The defining sociological trends of today are very different from when Labour was last in opposition. The party needs to think boldly to address them, argues Graeme Cooke
In the aftermath of the 1987 general election, Labour’s National Executive Committee commissioned a major postmortem into the party’s third consecutive defeat. Combining insights into voting behaviour, public attitudes and sociological trends, the resulting report, Labour and Britain in the 1990s, was a clarion call to understand how changes in society were reshaping politics. The report painted a stark picture of a party in danger of being left behind by, and increasingly ‘out of tune’ with, the country it sought to govern.
There was strong backing for Labour’s values – with no majority embrace of Thatcherism – yet the party had lost support across all social groups. A widespread feeling that ‘Labour is not for me’, alongside the dominant sociological trends of the time – like the increase in managerial and professional jobs, the revolution in women’s lives and the expansion of home ownership – risked putting the party on the ‘wrong side of history’.
In the 1990s, Labour dramatically overcame this predicament, recasting its appeal to ‘go with the grain’ of economic and social shifts, while tapping into the spirit of optimism and modernity that characterised the end of the 20th century. This strategy delivered spectacular electoral results and underpinned a political dominance that lasted more than a decade. The right, ideologically rampant in the 1980s, could not come to terms with the country Britain had become, let alone be able to master or lead change.
A similar fate has now befallen Labour. Where once it captured the mood of the moment and enjoyed broad appeal, over time its agenda ossified and its support frayed. The result has been a fracturing of its electoral coalition, a loss of intellectual confidence and a crisis of political identity. This partly reflects the ebb and flow of politics and the impact of events. But it also tells a deeper story, transcending the day-to-day, about the task facing Labour now: not just to be electorally successful again, but to be politically transformative.
Opinion poll leads and government failures have put the spring back in to Labour’s step. But, in Still Partying Like It’s 1995, a forthcoming report from IPPR, I argue that the centre-left must use this platform to be more honest about the scale of the challenges it faces and more ambitious about its purpose. This is rooted in an analysis of political sociology – the economic, social and cultural forces shaping the context for politics. This is the space between debating abstract values and satisfying voter preferences.
The challenges facing Labour are profound and shared across much of the European centre-left. Its share of the vote dropped to 29 per cent in 2010, undermining its status as a truly national party. Fiscal and economic credibility needs to be rebuilt after its political economy was so exposed by the financial crisis. Pursuing social justice with less money and less reliance on the central state requires a profound rethinking of its statecraft. And Labour must address its ‘tin ear’ to expressions of cultural sentiment, like anxiety about the pace of change and concern for more than just the bottom line.
In thinking about how to confront these challenges, the Attlee and Thatcher governments provide the benchmark. Both harnessed the sources of energy in society at the time to advance their ideological projects and sink roots of popular and institutional support that long outlasted them. They constructed patriotic and majoritarian electoral appeals, framed around the national interest, which captured the spirit of the times and transformed the terms of politics. Based on an understanding of today’s society, that should be the scale of Labour’s ambition now.
One way of grasping Britain’s current political sociology is to consider the changes that have taken place since the mid-1990s when Labour last engaged with the country from opposition. For a start, decisive events – like the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the ongoing economic crisis, 9/11, the Iraq war and major constitutional reforms – have altered the backdrop to politics. But the defining sociological trends of today are also quite different from those of two decades ago in ways that have reshaped the central ideological and electoral tasks for Labour.
In the 1990s the premise of economic policy was that the advance of globalisation and technology would drive an expansion of ‘good jobs’, as unskilled labour was outsourced or automated. This would lead to social mobility and higher living standards, so long as government helped people improve their skills and adaptability. However, the labour market has actually experienced ‘polarisation’, with an expansion in professional jobs matched by a resilience in low- paid, low-status employment – and a ‘hollowing out’ of administrative and skilled manual jobs. Average wages have been stagnating, linked to rising earnings inequality and the apparent fracture between productivity and pay.
This sociological shift has profound political implications. Social mobility will require much more than just improvements in education, while higher employment may not be enough to raise the living standards of ordinary working people, especially in a period of severe constraint on the state’s capacity to compensate for market outcomes. The financial crisis has shown that markets are not self-regulating and that, left to themselves, they tend towards monopoly and instability. This poses the ideological task of reforming capitalism to advance a competitive, productive economy – while ensuring those on low and middle incomes ‘share in the proceeds of growth’.
There have been major demographic shifts too. Female employment rates have plateaued, after rising rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s. The central divide now is around the age that people partner and parent. So completing the revolution in family life means both childcare and social care for overstretched families and new routes to a better life for the rising generation of lower-skilled young people. The ageing population is well documented, but the political class continues to lump together an increasingly diverse group of over-60s as ‘pensioners’. Negotiating the tension between a younger generation, facing a bleaker future than their parents, and an older generation holding economic wealth and political power is one of the defining challenges of the decade.
These trends – and many others like it – do not just mean that the problems requiring a political response now are different from two decades ago, though that is true. The task for Labour is to attach a fresh ideological agenda to an electoral strategy which widens its base of potential support. This means breaking free of the psephological straitjacket which trades off caricatures of ‘core working-class’ and ‘swing middle-class’ voters. For example, the vital economic coalition is between the expanding professional class and a resilient ‘working class’ that is increasingly female, part-time and employed in the service sector. Standing up for pressurised families, in all their forms, and ‘active affluent’ older people would be another powerful electoral alliance.
Labour must also confront the cultural dimension to modern politics. Further IPPR research out soon analyses the British Values Survey and identifies three core values dispositions in society. We find that 41 per cent of voters are ‘pioneers’, globally focused, networked, innovators and seeking self-actualisation; 28 per cent are ‘prospectors’, valuing success and status, are ambitious and seeking the esteem of others; while one-third are ‘settlers’ and have a strong sense of the need for rules, value the local, are wary of change, and seeking security and belonging. Crucially, these values dispositions cut across different classes: it is certainly not the case that the formerly industrial north is full of ‘settlers’, metropolitan areas only have ‘pioneers’ and ‘middle England’ is a sea of ‘prospectors’.
This speaks to the task of regaining an ethical appeal to younger, graduate and liberal voters, while reaching into aspects of small ‘c’ conservative sentiment, by protecting cherished institutions and ways of life. Overall, the goal is to build a majoritarian political project, based on a governing agenda that responds to the national interest. The risk for Labour is getting stuck in an intellectual and electoral cul-de-sac; clinging to an outdated set of policies, standing for sectional interests and promoting a patchwork politics.
Perhaps more than in 1997, the current moment – characterised by crisis in the financial markets and riots on the streets – marks a political juncture where the future is genuinely up for grabs. Unlike in the 1980s, the Conservatives do not seem capable of more than tactical manoeuvres in response to volatile public opinion. That provides an historic opportunity for Labour, perhaps a larger one than it currently recognises. It can not only win power at the next election, but transform politics. But to do so it must understand the new sources of energy in society to recast its ideological agenda and redraw the electoral map. There is no time to waste.
Graeme Cooke is visiting fellow at IPPR
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