Now that the temporary euphoria surrounding the ‘rogue-poll’ has ceded, Labour must have the courage to continue asking itself the uncomfortable questions; why are people deserting us? And what can we do to get them back?
Often, the response is that the party needs to reconnect with its core vote, that it needs to reach out to those who feel abandoned. I absolutely agree. The problem is that any return to the ‘core vote’ is only ever conceived in economic terms. Whilst there is undoubtedly value in this strategy, it can only ever have limited impact, because it only ever addresses a limited part of the problem. For the truth is that for those who feel alienated, pushed to the outside of public life, the dispossession is cultural every bit as much as it is economic. The establishment has embraced a bourgeois social ethic, and those at the bottom are fatigued, exhausted at having to defend themselves against the relentless onslaught of the sneering classes.
It is perhaps best, in order to illustrate the point, to take the vexatious issue of the racist BNP. Communities that have been staunch Labour strongholds for generations appear to have suddenly transformed into ‘far-right’ groupings overnight. The terminology is misleading though, because in reality there has been no such fundamental shift in political ideology from centre-left to far-right; rather, the very same people who once voted Labour chose to hold their noses and vote for a racist party because it alone attempted to articulate their anxieties in a way that no other mainstream party attempted to do. Whole communities feel dispossessed, trapped in a country that is changing at a rapid pace – a transformation that affects the poorest communities more than anyone else, but over which they feel they have had less of a say than anybody else. The predictable reaction of the metropolitan classes, to mourn the rise of racism as if all the voters were simply racist, to imply the electorate are too foolish to use their vote wisely (‘and this is why we shouldn’t have PR’), does little but demonstrate with crystal clarity precisely what it is people are angry about – ‘these are our concerns, but none of you will listen’.
And of course they won’t. Because at root this is a clash of cultures. What causes concern amongst the poorest can often be the same thing that is succour to the not-so-poor. What is new is that today’s ruling classes now feel it is their duty to eradicate all that does not adhere to their own manner of seeing things, precisely in order to protect their own interests.
What I’m suggesting is that the disillusionment of the electorate is at least partly down to the fact the Labour Party has embraced an ideology that actively undermines the beliefs and culture of ordinary working people. Immigration, whilst the most topical, isn’t the only battleground. One by one, it seems that the social and cultural outlook of many is scorned upon by an elite who, whilst laughably painting themselves as on the side of the ‘oppressed’, choose to studiously ignore this particular subjugation. On issues ranging from school/parental discipline (‘child abuse’), to capital punishment (‘barbaric’), to patriotism (‘Little Englander’), to euro-scepticism (‘xenophobic’), to immigration (‘racist’), to morality (‘bigoted’) – across all these issues and more, the general beliefs of vast swathes of the electorate are demonised and ridiculed by an elite interested only in securing the dominance of their own particular worldview.
In essence, it often appears that the Labour Party has chosen to sacrifice its traditional roots in defence of a shiny new social creed it likes to call ‘liberalism’. Truth is, the cultural underpinnings of this creed, originating in the post-1968 student ‘resistance’ movements, are thoroughly middle-class, individualistic and bourgeois – and except for those that are already ‘free’, it delivers anything but ‘liberty’. Thus, one can only look on with sadness at the relentless vilification of what Ferdinand Mount has called ‘the Downers’, their beliefs, their habits, their customs, their social codes. The tragedy is that, were those in power to open their eyes for just one moment, they would see in the faces of the demonised those with whom they once stood shoulder to shoulder in pursuit of a better world.
This article first appeared on LabourList, with a different heading, on November 26, 2009.