Labour and Social Conservatism

Jon Cruddas has published a report this week into why Labour lost in 2015, one of three key lessons is that the ‘desertion of socially conservative voters in England heralds a broader trend of working-class voters’ detachment from Labour’.

Several years ago Maurice Glasman and the community organiser Arnie Graf, discovered when Labour canvassers asked a voter about their concerns it took on average as little as 8 seconds before the canvasser told the potential supporter that they were wrong. 

Typically such encounters involve the liberalism of many Labour activists that is at odds with Labour’s traditional working class supporters who are socially conservative. The disconnect is so profound that many on the left recoil even at the phrase ‘socially conservative’ in part based on their misunderstanding of the term and a wrongheaded opposition to it when they do understand it.

If we take the greatest issue where this disagreement arises, namely immigration, it is assumed that supporting free movement of people across Europe demonstrates one’s anti-racist credentials. It seems it will now take more than a decade for the political left to come full circle and realise that considerations of ethnicity are completely irrelevant to the concerns of most working class people who find themselves outcompeted on wages and other working conditions. It is inadequate to dismiss these concerns or pretend the suppression of wages is minimal, if you are paid wages on the lower end of the spectrum any impact is going to be significant.  As James Bloodworth has recently put it: ‘I do wish that liberals would show a proper interest in the impact immigration has on industrial relations, rather than simply playing a parlour game of reeling off the calculations of effete academics cocooned in offices at progressive think-tanks in London.’ Ouch!

Then there is the related issue of multiculturalism. Again the left often brandishes its support for multiculturalism as signifying a genuine commitment to anti-racism and oddly ‘tolerance’ forgetting in rather idiotic fashion the actual definition of the word.  Labour should not oppose, or be seen to oppose, full social solidarity with immigrant communities. Opposing artificial ghettoisation and desiring immigrants to socially and culturally integrate into our country can hardly be viewed as prejudiced in any pejorative sense.

This leads us to a far more deeply ingrained problem on the left, its apparent extreme discomfort or at best disdain for patriotism. George Orwell wrote ‘In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.’ We see this manifested in the recent inability of Labour politicians to refer positively to patriotism without the added prefix of ‘progressive’. Then there is the sniggering, or even disgust, at the display of flags with the St George’s cross. 

We can think also of the liberal left’s commitment to social mobility, as if being working class has to be something you must or should want to escape. The labour movement was built on the basis of social solidarity with and ensuring greater levels of equality for the working classes, what does it say to them now if our main efforts appear to be how best to help people abandon their social roots? Closely linked is the importance of place and family. Labour it seems is just beginning to grasp the critical importance of government being brought closer to the people, so that policies are more tailored to local needs and voters feel they are being represented by people who grew up with them, know them and understand them. 

Most people, regardless of class in fact, want work with decent pay and to live and work within close reach of strong ties to family and the locality where they grew up. Mass immigration, globalisation and a social liberalism that see stable family commitments as old fashioned have brought a profound disconnect between an increasingly middle class left and traditional working class voters that no longer recognise the party that is supposed to represent them and all too often patronises and sneers at them. We need to rediscover our conservative socialist roots fast and cease to be the red liberals we so obviously have become. 

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commented 2016-08-15 17:15:53 +0100 · Flag
Alan, I have no real disagreement with your point, other than to say that those who have such innate conservatism shouldn’t be treated with contempt, or that it should be thought that such desires are some kind of obscurantist out of date minority preoccupation.
commented 2016-07-29 06:59:48 +0100 · Flag
Ed’s thoughts have been confirmed by the Brexit voting, but his observation “Most people, regardless of class in fact, want work with decent pay and to live and work within close reach of strong ties to family and the locality where they grew up” is very difficult for any government when a traditional industry has collapsed. Education, especially if apprenticing is included, is a way for the individual to achieve decent pay, but it means moving to follow the work; £18 billion for Hinkley C, or building 200,000 houses a year is not going to help the Potteries or old shipyards. It some time in the past we all have a generation that left ‘the village’ for the city, it often wasn’t pleasant, but driven by necessity. Alan Doel
commented 2016-06-17 10:12:31 +0100 · Flag
Brilliant article Ed! Very practical and pragmatic; unfortunately I can’t see the idealogues getting it. Why don’t you join UKIP? They get it, they are the “New Labour” (Tony Blair was a wolf in sheeps clothing!)

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