Thursday 8 November 2018

Labour and the "Left Behinds"

The joint Hope Not Hate/British Future report, The National Conversation on Immigration and its focus on "left behind" communities is to be welcomed, not least because it isn't the usual regurgitation of Blue Labour dogma. It acknowledges some of the problems Labour has with its former 'traditional' base, and suggests things the party needs to do to avoid more significant difficulties down the road. You can read a précis here by Rose Carter, one of the report's authors.

The conclusions are familiar. At the last election, Labour did best in metropolitan, socially liberal, and graduate-heavy areas. Taking immigration as a lightning rod issue that condenses a range of attitudes, those surveyed who had the most positive attitudes toward it, for example, lived in close proximity to a university. Respondents who registered the highest degree of antipathy tended to live in former industrial communities. In other words, the most progressive were concentrated in the leading edges of the economy while those who are not comprise the left behind.

Combining survey research and focus groups, Rosie notes that "wherever you are, and whatever the questions are about, you always hear about they". The amorphous 'they' can be Muslims, immigrants, or elites. This they has the tendency to denote all of them at once. The common feature is a perception that the system works for them while the 'we' - us - lose out. As these sentiments are widespread, it's small wonder conspiracy theory is almost banal in its ubiquity. However, unlike other investigations of the relationship between values and political choices, Hope Not Hate is clear that there is a materialist basis for alienation of this kind. Similar to what's been argued on there since year dot, and many other places at many different times, is that the evaporation of industry, the changing character of work, greater precarity, and the shifting geographies of the most profitable economic activity fosters a sense of anxiety that makes changing culture, patterns of migration, new values, and the acceptance of minorities appear strange and threatening to some. Unaddressed these anxieties can be tapped into by populist and far right politics. This has been the case in the United States, but also here in the UK with the rise and fall of the BNP and UKIP respectively, the potency of tabloid shit stirring about Asian grooming gangs, and the social media celebrity of Tommy Robinson. It's not that economics and identity are opposed, they're intertwined.

This presents a challenge to Labour because it is Labour-voting areas where these views found the highest concentration. The research suggests many people feel abandoned by the party, therefore the party has to address their concerns. This requires an understanding of their frustrations, their anxieties, the wellsprings of this disenchantment and put forward a "genuine offer" that is more than an "ideological project".

There are some issues here with the framing, the findings, and the prescription. In the spirit of understanding our left behinds, we need to get to grips with what the report overlooks: age. While there are plenty of people for whom views like those described above are grist to the mill of populism (and worse), the distribution is not evenly spread. As polling after the election demonstrated, young people are most unlikely to vote right, especially if they're in the DE category. Meanwhile, older voters across the occupational groups are more likely to vote Tory, but there is still a class effect here with those in the lower grades doing so in fewer number than the better off. This is important. Labour's problems with left behind communities is not with the "traditional working class", it's much more specific: it's with older workers and the retired, a consequence of a class cohort effect. This may vary to a degree from place to place, but remember, the bulk of low paid and precarious jobs are immaterial in character too - they have the production of relationships, knowledge, data, services, and care at their heart just as much as the swanky jobs of the cool hipster haunts. And outside of work most younger workers are plugged into the networked world thanks to the supercomputers in their pockets. This is not insignificant.

The second issue is the degree to which the 2017 Labour campaign acted more of a push than a pull factor. We know Labour did lose some "traditional" seats and dropped votes in others, including Bolsover, the fiefdom of dear old Dennis. Obviously, it would be ridiculous to suggest the perception of Corbyn's Labour as a "they" without a clue about life in the provinces wasn't a factor, but nor should we discount the consequences of the types of campaigns ran in a number of these seats. In a handful of "core" constituencies of my acquaintance, majorities were slashed and elections lost by the localised campaigns of Corbyn-sceptic candidates. There are cases of candidates agreeing with voters on the doorstep that Jeremy Corbyn was awful and the Labour Party was crap because of it, but still vote for me. Far be it for me to question the wisdom of such an approach, but common sense might suggest saying your party isn't much cop, which would then be repeated by a punter to their friends and families is not the stuff from which a successful election night is made. Far from overcoming estrangement, they compounded it.

And on the topic of campaigns, if we're concerned about Labour losing votes a scientific approach would require that we also look at those votes we won. And I'm not referring to the "new votes" in this case either. Theresa May's Tories were able to triangulate the UKIP vote and annex large numbers of them, but a not insignificant number returned to Labour. Why? Presumably, these voters' concerns were broadly similar to others who supported UKIP, so why did they come home? Was it that Labour's acceptance of Brexit conferred on the party a 'permission to be heard'. Could the distinctly 'old Labour' positioning the Tories and the media ensured every voter knew about was a significant factor in bring them back?

As that is the case, it suggests that Labour is already on the right track to win back these communities. It can speak to the left behind in the clear language of industrialism, housing, and jobs. Going down the Blue Labour and addressing "genuine concerns" by pandering to them won't cut the mustard. Getting besuited Westminster types wrapping themselves in the flag and talking hard politics on immigration appears naff, insincere, and desperate. It would win over few, if any, socially conservative voters and succeed in alienating large swathes of the huge coalition we've built so far. You'd have to be really green to go blue.

Winning over left behind communities is not an over night task. Since 1979 they have grown used to having politics being done to them by successive governments of all party labels. Campaigning, community organising, and the right policies that speak to our people is the way of rebuilding trust, seeing off cynicism and combating the nihilistic turn to Toryism and the right. Contrary to the implications of the report, we need more Corbynism. Not less.


George Carty said...

How much are differing attitudes to immigration rooted in the different nature of local economies, specifically "dirt" economies versus "brain" economies?

In economies based on natural resources it makes sense to be anti-immigration, as bringing more people in doesn't increase the amount of wealth being generated and makes people worse off on average. Perhaps the murderous sectarianism of ISIS was an even more extreme example of this, as in the Middle East the overwhelmingly dominant form of wealth is the one which is pumped out of the ground.

By contrast, in economies based on brain power (either STEM or creative) not long do more people create more wealth, but more diversity also increases productivity by allowing problems to be viewed with a different perspective.

Anonymous said...

I live in Stoke on Trent. Most folk I know just want opportunities for a good education for their kids and employment. They don't trust politicians because there has been no real worthwhile action to deliver on this, to support the city by government. They want nothing more than what middle class folks expect for their kids. The lack of trust is significant but hardly surprising.

Johny Conspiranoid. said...

"As these sentiments are widespread, it's small wonder conspiracy theory is almost banal in its ubiquity"

People must think that those with the same interests are lokely to combine to pusue those interets, seceretly if need be.

Tmb said...

'They want nothing more than what middle class folks expect for their kids.'

Exactly. Same for me. What most families and people everywhere want is the same opportunities to prosper as the middle class. Sorry to disappoint Marxists and ideologues but it's as boring and as simple as that. Politics is really just varying groups wanting either an unfair slice of the pie, or in the case of the working classes, a fairer slice of the pie.

Boffy said...

"Was it that Labour's acceptance of Brexit conferred on the party a 'permission to be heard'. Could the distinctly 'old Labour' positioning the Tories and the media ensured every voter knew about was a significant factor in bring them back?"

No it was that the EU has always been a lower order concern for voters, compared to their concerns over jobs, wages, NHS and so on, and Corbyn's return of the party to its traditional social-democratic stance on those issues, gave them a reason to vote Labour again. There have always been a lot of Labour voters in the past who were soft racists - even some Labour members, it has to be said, and some of them active trades unionists too - not to mention lots who were misogynistic and homophobic.

Indeed, in the 1970's and 1980's, the Militant Tendency itself was renowned for its "Workerist" attitudes, whereby it soft pedalled on those issues, in order not to alienate some of what it thought might be potential working-class recruits, who held reactionary views on those subjects. The fact was that when it came to voting, those who held such bigoted views, either didn't know where Labour stood on those issues, voted Labour out of tribal loyalty, or else voted Labour despite its more progressive positions on social issues, simply because they were more concerned to vote Labour over economic issues, as it affected their pocket.

TOSP said...

“At the last election, Labour did best in metropolitan, socially liberal, and graduate-heavy areas. “

I still contend that Labour do best in the more working class parts of a city and the Tories do best in the more leafy parts. And this is still the fundamental dividing line.

I think there are some deeply ingrained racist attitudes among working class communities, but another reason people vote Brexit or Trump is that the liberal ideology is built on erroneous foundations. For example over the phony concept of misogyny, which I claim is a made up concept. Imagine working class communities who have been told basically that over the last 200 years men have lived in some Shangri la and women have been oppressed, imagine being told that the thing you cherish the most, i.e. your family unit, is nothing but a patriarchal despotism!

Then imagine the last 200 years of history where overwhelmingly men were forced to work 12-16 hours a day in the most awful conditions imaginable and little boys (not little girls) were sent into clean machines, often losing their limbs. Then when the war came men were sent to the front to fight knee deep in mud and blood and body parts while the women worked in the factory.

And then tell me that in the last 200 years it was better to be a man than a woman and that women were the ones being oppressed!