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I’m a firm believer that, in order to change society, you have to understand society. Not society as you would wish it to be, but society as it actually is.
I am probably predisposed to find the research Jon Cruddas has led, on why Labour lost, to be fascinating. The most recent findings I’ve seen published, found here, breaks down the voting public into three archetypal groups – socially liberal ‘pioneers’, aspirational ‘prospectors’ and socially conservative ‘settlers’. Broad brush strokes perhaps, but I think it’s fairly intuitive.
The research notes that, in 2005, Labour’s vote share was split evenly between these three groups. Then from 2005 to 2015 there was a significant shift – votes among pioneers rose, fell modestly amongst prospectors and fell significantly amongst settlers. Pioneers are defined as being “at home in metropolitan modernity and its universalist values”, voting according to “their personal ideals and principles such as caring and justice” and tend to have been to university. They comprise a significant part of Labour’s membership.
I’m in no doubt which of those camps I fall into. I was raised by a single mother on a multicultural (and since demolished) council estate. I’m subsequently university educated and benefitted from both means-tested university fees and Education Maintenance Allowance prior to that. I don’t necessarily vote according to my own interests, be it financial or otherwise, but according to the values I want to see resonate throughout society – relatively woolly concepts like fairness and compassion.
Living in what was the most marginal seat in the 2010 election I had little choice but to vote Labour in 2015, despite long-held concerns over the electability of the leader and general direction of the party. As the election approached, I was sucked in by policies which played to my basest ideological instincts (“freeze energy prices, that’ll show ‘em”) and also favourable opinion polling. The comprehensive rejection by the electorate – on my birthday no less – came as a shock. It was my 1983.
Since then, a million think-pieces have been written about why Labour lost. What I couldn’t have seen happening on the morning of the 8th May was a mass movement building up around the general viewpoint that a party that further appeals to those pioneers, ignoring the other groups, is the best way forward. What strikes me about the noise around the current Labour leadership contest frontrunner, and terrifies me to be quite frank, is that sense of playing to the crowd. Labour lost votes to UKIP and they lost votes to the Conservatives in key marginals, how do you get them back?
The answer to that question can’t be to elect the personification of a London lefty who wants to spend money that would likely dwarf the banking bailout on rail renationalisation. Who wants to speed up Quantitative Easing with no regard for inflationary pressures. The desire to spend more post-2020, while in surplus, which flies in the face of the Keynesian logic so often invoked by his supporters. Whose ‘interesting’ approach to foreign policy has been increasingly well documented. The abolition of tuition fees seems regressive to me, are we really saying that no-one should pay for their higher education? I benefitted from subsidised university education, I’m all for maintaining and extending that, but look to Scotland for the impact of a blanket abolition – the lowest rate of grants to low income students in western Europe.
That’s not to say there aren’t areas within his campaign of interest, such as the increased democratisation of policy-making, but the whole package does nothing for me. I doubt it would do anything for those lost voters either. I understand the hope, the willingness to believe in a fundamental societal shift that will see Corbyn (or at least a party in his image) elected in 2020, the desire for a ‘pure’ party free from the messy world of compromise… I just can’t go along with it.
Leadership requires difficult choices and compromises. It’s a complex, possibly innate personality trait that’s bigger than what an individual looks like or their accent. The act of governing requires even more difficult choices. While in some quarters the leadership election has been presented as a binary choice between left and right, I’m not sure it’s possible for a leader to be to the left on every decision or, indeed, the right. I’m not sure making difficult choices is something that Jeremy Corbyn and his team, with the talk of people’s QE in front of admittedly impressive but ultimately favourable ‘home’ crowds, are willing to accept. To be elected requires understanding the electorate as it is, not as we’d wish it to be. And while you aren’t elected, the other lot get to shape society in their image.
People are awkward – there’s no Clockwork Orange-style indoctrination process that pioneers can put prospectors and settlers through to make them more right-thinking. In order to be successful a leader has to be able to engage all or most of the electorate and bring them along. That includes people who might have views on, to pick an oft-quoted example, immigration that pioneers find uncomfortable or who are generally disconcerted with the pace of social change. It’s difficult to see how any amount of preaching or moralising will have an impact on their world view. The alternative, fighting another election on mobilising the ‘core vote’ (whatever that is) or banking on getting non-voters out despite their being no evidence of their political leanings, would be folly.
For that reason my support, in what is a fairly unappealing leadership contest, would go firmly behind Liz Kendall. A significant part of me thinks it’s too early for her in many ways – in her attempts to distance herself from the previous regime, her approach has perhaps been needlessly caustic at times. The association with Blairism, with its successes and well-trumpeted failures, admittedly isn’t helpful. Nor is the vigour with which some notable Blairites have attacked Corbyn.
But what Liz says about Labour not having enough to say to the whole country rings a bell with me. So too does focusing on ending early years inequality, developing regions outside of London and moving away from centralised, intimidating government – authoritarianism was certainly a fixture of the Blair-Brown era. What matters being what works, potentially opening the door to a raft of difficult decisions and sacred cows, is also hugely important. I realise pragmatism in itself isn’t really a concept that people can rally behind, certainly it’s not as motivational as ‘hope’, but it’s vital to any political project nonetheless.
Her willingness to ask the question of what the Labour Party is for in an age of free at the point of use healthcare, a sizeable (if almost certainly inequitable) welfare state and globalisation is a brave one. I think the meme of her as some kind of closet Tory is unhelpful and her strong support for the very concept of trade unionism on its own puts an Atlantic sea’s worth of water between them. If she really had wanted to be a Tory MP, as an undeniably intelligent and engaging person she would have had no trouble in doing so. I find the concept that if anyone dares stray from a crowdsourced script they somehow lack ‘Labour values’ even less helpful, with the evocation of bluntly caricatured, towering ex-Labour figures deemed to be looking down from the heavens and tutting disapprovingly at any pragmatists.
There are flaws and rough edges, of course they are. Were Liz to be leader, I have no doubt she would make some decisions which I would instinctively disagree with; there is no perfect candidate and I have no desire to see an unquestioning, comfortable cult of personality. But I firmly believe she is the leader Labour need, but sadly – for me at least – not the one it will elect.