British politics is in an unhealthy state of polarisation and paralysis. Small but vocal tribal groups sit at either end of the new political spectrum. At one end are the passionate, pro-EU, open border, globalist ultra-remainers. At the other end the hard Brexiteers, anti-European, closed border, nationalist, die-hard leavers. Neither seem too willing to compromise to break the Brexit impasse, and neither seem particularly determined to help reunite our deeply divided country.
These political divides are driven by a values chasm that has grown bigger in British society over the past 40 years. On one side the cosmopolitans. They tend to be younger, graduates, and living in the big cities, who feel at home in the fast-changing world because they have the skills and confidence to succeed, and have experienced the changes of the last 40 years as largely positive. They are typically rights-focused (society is there to liberate individuals from the chains of their background) and very mobile and transient, hence why they tend to have a globalist outlook and be pro-freedom of movement.
On the other side sit the communitarians. They are often older, non-graduates, living in smaller towns, who have experienced fast-paced change with a sense of loss, and have seen their communities ripped apart by a combination of globalisation and laissez-faire government. They tend to feel individuals have responsibilities first and foremost to their community, that rights have to be earned and that people have a duty to fit in and play by the rules, hence why they fear mass immigration. They are patriots and believe in the role of the nation state as the primary political force.
But the good news is that we are looking at a political spectrum, and that the vast majority of people are moderate – rather than extreme – cosmopolitans and communitarians. So, the opportunity to avert a culture war and reunite our deeply divided country is – for the moment at least – still there.
It is important to recognise that Labour has only succeeded when it has brought together cosmopolitans and communitarians, most notably under Clement Attlee and during the early years of Tony Blair. In 1997 Blair evoked a sense of progressive patriotism, marrying together the idea of being ‘tough on crime’ with a story about an increasingly diverse Britain. But by 2005 the language of community and security had been replaced by the idea that “debating globalisation is like debating whether autumn should follow the summer”, that our changing world is “replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt and slow to complain.” Laissez-faire government in the face of global headwinds badly let down towns such as Port Talbot in my Aberavon constituency, along with towns like it across the length and breadth of our industrial heartlands. Our party has never quite recovered. In fact, it has got worse.
Labour became not only economically cosmopolitan but increasingly socially cosmopolitan. Instead of uniting around a positive national story about shared values and priorities, the left is now obsessed with identity politics, which has resulted in creating the paradox of an illiberal liberalism. The left plays a patronising game of dividing people up into smaller and smaller groups and decides which ones are deserving of a voice. While certain voices should clearly be given more weight on certain subjects, it is crucial to for the left to protect freedom of speech. We’ve also turned freedom of movement – a very complicated issue – into a simplistic litmus test to gauge morality. This prevents us having a serious debate about whether a fair, humane, managed migration system is more aligned with Labour values.
Identity politics put pay to Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign in America, and it is putting lots of communitarians off Labour in Britain. It is not that communitarians are ‘illiberal’ – they believe in gay marriage, equal pay and tackling racism and may well identify as LGBT, female or BAME – but they don’t want their priorities to be ignored, and they believe in a politics that brings people together.
Labour did very well with cosmopolitans in the 2017 election, winning in areas such as Canterbury and Kensington, but not with communitarians, losing in Mansfield and Middlesbrough. Since then we have taken some positive steps to re-engage with those communities, but there is still some way to go. For instance, we need to think about how communitarians feel just as alienated by the big state as they do by the free market – meaning we perhaps need to build on more localised forms of ownership, rather than mass nationalisation. We must also think about how communitarians are put off by what they see as, rightly or wrongly, an unpatriotic worldview from our leadership. Our slow reaction to condemn Russia for the Salisbury poisoning, the view that NATO is nothing but a warmongering junta, and the tendency to see the story of Britain’s role in the world solely through a sense of shame serve only to reinforce those communitarian concerns.
What does this mean in practice? For Labour to fulfil our historic and moral duty as a ‘whole nation’ party it must make a number of seismic shifts. We must recognise that celebrating common bonds is every bit as important as celebrating diversity, so that means promoting policies – such as the National Citizens Service – that bring people together. The state must work with business on behalf of workers and consumers (not against it, or subservient to it). We also need to focus relentlessly on improving the lives of people who don’t go to university, and those communities who suffer ‘brain drain’ when their academic teenagers leave never to return.
These changes to our psyche and mindset can re-establish Labour as a party that has the principles, values and priorities to re-engage with our communitarian heartlands, and as a movement that can reunite our deeply divided country.