waking up to where the next election will be fought
The basic framework of British politics has changed – and Jeremy Corbyn appeared to acknowledge it this week.
When I was a kid, there was no doubt in my mind what the basic fissure in politics was. The earliest lesson, intoned from my Grandad, my Mum, my Dad - was that politics could be distilled in a single sentence; “Labour was for the poor and the Tories for the rich.” Labour, in other words, was for working class families like mine. It was a simpler way of reducing the remark of one American sociologist, who decades ago remarked that “Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”
What a long way we have travelled. Today, the Labour Party and the Conservatives are almost level pegging among the poorest voters. The greatest swings in the general election were poorer, less educated voters in favour of the Conservatives and wealthier, more cosmopolitan voters towards Labour. Today Labour nurses dwindling majorities in seats like Bishop Auckland in the north east whilst holding Canterbury and Kensington, with super majorities in seats like Streatham in south London which only 25 years ago were Tory. In the old days, the best way of guaranteeing a safe seat for an aspiring Labour politician was choosing one with a colliery. Today it’d probably be an artisan bakery, craft beer house and university.
What has happened? The basic framework of British politics has changed. The mantle is shifting and forming anew. Whereas class and economic bargaining between the classes was the essential focus of 20th century politics, the 21st’s is destined to focus on cultural outlook.
These shifts are uncommon but not unusual, they have happened before. The political fissures of the 19th century - a politics where the big dividing lines between the parties were whether you went to church or chapel (high Anglican Tories vs. non-conformist Liberals) seem baffling to our own age. Likewise the deep certainties of the 20th century, of much of the mass industrialised working class voting for the left and the middle and upper classes voting Tory, already seem quaint. Instead, politics, since the late 1970s has embraced a cultural, identitarian turn. The left, partly out of the sexual and political revolutions of the 1960s, embraced a rights based approach, focussing on individual self empowerment (be it on sexual orientation, gender or race), which in many ways has reached its apotheosis in our own age.
The trouble has been that this agenda - though virtuous in championing minorities and causes which didn’t get a look in in the grey, homogenous 1950s, sat uncomfortably with much of the left’s traditional messages of solidarity, unity and mass group rights. Often, such an agenda was actively off-putting to the left’s traditional, socially conservative but economically interventionist core of working class support.
The culture wars, so virulent in America but present here too, were born. Mixed in with the crash of 2008, which deprived the left of its Blairite/Third Way intellectual response to the changes being wrought in our politics, the social democratic left across the West has haemorrhaged working class support and struggled to respond. They seemed to be trying to answer questions no-one was answering any more and has consequently been wiped out across much of Europe.
The British left, in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, appeared to be going the same way. Then the 2017 election changed everything. Suddenly a left wing leader ran on a left wing platform and gained seats, from 20 points behind. 2017 will, like 1983, be forever in the back pocket of left-wing Labour Party activists as political gold dust. Proof, that they can advance, if only they hold true to their own beliefs.
But the more we learn about the result, the more we realise how lucky Jeremy Corbyn was. Brexit, far from impaling Labour as Theresa May hoped, proved its shield. Labour did, as the PM hoped, lose much support from its old working class base - but it kept just enough and absorbed millions of middle class remainers. The culture war works both ways.
More and more, the British party system looks more like America’s. Labour as a coalition of the young, cosmopolitan, professional, urban and diverse and the Conservatives as increasingly blue collar, older, whiter, semi-urban and rural. The fact that these respective coalitions are bound together by cultural outlook, not just class or economic status, means it is harder for each party to lure those in either tent to switch side. That partly explains the entirely static polls we’ve had since last year’s election.
We’ve seen that Labour this week are aware of this. It was telling that Jeremy Corbyn’s speech focussed on bread and butter issues of childcare, pensions and regeneration. Their party political broadcast released as conference ends, with its northern narrator and focus on small towns, emphasises that the leadership know where the next election will be fought: in white, old, less formally educated, post-industrial small-town Britain.
There are exactly the places and people with whom Labour are struggling. They must, to have any hope of winning a majority, stem the bleeding. Regardless of electoral considerations, these are many of the sort of people Labour was founded to serve. Their only hope now, is to reconnect with its own history.
Left for Dead? The Strange Death and Rebirth of the Labour Party by Lewis Goodall is out now (William Collins, £20).