Labour’s next big social democratic project must be to unite our fractured nation
Britain has so much going for it – economically, democratically and culturally. Yet as a country we find ourselves more divided and polarised than at any time since the second world war. Young versus old, graduate versus non-graduate, city versus town – these have become the faultlines upon which modern Britain is built.
The referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union did not create those divides, but it certainly gave them voice. Polling suggests that over 70 per cent of voters under 25 voted ‘Remain’, compared to 36 per cent of over 65s; that those in big cities tended to vote Remain while towns and rural areas more commonly voted ‘Leave’; and that university graduates were far less likely to vote Leave than non-graduates.
This 21st century tribalism is essentially about the cosmopolitans versus the communitarians. In one corner, the university-educated, often younger, metropolitan types, who tend to feel at ease with the opportunities on offer in a modern, open, globalised world. In the other, non-graduates who are often older, more socially conservative, live outside the main cities and tend to feel left behind by globalisation. While cosmopolitans stress the importance of individual rights, communitarians tend to value common responsibilities; while cosmopolitans feel internationalist, communitarians feel a far stronger sense of local identity and attachment.
These categorisations may seem simplistic – but the fact is that any political party wishing to govern ‘for the many’ must understand the pivotal importance of these competing values and cultures.
In the 2010 election our party won 29 per cent of the vote, which delivered 258 seats, while in 2017 we won 40 per cent of the vote, which delivered 262 seats – four million more votes, but just four more seats. We did extraordinarily well in middle-class, cosmopolitan seats especially Canterbury and Kensington, but we lost in working-class, communitarian areas such as Mansfield, Middlesbrough and Stoke.
In fact, there was a swing against Labour in 130 constituencies, all primarily characterised by having large numbers of working-class voters.
These startling statistics tell us that whilst the 2017 general election yielded many positives, it also served to reflect and consolidate the very divides that our party exists to heal.
We should, of course, celebrate the fact that we are strengthening our support among cosmopolitans, but if we are also alienating the communitarians in our heartlands and deepening the divisions that afflict our society, then is that a ‘price worth paying’?
To fulfil our promise to build a country for the many, and to deliver on our historic, moral mission to be a ‘whole nation’ party, then we must represent communitarian values.
This means that we must show we understand people’s desire for belonging, reciprocity, familiarity and community. We must recognise that our responsibilities to one another are as important as our rights, that hard work and contribution to society should be fairly rewarded, and that celebrating what we have in common – no matter what our background – matters just as much as celebrating our diversity.
If we are to unite our divided country then we must foster a sense of community, solidarity and civic patriotism based on a plan for Britain that speaks to people’s everyday concerns: work, family, community, and country.
This means focusing on creating better, more rewarding job opportunities by rebalancing our economy both structurally and geographically. This could support a new approach to social mobility – one that avoids dragging youngsters away to London if they want certain jobs. We must also develop a new, long-termist approach to business that puts the interests of workers and other stakeholders above bottom line driven short-termism.
We need to shape an education system that prepares our children for a fast-changing world, and a skills system that helps adults keep up in an age of automation. Our health and social care system must be fit for our ageing parents.
We need to restore trust in the idea of community and reciprocity. Locally, this means tackling segregation and isolation through projects that promote active citizenship. Nationally, this should include rethinking our approach to freedom of movement. As democratic socialists we know that the purpose of government is to regulate markets, including the labour market. Unlimited access to low-wage, low-skilled labour depresses wages, causes under-investment in training, and narrows opportunities for the local workforce, meaning industry by industry quotas must be considered. Immigration is also as much about culture, identity and the pace of change, therefore any system must support communities to cope with increasing pressures.
As a country we should take a proud, patriotic and internationalist approach by continuing to shape global affairs before and after Brexit.
At home we must respond to the call from the British people to ‘take back control’, restoring pride in our democracy by giving all nations in the union equal status, and then devolving power within England.
Only one party can win a parliamentary majority, heal the divides, and restore the spirit of Britain. We must make this the very purpose of Labour.
Stephen Kinnock is member of parliament for Aberavon. He tweets at @SKinnock
Joe Jervis is coordinator of the English Labour Network. He tweets at @joejervis89
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