Sunday 9 May 2021

Labour and post-Brexit politics

There’s a huge amount of comment about the election results, much of it relating in one way or another to Brexit, especially as regards Labour’s defeat in the Hartlepool by-election. There’s a need for caution since It’s possible to cut the voting data to fit just about any analysis. So there’s probably no need for my analysis, and the same caveat applies to it, but, for what it’s worth, here it is anyway.

The wider context

The Hartlepool result could be seen just as bringing it in line with the other ‘red wall’ losses of 2019, because it happened to have a freakishly high Brexit Party vote which, this time, the Tories mopped up. But that also suggests that the 2019 results weren’t a one-off but part of a wider set of shifts which have many causes and which pre-date Brexit and the Referendum vote, in some cases by years or even decades.

There are reams that could be written on this, but the most basic issue is well-known: a party founded primarily as the political arm of a trades union movement rooted in the industrial working class is bound to struggle given the demise of traditional manufacturing, often male and unionised, industry. That is not to say that trade unionism, per se, has become irrelevant, and recently membership numbers have increased, in both private and public sectors, after a long period of decline, but its composition, especially as regards gender is changing, as are the kind of occupations it represents. So the voting base from which Labour originally grew, and upon which it used to rely, has been changing for a long time.

It is also the case that those traditional Labour voters were not necessarily – depending what is meant by the term – left-wing. Many were always ‘cultural conservatives’ even when Labour voters. For example, there was plenty of sexism and racism within that traditional group. Those of them (or their descendants) who are now voting for a right-wing party are doing so for a fairly simple reason: they are right-wing. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Working class conservatism is nothing new. Yet this clearly isn’t all that is going on as shown, especially, by the evisceration of Labour in Scotland since 2015, but in favour of the SNP not the Conservatives.

Labour and the Brexit vote

Brexit may have hastened the decomposition of the traditional Labour vote, but that shouldn’t be overstated. Even if Labour is seen as a ‘remain’ party – which isn’t really true given that its MPs almost all voted to trigger Article 50, its stance throughout 2017-2019 was convoluted but effectively argued it could negotiate a ‘better’ Brexit, and in 2020 it voted for the Brexit trade deal – it doesn’t follow that this is the cause of its problems.

It’s simply not the case that the Brexit vote consisted of left-behind working class Northern Englanders. They were one part of a much broader coalition, and they were not necessarily habitual Labour voters. Ironically, in accepting this diagnosis Labour have fallen for the populist claims of Brexiters. And, of course, it’s certainly not the case that, nationally, most Labour voters supported Brexit. Of Labour voters in the 2015 general election, 35% voted leave in the Referendum (as, perhaps more surprisingly, did 32% of LibDem voters).

The best predictors of who voted remain are youth and educational level, especially higher education (these are clearly linked to some extent, because of the expansion of higher education). Brexit aside, Ben Page of pollsters IPSOS Mori, in his discussion of the Hartlepool result, says that age and home ownership, rather than social class, are now the key determinants of voting.

Labour’s new base

The biggest trap for Labour is the one that many of its enemies (and some of its friends) are trying to goad it into, namely to focus mainly on trying to appeal to what was its base, which is no longer there in sufficient numbers to win an election, especially as this can only be done by alienating its new base, which – in broad terms - is younger, urban (not just London), educated, renting, socially liberal, more southern than before, perhaps more rooted in the public and service sectors, possibly but not necessarily unionised, and some but not most of which is Corbynite. Labour’s successes in the Mayoral elections, especially, and its gains in some of the council elections in the south, such as Chipping Norton, underscore this emergent reality.

The good news for Labour is that this new base has a potential to expand in the future whereas its old, declining, base by definition doesn’t. So Johnson’s pitch for that vote isn’t very sustainable. A spectacularly spiteful piece about the Hartlepool result by Tony Parsons in The Sun weeps crocodile tears about how Labour has betrayed his dear old East End mum in favour of “sourdough-eating, university-educated, Guardian-reading globalists who are embarrassed by the Union Jack”. The more relevant point may be his mention that his mother died in 1999. 

Even so, this new base (which of course isn’t that described in Parsons’ ludicrous terms) isn’t big enough to win an election – and the Corbynite segment even less so - but it is the starting point from which to build a big enough coalition to do so. Given this starting point, bread and butter policies for this new base might relate to education, training and, perhaps key, housing. But a base is all it is and that means reaching out, with concrete policies as well as a rhetorical narrative, to the new manual working class, not in heavy industries and often not unionised, working for example in distribution centres and often in precarious employment conditions, and by no means confined to Northern England.

It also means reaching out to disaffected liberal Tory voters and to the small business owners and employees who the current Conservative party has abandoned. There is a huge opportunity for Labour to become the party of small business. If possible, it means formal pacts with LibDems, Greens and others, to try to overcome the age-old splintering of the liberal-left vote that gets so punished by the first-past-the-post system. Ideally, though unlikely, it means advocating electoral reform. 

Certainly it means making a new, bold federalist offer to Scotland (and England and Wales; Northern Ireland is more complicated) and in this way to stake out the ground as the party of the union which, again, Johnson’s Conservatives have ceded. This assumes, of course, that the union with Scotland survives, whereas it seems increasingly likely that its demise will be the casualty – or, for Scottish nationalists, the gain – of Brexit.

The new political landscape

This isn’t to propose a rag-bag coalition with no guiding themes or principles. Rather, it is to recognize the new political landscape which the Brexit vote did not create but made visible, and the development of which it accelerated. That can be described in various terms, none of them wholly satisfactory, but as countless commentators have observed it’s something along the lines of global/ cosmopolitan/ open versus local/ nativist/ closed.

Does this mean Labour becoming a party unworthy of its name? No, because its new base are themselves workers, of which more below. In fact, one way of casting the new divide, as shown by the Brexit vote, is in these terms, because the majority of those in full or part-time work voted remain whilst the majority of those not working voted leave.

Writing in the Sunday Times (£), Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist specialising in populism, dismisses the kind of approach I’m advocating here on the basis that the ‘cosmopolitans’ (his preferred term) are not yet a large enough group of voters, and are distributed in the wrong places. But that is because he, himself, is too deeply invested in the claims and mythologies of the populists he studies.

Thus, although using far more urbane and considered language than Parsons, he envisages these cosmopolitans as “passionate advocates for Black Lives Matter and other worthy causes and lean[ing] toward feeling ashamed, rather than proud, of Britain’s history”. In doing so he takes a stereotype of a sub-set of the new base and treats it as the whole, and ignores the wider coalition that could be built around that base. All parties consist of disparate elements, and can’t usefully be described in one-dimensional terms.

The Conservatives have already re-aligned

The crucial fact is that the Conservative Party has already made the shift to this politics. This point is made as by David Gauke, who when a Tory MP lost the whip as ‘remainer’ rebel – so no cheerleader for Johnson - in his incisive analysis of the results. The referendum and Brexit have now achieved what, at the level of electoral tactics, they were designed to achieve. That is, they have enabled the Conservatives to see off the UKIP (and later Brexit Party) threat they faced in the 2010s. In the process, by virtue of the Brexit culture war, they also hastened the demise of the old Labour base vote.

So, now, Labour has to re-orient itself to this shift. It’s true that there are questions about how quickly this re-alignment can happen, but it can only be hastened by Labour embracing it rather than hoping that the old political dividing lines re-appear, or trying to straddle the new ones. Some of the shift is happening spontaneously, but Labour can speed it up by actively pitching to the emergent reality.

To pose all this in a different way, which starts from voters rather than parties: who is to harness the votes of, and give representation to, the ‘cosmopolitans’? If the Brexit vote is taken as a proxy they are almost half the population. Are they simply to be expected to accept that, despite their huge numbers, they are not of ‘the people’ and are to be shunned in the battle for the red wall? Is it, in fact, politically sustainable to have a government which is openly hostile to the majority of its educated and economically-active population? Why, for that matter, in an advanced industrial economy in which being ‘world-leading’ is constantly lauded, should education and achievement be regarded so pejoratively?

Labour can’t be the ‘remain party’

This emphatically isn’t a proposal for Labour to become a remain party (it’s too late for that: we’ve left the EU), still less a rejoin party (it’s too early for that, if ever). But it does mean not treating erstwhile remainers as political lepers, which is to accept the false populist narrative that ‘the people’ equals leave voters, and it means not treating the effects of Brexit as taboo. In policy terms that means advocating and offering a better and certainly more harmonious relationship with the EU, not as Labour’s main or headline proposal but as part of a wider narrative of competent governance. And competence does still matter to voters: Johnson’s successes in these elections (and those of Labour in the Wales and the SNP in Scotland) are in part down to the successful delivery of the vaccines programme.

But whilst being the ‘remain party’ is a non-starter, the political scientist Rob Ford points out that a recognition of the wider politics coded by ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ can’t be avoided. Arguably (although the Biden example may contradict this) that means engaging more openly in the culture war territory, even if trying to recast its terms, rather than trying to avoid it for fear of offending those voters who, most likely, are still offended anyway. At the moment Labour, and Starmer, seem scared of saying what they think, and yet still pay the price of what such voters infer from their silence without reaping the full benefit of support from those who would agree with what they dare not say, were they to say it.

For example, a more pro-immigration stance – which in policy terms might mean advocating adding a mobility chapter to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement - would not just appeal to Labour’s new core vote but would also be economically sensible given the pressing problem of the demographics of Britain’s ageing society. Barely discussed, this is perhaps the biggest strategic challenge the UK faces, with ramifications for almost every area of economic and social policy, and both Brexit and the pandemic (£) have made it more urgent. In this context, immigration can be related to the ‘national interest’ and so an expression rather than a denial of patriotism. It works in Scotland.

I think that Labour mishandled, and have ever since been terrified by, the 2010 ‘Mrs Duffy moment’. At the very least, subsequent attempts to ‘talk tough’ on immigration were not just wrong in principle but misguided in thinking that it would appeal to right-wing voters, as eloquently argued by Maya Goodfellow in relation to Labour’s 2015 ‘immigration control’ mug. It also made Labour defensive about freedom of movement in the Brexit debates. But those for whom immigration is key will always prefer the genuinely anti-immigration parties. Conceivably, some such voters are actually more alienated by Labour’s pandering to them than they would be by Labour challenging them since the latter at least shows respect.

None of this is this an advocacy for Blairism. Many of Labour’s current problems root back to the New Labour years. The one insight from that time that remains valid, as it does for all political parties at all times, is that Labour has to adapt to changing realities. I happen to think that New Labour misdiagnosed what that meant – especially as regards the primacy of markets and how that fed through to financial regulation, public sector sub-contracting and PFI – and it certainly isn’t the right diagnosis for the 2020s, but the basic idea that undertaking such a diagnosis is necessary is correct.

The challenge for Labour’s political psychology

So, now, that means not harking back to ‘the red wall’ as some kind of immutable Labour territory and, in particular, recognizing the new shape of politics to which Brexit was the gateway. That doesn’t mean abandoning efforts or hope to retain or regain such seats, or regarding lapsed Labour voters there as hostile or beyond redemption. Nor does it mean neglecting them in policy terms, indeed a robust regional policy should be a key part of Labour’s offer. But it means ceasing to regard those seats as the central bedrock of Labour support, the ones to be counted on with others a bonus.

And I think that also means something which is difficult in terms of political psychology – perhaps captured by the very word ‘heartlands’ - which is to cease seeing these areas and the old traditional voter base as being, somehow, more authentically working class than the new base. That’s a real challenge, given the long and proud history of Labour in what was the industrial North and Midlands. But in the 2020s there is a certain sentimentality, even an absurdity, in treating the memory of, say, Yorkshire coal miners and steelworkers as being the core, ‘real working class’ and, say, an East London council worker or a Bournemouth care home worker as somehow peripheral and not quite who the Labour Party was founded for.

To put it another way, the elections could better be seen as Labour having retained, in the Mayoralties, its new urban heartlands in London and Manchester and starting to extend them to areas in the East and West of England, than in terms of Hartlepool showing it is losing in its heartlands.

For that matter, the assumptions about Labour being a working-class party, and the persistent agonizing about the relationship between that and its often middle-class leadership, become much less relevant in the new landscape. Those labels are increasingly confused anyway, because many middle-class people think of themselves as working class and sometimes vice versa. One part of that is that despite the sneering references to university education by the likes of Parsons, the expansion of such education in recent years means that it no longer exclusively references 'middle-classness', still less privilege.

The politics of ‘authenticity’

Moreover, a large part of the populism that informed Brexit and which Johnson is now mobilising is based on the idea that it is the voice of ‘ordinary people’. What matters in this politics is not social class but ‘authenticity’, so that voters who rail against ‘the elite’ think that Johnson, or Farage, is ‘one of them’ because ‘you could have a drink with him’. By contrast the elite are prissy, moralising do-gooders who ‘won’t let ordinary people say what we think’ (more on this idea here). Johnson understands this, which is why he jabs away at Keir Starmer for being ‘an Islington lawyer’ as if he, Johnson, was just ‘a regular guy’.

In some ways, Johnson’s populism in general, and Brexit in particular, can be thought of as an assault on educated people of whatever social class, and a deeply reactionary one in, effectively, decrying working-class aspiration and social mobility in favour of a society in which everyone knows their place. That is a proposition that Labour have always rejected. So a bold Labour Party would say something along the lines of: ‘like you, we think everyone’s as good as everyone else, we are about making your life better whoever you are and whatever you want to be.’

Some of my analysis here may be wrongly stressed, some of it is based on hunch, and all of it would need substantial fleshing out to become a workable strategy. But the core of it, I think, is correct: Tories have always been ruthless in reinventing themselves, and, as Gauke says, Johnson has done that for them again, primarily through Brexit and his exploitation of it. But he was able to do so because, like it or not, the political landscape has changed. If Labour are going to win again, they need to recognize that, and be equally ruthless in drawing conclusions from it.

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