After Ed Miliband’s 2012 conference speech I wrote about the philosophy behind ‘One Nation.’ I wrote that the Labour leadership was starting to recognise that Labour could only be a successful, progressive force once more if it took notice of one important, if unfortunate, fact; the fact that the majority of everyday, working class people are socially conservative. That’s not to say that the public completely reject progressive agendas, but it does mean that they are not attracted to fast-paced change
For anyone in doubt of the importance of the working class vote, 80% of those who left Labour between 1997 and 2010 were lower income earners. These were people both angry at increased welfare spending, and living in fear that new arrivals (and, increasingly, new pieces of technology) would provide competition for jobs. As well as needing a government that they trusted with the economy and that could improve their quality of life, they also needed a government that could give them a sense of security. To put it simply, they valued security as much as they valued liberty.
With this in mind, recent articles from David Lammy and Simon Danczuk in the wake of ‘the Thornberry tweet’ may finally have woken Labour up to its biggest threat in decades. This is the clash between those who feel Labour should be a party predominantly of liberty and opportunity, and those who also want to focus on people’s desire for security. The latter recognise the changing world can be as terrifying as it is liberating.
As a Labour member from a rural town, now working close to the heart of Westminster, I consider myself right in the centre of this debate. I wholeheartedly support the assertion of liberal values, but I have huge sympathy for those more concerned with the struggles of everyday life than political philosophy. In fact, I feel almost embarrassed when liberal intellectuals preach at everyday people; I see more people shirk away from politics. Immigration is the best example, of course. This ‘finger-wagging’ culture has always been counterproductive to a progressive agenda and only serves to drive people into the arms of UKIP. UKIP’s rise makes it more essential than ever to bridge this gap. A core-vote plus Lib Dem ‘35% strategy’ is a myth. It’s fast becoming a 25% strategy.
Luckily on most issues, such as education, healthcare, and now devolution, the viewpoints remain unified. Yet where liberal and internationalist tendencies are perceived to clash with a desire for security, identity and belonging – such as immigration and patriotism – conflict arises.
On these huge political issues, Labour needs a long-term plan to save its long-term future. But first Labour needs a reality check. The party needs to understand just how ‘progressive’ its left-leaning activists are when compared to the rest of the public. The ‘metropolitan’ folk needs to be more tolerant towards people who aren’t as liberal as them, whilst still arguing for their progressive agenda. This means not cutting off people on the doorstep when they criticise immigrants, or our welfare system, it means listening and showing empathy. It means continuing to push the wheelbarrow of progress up the hill, but ensuring fewer items fall out and roll down towards Nigel Farage at the bottom. Political progress is a myth if you can’t bring the population with you – there’s little point simply racing to the top and preaching at those left behind.
So what’s the long-term solution? Labour should first engage with working class patriotism typified by the flying of St. George’s flag. There’s nothing wrong with finding belonging and pride in your national identity. I recently wrote that Labour needs to champion an inclusive, progressive patriotic vision to rival the exclusive, nationalist version of ‘Britishness’ – Jon Cruddas, John Denham and David Lammy have aired similar views. Secondly, Simon Danczuk is right when he says we need more people in positions of power with life experience outside of politics.
Finally, Labour must get much better at tying policies into our vision and have a clear message about its values. ‘Rights and responsibilities from top to bottom’ should be at the heart of this. This line was side-lined too soon after Miliband’s 2012 conference speech. Whichever way we go, the answer cannot be to ignore the problem, nor push a desperate, short-term 35% strategy. As Chuka Umunna said at conference, Labour must be a ‘broad church’.
It would be great if Labour could give my friends outside London something to believe in come May. It would be fantastic if we could succeed in pushing liberal, progressive agendas without alienating ordinary people. It’s a challenge we all face, and a challenge we can ill afford to decline.
Joe Jervis works is in the external relations team of a London-based charity. He blogs occasionally at www.joejervis.blogspot.co.uk