23 May 2014

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.

Political Leader React To Local Election Results

During the 20-year heyday of globalisation, both major parties, Labour and Conservative, became social alliances.

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.

Ukip heat map – where are Nigel’s purple blobs?

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.

Party Leaders Vote In European And Local Elections

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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19 reader comments

  1. Shelaffs says:

    I agree with a lot of your analysis, but, while the cultural issues you mention are significant and relevant, I think the problem for the mainstream parties is simpler to understand, but just as hard to solve: a lack, across the political spectrum, of the conscience, morality and fair play that distinguished the English character as portrayed in those David Niven films. It may always have been a false portrayal but it was bought wholesale by people the world over. It is the essence of the ‘English’ brand, but when the establishment is perceived to be betraying it, their is little for anyone to believe in. Deceit creates complexity and the mainstream parties cannot pull a meaningful message from the morass they’ve dug themselves into trying to keep all their targeted factions happy, while betraying them at every turn. UKIP keeps it simple: you have problems, they can all be blamed on EU and immigration.

  2. David Bush says:

    A good description of how society is splintering. Although London has many poor areas,the media, which is London centric, feed the nation on a diet of the filthy rich and the filthy poor. Of course the producers will all live in London. From the outside we see fast cars, exploding house prices and property shows that attracts envy. Then we have other shows describing the north as a Siberiam wasteland full of wastrels and benefit cheats. It’s like the scene in Oliver Twist where the poor boys look at the adults feeding their fat faces. It makes people angry. There is a noisy, well stuffed party going on, and we are not invited. People make their own arrangements. It’s called Ukip. Party, they claim, of the people.

  3. Peter says:

    A very thoughtful article by Paul Mason, and I cannot disagree with any of it. Going forward, it is clear that no party is likely to command anything like majority support.

  4. Andrew Dean says:

    When a Scotsman says he is for Scots traditions and culture he is lauded; When an Englishman says he is for English traditions and culture he is branded a Racist, therein lies the problem, the PC brigade have no concept of the perceived destruction of the English way of life that they have caused by their addiction to Multiculturalism and not just unrestricted but, in many cases, encouraged immigration.

    1. J. R. Tomlin says:

      It would be nice if you didn’t try to label your racism on the Scots. Independence has nothing to do with hating people of other races or cultures.

  5. Boffy says:

    “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.”

    Actually, I’m not sure that’s been true for some considerable time. Most people have been aware for the last couple of decades that their local council actually has control over bugger all. The Council where I used to work lost more or less all its manual workers back in the 1990’s under CCT. Then housing, the main thing every Councillor used to get complaints and enquiries about from their constituents, was handed over to Housing Associations. Nearly all of the offices in the Council where I used to work had already been vacated by the Council 15 years ago, and taken over by various local quangos, many from the NHS, or the Police, with a consequent influx of non-elected, middle class professional politicos.

    Voting in local elections then became pretty meaningless, which is why turnouts frequently fell to near zero. Voting did become something in many cases where it was only those who wanted to register some particular objection turned out to vote. For example in Stoke, it was not just the BNP that did extremely well out of such sentiments. In a microcosm of the media in general, the local newspaper, the Sentinel, for years whipped up its readership – it is after all part of the Mail Group – with stories about how bad the local Council was. Eventually, it had its result, and the Council was taken over by Independents. It then promptly descended into utter chaos, whilst the Sentinel washed its hands of all responsibility.

    Having carried out a prolonged campaign to have an elected Mayor, when that also resulted in chaos and unpleasantness, it than sold copy by running a campaign to scrap the elected Mayor. At each stage, low levels of participation, low levels of political culture allowed small mionorities who had a bee in their bonnet to turn out and vote and win the day, in a way they never could in a General Election. Its why in many areas Labour candidates can win Council seats when the election is held on the same day as a General Election that otherwise they would not turn out enough Labour voters to win.

    UKIP like the BNP before, will do well in the Euro elections for the same reason. Until the European Parliament has real power to change things, to introduce Europe wide taxes and benefits, for example, and introduce laws that apply equally across Europe, then in the same way that unless powers are restored to Local Councils, there will be low turnouts, and it will open the door to the election of mavericks whose real level of support is much lower than their vote in these elections suggests.

  6. Liam says:

    I think a point that Paul has missed is that it was the smashing up of the unions, with the consequent downward pressure on wages and conditions that opened the door to much of the anti-immigrant feeling in some working class communities.

    Labour definitely encouraged this process by enthustiasticlly parroting the individualist messages of neo-liberalism and its endorsement of most Tory anti-union laws. Now we have to endure people like Ed Balls on the airwaves using language on immigration that is indistinguishable from UKIP.

    And Paul, please don’t ever use “going forward” to mean “in future” unless it’s ironic.

  7. Boffy says:

    “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.”

    I think this is a meme, that reflects the situation in London, and the observation of journalists and other politicos of party representatives rather than reality. The members of my LP Branch – the situation in respect of the CLP is different – continue to be ordinary working-class people, living in working-class communities. When I was a Staffordshire County Councillor, up to 2005, the Labour Leader of the Council was an ex- production line worker at GEC. His successor was an ex fireman, and FBU official.

  8. Boffy says:

    “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.”

    I don’t think it did turn out to be wrong. The turnout was around 35%, compared to 70% at a General Election. It was no more wrong than the BNP surge on a similar basis, collapsed come the General Election, when those same workers – and many who would like the opportunity to be workers – did vote Labour, because in the end in the elections that matter, they voted on the issues that matter, on jobs, pay etc. and not on the secondary issues like the EU, Immigration etc. Moreover, in a 70% turnout the votes of the minority that holds sway in a 30% vote, get shown up for the small minority they actually are. It would be a big mistake for Labour to try to accommodate to that small minority. What it should do is provide them with solutions to their problems. But, those solutions need to be diametrically opposed to those offered by UKIP.

  9. Jo Cadden says:

    What sort of patronising and to me, offensive piece of non-journalism is this? I don’t know why I’m even paying it any attention at all to be honest – he uses the vile, meaningless ‘going forward’ in the last para afterall, for which he should be stabbed in the back of the hand with a stubby pencil – not good.
    I suggest Paul Mason gets his head out of his ‘urbanist, socially liberal, highly networked and global facing’ arse and actually spends time amongst the people he thinks are voting Ukip, he might find out that we are not all as strereotypical as he’d like to think, for instance, I don’t know one single whippet owner and have never been to bingo in my life – how’s that even possible for a working class Northern woman in his narrow little world?

    1. Shelaffs says:

      Am keen to understand Jo, what does make you support UKIP?

  10. Eric Young says:

    You speak of change remember the GANG OF 4 and swallowed up by the LIB Dems,
    now what you have really failed to take into all the changes is the Scottish Ref–yes know what you will say—but the YES people got a boost after UKIP and remember Nigel was unacceptable
    in Scotland and they will become part of the EU–then I was appalled to see that Hamliton man and your news there is a phrase for this man and a bibical expression selling himself because
    of makig money and no doubt unaccepatable–now Nigel Farage I do not think is like that-but
    he needs to get rid of this man asap–

  11. Philip Edwards says:

    Even by your standards that has to be the biggest pile of total nonsense since Boris Johnson last opened his gob.

    “…Conservatives…liberally minded…”

    Yeah, right.

    As an analyst you might make a reasonable bin man.

    And “…political earthquake…” my arse. Farage is the Daily Mail and the Sun made corporeal. Yesterday it was Griffin, the day before Powell, tomorrow it will be some other ranting righty banging a tin drum.

  12. Andy says:

    Great post Paul,l hitting the nail (that’s largely invisible to the political classes) firmly on the head! But a very worrying outlook if the major parties (particularity Labour) can’t reconnect with these disenfranchised groups… My only criticism is that your comment “City life has become fast, networked, meritocratic, multi-ethnic and sexually tolerant. Small town life often is none or few of the above” overlooks the fact that many of these cities include the very ‘small towns’ in their poor neighborhoods that are also ‘none of the above’…

  13. AnneDon says:

    This is an interesting piece, but I would suggest it omits a few important factors. Party leaders are increasingly drawn from the same narrow band of professional politicians with little life experience outwith politics. They go to public school (except Miliband), they go to Oxford (except Farage). They join university political groups (Balls and Clegg, as well as Nick Robinson, were in the Oxford Conservative group). They become “political advisers” (based on what, I have no idea), they are parachuted into safe seats, and into the House of Commons. Their experience of life and work is severely constrained; they only ever meet other people like themselves; they have no connection to ordinary life.

    The idea, for instance, that benefits should be reduced to under-25s could only come from a group who don’t know that many people start working and contributing to tax and NI at 16, or 18, and by 25 may well be married with children. The idea that 9 years of contributions doesn’t entitle anyone to benefits could only come from a group that doesn’t know anyone who doesn’t go to university. Many middle class people don’t seem to have grown up and had children until their 40s – working class life is very different.

    That is why a media puppet like Farage, who has, at least, held down a job (if only in the City), can appear more “real” than those who oppose him.

    It’s also why political parties in Scotland seem closer to their constituents. Only 1 member of the Holyrood cabinet went to private school. Most of them held down jobs for years, because there was no chance their party provided a “route” to the House of Commons.

    When was the last time a Westminster cabinet could say that?

    Party leaderships who think that focus groups and television adverts can provide with insight into, and control of, ordinary voters are doomed to failure. That is the crisis the mainstream parties are facing at the moment.

  14. Andrew Dundas says:

    We shouldn’t lose sight of the changes in social patterns and their effects on voting habits.
    Hardly anyone gets married or becomes a new Mum or Dad before they’re thirty these days. Before the mid-sixties most teenagers had had a baby. It was after the mid-sixties that there was a progressive change as the age of mothers-at-first-birth evolved from age 19 (in 1961) to age 30. Household formations are postponed. Those have been huge changes and is paralleled with postponement of career employment and “responsibilities”. Youngsters are free to bop away in their single generation gatherings where those adult responsibilities are largely ignored.
    Privatisations have removed nearly all public sector workers & managers from some sort of commercial awareness. Likewise, the surge in TU subscription charges since the 1970s has driven their Memberships into a minority sect of mostly public sector people. Hardly anyone in large swathes of employment feels TUs or Co-ops are relevant anymore.
    We also-take-for-granted that our European neighbours are only there for the football and the Eurovision contest. Benidorm is a pastiche of Spain. Causes of war are never thought about.
    More than half the voters in general elections are aged over 50 and that age bias is even older in the less important elections. Recall that only half of Scotland’s registered voters bothered to vote in the last Holyrood election in spite of the massive media coverage. Only 24.8% voted for the SNP – hardly a ringing endorsement for their fantasies.
    Most Party Memberships these days reflect the voters in local elections: pensioners, public sector workers and ambitious wannabe politicians en route to being disappointed.
    Fantasies are the new policy ideas. Harsh realities will not trouble them. Real politics are dying.
    Very soon they’ll be no market for C4 News either.
    What’ll you do?

  15. Malcolm Hunter says:

    I agree with a lot of your analysis of the situation, but I was disappointed in your final paragraph, which appears to suggest that there are only two alternative ways to address this situation, either by “opposing and containing those culturally attracted to the UKIP agenda” or by accommodating them and “welcoming not just members but MPs who express views that would get you reprimanded in many corporations or public service departments”. This ignores what I think is the third option, at least for the Labour Party, which is to try to change the views of at least many of the working class voters who are attracted by UKIP. This can’t be achieved by shouting racist at people, or even, on its own, with facts. However, I do think that it can be done by offering a convincing alternative narrative about the causes of their justifiable concerns about issues such as low wages, unemployment and, most importantly, by offering alternative solutions. This needs to be done in a whole hearted way; however, not the current half hearted, triangulated one and it needs to start where people are at.

    For Labour to pander to anti-immigration views, on the other hand, as Ed Balls appears to want, would not only be wrong, it would also be counter-productive, since it would simply serve to support and reinforce UKIPs narrative, while convincing no one that Labour could actually deliver substantial cuts in immigration, since it couldn’t, without taking us out of the EU.

  16. Nick says:

    You forgot house-price greed, the middle-class fight to rid tenants of any spare money they might have (and to own all the mildly decent housing), so on and so forth….

    Try getting an MP to fight on that front. Bearing in mind they all benefit from obscene house-prices, I don’t think things will change for the growing lower-but-still-informed classes.

  17. Alex says:

    Largely agree with all of this. But please be careful of one thing.

    The white working classes in this country have been played off against non-white workers since the days of empire. But it doesn’t make it understandable or right to be racist. Of course business likes migration if it keeps the wages of non-skilled workers down. But it’s a big leap from being angry about that to voting for racist parties.

    The fact is if you try to bang on about working class solidarity you end up shouting over the likes of “Border Force”, “Gypsies on Benefits and Proud” and all the other sensationalist stuff that really isn’t helping anything. All it does is make it fallow ground for UKIP and the BNP when they decide to call. And the worst bit is this is like turkeys voting for Christmas.

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