If the Labour Party doesn’t stand for cleaners, care workers, joiners and warehouse pickers, it’s hard to know what the point of the Labour Party is. This party’s DNA is defined by the need to strengthen the power and improve the lives of the people in our country who don’t have the connections, economic muscle or time needed to reshape the country away from the interests of the one per cent towards the priorities of the masses.
The focus groups I conducted last week with working class voters in Rochdale and Oldham who were torn between the Labour Party and UKIP show how far we have drifted from these voters. You can watch the groups on election-data.co.uk.
Participants in the groups shared stories of life, and how little they felt had changed for the better since the spark of optimism that they felt in 1997. Children unable to find work that matched their skills, or sometimes find work at all. High streets of bookies, pound shops and arcades. Long waits for public services. Little sense of hope and almost no sense that Labour had their back.
Leaders of parties are always the focus of voters’ feelings and that was true here. Corbyn had two fundamental problems.
The most salient was a pervasive sense of weakness. As one person said “although they’ve got a leader, he’s no leader, because nobody wants to follow him”. To some extent this was seen as general infighting, but was also seen as reflecting his leadership ability. “We need somebody younger and somebody who wants to have that fight”. “He should just be sat on a barge somewhere going up and down.”
The second problem related to Corbyn’s policy positions. The only things they knew were that he was opposed to Trident and wanted open borders. The foreign policy position was particularly troubling:
“It’s a big bad world and Jeremy, you’ll get bombed. You can’t – there are certain groups that you cannot sit down with and discuss things. And unfortunately Mr Corbyn thinks – again he’s a very clever bloke, idealist principles, but you need somebody with a firm hand. In certain situations, certain things, you’ve got to be strong.”
While Corbyn is pushing these voters further from Labour, simply going back to the way we were before would do nothing to bring them closer. There is a growing cultural gap between the way these voters see the world and the cosmopolitanism and utopian egalitarianism of much of the Labour Party.
The heart of the issue is immigration. These voters believe that a government’s first priority should be its citizens. They see no reason why citizens of other countries should have entitlements in the UK simply because they move here. Nor are they willing to accept what they see as their English identity being undermined to fit in with the identity of others. They think Labour cannot comprehend these positions, let alone agree with them.
“They don’t really see the problem. They’ll only ever see the problem if they’re looking at a news article or report on TV or the radio. They don’t really see the issues. They might do it …. local media and they get to visit a community centre, but they’re not living in that area. They’re so far removed from –
“You see them at election time.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
These voters accepted that migrants can become British. They knew previous generations had done so, and often had a migrant story in their family history. However they believed that journey should require hard work, economic contribution to this country, and playing an active part in the local community.
This problem goes back much further than Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, one of the few things Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have in common is that they were both deeply unpopular. As one man said:
“What a chance this country had in ’97 to do something. What a chance Blair had. My father died the year before and he would have been so chuffed to see it… And Blair came in and we thought this is a new chance. And the reason this country’s full of people who are so cynical about politicians is down to Tony Blair.”
I sat in meetings with senior Labour figures from 2003 onwards who said that these working class voters had no choice but to vote Labour and that we should aim at the ‘aspirational’ classes. The voters I spoke to last week certainly had aspirations, and now, thanks to UKIP they also have political choices. They were aware of UKIP’s recent problems, but they still preferred to vote UKIP than Labour.
Now, if Labour is to recapture what was good about New Labour, and govern successfully it has to face up to a fundamental choice – to ignore these voters or to listen to them.
Both the left of the party and the liberal centre of the party may be tempted by the former route. The left can write-off these voters concerns by concluding that they are victims of false consciousness who really want better economic policy but don’t know it. The liberal wing can write-off the actual voters – they’re old, they don’t turn out, the country is becoming more middle class, let’s build a different coalition.
The alternative route is to take these voters seriously. To accept that they know what they want from their lives and that they understand how their community has changed. As one person (not involved in this project) said to me yesterday – if everyone in Emily Thornberry’s street sold up to white van man, and they covered their houses in crosses of St George, perhaps she would feel as culturally dislocated as the people in these groups feel as they see how Oldham and Rochdale have changed.
Listening to these voters means respecting their values but it doesn’t mean adopting the policy solutions they recommend. The party must have its own view about how to build a successful economy and a cohesive society. These voters want a party that respects hard work and values strong communities, but no one wants policy by focus group, least of all the people in a focus group.
The good news is that the values of contribution and community are not restricted to northern working class communities. Embracing them is a route to being a majoritarian party again. But first, the party has to accept that cultural concerns are just as real as economic concerns and it has to offer an inclusive and progressive way forward on both fronts. Without that, it is hard to see how Labour can be the party of working people ever again.
James Morris is a former pollster for the Labour Party and is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Participants in the focus groups were all C2D, over 40 and had either voted Labour in 2010 but UKIP in 2015 or Labour in 2015 and would vote UKIP now.