The future of the left since 1884

Uniting a nation divided

If we want to build a country for the many not the few, we need a shared responsibility towards each other, writes John Denham.



Our nation is divided by age, geography, ethnicity, education, wealth, identity and by values. Bringing it together is a key challenge of our time.

The banner that we raised in 1997 and again in 2017 – ‘For the many, not the few’ – depends on there being a ‘many’. And I don’t just mean everyone that we don’t think belongs to the few.

I mean a ‘many’ in which people have a shared sense of identity and a shared commitment to building a better country; a shared responsibility towards each other.

Without that collective sense of the many we will struggle to build a majority for change. At the moment, Labour is going forward in some areas but going backwards in others. There is a paradox: we think they are part of the many but they don’t think we stand for them.

It is also true that, without the collective sense of the many, government may be difficult, if not impossible. It is very difficult, for example, to sustain a good social security system in a divided society. If mutual identity and trust are low, people are all too ready to believe that some people are taking what they should not be entitled to.

And that truth has big implications. In a society without popular confidence in the immigration system, it will almost always be impossible to sustain support for progressive policy, including for a generous welfare system. We can see that in the growth of the populist right in Sweden and Norway.

We also need to confront another difficult truth.

As good Fabians, we want to believe good social policy can build a cohesive society. Of course it can really help.

But in many cases, it is a cohesive society that is the precondition for progressive policy.

So we have to think now about how we create shared identities, a shared sense of being the many.  We have to do it now, not rely on being able to do something about it when we are if office.

Finding common ground is a particular challenge when one of the national divides is along the fault lines of our values: between what are loosely (if sometimes too crudely) described as the liberal cosmopolitans on one side and the social conservatives on the other.

There is a common myth about these divides. This holds that, right across Western Europe, the dividing lines have changed. Where once voters prioritised left-right economic divides, today they prioritise the liberal-conservative cultural divide. This, according to the myth, has discomforted the older parties that cling to the economic divide and has allowed the rise of the populist right.

I would argue that there is no evidence that cultural divides have replaced the economic left-right divide.  There have always been both left right and cultural divides. But the apparent importance of cultural differences has come to the fore for three reasons.

First the mainstream social democratic parties of the left largely abandoned the debate over the left-right economic divide around the turn of the millennium, as Labour did in the UK. The debate then was not about reforming, shaping or challenging capitalism to work for the common good. It was, at best, about distributing its rewards more fairly. In that sense, the left-right choice was taken away from voters.

Second, and crucially, mainstream parties on the left (and to some extent the Cameroonian right) took sides in the cultural war, long before people knew we were in one.  By the stances taken on migration, the impact of economic change and a range of socially liberal issues, the socially conservative voices on community, solidarity, and resistance to change were suddenly no longer represented in left of centre parties that they had once been an integral part of. Our own party, that once straddled the cultural divide, was now on one side of it.

Third, the industries that fostered working-class Labour identities declined. The working class did not disappear but different identities of place, nation and people emerged. The left failed to acknowledge this change, or address the new forms of the working class.

But voters are still divided, left and right, on economic issues. It is just that the political choices they are given do not appear to divide along those lines. In the worst possible case, we give them a choice that absolutely emphasises the cultural divide, and diminishes the left-right. The Brexit referendum was the defining case: the entire Remain campaign stood for the same uncritical model of global capitalism. We should not be surprised that so many voters opted for a different cultural choice.

So the dilemma we face is this: if the left is defined by its cultural politics, it will not be able to build a majority for challenging the power of capital. If it prioritises that economic challenge it must find a way of reaching across the cultural divide.

I would argue that, fundamentally, the purpose of the left must still be to challenge capitalism and its tendency, unrestrained, to create inequality, instability and insecurity. This means prioritising a coalition around the left side of the economic divide as well as finding ways to negotiate the cultural divide.

In a recent report, the polling organisation BMG claimed to identify ten ‘voter clans’ based on the clustering of social and economic values. The largest single clan, at 15 per cent of the entire electorate, is left wing economically, but concerned about immigration and less keen on multiculturalism.

No party is currently even trying to represent these voters fully, but Labour’s association with social liberalism rather than a radical economic choice leaves them vulnerable to the right who can touch their social conservative values more easily. The left is more clearly identified by its attachment to cultural liberalism than anything else. Even when people understand where we are coming from economically, the right pushes all their other buttons:  patriotism, security, resistance to change, belonging and entitlement; all issues that matter to many voters.  We will not regain that lost ground until we can touch those buttons too.

In order to build a new coalition, there is a range of cultural issues on which we need to articulate a new common ground. This is not easy. Our socially liberal outlook is important to many of us, and has often been hard won. But let me suggest a few positions that span public attitudes but that we might be able to articulate with confidence.

We can defend immigration, but we also need to recognise that there is a pace of change that can undermine community identity and challenge the notion of a cohesive society.

We can defend the right of people to live their lives the way they want to, without appearing to insist that everyone needs to hold the same view of the choices people make.

We can oppose xenophobic nationalism, but understand that we live in a patriotic nation, and that the symbols of patriotism deserve respect as does a commitment to defence and security.

We can understand that a welfare state can only be built on a sense of belonging, mutual commitment and mutual obligation, and a clear consensus on who belongs to the nation and who shares the same entitlements.

We can do everything possible to prepare for a changing world whilst understanding that valuing continuity, stability and certainty is as valid as being excited about change.

As we develop these shared values, we need to come together to create shared national identities – shared stories of the sort of people we are, and of the type of country we want to build.

The new book published by the Young Fabians includes a wide range of ideas, including some that are really innovative and others, like support for an English parliament, that are more rarely found in mainstream left thinking. The book’s advocacy of an English parliament recognises that Britain and the British identity, while important to many people, no longer have the ability to be the single unifying identity of the UK. We have four nations in which different parties contest elections, different parties win and different issues define the vote. Political outlooks in the nations differ: the demographic groups which voted leave in England often voted Remain in Scotland.

If the union is to survive it has to be refounded for a post-imperial age, as a coming together of the nations in common interest. An England in which we reach across cultural divisions in order reshape capitalism to work for the common good should be part of that vision: for the many not the few.

This article is based on a talk at the launch of A Nation Divided: building a United Kingdom edited by Ria Bernard and published by the Young Fabians.

John Denham

John Denham is a former Labour cabinet minister and is currently the director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, and director of the English Labour Network.


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