The culture war behind the crisis of mainstream politics
As the local election results are still coming in, some commentators are calling it a “political earthquake”. But the facts are more complex. Whatever seismic metaphor we use, I think its tectonic causes are cultural and – unlike mere politics – irreversible.
The Conservatives are an alliance of urban, liberally minded free-marketeers and a large group that is socially conservative, anti-Europe and anti-immigration. Labour from its birth has been an alliance of the urban salariat and the organised working class, both of which have been since the 1980s oriented globally.
Both parties, and therefore the system, were adept at containing class antagonisms. What we’re finding out is how hard it is for them to contain a culture war.
There is no clearer signifier of that cultural divide than the minority swing from Labour to Ukip in places like Sunderland and Rotherham – and the swing towards Labour in London.
In London, already ethnically diverse and prosperous, and with a rapid population turnover, Ukip found its total message hard to sell: while there are individual grievances – over migration, austerity, poverty etc, the poorest layer is typically the migrant layer – so the whole subtextual appeal of “England back to the way it was and boo to the foreigners” is a non-starter.
Meanwhile the archetypal London middle class person, black or white, is urbanist, socially liberal, highly networked and global facing.
But if you look at the communities where Ukip has eaten into the traditional Labour vote – they are exactly the places where a strong residual white working-class culture persists. That is not to say Ukip is only stealing Labour votes – it is expressing the grievances of a group that most economic studies show is not just imagining the downsides of immigration.
More analysis from Channel 4 News: Ukip heat map – where are Nigel’s purple blobs?
A study by Migration Observatory shows that, while migration’s overall effect is to “grow the pie”, its impact on low-income workers is to erode their wages (other studies are of course available, but this one chimes in with what people experience anecdotally).
That social group, and its outlook, have been there since the days of Alf Garnett, and alienated from the globalist, multicultural ethos since at least the 1990s, as Michael Collins’ book The Likes Of Us documented more than a decade ago.
These are places where Labour candidates tend to present the so-called “Blue Labour” agenda, and where the BNP was previously strong – so it’s no surprise to see where Ukip polled strongest. But what’s changed is that Labour can no longer keep hold of enough of such voters, while Ukip can attract them on more than just a protest vote.
For it should be clear that ordinary people do not traipse to the polls at local elections to register protest votes: they know they are voting for things very vital to their lives – council tax rates, bin collection frequencies, planning policies etc.
What’s also declined is the ability of the Conservatives to keep hold of socially conservative voters of all classes. This is the much bigger phenomenon in terms of numbers. I am guessing the psephology will show the majority of Ukip voters were switchers from the Tories, or had voted for ex-Tory independents before.
All three main parties are now saying they will “listen to the discontent”. And they acknowledge the distrust and disconnect with politics in general.
The problem for all of them is that they have no mechanism for listening. Not just the party machines but in many places the party activists, even of the Conservatives, are drawn from the urban, socially liberal networked tribe. In fact, it would be impossible to express as a view some of the Ukip policies – let alone the rhetoric – inside the main parties.
The problem for all the main parties is not that they are cut off from the people in general, but they have become culturally antipathetic to this large socio-cultural group that’s attracted by Ukip in England and Wales.
For example, you only have to think of the politicians who are supposed to “represent” them: Maurice Glasman for Labour, Jacob Rees-Mogg for the Tories, to glimpse the disconnect.
This is a major and strategic problem for the Conservatives. For more than a century they have been the natural political home of people who live by church and the nuclear family and are skeptical or hostile to the EU project.
The coalition government only exists because the Conservative party on its own could not command enough votes. Stripped strategically of the English regional “small c” conservative, anti-immigration lower middle classes, it would start from an even weaker electoral base.
Labour’s problem is less strategic but no less acute. Its top brass were trapped in a dilemma, between two tactics; one that tries to sell Labour to the urbanists who voted Lib Dem or Green, and won a centrist majority that way; and one that competes for the votes of the old white manual working class on a cultural terrain shared with Ukip and Essex Man etc.
Because it thinks always in terms of policy, and not rhetoric or narrative, modern Labour thought it could appeal to both groups by devising a policy mix each could cherry pick from, and that the “cost of living” was most important to all of them.
This turned out to be wrong: in the last days of the election it effectively became a referendum on immigration and the related subject of Europe. Labour could not and did not respond to the campaign as it was being fought. Incidentally I think we will find ethnic minority communities also understood the nature of this vote and turned out in large numbers to vote against Ukip, most demonstrably in parts of London.
The added complication for Labour is that almost no part of its “official” working class base – the trade union movement – expressed anything close to a protectionist agenda on Europe or on migration. The Labour-supporting unions are, if anything, the most politically hostile to the “Blue Labour” agenda and the most pro-Europe.
Special report: Yes/No Scotland
I think there are two unstated cultural shifts going on, that politicians dare not really articulate. First, the growth of a Scottish political culture, which even if Scotland votes no to independence still signals a confident national identity and narrative – and challenges English people to define themselves culturally. We saw the results of this when a government survey found 63 per cent of white Britons define themselves as English, while the majority of migrants call themselves British.
Second, there is the growing regional and demographic separation between cities and towns, and between London and the rest.
City life has become fast, networked, meritocratic, multi-ethnic and sexually tolerant. Small town life often is none or few of the above. If you add in five years if economic stagnation in the north, the south west etc and an economic policy destined to boost the financial wealth of the already wealthy, you get the question of cultural identity posed even sharper.
The former adviser to Ken Livingstone, Lee Jasper, tweeted today that the black and ethnic minority felt like the rest of Britain had “thrown them under the bus” by voting for Ukip. You don’t have to spend long in a pub in a former mining town to realise that the feeling can be mutual: that multi-ethnic globalised Britain has cared and listened least for those who used to dig its coal, build its cars and join its infantry regiments.
Basically Scottish nationalism has subliminally posed the question: what’s the rest of Britain’s cultural soul? And there are two very separate answers.
One of my favourite war movies is The Way Ahead, where David Niven leads an all star cast of British character actors through basic training in the army. It’s thinly disguised propaganda but based on truth: the war did allow people from all parts of the British class structure to find common ground.
All you have to do to understand the scale of cultural challenge, is try to imagine a remake of that film today, starring an Essex Ukip-type, a hipster from London’s silicon alley, a Muslim from Blackburn and a LGBT person from Manchester’s Canal Street district. Given the current political mood – barely captured except on radio phone ins – I suspect the outcome would be pretty unfunny.
Underpinning this rising cultural division is of course an economic question: how do you actually achieve equitable globalisation. If you can’t, then in an open economy like Britain the downsides of globalisation will go on exploding the old political system.
What is most remarkable now is that, without any significant section of the British business community wanting to leave the EU, and with most of business actually clamouring for more immigration, a party that wants to leave Europe and severely restrict migration scores up to a quarter of the votes where it stands.
During the last major economic crisis, by the mid 1930s, both parties had developed leaderships that, albeit with a heavy heart, knew they had to put the economic interests of their country and its people first, and their globalist ideals second.
This time around there’s almost no part of the political elite that could contemplate such a move: and that is because the educated, liberal urbanists are no longer – as in the 1930s – confined to an intellectual elite. They are probably a majority; their cultural values rule not just in the coffee bar or the art gallery but in the CSR department of the global corporation and in every university, every ad agency, and most cultural institutions.
This means, going forward, successful mainstream politics will either be about opposing and containing those culturally attracted to the Ukip agenda, or about constructing parties that can accommodate it with more than just lip service. To put it graphically that would mean Labour, Lib Dems and the Tories actually welcoming not just members but MPs who express views that would get you reprimanded if you expressed them inside many corporations or public service departments.
And just to state it that way shows the latter option is going to be very hard.
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