Anthony Painter warns us off the non-existent centre ground

Change is everywhere. And what could be better than change? It makes people wealthier, more free, more educated, enhances our status and opens boundless opportunities for all. Time for a change? It’s always time for a change.

The problem is that for a good portion of people ‘change’ is not something to celebrate. It is rather something to be anxious about. It makes you work harder. It means that a family needs two incomes rather than one. It generates insecurity and consumer demands that become increasingly impossible to meet. Not without maxing out on credit anyway. And suddenly not only your work but the entire financial structure of your life is at risk. Global financial crises tend to be local in their impact.

Change or change fatigue? Well, actually this election was a mixture of both. One Britain – change and comfort Britain – largely stuck with Labour. AB support for the party declined by a relatively modest 6% according to Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner and by 2% amongst C1s. Amongst C2s it fell by 13% and by 11% amongst DEs. The country was divided in two.

Liam Byrne recounts a typical doorstep reaction:

“I work hard. I’ve always paid in. I don’t ask for much. But why is it that when I need help I can’t get it.  And yet I can take you round this estate and show you loads of people doing nothing and getting everything.”

We’ve all had those conversations. It’s no good telling people they are wrong because actually they know their lives and their experience and they know how precarious things feel.

Equally, it is no good telling people about how wonderful globalisation and change is when they’ve been told that for three decades by both Conservative and Labour governments and don’t see significant benefit. They may have tax credits and better public services now but this is scant consolation for not enjoying a sense of control of their lives. And when you are told that things are so good – and yet you just don’t feel that way – it is hard not to feel a sense of injustice.

Actually understanding the underlying dynamic and instinct behind these attitudes – and anyone who has lived or lives in small towns or middling suburbs knows the concerns – is critical to Labour’s future. But appealing to people that Labour lost outside the major cities and much of the north of England is not as simple as undertaking an exercise in retail politics: what do people think, let’s devise a policy to appeal to them, and, hey presto, with a good salesman at the helm, back they come to Labour.

This is exactly the approach we are seeing with the utterly superficial conversation we are currently having about immigration or welfare policy. C2 and DEs whom Labour lost disproportionately are more negative about immigration than AB and C1 (what a surprise…) So let’s take a harder line and just wait for the votes to return. It’s not that simple. Firstly, the anti-immigrant, anti-welfare scrounger vote – to caricature – is extremely contested. Secondly, you tilt too much in that direction, and watch the AB and C1s who have stuck with you flee.  It can be an electoral see-saw.

And that is the issue: modern Britain is fragmented and polarised in its attitudes and instincts. It is difficult for any party to form a real majority. And taking aim at a mythical centre ground only works if your opponent is inept (Labour benefited this way from 1997-2005 just as the Conservatives had from 1979-87.)

So what to do? Well, you have to acknowledge that Britain is divided and polarised. Then you need to accept that the only way to build a majority is to seek some form of pluralistic politics that builds alliances across different perspectives and social groups. And the only way to do that is with extraordinarily imaginative leadership that crafts a new and humble language, honest about the paradoxes of modern Britain.

Pitching to the centre, retail politics style, won’t work. So we may as well begin with an honest assessment of where Britain is and the real challenges it is facing, and argue for what is right.  This will be both materialistic and idealistic – neither of which is better or worse than the other. And it will need a new and open politics underpinning it all.

The more it talks about ‘change’, the more Labour will sound out of touch. Does this all sound overwhelmingly complex? Yes, it kind of does. But that is the nature of modern Britain. The sooner we accept that fact, the better.

Anthony Painter is the author of Barack Obama: Movement for Change

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3 Responses to “Anthony Painter warns us off the non-existent centre ground”

  1. Pat Jones says:

    The Conservatives may have benefitted from Labour ineptitude (1979-87 – or do you mean 97) but not through any occupancy of centre ground. On another note I wonder how much the dividing line between left and right in Labour politics is one of the left stating their position and trying to win voters to it, and the right interpreting the voters ‘position’ and trying to win Labour to it.

  2. Mike Hartley says:

    Labour needs to counteract the narrative that has build up recently – that the banking crisis was a sideshow and the real problem was profligate spending on public services. And also that ‘what the market thinks’ is all-important:

  3. Mike Killingworth says:

    I suspect that the reason that Labour lost relatively few ABC1 votes is that it had relatively few to lose. By which I mean that the overwhelming majority of those it had in the first place were those of public sector workers – and they could work out which side their bread was buttered on.

    As to “small towns and middling suburbs” – is this a PC way of saying “places which don’t have very many black or brown people”? (If there was anything in any of the parties’ manifestoes which was designed to be more popular in, say, Birmingham than suburban Leicestershire I confess I missed it.)

    What Anthony means is that the politics of race is now as important as the politics of class. The great stitherum – and of course, it was 100% right that there should have been a great stitherum – about the BNP probably meant that a fair number of non-white people voted Labour, and whites Tory, who would not otherwise have voted at all. A long time ago I was taught that the sources of political cleavage were race, class and religion. In England at least has been a long time since religion was a predictor of votes (although it still is in the Celtic “fringe” of course).

    Labour’s principles – although admittedly Blair ripped the heart out of them – relate to the politics of class. The practice of class politics in principle has a solidaristic, binding effect – but it is in practice predicated on ethnic homogeneity of the geographically bounded working class in question. The first left politician to recognise that this was no longer a realistic description of London, at least, was Ken Livingstone in the 1980s with his promotion of identity politics. The problem with that of course is that it is fissiparous rather than solidaristic (which is perhaps why it resonated so well with far left groupuscules).

    Let me give two examples. First, ask a heterosexual feminist for a theoretical explanation of why, contrary to what the radical separatists assert, feminism does not imply lesbianism. She will pull a face, look at her watch and plead a pressing previous engagement (if she’s my generation) or just deliver a stream of abuse (if she’s my daughter’s age). Second, I was told – quite a few years ago now – by a British Muslim that “it’s foolish to immigrate, it’s wise to conquer”. See if you can find one of Labour’s Muslim MPs – after all, there are quite a few now – to write a piece for this site in refutation of that proposition. You’ll be lucky.

    What does all this imply for Labour? Well, for a start, do not look to America in general and Obama’s 2008 campaign in particular, for inspiration. The Democratic Party is a wholly different beast operating in a wholly different political system. Second, accept that “race-class” politics – the 21st century reality – do not not map happily on to a two-party system. Just as Blair took on Clause IV, Labour’s next leader needs to deal with the Party’s supposed addiction to FPTP. (An addiction that turned out not to be one at all in Scotland, of course.) A Labour Party committed to STV could bring down this co-alition government pretty much at a time of its own choosing, and it might not even need another election. Give it a couple of by-election gains and a rainbow coalition with the sole purpose of introducing STV and then calling an election might well be practical politics. Given what else they’ve swallowed over the years I could even see an Ard Dheis permitting Sinn Fein’s MPs to turn up in the relevant lobby…

    The future for Labour would then be similar to that of Canada’s New Democratic Party: it would accept that the “left” vote is between 15% and 25% of the (English) electorate and whilst it would welcome others’ votes it would not trim for them. The remaining votes would be split amongst three or four right-wing parties: whether Labour was or was not part of the governing co-alition might well depend more on the depth of their mutual hatred than any of its own virtues.

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