Labour should recover its patrician socialist streak

by Kevin Meagher

At one time we would have known who and what to blame. Last week’s rioting and looting would be been parked at Mrs Thatcher’s door and the social and economic forces she unleashed three decades ago. We would have talked about the rioters being “Thatcher’s children”, throwing back at Tory ministers their heroine’s invocation that “there is no such thing as society” as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hardly anyone in Labour is making that case today. Labour politicians have, in the main, kept their own counsel this past week, content to “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the government and rattle their sabres when required. The violence has been “mindless” and the police should do whatever is “necessary” to restore order.

By raising the spectre of spending cuts and unemployment as a trigger to the disturbances, Ken Livingstone found himself a pretty lone voice. On Monday, Ed Miliband carefully tied the disturbances to his broader riffs about a lack of responsibility in society affecting those from top to bottom. Sure, he had a swipe at the government’s “gimmicks” in response to the disturbances, but his criticisms were narrowly scoped.

In contrast, David Cameron is letting it all hang out. He tells us we are witnessing a “slow-motion moral collapse”. In this analysis poverty, unemployment and spending cuts have little effect on the choices people make. This is a familiar retreat into the right’s simplistic comfort zone: bad people do bad things.

We should not be surprised. Many Tory politicians simply have no idea about the lives of those at the bottom of the pile. Why would they? In the main, they neither represent them nor socialise with them. This is when having a cabinet of millionaires begins to tell.

Given that it is Labour, in the main, which speaks for these communities, the onus is on us to articulate why what happened, and propose what can be done to avert it in the future.

But the problem is that we hardly know these rampaging young people any better than do the Tories. Truth to tell, we don’t know their parents much either. We have to go back two generations, to a time when the British working class was a recognisable and largely homogeneous bloc. As it has eroded, so, too, has our instinctive understanding of it.

First the traditional jobs went. Then social solidarity and identity crumbled. Now their offspring eschew the respectability that was once so much a part of the working class experience. As the working class broke apart to form a broader lower middle class and a group of “others”, we ended up understanding neither. It took us until 1997, before we managed to reconnect with the first: the Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman of focus group lore.

But the others? We don’t even have a proper name for them. To call them an underclass – shapeless, amorphous – does little to further our understanding. However we badge them, they do not, in the main, make sympathetic “victims”. The parade of surly, track-suited wastrels swaggering in and out of magistrates’ courts, covering their faces while flicking the finger, do little to instil a charitable concern for their circumstances.

Frankly, there has been little incentive to get to know them. They do not, in the main, vote, or participate in mainstream society. MPs in deprived urban areas only get to know these people through their surgeries. Invariably this involves dealing with the costly fallout of personal relationships that have foundered messily.

The cause of their plight? Unquestionably we are still paying the price for Thatcher’s devastation. Her values system of the “devil take the hindmost” was served up cold last week with a generation of amoral, acquisitive pillagers stealing flashy consumer goods.

But this part of our society atrophied under thirteen years of Labour too. All our programmes and projects aimed at ameliorating their conditions did not make a big enough difference. As Ed Miliband put it the other day:

“…we didn’t do everything right and we didn’t reach everyone we would like to have done”.

Public spending is still key. The communities, from which many of these young people come, have problems that will fester still further if they are starved of public investment. But a few youth centres are not going to sort out their three-dimensional problems. We are dealing with a trans-generational absence of legitimate role models and aspiration, a total lack of skills and employability and an explosion in childhood mental ill-health. For starters.

Public spending alone will not fix these problems. Anyway, the left’s culpability is wider than a question of how much bang we got for the taxpayer’s buck. For those at the bottom of the heap, some of our liberal freedoms are a hindrance from them ever joining our mainstream society.

A liberal approach to decriminalising cannabis may be fine for some. But for scores of hopeless young men sat on our mental health wards following an adolescence spent in a haze of dope smoke, it is an unmitigated disaster.

Sexual freedoms for the mainstream mistranslate into sky-rocketing teenage pregnancy rates and an explosion in STIs in some of our poorest communities.

In assessing its response to last week, Labour has to reclaim ideas like “community” and “responsibility”, but there can be no room for meaningless platitudes. We have to own the positions behind the slogans. We should accept that fathers and positive male role models are central in bringing up young boys successfully. Marriage does matter. The stability that it brings is central to any serious attempt at social cohesion.

It does not help that “right wing” and “left wing” are ossified concepts. It can hardly be deemed progressive to see some schools continue to churn out classload after classload of young people with grades midway down the alphabet. Standards and discipline should not be the preserve of the right. Pay the best teachers to turn these places around; rout the failing ones. Why does no-one on the left say so?

We need to articulate and establish golden rules for our welfare state too. Ours is a system of social insurance. You contribute before you claim. Working-age adults who are capable of grafting should be doing so; for their good, their family’s and for the sustainability of the system.

There is right and wrong – and “normal” behaviour too. Sitting back while people make “informed choices” is often to allow them to make bad ones. Labour should rediscover its patrician socialist streak, concerning itself with the everyday lives of the poor and then have the courage to follow through on policies that will improve their lot.

This is not about infantilising them. Neither is it about the state evading its responsibilities with pious homilies. What government does it should do well. In many instances, however, it does not. Every family should have a decent home with enough space for children to play, without them being dumped on the streets as soon as they can walk. No young person should ever leave school without a clear, legitimate , path forward in life. People should walk the streets in peace.

Even amid the chaos of this last week, there remains room for compassion. Evicting a lone parent who is struggling to bring up three toddlers from her council house because her nine year-old son got caught up in the looting is both stupid and contemptible. Labour councils contemplating doing so have taken leave of their senses.

Stopping benefits – that Tory hardy perennial – for those convicted of offences last week risks penalising their families rather than turning the miscreant into an upright citizen. There are other ways of making the individual pay for their crimes without sending their family into penury.

What these disturbances represent is the full-scale emergence of a phenomenon that has been gestating for three decades. We all know it. Those housing estates no-one wants to canvass? Those pubs you would never choose to go in? The youths whose behaviour adults dare not challenge? Shock at what happened last week is the least plausible response.

As my colleague, Jonathan Todd, argued on Monday, right and left alike must take their share of the blame. Thatcherism – both in its economic and moral dimensions – lies at the root of the problem. But it is overlain by liberal assumptions about freedom and suffused with a belief that public spending can right all ills.

In learning the lessons, we have to start by recognising we have a duty of care to the less fortunate. We need to support those who struggle to meet the challenges of the world head on. We need to try harder in stopping their lives spiralling to the point where nihilistic behaviour becomes standard. We must challenge, cajole and, when needed, castigate. But first we must articulate what it is to live a good life and then support people in achieving it.

We should rehabilitate the notion of patrician concern as a cornerstone of our politics – even (perhaps especially) – towards the yobs of last week and make sure that, this time, we do bother to get to know them.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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14 Responses to “Labour should recover its patrician socialist streak”

  1. Oliver says:

    “Working-age adults who are capable of grafting should be doing so”

    Yes, there’s few who would disagree on any end of the political spectrum. However, for people to work, there needs to be jobs. Not part-time jobs, not short-term temporary contract jobs: proper jobs.

    You raise the issue about “traditional jobs” going. This can’t be forgotten. Whole areas of employment that were once the basis of employment for the ‘lower classes’ barely exist now. There’s talk of manufacturing being up (until recently) but where and for whom? Output and profits might be up but how many jobs are there in manufacturing now? How many jobs have been offset by increased automation.

    A lot of the jobs that came to replace those missing “traditional jobs” have now gone too. Office or white collar jobs that would have once been ‘middle-class’ jobs were temporarily opened-up to people who would have once been factory-fodder but now, with outsourcing of anything that’s not nailed down and the decimating of the public sector, it seems that a lot of people are denied any kind of alternative to “traditional jobs”.

    You can “challenge, cajole and, when needed, castigate” in as patricianly manner as you want, but you can’t make someone work at a job that doesn’t exist.

  2. paul barker says:

    Thatcher left office 21 years ago, thats why even most Labour supporters have stopped going on about her. This nostalgia is one with the romanticisation of the Old Working Class. Perhaps your living in the Past because you sense that Labour has no place in The Future.

  3. Les Abbey says:

    We should rehabilitate the notion of patrician concern as a cornerstone of our politics…

    I guess you have to become a patrician first. Still they are the rule, not the exception, in today’s party.

  4. Ralph Baldwin says:


    Firstly, I am no social worker. But I know from experience that there are some people, regardless of background that w can help and there are some that can’t be helped. Whenever we walk down this road I become rather worried when we use the term “should”. The positive element in this article is that more often than not you address this by reminding people of some failings and realities.

    In my own Ward I have sen and spoken to the white kids hanging out outside a community center where there had ben complaints, I have also met kids of asian desecnt hanging around looking bord senseless in other Wards in Barking. If you were to remove the faces after taking a picture of both groups the bodies display the same body language in the main.

    We held a Ward meeting recently and one or two youngsters attended and I watched them begin to descend into a limbo of “what the heck am i doing here?” as other members, older members talked about issues that quite frankly were of no relevance to the lives of these young blighters.

    So I thought I’d give it a shot. I asked them what skills and jobs were on offer for them at the moment…they suddenly reacted as though someone had put an electrict current through them and they started talking about their frustrations and the hopes they had. They all semed to have hopes and dreams, they all seemed to care a great deal about wanting a better life, they were very cynical about their current situation and it appeared to me a though they were full of energy but frustrated that they had no pathway, in the short or long term to direct it and manage it in a positive way.

    I remember the same crap when I was young. Being from a poor family and being the only child who was academic,I had zero support or understanding and as a result of self-doubt, of not being encouraged and more often than not being labelled and rejected by the majority, well it makes life far more arduous and complicated than it ought to be. So I guess I kind of understood them a little.

    Like most people they have pride they just want dignity.

    They need to be taught correctly and have reasonable expectations of life, at the moment their expectations are incredibly variable and this is not helped by the kinds of celebrity and market culture that has great influence over their lives and some want the “get rich quick” path that they see others latch onto around them, whether it be through fame, dug dealing, politics, banking whatever….
    They have very few role models and none worth mentioning (as we lack them badly as too many people in public life are on the “fiddle” and do not have or have had a professional job).

    I do know how to help them but for the moment it is not for me to say any more, except to say I hope this group gets the sensible support it needs which as you have pointed out in your article has to be substantive so that like any other adult, the young people in question get the same choice their more fortunate brethren take for granted.

    But before all of this, they will only respect the system if the system respects them.

  5. madasafish says:

    “There are other ways of making the individual pay for their crimes without sending their family into penury.”

    And that’s where your arguments collapse. If you don’t tell us what they are – however briefly – and why they shoudl work, your argument is baseless.

    Sorting the education system and the probation service and social services in these communities would be a start..

  6. Kevin says:

    Ralph – thanks for your post – yours is a tale familiar to many.

    Madasafish – Give me a break – the piece was already 1500 words long!

    Paul – it was easy to destroy commuities – fair bit harder to repair the damage. BTW – I’m not the nostalgic type.

    Oliver – yes – to a point. There are often jobs – albeit often poorly paid – that you still need basic level qualifications to undertake. That’s why I talked about the crisis of skills and employability. (BTW – See previous posting on immigration & effects on poorer workers).

  7. Sagitarius says:

    This is a frightenly good article. I pick the word deliberately.

    Labour does not speak for the under-classes and never did. It used to speak for an alliance of the organised working class, the non-conformist lower middle class and the left wing intelligentsia. Meanwhile the Boys Brigade, the Salvation Army, Barnado’s spoke to (but not for) those whose modern day equivalents were rioting last week.

    I fear that we face a reversion to mindsets of the 1890s, when riots and looting by the under-class were still a very real fear, with neither the organised working class nor non-conformist religious values between them and elites of society. The Magistrates solution then was a choice of Borstal (HM Prison Borstal re-opened for young offenders in 1904) or the Merchant Navy. Today it is ….

  8. Cinnfaelidh says:

    There is a good deal of truth in what is written, despite some of the tory mantras that were slipped in, but patricians, not likely! From the Fabian permeators to the Vanguard Of The Proletariat we have had enough of that.

  9. Kevin says:

    Tory mantras – define please?

  10. AmberStar says:

    We should accept that fathers and positive male role models are central in bringing up young boys successfully. Marriage does matter. The stability that it brings is central to any serious attempt at social cohesion.
    Marriage was/is a bloody nightmare for millions of women. Domestic violence does terrible damage in many families. The vast majority of violent attacks on partners & children were/ are by the husband/ father. Advocating marriage as if it is a cure all for social ills is not patrician, it is insulting.

    If Labour begin preaching that marriage itself promotes stability & well being, I will probably tear up my membership card.

  11. AnneJGP says:

    An interesting article, Kevin, and one that many left-wing people will find sufficiently challenging as it stands.

    However, you write of the “social and economic forces [Mrs Thatcher] unleashed three decades ago“. I would like to point out that Thatcherism arose out of the social and economic forces unleashed by the hard left.

    To his everlasting credit, Mr Kinnock largely defeated the malign influence of those people within the Labour party; the damage they did in the country, however, was enough to keep the Conservatives in power for four terms.

    Do you not realise that it is the left that has undermined what you call “the respectability that was once so much a part of the working class experience“?

    I come of “respectable working class” stock. I have come to believe that people in the Labour party despise ordinary, respectable, working people.

    In fact, I’ll go further. I get the impression Labour hate us; and not only us but everything that “ordinary, respectable, working” means.

  12. james says:

    Oliver, Kevin – is the issue here not the structural unemployment which has become a feature of the UK economy? Where once we had public policy committed to full employment, we now have a commitment to full employability – which means an acceptance that there is going to be a significant surplus of people of working age.

    Labour’s 90s reconnection was not just with sections of the working class previously alienated by the party, it was also with the ruling class. And the deal struck meant an acceptance of some of the labour market policies introduced by the Tories. The global financial crisis undermined this shaky truce, and the last Labour government was rightly moving in the direction of a Job Guarantee.

    Most of the people involved in the riots appear to have previous convictions and moved out of their area of residence to commit crime, suggesting a lot of the damage was done by career criminals outside of the communities in which they are usually raising hell. The danger is that the current government’s acceptance of the number of people unemployed means that more people drift into a criminal lifestyle.

  13. Patrician??language? how about matrician?

  14. toothgrinder says:

    Liberalising cannabis may be….blah blah ….mental health….blah blah…
    Several problems here….
    Despite an enormous political effort, there is, as yet, no proof at all that cannabis engenders metal illness. Re-scheduling cannabis for ‘C’ to ‘B’ meant that (at least) 4,000,000 people had no reason to vote Labour – they may not have voted for anyone esle, but they did not vote for us. They were also treated to Gortdon Brown stupidly (and unconvincingly) telling lies about it, just like Cameron, Dorries, Brokenshire, Blair and Johnson.
    ….. and I may be wrong, but are we not the party that voted to prevent unit-pricing of alcohol, which is without question a real problem-maker in our society? Have you ever seen a couple of smokers having a fight? No you have not, and nor has anyone else.
    What we do see, however, is people who need cannabis for depression, appetite disorders, glaucoma, asthma, PTSD, insomnia, migraine, chronic nausea, muscular sclerosis and other serious problems being forced to interact with a black market which turns small crooks into rich crooks. How clever is that?

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