Popular Conservatism in the 2020s: How Should the Left Respond?

Rohan McWilliam

A report by Professor Rohan McWilliam with preface by Jon Cruddas, MP

Main points:

  • The left gets nowhere by regarding popular conservatism as a form of 'false consciousness' or as a contradiction in terms.
  • Labour should not accept the premises of popular conservatism but it can harness its belief in strong community ties.
  • There are multiple forms of popular conservatism and it varies according to place, region and the historical context.
  • Labour needs to develop a way of talking to workers who are self-employed and in the private sector.
  • The Conservatives’ capacity for reinvention and renewal both in government and in the country at large is much greater than that of Labour.
  • Labour should not just focus on the Red Wall but develop a strategy to take seats like Harlow and Basildon.
  • Jobs and dignity at work is the key - not a strategy built on inequality.

 

Contents:

 


 

Jon Cruddas MP

Preface by Jon Cruddas, MP

Labour in 2020 is locked in an existential crisis about its role and purpose. Can this become a cathartic moment of change: one where we reassess, rethink and (hopefully) rebuild Labour? What is the progressive project today? How do we remake a vibrant social democracy that the times require? There can be no victory if Labour does not reimagine a vision of human dignity, democracy and equality where all receive the opportunity to fulfil their potential. In short, Labour needs to be reconnected to the common sense of the British people; a frayed link in urgent need of renewal.

What is striking about our recent defeat - in comparison to say 1931 and 1983 - is that often the values of the party seem to be at odds with those who have historically remained our biggest supporters: working-class voters. Time and again - not only in 2019 but over the last decade - voters have considered Labour to be out of touch with their values. Politics is about trust and Labour, quite simply. has not been trusted to govern. Worse, such voters often feel disrespected by the left in its modern metropolitan form. There appears a danger the country remains stuck in a culture war with Labour on the losing side detached from the very people it purports to lead.

Working-class voters apparently now consider that the Conservative Party better reflects its values. There is a need to diagnose this new wave of popular conservatism. What is it and what are its core properties? This will not solve all Labour's problems but could offer worthwhile pointers to a way forward. Brexit has been one factor but it is not the only one. Party renewal involves being prepared to at least have a conversation with conservatism, one marked by respect and open-mindedness, if we are to successfully contest its hold over the minds of voters. Here a bit of history is useful. The report by Professor Rohan McWilliam shows that many of the issues Labour faces today are not new.

Labour retains a patriotic, historic character: the very quality some claimed it lacked in 2019. It is the party of Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Michael Foot, all robust lovers of country. Such patriotism is not necessarily conformist. It can have a radicalising effect when the country remains a site of social injustice and dispossession. This has always been the essence of the Labour project. It has been the party that stands with families and identifies with their struggles to live dignified rewarding lives. The problem in 2019 was that many traditional Labour families did not feel the party sided with them.

The evidence suggests there was no huge love for the Conservatives amongst those who voted for them. What to do? Citizens often feel invisible to the power brokers of Westminster. Labour could offer a radical communitarianism and devolution of power, transforming local government and making our country’s rulers truly accountable. This is a moment when new forms of economic democracy could give workers a sense of control over the lives they lead. We could return to some of the oldest traditions of the left and rediscover a patriotic warmth and ethical sensibility. It is a tradition that opposes the relentless commodification of people's work, families and lives. Labour's counter to Toryism is this sense of the Common Good.

The work of the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University has placed a spotlight on the party's past so as to force us to rethink the present. It is developing approaches to Labour's past that counter many modern myths and once again reveal its historic, moral purpose. We should pay attention to its research as we set out our policies for the next election.

Jon Cruddas is Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham

Photograph by Chris McAndrew, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

 


 

Popular Conservatism in the 2020s: How Should the Left Respond?

'One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism'
George Orwell
The Lion and the Unicorn

 

Introduction

The Red Wall of northern Labour constituencies went blue in the 2019 UK General Election. Low income voters are now more likely to vote Conservative than vote Labour. Real incomes for working people are lower than they were before the Crash over ten years ago - and many of these voters have plumped for the Conservatives (though some for the first time). A 2015 survey in Scotland found that only 4% prioritised the great cause of the left: reducing inequality between rich and poor. Redistribution enjoys only limited popular support.1 It is middle-class voters (especially graduates) who are more attracted to Labour. This is an astonishing realignment which has apparently changed the entire political landscape of modern Britain.

This report argues, however, that this is not an entirely new situation. Popular and working-class conservatism have deep roots in British history: some of those roots can even be found in Labour's own history. In the 1980s, with the domination of Thatcherism, there was an awareness of working-class Conservatism, evident in the iconic figure of 'Essex Man'. In the New Labour years, this became less of a preoccupation for commentators. The Boris Johnson era thus requires new thought on the subject which this report attempts to offer.

With the coming of universal suffrage after the Great War, the working class constituted the majority of the electorate. In theory Labour should have won every election after that as its selling point was that it was the party of the working class. As it turned out, the one hundred years that followed were dominated by the Conservatives. There have been twenty eight general elections since 1918. The Conservatives won the most seats in eighteen of these whereas Labour won ten.2 One reason why Labour has often lost is that many working-class voters have simply not supported it. The 2019 election result was a continuation of this trend.

Class often shapes voting behaviour but it is not the only determinant. We need to appreciate that some voters are conservative because they are working class. It is a world view that makes more sense of their lives than that offered by the left. For some voters, their conservatism takes the form not of an affinity with the Conservative Party but of a scepticism about the perceived humbug of the left (some of this could be observed in the 2019 election when workers simply did not believe the claims of Labour despite its elaborately costed proposals). For older voters this tendency also reflects a lifetime of experience which reinforces their scepticism at how much can be accomplished by any one government.

There are big issues here about social structure and the social determinants of voting behaviour which have produced vast scholarly literatures. In a short report they cannot be dealt with fully. Instead, the following account seeks to analyse the historical issues around popular conservatism. This is arguably the dominant force in British politics in the 2020s. Boris Johnson’s policies are being driven by the need to hang onto voters he acquired in 2019.

What do we mean by conservatism? It is not simply about resistance to change or support for the established order. From Sir Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 through Joseph Chamberlain’s support for tariff reform in the Edwardian period and on to Thatcherism and then Brexit, Toryism was often the force that could signal dramatic changes in direction for Britain. The Conservatives were the party to give the country its (so far) only Jewish Prime Minister, its first Asian Chancellor of the Exchequer and its two women Prime Ministers. Moreover, as Britain started to move towards becoming a mass democracy with the 1867 Reform Act, the Conservative Party was often the party that was most effective in building an election-winning coalition.

Popular conservatism takes many, sometimes contradictory, forms, gaining its strength from the overlap between these categories:

  • patriotic and nationalist
  • populist (and in favour of political change)
  • libertarian
  • deferential to a paternalist elite and to the Conservatives as the natural party of government
  • a preference for leaving things the way they are and a fear of people who want to change things too quickly
  • imperialist (sometimes with a focus on white supremacy)
  • opposed to politics: the Conservative party as the non-political political party
  • a preference for common-sense over abstract ideology

Modern Tories attack the left for its obsession with identity politics; yet their success over the last two centuries has derived from the deft use of social identity (for example, belief in the nation and tradition) and the suggestion that the left merely represents sectional interests who are out of touch with the values of the people. This is the direct thread from Disraeli to Boris Johnson. Tory identity politics is based around a technicolour version of the nation's past, which values heroic British pluck and individualism and speaks of Churchill's indomitable spirit. These are the myths that Toryism lives by and they proved decisive in the 2016 EU referendum. If it is true that politics has become a landscape dominated more by culture and identity than economic policy, then it is one in which the Tories can prosper. When Labour employed the British bulldog in its advertising during the 1997 election, it spoke of a determination to contest this territory and not allow the Tories to have a monopoly on patriotism. Labour can talk in progressive ways about issues that people care about (nation, family, hard work, the struggle to be a good person and do what is right) but it is often conflicted about doing so.

 


 

Histories of popular conservatism

If we go back to the 1790s, support for the principles of the French Revolution in Britain was countered by the actions of the 'Church and King' mob. In 1791, the radical scientist Joseph Priestley, known for his support of both political and religious dissent (i.e. religious worship outside the Church of England), barely managed to escape with his life after his house in Birmingham was burned down by an angry mob. It was clearly possible to mobilise popular support around sympathy for monarchy and nation and against the spectre of radicalism.

Foreigner-hating xenophobia has always been a British trait (though, to be fair, Britain has never had a monopoly on this). Crucially, liberals, progressives and radicals were perceived by conservatives as people who did not value the nation or its heritage. This may have been one reason why radicals in the eighteenth century often claimed that they were the true patriots and that the governing classes did not have the best interests of the nation at heart. Radical patriotism was the default setting for progressives until the 1870s when the Disraeli’s Conservative Party began to annex the issues of both nation and empire, turning them into vote-winners. In the later nineteenth century, issues of empire increasingly shaped how British people saw themselves: as part of a wider global community, run, it needs to be said, for the benefit of white people. In the 1870s, a new word entered the English vocabulary to describe this dimension to the popular mind: 'jingoism'.

Another strand of popular conservatism has been a combination of paternalism by the elite and deference by the poor. This was particularly marked in rural areas in the nineteenth century. The common sense of the squire seemed a better bet than the abstract ideas of Victorian liberals. Radical toryism (embodied by Disraeli’s 1845 novel, Sybil) attacked the aristocracy because it had forgotten its responsibility to look after the poor. It harked back to a pre-industrial and neo-feudal organic community where everybody knew their place and the elite took seriously its role as paternalists. As late as 1936, Harold Macmillan could claim that 'Toryism has always been a form of paternalist socialism' 3. This form of conservatism was replicated in the industrial towns where factory owners often made a great display of being concerned about their workforce. In 1858, 900 workers marched through Stalybridge with 'Long Life to Our Employers' and 'Britannia rules the waves' on their banners.4 Robert Roberts recalled his working-class childhood in Edwardian Salford:

'Many were genuinely grateful to an employer for being kind enough to use their services at all. Voting Conservative, they felt at one with him. It was their belief, expressed at election times, that the middle and upper classes with their better intelligence and education had a natural right to think and act in behalf of the rest.'5

There were two other dimensions of this form of popular Conservatism. It was strongly Protestant and, in particular, pro-Church of England. In Lancashire, this form of ultra-Anglicanism was a way of expressing dislike of Irish Roman Catholic immigrants, suggesting that links between right wing politics and opposition to immigration have deep roots. The other feature of it was its dislike of temperance, the anti-drink movement which divided the working class and was heavily associated with liberals and radicals who seemed ready to close down pubs or, at least, regulate their use. Toryism defended the working man’s right to drink and stood for the people’s pleasure whilst radicals were often viewed as po-faced bores. Landlords in pubs were often Tories and extolled the party’s virtues to working men who drank there. Toryism therefore embodied the idea of the good time, bonhomie and the beer-barrel.6 This is an approach that has been replicated by Boris Johnson whose libertarian appeal (undermined during the Covid crisis) has deep historical roots.

Modern toryism has therefore been populist. The Conservatives appeared more in tune with popular culture with its beer, cigarettes, love of monarchy and cheerful jingoism. Toryism was suspicious of progressive causes and travelled light on ideology. It was, however, also frequently libertarian, based on a cynicism about most politicians and any attempt at outside interference in the working-class community. This explains why progressive attempts at state intervention such as the coming of Old Age Pensions in the Edwardian period were at first resisted by the very people who would benefit from them.

The Conservative Party proved more effective than the Liberals in organising the new mass electorate that started to be enfranchised in the later nineteenth century. One of the vehicles for this was the Primrose League, founded in 1883 after Disraeli’s death. In office, Disraeli’s government had pushed through measures of social reform, including factory and trade union legislation, showing that it was not against change. The Primrose League existed to promote the causes with which Disraeli was associated and became a major force in British politics up to the 1940s (though it lasted through to 2004). The secret of the League was that it was mainly a social organisation which also promoted local charities. It was only at election time that members were expected to canvas for the Conservatives. Another dimension to the League was that women were encouraged to become full and active members ('Primrose Dames'). As women gained the vote after 1918 this was important. The party made a strong appeal to women voters, targeting them as housewives and mothers.7 Labour, by contrast, often focused on male workers with women enjoying a conflicted relationship with the party

Part of the appeal of the Conservative Party at large up to the early 1980s was that it claimed to be essentially a non-political political party. Labour had an ideology (socialism or social democracy) whereas the Conservatives presented themselves as free of ideology and flexible enough to make common-sensical decisions. This dimension to Conservatism declined with the coming of Thatcherism (which also saw a fall in formal membership of the Conservative Party). The ideological flexibility of both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak has deep roots in the history of the party: hence their use of state spending on a massive scale, despite the Conservatives’ belief in small government.

In the post-war period, another factor in support for the Conservative party was affluence. Workers were simply better off. The Conservative party marketed itself as the party of the consumers and spoke for consumer interests. Labour since the 1950s has never known how to respond to this. By the 1980s, this was personified by ‘Essex Man’: someone who was better off than his parents, worked hard, spent profusely, was not dependent on the public sector and remained defiantly working class. This was always a crude stereotype which disguised a complex reality but it had some bite when seats like Basildon (which Labour needed to win) remained Tory in the election of 1992.

How has Labour dealt with this culture of popular conservatism? As Martin Pugh has argued, Labour’s engagement with the working class served to make it less left wing (yes, you read that correctly).8 In order to expand its electoral base, Labour had to appeal to a deeply conservative popular culture in which patriotism and support for the monarchy were integral. Popular culture has always been a problem for Labour. Keir Hardie on one occasion visited a Manchester theatre and was so shocked by a scene in which a woman sat on a man’s lap that he walked out. Trade unionist Ben Tillett once complained 'If the Labour Party could select a King, he would be a Feminist, a Temperance crank, a Nonconformist charlatan…an anti-sport, an anti-jollity advocate…as well as a general wet blanket'. In the 1940s, the populist Daily Mirror was crucial to developing a constituency for Labour in the mid-twentieth century (in comparison with the more humourless Daily Herald). Its mildly racy Jane cartoons in the 1940s would not have gone down well with Keir Hardie if he had been alive. The Second World War allowed Labour to cement its patriotic appeal but also suggested that it could embody the small pleasures of British life without being po-faced about it.

Most historians see Labour as the heir to Liberalism and Victorian radicalism. According to Martin Pugh, there is, however, much to be said for the existence of a kind of Labour Toryism that has shaped the party from the beginning. We can detect a long history of figures moving from Toryism into Labour politics without a Liberal stage in between. Examples include Henry Hyndman, Hugh Dalton and (maybe) Tony Blair. Nor is this merely a biographical quirk but a recurrent world view within the party. Labour politicians have frequently combined class politics with conservative social values from Will Thorne to Ernest Bevin, James Callaghan and Frank Field. In the First World War, some Labour and Tory politicians found common ground in arguing for policies that included state intervention in key industries, tariff reform, limits on profits and a minimum wage. Labour's toryism prevented it from reshaping the constitution and franchise. Although it has a long history of considering proportional representation, at the end of the day the party has always backed first past the post for the electoral system.

 


 

Popular Conservatism since 2008

The Labour Together report on the 2019 election shows that the Labour vote was in decline during the New Labour years. Even before it, there was a clear decline in the forms of Labour identity that had lasted from the 1880s to the 1970s: masculine, union based, with a strong sense of class. Deindustrialisation during the 1980s ripped this apart. So, too, did the increasingly classless tone adopted by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and then by Tony Blair’s New Labour. This prized aspiration and social mobility. Whilst there were positive dimensions to this, it in effect involved branding people on low incomes as losers and 'left behind' and showed no respect for the essential contribution that low paid workers made to society.

The working class, as it has traditionally been understood, is no more. What exists is a new subordinate class: the precariat. It is not working in heavy industry but remains dependent on low paid and often precarious jobs in the service sector. It is also far more ethnically diverse and characterised by a strong focus on female labour.9

The twelve years since the 2008 Crash should have suited the left as it might have confirmed its analysis of the inegalitarian nature of modern capitalism. Despite a better than expected vote for Labour in 2017, the post-Crash years have led to the domination of the Conservatives. Why?

Historically, this is not unusual. Both in 1929 and in 2008 (two years that saw major global economic collapse), Labour was in power and thus got the blame. Conservatives were then able to dominate the succeeding period. Ross McKibbin points out that in 1931 and 1935 elections, the Conservatives were supported by at least half of working-class voters: ‘more than Labour, the Conservative Party in the 1930s was the party of the working class'. Inter-war politics were about the construction of an anti-Labour majority dominated by the Conservatives.10 In both periods, the Conservatives managed to get the votes of many working-class voters.

If we look at the post-2008 Crash, there are some contrasts with the kind of popular conservatism that has existed in the past. The deferential strand in popular conservatism has declined markedly since the 1960s to be replaced by a broad populism. Although the Conservative Party is still run by Old Etonians (David Cameron, Boris Johnson), the party makes its claims to rule in classless terms rather than through requesting deference to social status. Cameron presented himself, like Blair, as a moderniser rather than a toff in the Harold Macmillan mould. As Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite argues, this reflected the social fluidity of modern Britain which made arguments based on class redundant (even Corbyn’s claim in 2017 to be ‘For the Many not the Few’ eschewed the rhetoric of class). More, the decline in deference has actually fuelled populism: elites are to be treated with suspicion (the Westminster Bubble, the EU).11 The cosmopolitanism of the middle-class elite has produced a greater focus on the importance of place and nation amongst ordinary people. This was then intensified by the issue of Brexit. The disdain expressed by many Remainers for what were called 'low information voters' did not help; not did the elitism of the Remain campaign which asked voters to trust that the EU was bringing them prosperity even though they could not feel it. UKIP, and then the Brexit Party, acted as a kind of ‘gateway drug’ which led former Labour supporters into the Conservative fold. Even Boris Johnson acknowledged in his response to the 2019 election that many of the voters who put him back into Downing Street were people who would once have baulked at the idea of voting Tory and came from families who would have been appalled at their decision.

Brexit mobilised certain features that had been integral to the popular conservative mindset. Some responses amongst working-class Brexit voters have revealed nostalgia for the British Empire, suggesting a continuity with the support for Enoch Powell in the late 1960s and 1970s (though, to be fair, without the extreme racism). There has certainly been nostalgia for the Second World War as a moment of heroism and community spirit: in this view, if Britain could go it alone then, why can’t it now? Brexit supporters often claim that their vote was driven by a desire for a government that they could control and by a desire to restore the feeling of togetherness that had allegedly been lost in modern Britain. The progressive left therefore found itself at odds with the kind of voters it claimed to represent. The Conservatives were adept at claiming they represented the visceral feelings of ordinary people. As this report shows, they have been doing this since the 1870s.

 


 

How should Labour respond?

Labour should reflect on how ineffective its attacks on inequality have been in recent years. The analysis is not wrong but it is remarkable how this does not resonate with large numbers of voters. 'Inequality' is not a term they use and it speaks to a resentment they do not have. Rather, Labour needs to connect by being the party of job creation - and not just any old jobs. It needs to promote investment in jobs that will be both better paid and will offer security. Labour needs to be the party of dignity at work. Jobs that are part of a Green New Deal, developing an environmentally sustainable employment base, are essential. Labour should be the party that will significantly lift the minimum wage and secure higher wages. When people think of Labour, they should think 'jobs'.

More research will have to be done on the so-called Red Wall constituencies as well as seats such as Harlow in Essex. Although it has returned MPs from both parties at various times, Harlow was Labour from 1997 through to 2010. At the last election, Robert Halfon held it for the Conservatives with a 9.4% increase in his vote share over the 2017 result: 63.5% of the vote. Significantly, Halfon has always been very conscious of working-class support for the Tories and has even in the past suggested that the Conservatives rename themselves the workers party. In July 2020, Halfon praised Boris Johnson’s readiness to spend, claiming ‘the Prime Minister is back on the front foot, setting out a Tory Workers’ agenda, that millions of lower income workers not only relate to, but can also get behind’.12 Labour needs to talk to ex-Labour voters but also to profile this new brand of Tory MP taking over long-standing Labour constituencies. These tend not to be small government zealots.

The temptation for many on the left is to argue that working-class Tories are caught up in what Marxists call 'false consciousness' (a point also made in the Labour Renewal Project). This holds that voters are distracted from the inequities of capitalism by promises of social mobility or simply by a culture which asks people not to ask too many questions about the social order. In particular, the mainstream media are blamed by the left for this situation. The cheap and vulgar approach of the press (including its online form) distracts people from thinking about issues of power. Serious alternatives to the system offered by the left are denounced as unthinkable and alien to the British way of doing things. The left has often had trouble with love of country: in its view the proletariat has a class but not a nation.

It would be a huge mistake for Labour to respond to this new wave of popular conservatism with a false consciousness analysis. Nor (as the Labour Renewal Project argues) should it re-package itself as Tory-lite or try to present itself as anti-immigrant. Labour has to be ready to challenge voters and be unashamed in its belief in progressive values. There is, however, much in this world of popular conservatism for the left to plug into because, as we have already shown, Labour has often done so in the past. The best estimate at the moment is that voters are leaning left on economic issues (favouring greater spending in a way they did not between 2010 and 2015) but leaning right on cultural issues. Things will become clearer once Brexit happens and the dust settles. However, if politics is about building up civic society to foster that sense of togetherness that Brexit voters said they craved, then Labour is well placed to be the party that delivers that. Labour therefore needs to view such voters with respect and make clear that it shares their aspirations.

Labour should never again make the mistake of under-estimating Boris Johnson. He has shown an ability to offer progressive politics (more spending) so as to dish Labour. In this way, he evokes the strategy of Disraeli in the 1870s. The argument that there is no money to be spent on the fabric of society has been destroyed by the government’s response to the pandemic. In a bidding war over who can offer the most progressive policies, Labour can win.

Labour urgently needs to find a way of talking to self-employed voters and to workers in the private sector. One of the problems with the decline in unions is that they are now overwhelmingly in the public sector. A union-based party is no longer representative of the electorate. This is not an argument for breaking the union link but to recognise that there are other forms of solidarity which Labour exists to foster: crucially, these could enhance the power of place that fuels the Conservative imagination. This could take the form of greater emphasis on local government but also giving greater power over to communities to determine priorities such as housing. Labour needs to address real material problems including rent and lack of affordable housing. It should focus on the inequalities highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis: in particular, the way in which BAME citizens were more exposed to the virus because of the low income work they have to do. Labour needs to be the party of practical solutions rather than utopian visions. This is an argument for a strongly communitarian approach.

There is another issue that will become even more important: ethnic diversity. The left prides itself rightly on its anti-racist credentials and can point to the support it has often enjoyed from BAME voters. The electorate of the future will be much more ethnically diverse. It would be wrong, however, to assume that BAME people will always vote Labour. The Conservatives have started to plug into the social conservatism not just of Asian voters but also of black voters as well. This is evident in the maiden speech of Darren Henry, the new Conservative MP for Broxtowe:

'Dad, Harry, is from Jamaica and Mum, Gloria, from Trinidad. Like many of that too-long ignored Generation, they worked hard to make a good life here. Dad worked double shifts and Mum worked all day in a factory. They saved, they bought a house, they were ambitious - and they prospered. We were a traditional British working-class family: hard working, loyal, fiercely patriotic - and Conservative.
'The members opposite claim Windrush as their own. As if it is obvious that immigrants are somehow obliged, morally, and practically, to be Labour supporters. Well, my family was not - and I am not. I stand here as evidence of what immigrants, and their children, can achieve in what my parents called the land of opportunity. I am proud to be the first Conservative MP of West Indian heritage. Black, British with all my heart, immensely proud of my West Indian heritage, and Conservative to my fingertips.'13

Henry made much of his service in the RAF: veneration for the armed forces has long been an essential part of the Tory makeup. This is a form of popular toryism that is aspirational but also positive and cheerful.

Labour should never underestimate the capacity for the Tory party to renew itself and to offer positive role models that people will like and identify with. Boris Johnson is building a project that can attract a large number of voters and dominate the 2020s. Labour needs to be ambitious but also understanding of the preoccupations of the electorate. To win it will need the votes of millions who voted Conservative in 2019. It will not win over former Tory voters by branding them as selfish or ill-informed. Labour will have to show that it understood why they voted the way that they did but that they offer better solutions. Much will depend on what happens when the dust settles on Brexit.

The feeling and identity that a party produces is integral to it. Voters can like individual policies that a party offers (as was the case with Labour in 2019) but dislike the overall mood music of a party: its personnel, its terms of reference. Claire Ainsley (Labour's director of policy) argues 'policy persuaders need to stop looking blankly at the electorate when they don't buy the party's rationale, and start tuning in to their values, social group identities and cognitive frames if they hope to be heard'.14 Another starting point for cutting through to the electorate is that we should recognise that large numbers of people are not interested in politics and don't follow it all that much. We might view this kind of apathy as a form of conservatism. Politics in the modern age is about cut through: the development of a symbolic policy which will register with the electorate and define the party's values even if few can be bothered to look at the details.

Labour’s mood music needs to be a form of militant fairness: a determination to redress the ills of the precariat, a focus on releasing people from poverty through higher pay, better conditions at work, improved education, social care and health services. In 1941, George Orwell understood what nineteenth-century radicals always knew: true patriotism is not about resisting change. It is about demanding an egalitarian future that works for all.

 


 

Notes

1 Claire Ainsley, The New Working Class: How to Win Hearts, Minds and Votes (London: Policy Press, 2018), pp. 83-4, 88. See also Deborah Mattinson, Beyond the Red Wall: Why Labour Lost, How the Conservatives Won and What Will Happen Next? (London: Biteback, 2020)

2 UK Election Statistics, 21918-2019: A Century of Elections (London: House of Commons Library), p.4: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-7529/ [accessed 4 July 2020].

3 quoted in Martin Wiener, English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) p. 111.

4 Patrick Joyce, Work, Society and Politics (Brighton: Harvester, 1980) p. 185.

5 Robert Roberts, The Classic Slum (London: Penguin, 1971), pp. 133-34.

6 Jon Lawrence, 'Class and Gender in the Making of Urban Toryism, 1880-1914', English Historical Review, 108 (1993), pp. 629-52.

7 Janet Robb, The Primrose League, 1883-1906 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1942); Beatrix Campbell. The Iron Ladies: Why do women vote Tory? (London: Virago, 1987); David Jarvis, 'Mrs. Maggs and Betty: The Conservative Appeal to Women in the 1920s', Twentieth Century British History, vol. 5 (1994), pp. 129-52.

8 This paragraph and the next draws on Martin Pugh's Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour Party (London: Bodley Head, 2010) and my review of it in Tribune.

9 Ainsley, The New Working Class.

10 Ross McKibbin, Politics and the People: England, 1914-1951 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 87, 95-96.

11 Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, Politics and the Decline of Deference in Engand,1968-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

12 https://www.conservativehome.com/thecolumnists/2020/07/robert-halfon-johnson-delivers-for-the-workers-but-starmer-could-win-back-their-votes.html [accessed 6 July 2020].

13 https://www.darrenhenry.org.uk/news/broxtowe-mp-darren-henry-makes-maiden-speech-house-commons [accessed 6 July 2020].

14 Ainsley, The New Working Class, p.35.