Labour is out of touch with the country and this is not just about politics. Its members and supporters tend to be different in their cultural and emotional responses to modernity and change. There’s an argument that this doesn’t matter too much because we can forge a progressive alliance of like minds to win an election. Labour success can be measured by the number of Liberal Democrat voters we can win over. They’re people like us – they just need persuading.
But there is no liberal progressive majority to be had either in England or in the other nations of Britain. A strategy aimed at winning over fellow travellers will be an exercise in talking to ourselves. For Labour to achieve electoral victory in the future it must win over conservative-minded voters – the middle classes in the south and the working classes in the north. It must achieve this by telling a story about the future which unites them in a common sense of national purpose.
Cameron and the Conservative party have not been able to do this. The right do not fully understand the mood that has been taking shape in the country over the last decade. The Labour party as a national political force is in danger of terminal decline but this is not a Conservative moment. Three years after the financial crash the new political and sociological landscape of Britain is beginning to reveal itself.
While Labour in government championed the aspirations of earning and owning, fundamental shifts in popular feeling were taking shape across the country around the issues of identity, belonging and a sense of place. Labour’s promotion of immigration and a flexible labour market in the name of increasing levels of GDP showed that it did not recognise these changes and how they were undermining its electoral support. It had accommodated itself to the neoliberal Thatcherite hegemony and was not attuned to its externalities.
These externalities are often cultural and psychological. The new structure of feeling is a conservative response across classes to the decades of intensified individualisation and globalisation driven by liberal market capitalism. A combination of predatory capitalism and complicit government policy has undermined people’s financial and social security, fractured social ties and caused a significant shift in the burden of risk from the state and business onto the individual. This applies as much to the middle classes as to the working classes.
Labour must now confront the popular reaction to its brand of technocratic and utilitarian modernisation and do so in the unfamiliar realms of emotion and culture. Two examples are immigration and crime.
Labour has begun to acknowledge that it made mistakes on immigration and to admit it did not recognise the fear and insecurity caused by the undercutting of wages. However, this rational economic argument misses the fact that many people’s opinions about immigration are formed through a deep sense of loss of a cultural identity and sense of belonging. Culture is where people create a sense of meaningfulness and forge identities of connection, but Britain’s culture is disorientated. A disorientated culture throws up questions like who are we? and what is our life about? without being able to answer them. Cultural difference, transient neighbours, press images of illegal immigrants and the ebb and flow of foreign labour give form to often unspoken anxieties.
Labour struggles to understand people’s fear of crime. Its solution of a harsher penal code to assuage populist demands for security and retributive justice make some kind of sense as a short-term political fix but do not diminish the fear and rage. Despite significant reductions in crime, parents fear the abduction of their children, and older people fear burglary and mugging. Public spaces feel threatening even if statistically speaking they are not. But statistics and official pronouncements make little impact on anxieties generated by an anomic society with its tenuous social bonds, diminished sources of informal policing and a weakened civic culture. The young fear the humiliation of mugging and bullying and the older fear moral decay and the collapse of social order. The criminal justice system will not resolve the dilemma of our insecurity.
Social groups who once embraced the forward march of global modernity are no longer so confident about the benefits of progress. The pioneers of cultural and economic transformations bought the New Labour message of greater consumer choice and freedom. Today, like the poorest in society, many are experiencing the financial insecurities, psychological stresses and existential meaninglessness of capitalist modernisation. The system does not have their interests at heart, and now it is no longer delivering the incomes and rising asset prices that provided compensation. The future is no longer so bright. What matters is to live in the moment.
Those for whom the risks of globalisation outweighed the benefits, have experienced cultural devastation and moral confusion. The traditions they once held dear feel smashed to pieces, and their values trashed. Those who were once skilled are deskilled, those who once carried authority are reduced, those who had pride in their work and status have lost it or fear losing it. Alienated and humiliated, the past looks like a better place, and for some it often was.
The coalition holds the present, the defeated hold the past. Who will claim the future? It will be won by the politics that starts engaging directly with people’s anxieties and speak to what matters to them, which is not politics, but the love and relationships of family and friends, a sense of belonging, a belief that we are worthy of the esteem of others, and meaningful work. What matters is that we are valued and that the place in which we live reflects back to us this value. This does not mean being bound into a community – the ethic of self-fulfilment lies deep in our consciousness – but the feeling that we are at home in the world. Such a politics must be able to connect the sentiments of pride in place, love of family and personal esteem to the larger purpose of rebuilding the country.
This politics of the common good is grounded in institutions that mutually reinforce benevolence and responsibility to others and which optimise a high synergy between individual ambition and the public good. Social security and an equitable production of wealth and resources encourages individual self-realisation and more durable and varied forms of aspiration.
The future is conservative but it will be so in one of two ways. If the Tories succeed in mobilising areas of affluence and economic growth it will be brutal, reactionary, and divisive, organised around a temporarily revived predatory capitalism. Or if Labour succeeds in reconnecting with people it can be a future that is democratic, decent and valuing of human equality, organised around the common good and a reformed model of capitalism. Labour must lay claim to this future with the promise of a new covenant of protection and security across generations and classes.
It is a politics that will require Labour to begin what the New Right did so brilliantly in the 1970s and 1980s and facilitate the groundwork for a new decades-long hegemony of the centre left. Though Labour is in dire trouble and the economy teetering on the edge of recession, the historical conditions exist to begin to forge a new hegemony; what it needs is the determination to see it through.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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