Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Britain is not only polarised, it is paralysed

In their new book, Stephen Kinnock MP and and Joe Jervis provide a blueprint for how Labour can unite a deeply divided country by rediscovering our communitarian values

The modern-day Labour party has been caricatured by a battle between the liberal centre – dominant under New Labour – and the hard left, which has been on the rise since 2015.

In our new book, Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour, we set out why neither can serve Labour’s purpose as a whole nation party, and why neither can reunite our deeply divided country.

The argument at the heart of our book is that the spirit of Britain is broken because our country is more polarised than at any time since the second world war: by age, education, place and wealth – but above all by values. On one side of the great values divide we have the cosmopolitans – typically university educated, urban, highly mobile and confident in the modern, globalised world. On the other the communitarians – often non-graduates who value familiarity, security and community, and have experienced the profound changes of the last 40 years as loss. The referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union deepened these divides, and the 2017 general election entrenched them, with cosmopolitans drawn towards ‘Remain’ and Labour, and communitarians pushed towards ‘Leave’ and the Tories. The extent to which the electorate now sees Labour as a cosmopolitan party is painfully demonstrated by a new study that shows us morphing from the party of pies and pints to the party of quinoa!

It’s probably not necessary to waste words explaining to Progress readers why the hard left worldview of conspiracy theories, sympathy for the Kremlin and ‘socialism in one country’ is incompatible with the pragmatism, realism, patriotism and localism preferred by the vast majority of voters in Labour’s traditional communitarian heartlands. Or to explain why the mass nationalisation of industry is unlikely to appeal to those who mistrust the big state just as much as they do the giant, rootless corporations.

But a reincarnation of cosmopolitan New Labour is not the answer, either.

The answer to why a reboot of 1997 would be a dead end for Labour in 2018 lies in the causes for the growing alienation of our communitarian heartlands that took place between 1997 and 2010.

First, social and cultural liberalism. New Labour did brilliantly to push the agendas of minority or underrepresented groups, to society’s wider benefit. But on issues of identity and integration we seemed to forget about the broad swathes of communitarians who have felt ignored and patronised by mainstream politicians, for decades. Rowenna Davis’ chapter in our book makes the case passionately for a whole nation Labour party with shared citizenship as its driving force.


Second, the shift to mass higher education. Yes, the commitment to sending 50 per cent of our young people to university was a bold and eye-catching policy, but there can be no doubt that it led to a brain drain on an unprecedented scale, and contributed massively to the narrative of decline in communitarian towns and rural communities across the length and breadth of our country. David Cameron’s austerity then turned a serious problem into a crisis, and of England’s 65 ‘social mobility cold spots’, 60 returned a majority vote for Brexit. Dan Jarvis outlines a number of radical policy ideas that would deliver a step change in education and skills.

Third, the shift to mass immigration. The 2004 decision to open the United Kingdom up to the free movement of labour from the new accession countries of central and eastern Europe, without the transitional controls that were imposed by every other EU member state (apart from Sweden and Ireland), probably did more than any other policy to drive a wedge between our party and our communitarian heartlands. Sunder Katwala and Jill Rutter set out proposals to rebuild public trust in our immigration system.

Fourth, market liberalism. New Labour responded to 18 dreadful years of Tory government with redistributive policies that saved Britain from the economic and social abyss, but ultimately, we failed to fundamentally change the nature of an increasingly imbalanced economy. This left communitarian-heavy areas such as former mining towns in a similar position in 2010 as they were in 1997 – bereft of pride, increasingly reliant on public sector jobs and falling further behind the major metropolises. Redcar member of parliament Anna Turley and Plymouth Moor View candidate Charlotte Holloway illustrate how Labour can spread wealth and opportunity beyond London and the big cities.

The transition from New Labour to the new left has both deepened and widened the rift between our party and our communitarian heartlands. Winning in cosmopolitan hot-spots such as Canterbury and Kensington was certainly a tremendous achievement, but if the flip-side is the loss of communitarian heartland in Mansfield and Middlesbrough, then is that really a price worth paying?

But this is not just about electoral arithmetic. This is about our moral duty and our historic mission to be a whole nation party, healing the wounds and bridging the divides.

Britain is not only polarised, it is paralysed. The government is in disarray over Brexit, and parliament has fought itself to a standstill. This is because polarisation always leads to paralysis: the more divided we are as a country the more fractured our politics, the more frozen our democracy becomes.

Only a whole nation Labour party can reunite our country. Only a whole nation Labour party can restore the spirit of Britain.


Stephen Kinnock, member of parliament for Aberavon, and Joe Jervis are co-editors of Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour – published by Labour Future and available to read here


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Stephen Kinnock MP

is member of parliament for Aberavon

Joe Jervis

works for a London-based charity

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