There’ll always be an England … and Labour must learn to love it by Tristram Hunt (from the Guardian)
Tristram Hunt, in this article which appeared on the Guardian website Sunday before last, argues that Labour is out of step with the “ordinary” working-class English in places like Harlow, and beyond “liberal enclaves” such as Cambridge, Norwich and Exeter, and “Latin quarter” constituencies in places like London and Bristol (no idea what makes them ‘Latin’), “traditional Labour voters think the party is out of step with their values”, partly because of “a wilful refusal to embrace a positive English identity”. He also cites a comparison between Labour’s losses in traditional working-class areas and the Democrats’ losses in the American South, and the St George’s cross to the Confederate flag, on the basis that both parties lost because they failed “to connect ‘culturally’ with a socially conservative working-class electorate, increasingly willing to vote against their own material interests”. Hunt is the editor of a book published yesterday titled Labour’s Identity Crisis; similar conclusions are reached by a report published this week by Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, which claims that Labour is becoming “irrelevant to the majority of working people” and “is now as toxic in the south of England as the Tories are in the north”.
There are a few serious problems with Hunt’s analysis. To begin with, the Democrats’ losses in the South were down to race, not social conservatism, beginning when president Kennedy, a liberal northern Democrat (and his liberal southern successor), passed anti-segregation laws that ended the Jim Crow era. Right-wing leaders such as Reagan were able to exploit the resentment of Southern whites by using coded language, particularly about crime and welfare, but the only thing the South resented the North for was imposing de-segregation (while leaving the same elites in power, including the corrupt, racist and class-ridden judiciaries. That said, the South continued to elect Democratic senators and governors right into the 1990s, such as Jimmy Carter, George Wallace and Bill Clinton, while Barack Obama has won two terms without taking any ‘inner’ Southern states other than North Carolina. There really is no comparison with working-class English who were not defeated (in a wholly just cause) but simply feel sidelined by the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism.
Second, the demand for an “English identity” and the visibility of the English flag is a very recent development. I never heard of it growing up in south London and I never heard of it when at a boarding school where there were a lot of boys from working-class backgrounds who lived in places like Essex and Hertfordshire. It was only seen at football matches and some other ceremonies; most people regarded themselves as British, and the word ‘Englishman’ cropped up only in nursery rhymes (“fee fi fo fum” etc) and in quaint stereotypes. Very little came of the effort to develop “progressive patriotism” that was seen in the 2000s. I do not believe the flag has much resonance for most people regardless of their political stance, and that flag-waving will not win Labour any votes in the absence of policies designed to deliver good jobs, education and healthcare. The Tories (at least, the Tory press) already have the edge on this sort of politics and there is no need for Labour to imitate it, nor anything to be gained in doing so.
Third, the Right of the party really needs to understand that a major reason why they did not do very well in the recent local elections is because they were seen as divided, primarily because of open talk about revolts and another leadership election which was reported in the media. Jeremy Corbyn won fair and square with a massive mandate from party members (not just the £3 supporters, as is commonly supposed), very largely because the Blair/Brown old guard did not put up any candidates who offered a radical alternative. Much as Tony Blair was referred to as Tory Blair (or Tory Bliar) throughout his time as both leader and PM and did not contest the Tories’ central economic orthodoxies, they won because they were seen as radical, competent, open-minded and not mean, not hypocritical and and not bitterly divided. Some of these problems in fact were the reason why Labour’s popularity declined from 2005: in particular, Gordon Brown’s obvious sense of entitlement, and Blair’s combination of arrogance and cowardice in leading Britain into the Iraq war. The Right clearly have a sense of entitlement of their own, proclaiming that as they won the party three elections, they should be allowed to lead because this will mean they win more, when as previously discussed, their formula has no guarantee of winning an election in 2020 when young voters will be too young to remember Blair’s first or second election victories.
Fourth, the picture of Labour activists unable to connect with voters in Harlow and the attitudes of Harlow voters are not the whole picture. A third of Harlow’s district council seats were contested this month and the council remains under Labour control; 19 of Harlow’s 33 councillors are Labour, giving them overall control, while three of the four seats representing Harlow on Essex County Council are held by Labour (who gained one from the Tories in 2013). Harlow constituency contains rural areas as well as Harlow town, and rural Essex is overwhelmingly Conservative. Frank Jackson of the Harlow Labour Party, in a letter to yesterday’s Observer, puts Labour’s failure to win Harlow in 2015 mainly to the fact that “it had still not adequately refuted the lie that the 2008 global financial crash was caused by Gordon Brown’s profligacy, while its “austerity light” programme did not inspire voters that the party had a viable alternative”, but it’s possible that bussing in Labour activists from London who were like fish out of water did them no favours either, especially when there are clearly plenty of activists to go round in Harlow.
Fifth, what do they mean by “socially conservative”? Not that long ago the term commonly meant opposition to sexual permissivism and particularly homosexuality. This also features in the comparison with the American South, where ‘conservative’ has been used as a euphemism for racist, but is also heavily associated with fundamentalist Christianity and causes such as opposition to abortion and gay marriage. None of these are particular issues among white working-class voters here, whether in old industrial or mining towns in the north or in places like Thurrock. The authors of the Cruddas report define it as valuing “family, work, fairness and their country” rather than the liberal Labour values of “equality, sustainability, and social justice”. Besides the fact that the Tories commonly use “fairness” to disguise cuts to services or increased charges, the truth is that most people value things from both of these lists and they do not identify the difference between fairness and social justice.
Sixth, Tristram Hunt in his article does not examine where the attitudes of the working-class people Labour has “lost touch with” come from. He quotes a Harlow voter as saying he’s “a white working-class Englishman who isn’t on benefits”, and the perception that Labour is only interested in people on benefits is a myth peddled by the press (and Labour was right to oppose most of the cuts to ‘benefits’, such as Legal Aid and Disability Living Allowance, that took place under the previous government; those who at the time had no need of these things could be persuaded that they affected only “fat cat lawyers” and “fake disabled scroungers”). He offers a further observation on reactions to concerns in Harlow:
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.
Which language and dress are they talking about? Every so often we hear concerns about schoolgirls wearing skirts that show too much leg (and more, if they are sitting), but I suspect that Muslim dress, and specifically women’s dress, is the primary concern here, as well as the continual press complaints about schools were English is only anyone’s second language. These things wouldn’t trouble people in Harlow much as the population, according to the 2011 census, is 85% White (combined White British and White Irish; “White other”, including eastern Europeans, are at 4.2%) and the South Asian population (including Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis) is only 2.6% while the Black African population is 2.8%. I’ve driven through Harlow a few times and I don’t see that many women in long black clothes with faces covered. No, they’re hearing about this in the press, and not seeing many Muslims in real life to counteract the scare stories. The report also argues that the party is perceived as supporting an “open-door” policy on immigration, something that was not true at all when it was in power. It tried to restrict immigration from outside the EU, not because EU immigration was causing particular pressure but because Muslim immigration (in particular, the sourcing of spouses from villages back home in Pakistan) was blamed for the breakdown of “social cohesion” and, ultimately, the 2001 Oldham riots and terrorism. Perhaps they thought allowing Eastern Europeans in would be OK because they’re white; perhaps they even thought a bit of white immigration would be a good thing.
The irony of the claim that Labour is losing touch with its working-class roots because of its attachment to the liberal metropolitan middle class is that they don’t make any effort in real middle-class metropolitan liberal constituencies — areas like mine in south-west London, or in Hampshire or elsewhere in the South where the Liberal Democrats became the main ‘opposition’ to the Tories from the 1990s onwards until they threw in their lot with them in 2010. They had no chance of winning some of the seats the Lib Dems lost in the south-west in 2015, in many of which UKIP as well as the Tories increased their share of the vote, but they might have won more of the London seats the Lib Dems lost if they had targeted these constituencies and directed some of the activists whose efforts were wasted in Harlow to constituencies where they might have been able to build a rapport with local people (and put up a candidate anyone had heard of).
As Dawn Foster has noted, Tristram Hunt has been talking out of both sides of his mouth; he has also told the student Labour club at Cambridge University, “you are the top 1%. The Labour party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward”. He really has no vision for leadership other than by the public school and Oxbridge élite as represented by Blair (and indeed Cameron); ordinary people are regarded as credulous tabloid-reading bigots who have to be catered to with displays of patriotism and anti-immigration sentiment from people who no more believe it than do the state school and redbrick-educated “metropolitan liberals” who are so reviled? This is a recipe for the George W Bush type of politics, in which privately educated wealthy men feign a common touch and peddle the bigotries of the mass media while stripping away healthcare and employment protection from those who vote for them.
England, even south Essex, is not the American South. There is no history of defeat or enmity with other parts of the country, no history of large-scale slavery or explicit structural racism, and no religious right to speak of. People will not (right now at least) vote for a party with policies hugely against their material interests because the candidate is anti-abortion or pro-death penalty, or makes thinly-veiled appeals to racism or suspicion of an ‘other’. Labour should not feel the need to pander to a minority of loud-mouthed Sun-reading bigots and pretend that they are representative of the general population (much as is commonly seen with cab drivers), rather than an embarrassment to them. Labour should not shed its commitment to social justice (including opposing and reversing unjust Tory cuts to legal aid and disability support), but the forefront of its campaign must be about jobs, healthcare, education, the economy and, for the time being, keeping the UK together. Flag-waving and immigrant-blaming won’t win Labour any votes on its own; others are already better at that game.
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