Monday, May 11, 2015

F*ck aspiration, we don't need another Tory party

I have been a bit nauseated in the past days hearing the commentariat conclude from Labour's general election defeat that what Britain needs is more middle class oriented centrist politics: a more "aspirational" politics. I think this rushed judgement is based on a fundamental misreading of what happened last week, as I shall try to show in this post.

First of all, where did Labour gain ground and where did it lose ground? Most dramatically, of course, Labour lost Scotland. Crucially, there it lost to a party which positioned itself to Labour's left.

What about in England? These two maps in the Guardian, which take a moment to work out how to read (the map is redrawn to be proportionate to votes) are very important:

The Guardian have also made what look like weather maps but are actually very clever

And this map shows where Labour lost support.
The maps show that Labour gained votes almost everywhere in England and lost a lot of votes in Scotland and Wales. Most important for my purposes is where Labour lost votes in England. I don't have the time or knowledge to look closely at each of these, so what I conclude is provisional but the following is what strikes me.

It is true, as the "apirationalists" ("New New Labour" in Ben Judah's witty typology) would emphasise, that there are some places in the Southeast, Southwest and West Midlands (what we could call Middle England) where Labour lost ground - but these are outnumbered by the seats in those regions where Labour gained votes. The most significant English losses are actually up and down the East coast, often in the areas where UKIP gained ground.*

My strong feeling is that in such areas (as well as in the Labour core areas where voter turn out was low), Labour's problem was not that it didn't connect to "aspirations" or that it wasn't middle class enough. Instead, I think Labour's problem was that it was seen as a party of the metropolitan elite - that it was too middle class.

With the figure of Ed Miliband - constantly associated with "Hampstead" and "North London", seen as a "geek" or "nerd" unable to eat a bacon sandwich - it is hard to disentangle this anti-metropolitan sentiment from low-level antisemitism and the simple fact that he comes across awkwardly to camera. But even leaving that aside, Labour was seen as the party that sneered at white van man for putting up England flags.

For many of these people, "aspiration" is probably less relevant than the sense that even you when you work really hard you're still fucked because the decks seem stacked against you.

And surely the most "aspirational" voters - in diverse and migrant-rich London - are now actually Labour's core voters; many of them probably see Labour as a metropolitan party, and see that as a positive.

Beyond the capital, anti-metropolitanism ties in with the belief that the Westminster parties are basically all the same, that all mainstream politicians are un-trustworthy - this is a sentiment that UKIP voters share with SNP voters, who sound almost identical on this issue. (And the UKIP and SNP voters are at least partly right about this, surely.)

A lot of this is about identity politics. While Labour and its metropolitan voters identify with a civic Britishness, the Tories and UKIP played an English card which resonates for many people in England at least as much as Scottishness resonates North of the border.** Local and regional identities matter too, and are one ingredient in the anti-metropolitanism (see Waterloo Sunset's points here).

Labour was (rightly) concerned about making sure that its candidates were gender-representative and ethnically diverse (and indeed, as Paul pointed out, one silver lining in the gloom is the number of new MPs who aren't White British) - but, for all its alleged leftism, it didn't put any thought in how class identities still matter. (Thus it is striking that this more diverse parliament is no less privileged than the last one: 28% went to Oxbridge; 32% went to private schools, of whom one in ten went to Eton - barely changed from 2010.***)

I am not in the business of telling Labour what implication they should take from all this, but I think there are implications for a wider "left" - by which I mean those of us who are scared what five more years of austerity will do for us and who are scared of the consequences of rising nationalism and xenophobia.

The implications as I see them are these: First, we (that wider left) need to re-connect with communities feeling left behind by the globalised world the metropolitan elite seems at ease in - and not sneer at them in a condescending way. We need to start taking seriously and talking about Englishness, as well as Scottishness and regional identities. We should sharpen not soften our attacks on the sorts of class privilege that mean we remain ruled by a narrow elite who went to the same schools and universities.

I don't know if Labour have a chance of addressing these kinds of issues or not (the Murdoch-friend;y talk about "aspirations" and the middle class suggest it doesn'), but in the meantime in communities across the UK we will need to work hard to defend ourselves, our jobs and our public services from the Tories' ideologically-driven slash-and-burn policies, and we can't do that without white van England.



*Rob Ford, who co-coined the phrase "left behind" in relation to UKIP voters, sums up where Labour lost here. He notes that Labour did leak support in Middle England, but also the UKIP factor:
Ukip surged in seats with large concentrations of poorer, white working-class English nationalists, many of whom sympathised with Labour’s economic message but not the people delivering it.
I've been slightly critical of the "left behind" analysis before (e.g. in my 2014 election post on UKIP),  arguing that UKIP's vote is not significantly more working class than other parties and that it remains fundamentally a party of the "petit bourgeoisie" in Middle England. If you look at where UKIP came second, I think I'm partly vindicated. What is significant about UKIP is its ability to unite the Farage-like ultra-Conservatives of the Home Counties with up to a fifth of bluecollar voters on the East Coast.

**I just saw that Phil makes this point too, and better than me, at the end of this post. And Nick Cohen makes a related point here:
The universities, left press, and the arts characterise the English middle-class asMail-reading misers, who are sexist, racist and homophobic to boot. Meanwhile, they characterise the white working class as lardy Sun-reading slobs, who are, since you asked, also sexist, racist and homophobic. The national history is reduced to one long imperial crime, and the notion that the English are not such a bad bunch with many strong radical traditions worth preserving is rejected as risibly complacent. So tainted and untrustworthy are they that they must be told what they can say and how they should behave. 
What truth there is in the caricature is lost amid the accompanying hypocrisy. The intellectual left deplores racism but uses “white” as an insult. It lambasts the sexism of the right, but stays silent as Labour candidates run meetings where Muslim women’s inferiority is confirmed by stewards who usher them into segregated seating .
***This is why Richard Carr is half-right here on Labour's identity politics, but wrong about it not mattering where politicians went to school.

Also read:

Shaun Lawson "Why the polls (and all but one of) the forecasts WERE wrong. Ed Miliband was nowhere near becoming Prime Minister"; David Osland "Labour should steer clear of suicide by Blairism"; Phil BC "Fear, Loathing, and the UK General Election"; Nick Cohen "Labour would do better if it learned to like the English".

For three essential (and brilliantly written) reads to help understand the rise of UKIP and of political Englishness: James Meek writing from Thanet and from Grimsby, and Lisa McKenzie writing from rural Nottinghamshire

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