Finally, a glimmer of self-awareness from within the perennially self-satisfied Labour Party. But there is a long, difficult road ahead if Labour are serious about reaching out to their legions of disaffected former voters, and it is far from certain that senior party figures have either the stamina or the humility to make the journey
“What makes us great as a country is not our culture, it’s not our wealth, and it’s definitely not currently our footballing abilities.” – Suzy Stride, Labour Parliamentary Candidate for Harlow, 2014
Apparently Tristram Hunt has been filling the time freed up through refusing to serve in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet by having a good, long think about why the Labour Party imploded quite so badly under the hapless leadership of Ed Miliband.
Hunt’s principle contribution to this process of soul-searching has been to assemble and edit a book of essays by various people within the party, each one ruminating on the cause of their defeat. The common thread which emerges, unsurprisingly, is the profound extent to which the increasingly metropolitan, middle-class core of the modern Labour Party has diverged from the “white working class”, to the extent that the Labour leadership (and many activists) had almost nothing to say to Britain’s strivers going in to the 2015 general election.
Hunt previews this new book – “Labour’s Identity Crisis” – in an article for the Guardian, and it makes fascinating reading, though probably not for the reasons that its author would like. For it reveals the absolute mountain which Labour has to climb just in order to appear relevant to those voters who have deserted the party for UKIP or the Tories.
“I’m a white working-class Englishman who isn’t on benefits, Labour isn’t for people like me.” That was the brutal message that confronted the Labour party candidate Suzy Stride on a doorstep in Harlow, Essex, during last year’s general election.
It was a sentiment repeated across the country: Labour didn’t speak for England. Worse, in that remarkable tweet from the Islington MP Emily Thornberry – picturing St George’s crosses adorning a semi in Rochester – we seemed to mock it.
It’s very interesting that Tristram Hunt should kick off his article with a quote from failed 2015 Labour parliamentary candidate for Harlow (my hometown), Suzy Stride. Because this is what Stride had to say about the country which gives her life and liberty back during the 2014 Labour Party Conference:
“What makes us great as a country is not our culture, is not our wealth, and it’s definitely not currently our footballing abilities. What makes us great is that we have the dignity to care for those who are most vulnerable. So when did it become acceptable to make parents queue for food at foodbanks?”
This is someone who stood before the electorate asking for their vote only months after boasting on television that she believes there is nothing special about her country, its culture, history or achievements, and that the only thing which we on this rainy island have to be proud of is the fact that we confiscate ever more money from the most productive people in society and blast it indiscriminately at anybody declared by the Labour Party to be “vulnerable” (currently hovering at around 50% of the population, in terms of net welfare recipients).
And yet up pops Suzy Stride in Tristram Hunt’s book, acting as though the seeds of her defeat were sown not by her own contemptuous attitude toward her country, but rather by the mistaken priorities and poor leadership of the national party. The man who went on to beat Stride by 8,350 votes, incumbent Conservative MP Robert Halfon, understands that in fact our culture is great, as is our history, our wealth and global power. And while he is far from being a Thatcherite right-winger, Halfon at least appreciates that the greatness of our country is more than the sum of our public services. Faced with a choice between the two candidates, it was no contest for the voters of the bellwether constituency of Harlow.
Tristram Hunt quotes Stride again, at the end of a long passage on immigration:
For too many voters, we were still the party that had once dismissed Gillian Duffy as “bigoted” for raising the question of mass migration and cultural change. Labour still has a long way to go to acknowledge the post-2004 influx as one of the most dramatic demographic surges in the history of England. As a result, England has changed in cultural and ethnic composition with an intensity many voters understandably find deeply unsettling.
For at the same time as new migrants found work, manufacturing was laying off workers in the face of increased global competition. There was no direct link between the jobs gained and those lost, but the conjunction of immigration, globalisation and job losses left a toxic political legacy: industrial communities in England saw their way of life change under a Labour policy for which democratic consent was never sought, let alone given. Even worse was an unwillingness by Labour activists to acknowledge the problem. According to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, eight out of 10 Labour party members think that immigration is good for the country. This is not the case on most doorsteps in Labour areas. And when, in 2015, English voters raised cultural concerns about changes in language, dress and social norms, we answered with crass, material responses. “Many middle-class Labourites scoffed at such views,” according to Suzy Stride in Harlow. “Where would the NHS be without immigrants?” was a common response from canvassers, she said.
This is actually a very good passage, and is the closest we have yet come to anything approaching contrition for the way that the New Labour government of Tony Blair waved through an unprecedented influx of immigrants without so much as mentioning it to the British electorate, let alone seeking their permission. Whether one is generally pro or anti-immigration (and this blog is very much pro), we should all be able to agree as democrats that such a significant national change, brought about by stealth, was an unconscionable act of arrogance by the Blair government. The fact that many Labour activists still have to be coaxed ever so gently toward this realisation is itself a sign of how much atoning the party still has to do.
Tristram Hunt then gets to the core of it:
A failure to appreciate the value of Englishness played an important role in our 2015 defeat and nothing Corbyn has done as leader has changed this. Indeed, his cosmopolitan views on immigration, benefits, the monarchy and armed forces are likely to have exacerbated the disconnect.
As George Orwell put it: “In leftwing circles it is always felt there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.” He was right: in no other progressive European tradition – from the French Socialist party to Spain’s Podemos – do you find a similar reluctance to fly the flag.
So there are obvious reforms for Labour to pursue: an English Labour party; a referendum on an English parliament; radical devolution to cities and counties. Alongside that, we have to be careful during the EU referendum campaign not to alienate those millions of Labour voters opting for Brexit. But more than that, what these tales from the 2015 campaign expose is Labour’s need to shed its metropolitan squeamishness about England. It needs to express its admiration and love for the people and culture of this great country.
An admirable sentiment, but at present a futile hope. As Hunt himself admits, the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party has done nothing to change the core of the party’s disdain for that bulk of people lumped together under the umbrella term “white working class”. While this blog hailed Corbyn’s leadership bid not because of his odious foreign policy opinions but because of the opportunity he represents to inject some real partisan choice back into our domestic political debate, there is sadly little evidence that the army of new members Corbyn helped attract to the party hail from outside the urban, middle class clerisy first identified by Brendan O’Neill as the Labour Party’s new de facto rulers.
You see the effect in Jeremy Corbyn’s immediate U-turn on the European Union the moment he became Labour leader. Corbyn had always held a principled eurosceptic stance and had voted to leave back in the 1975 referendum, and yet here he is in 2016, chanting the praises of Brussels. Why? Because while the Labour party membership will forgive many things (including supporting the IRA, as Alex Massie reminds us), the one thing they cannot abide is a failure to support the mindless, anti-democratic pseudo-internationalism of the EU, or the failure to take a firm, unapologetic stance in favour of unlimited immigration. Those things are simply non-negotiable for Labour activists, most of whom can scarcely conceal their disdain for anybody who fails to hold the “correct” view on immigration in particular.
And that’s the problem. Too many Labour activists actually hate the people of this country – or at best they view those not already convinced of Labour’s righteousness as dangerously ignorant, as Tristram Hunt goes on to explain:
Jamie Reed, MP for Copeland, in Cumbria, takes the analogy further by suggesting that, if Labour fails to embrace Englishness, it will face in northern towns and villages the same fate as the Democrats in the US south: a failure to connect “culturally” with a socially conservative working-class electorate, increasingly willing to vote against their own material interests.
Jamie Reed presumptuously declares that it is the cultural issues surrounding English identity which make natural Labour supporters spurn the party and vote against their own material self interest. But this lazy “what’s the matter with Kansas?” attitude is itself part of the problem – the arrogant assumption that people are voting Tory or UKIP despite rather than because of their right wing economic policies, and that of course they would see that good old fashioned socialist policies would be much better for them, if only they were a little more educated.
The headline of Hunt’s piece in the Guardian is “There’ll always be an England – and Labour must learn to love it”. But from all the evidence currently on display, aspiring for love is setting the goal far too high. First, Labour must learn simply to tolerate the country again – to look upon the white working class and others of their former supporters not as godless infidels who spurned the One True Faith and threw their lot in with the genocidal Tories and racist Ukippers, but as decent and rational human beings who simply don’t like what the Labour Party is currently selling.
Meanwhile, Labour shadow ministers and the army of activists who knock on doors and deliver leaflets need to dial down the moral sanctimony from 100 to about 50, and accept that maybe they, rather than the electorate, made the mistake on May 7 (and the days leading up to it) last year.
If these extracts from “Labour’s Identity Crisis” – and the behaviour of Labour supporters in the year since that fateful general election – are anything to go by, the party has a lot of unresolved anger toward the British electorate. If this were a marriage, couples therapy would most definitely be in order. All of which is quite ridiculous, because it is Britain which has every right to be angry at the Labour Party, and not vice versa.
The white working class and many others spurned the Labour Party in 2015 not because they are morally defective, but because the centre-left, urban, woolly Fabianism of the Miliband era had absolutely nothing to offer them.
And what remains uncertain, despite a radical change in leadership and a plucky first attempt at introspection from Tristram Hunt, is just how the Labour Party ever expects to win a future majority when they continue to hold such a large segment of the population in open contempt?
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