Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy

Roger Liddle finds that Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin’s new book has some hard truths, but does leave room for optimism

This is an important book about one of the most important challenges to our politics: the rise of nationalism and populism. It is well written, well argued, highly accessible to the lay reader, and mercifully free of political science jargon.

The authors have an established track record in the field. Roger Eatwell has chronicled the return of fascism to Europe over the last three decades, from the shock of Jean Marie Le Pen’s 14 per cent score in the 1988 French presidential election: a fact that in itself challenges the lazy thinking that dates the surge in populism from the 2008 crisis. Eatwell is interesting on the differences between ‘right populists’ and fascism.

But there is a spectrum, not a sharp division, as we see with Tommy Robinson’s recent association with United Kingdom Independence party. Both Le Pen and Robinson rely on ‘strong men’ personas to manipulate their audiences with a mix of anti-elitism, conspiracy theory and racist innuendo.

Matthew Goodwin built his reputation with Revolt on the Right, his joint study with Rob Ford of Ukip’s rise. Since then he has been a prolific communicator on Ukip, Brexit and Labour’s ‘problem’ with its white working-class base. No single academic has contributed more to terrifying Labour members of parliament from the Midlands and the north that the traditional Labour vote is deserting in droves.

This, however, ignores the other side of the coin: Labour’s increasing electoral hegemony among graduates, public sector professionals, ethnic minority voters and the under-45s.

As a predictor of British political developments, Goodwin has a more chequered record. In 2015, Ukip obtained a mere 12.6 per cent of the vote, not bad for a ‘new’ party but less than half Social Democratic party-Liberal alliance performance in 1983. On the historical record, ‘centrism’ poses a much more mortal threat to Labour than national populism.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, Ukip collapsed. Despite Theresa May’s targeting of working-class, potential Ukip voters in 2017, Labour recovered a sizable chunk of that 2015 Ukip support: opposition to austerity and support for the National Health Service counted for more than immigration and Brexit – and that was with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader, when these voters are not his natural constituency.

Yet Eatwell and Goodwin paint a pretty bleak future for the centre-left. If the national populists do not themselves succeed electorally, they predict – in my view correctly – that the centre-right will shift onto their ground. Look how David Cameron offered a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union to see off Ukip, and instead handed the party its Brexit victory. And see how the Conservatives are now transfixed by their commitment to ‘deliver Brexit’ despite the fact that every single proposition of the Brexiteers has been shown to be false or delusional.

Eatwell and Goodwin identify four big trends in the national populists’ favour: increasing distrust of democracy; steady de-alignment from the old politics of class identity; a growing sense of relative deprivation that life is not as good as it once was and will be worse for their children; and gradual destruction of their sense of community and national identity as a result of immigration.

These trends undoubtedly exist and they cause the most acute tensions in old working-class (often ex-mining) communities like Caroline Flint’s Don Valley in south Yorkshire or Gloria De Piero’s Ashfield in Nottinghamshire. In post-1945 Britain, coal miners were amongst the well paid ‘aristocrats of labour’ with a huge sense of pride in their difficult and dangerous job.

Today most available jobs in the old mining areas are low skilled and low paid. The old loyalties to the union and Labour movement belong to history. Instead, as shops in the town centres are boarded up, and eastern Europeans fill many of the jobs that frankly British workers no longer want to do, a sense of alienation is unsurprising.

The task of turning around the morale and prospects of ‘left behind’ communities is one of the major political and public policy challenges of our age – and let us not kid ourselves, there are no easy ‘off the shelf’ solutions. At the moment Labour’s policy cupboard is strikingly bare: abolition of university fees takes a higher priority.

However, there are dangers for the centre-left in over-accepting the Eatwell and Goodwin analysis.

First, empathy and understanding for working-class communities in crisis must not lead to tacit acceptance of attitudes and policies towards immigration that simply do not accord with the realities facing Britain and, more importantly, what is morally right. Britain is a rapidly ageing society with rapidly increasing health and social care needs. This predicament will be far more difficult to manage if in response to ‘national populism’, so-called ‘unskilled’ immigration is severely cut as May wants. As the King’s Fund recently pointed out, it is no good pledging to spend more on the NHS and social care, if the staff cannot be recruited to fill the new jobs available.

Of course many more training opportunities should be available to Brits, but the government’s policy to restrict immigration to ‘skilled workers’, defined by how much they earn, is a major threat to the future of the NHS. Labour should have the courage to argue this.

Second, I agree with the authors that voters worried about immigration should not be condemned as racist, but feel those in public life who implicitly play on racism and fear should be better called out. Despite Enoch Powell’s stirring of racial hostility half a century ago, the rivers have not ‘foamed with blood’: we are a pretty successful multi-racial society and should be proud of it. Powell was sacked by Conservative leader Ted Heath in the late 1960s and was effectively ostracised by a united political class, despite London dockers marching in his support.

Contrast that with Nigel Farage. Remember his dogwhistle remarks about NHS being in crisis because of African immigrants coming to Britain for free HIV treatment? Remember in the referendum the leaflets with the seven million Turks on their way to Britain? Yet he is treated as the people’s tribune.

Third, we should be more confident of the direction in which our society is heading. Age and level of education are by far the most important determinants of attitudes to immigration, Brexit, racial equality and gay rights.

They are also more significant than standard social class definitions in determining voting behaviour, much as the left finds that difficult to accept. In a first past the vote system, a centre-left party that turns its back on the big social trends in our society is doomed to irrelevance.

Britain is steadily becoming a vastly more liberal and tolerant country. By all means let us formulate a bold, radical policy offer for the so-called ‘left behind’ – and yes, New Labour was not bold enough – but let us not betray the core values we stand for.

Nevertheless, Eatwell and Goodwin have written an important and stimulating book.

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Roger Liddle is a member of the House of Lords and co-chair of Policy Network

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You can buy National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy here

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Roger Liddle

is a peer, a former adviser on European affairs to Tony Blair, and chair of Policy Network

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