Lack Of Empathy For Opposing Political Views Threatens Social Cohesion

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The inability of the political and professional classes to comprehend or respect the political opinions of those from other backgrounds is nearly as grave a threat to our social cohesion as unchecked multiculturalism

There is a whole bucketload of truth in this piece by Michael Merrick, which should make uncomfortable reading not only for metro-leftist, pro-EU types, but even those of us in the so-called professional classes who do not subscribe to majority opinion.

Merrick discusses the differing prevailing cultural and political norms which exist among working class people (generally more conservative) and those in the urban professional classes (much more progressive), and the difficulty of bridging the gulf of misunderstanding between the two. This is particularly relevant when it is almost exclusively the professional classes who are charged with setting public policy, despite often having no real empathy with those whom they seek to reform or re-educate.

Merrick writes:

It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.

Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.

As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.

But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige –  in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.

This truth tends to sail over the heads of people who currently exist and always remained largely in the same social class and culture in which they were raised – how would they know any different? But Merrick, who gained access to the professional classes after being the first in his family to get a degree, is better placed to notice the gulf of incomprehension and unwillingness to empathise with the other side, having occupied both sides of the divide at various times.

And this can have a real impact in terms of public policy, as Merrick notes:

In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of SomewheresPioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.

But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.

“Anywheres seeking to educate a generation of somewheres” – that phrase resonates, particularly as the self-described Citizens of the World tend to assume that the only thing preventing others from embracing their worldview is their lower level of education.

I actually see a lot of myself in what Merrick writes. I wouldn’t know whether to describe my upbringing as working class or middle class. Income-wise, being in a single parent family on benefits, living in Harlow, we were very much working class. But thanks to other branches of the family that worked in professional or academic circles, I wouldn’t say that my social upbringing was that of the typical working class. I should also note that my accent was never the standard estuary accent typical to Essex, but rather that of my wider family – and in Britain, accent does so much to demarcate one’s class status.

I certainly remember being both aware and very ashamed of being poor when I was young, and keenly noticed the difference in lifestyle between many of my schoolfriends who came from working families – their Sky television versus our black and white television set, for example. To be clear, I wanted for nothing when I was a child and had a great upbringing rich in love and family and culture. But a child notices these things, and it is silly to deny that they influence one’s development.

And so, when I went to university I was probably overly keen to embrace the distinctly more upper middle-class lifestyle and tastes enjoyed by my peers – not that I ever fell properly into the working class mould because of our extended family, but because I was keen to explore new horizons which had previously been somewhat limited. I enjoyed being on the Entertainments Committee of the Union Society and wearing black tie to the weekly debates featuring famous names from British political and cultural life. I admit that I enjoyed having transcended the town, the culture and many of the people with whom I had grown up.

This continued into my professional life. Living with other young professionals starting their careers in London, I was happy to make jokes about chavs, or otherwise look down on those from less educated and less wealthy circumstances. I would sometimes crack jokes about Harlow and the people there (despite the fact that I had, and continue to have, friends living in Harlow to this day). I remember attending one fancy dress party in a chav costume, which I thought to be terribly clever at the time.

In fact, it has probably only been in the past five years, since I started blogging (and consequently reading and thinking a lot more about various issues) that I realise the deliberate nature of what I was doing as an adolescent and a young graduate – and how insufferable I must have been to so many people from my earlier life during that time. And it is only now, in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the enormous establishment hissy fit which continues to this day in response to the outcome, that I fully understand what Michael Merrick is saying and identify very much with his experience.

I have always felt that the best people to analyse or give commentary on a situation are those who have held both sides of an argument at one time or another, or been on different sides of an important wedge issue. Why listen to somebody like Owen Jones analyse politics, when he was raised to hate the Tories and simply continued on the same uninterrupted intellectual trajectory his whole life, the only difference being that he can now use longer words and quote academic sources sympathetic to his position? There is no personal growth there, nor any real empathy for the other side (the possession of which is the only real acid test of one’s own political philosophy) and consequently no real attempt to engage with ideological opponents. That’s not being an intellectual, it’s being a partisan shill.

Similarly on Brexit, why listen to some millennial writer who has only grown up knowing life inside the EU and accepting its unquestioned brilliance all the days of her life? What can such a person really add to the national conversation besides a whole heap of confirmation bias and sanctimony?

Now, I would never claim to be better than Owen Jones or Generic Millennial Remainiac Writer. But I can at least plausibly claim to have had my feet on both sides of the political and cultural divide at various times, having grown up holding the typical youthful left-wing opinions and then made a gradual move toward the libertarian or conservatarian Right. And even more so having been a staunch euro-federalist in my university days, to the extent that I hung an EU flag on my dorm room wall and sometimes insufferably wore an EU flag lapel pin, to rediscovering the vital importance of the nation state and becoming an avowed Brexiteer over the past five years.

Generally I find that the most productive exchanges take place with people who have not simply percolated in likeminded groupthink for their entire careers, but who have either personal experience of occupying the other side of the argument or at least made a sincere effort to reach out in good faith to those who disagree.

I was a socialist in my youth, and know many of the old arguments inside and out – but crucially, I also know through personal experience that many of those who still hold socialist views are good and decent people. I was a pro-European in my youth and know the entire case for European political integration backwards and forwards, yet despite having reversed my position 180 degrees I know that many of those who still hold these views are intelligent and honourable people. I hope that this knowledge of the opposing viewpoint and acknowledgement of the decency of those with whom I disagree adds a bit of depth to my better pieces of writing.

Unfortunately, this attempt to bridge the chasm of cultural and political difference is almost nonexistent among the political class – on both sides. Rising star Labour MP Jess Phillips openly admits to being “raised in no uncertain terms to hate Tories“, a fact which shines through in many of her speeches and television appearances. And the inability of many of those in the Conservative Party and the centrist, machine politics wing of the Labour Party to empathise with working class people is self-evident – a particularly shameful indictment of the Labour centrists, who now openly scorn a large swathe of their political base.

And this failure to empathise with different people has real world effects, like when David Cameron went marching off to Brussels to conduct his faux renegotiation with the EU despite never really having stopped to ask what the British people wanted out of it, and today’s Conservative government pursuing an idiotic and damaging approach to Brexit on the assumption that immigration is the overriding factor for most people when post-referendum polls (and a few conversations with actual Brexiteers) reveal concerns about sovereignty and democracy to have been the primary driver of Brexit.

We currently have a political class who at best arrogantly think they can channel working class opinion without ever really stopping to consult the people they think they are ventriloquising, and at worst simply don’t care at all about what a whole swathe of the population thinks and believes.

More worryingly, it takes an immense effort to overcome this gulf of misunderstanding – in my case it took over five years, and that’s despite having occupied both sides of the debate at different times, such is the zealotry of a convert to professional class norms – and the political class generally show zero aptitude for that kind of introspection.

Michael Merrick has done a great job of diagnosing the problem, but right now I fail to see a ready solution. The gulf of incomprehension is likely to get wider before it narrows.

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Quote For The Day

After the election, American conservatives cannot simply pretend that Donald Trump never happened. The Republican Party must fully reject Trumpism and then reach out to voters with a brighter, most optimistic conservative message

Jonah Goldberg, addressing an Ashbrook Center event in Cleveland, Ohio back in 2014, when Donald Trump was just a loudmouth birther and not, y’know, a major party presidential candidate:

I love first principles, I’m all about first principles, I think that’s great stuff. But people forget that politics has to be about persuasion, about bringing people to your side who don’t already agree with you. Otherwise it might as well be a Civil War re-enactment club or a Dungeons & Dragons society where we just play our little roles and then we go home.

And this is something that a lot of conservatives have lost. And one of the things we have lost is the ability to tell stories.

Goldberg goes on to criticise the excessive hagiography of Ronald Reagan, pointing out that Reagan’s recent reputation as an unbelievably principled conservative who never once sullied himself with compromise actually much more closely fits Barry Goldwater – who of course went down to glorious defeat.

The point, I suppose, is that Donald Trump fails both tests. He is not a conservative – or at least he has done absolutely nothing to prove that his Damascene conversion to traditional Republican values and talking points is remotely genuine, and not simply a convenient ploy to co-opt supporters.

Worse still, Trump is incapable of telling an authentically conservative story which might actually attract and persuade undecided voters, because every time he opens his mouth to tell a story a new victimhood-soaked conspiracy theory dribbles out instead.

I also post the quote as a reminder to myself. Lord knows that I have a lot of issues with the current British Conservative Party and the direction it has gone under Cameron and May (well, really since mid-Thatcher, when I was born). But when you rant on the internet every day it is easy to preach to the choir sometimes and forget that there are some good Conservative MPs of principle out there who do want to take the country in a different, more small-L liberal direction, and who have no truck with Labour’s vacuous centrists-in-exile or Theresa May’s flirtation with authoritarianism.

But more than anything, the Goldberg quote is a reminder of the huge rebuilding exercise the Republican Party will have to do after Donald Trump. Whatever story they previously used to connect with voters, however battered and dubious it may have been, has now been utterly obliterated. Some say that the GOP can (and will) simply forget that Trump ever happened, and move on serenely. I’m not sure that will be possible – not least because many Republican grassroots members may not let it happen. They may well find an heir to Trump, and throw their support behind Trump Mark II.

Besides, this crisis represents too great an opportunity for American conservatism to re-invent itself. This blog has been intermittently banging on about the need for small government conservatism to come to terms with our modern, globalised world – a world in which supply chains and labour markets are international, and the kind of mass, semi-skilled manufacturing work which once paid well enough to support a comfortable middle class life has either permanently disappeared, or else barely pays a subsistence wage.

This is a particular challenge for conservatives, who believe in empowering the individual and restricting the overbearing hand of government. Left-wingers can simply wave their arms and promise a new government programme to retrain vast swathes of the population, or buy their silence with benefits. Conservatives do not have this luxury.

But the eventual answer will, I am sure, have to come from conservatives. Cranking up the size of the state until it is all things to all people is unsustainable, squelching innovation at best and provoking economic crisis at worst, as proven every single time it has been attempted. Globalisation continues apace and the burning question continues to go unanswered.

Perhaps, once the Republicans are finished debasing themselves by their association with Donald Trump, they might care to have a crack at solving it.

 

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The Labour Party’s Soul Searching Exercise Is Off To An Unpromising Start

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.

Hunt begins:

“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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