Labour has a chance to de-escalate the culture wars – or face the consequences

David Swift

Any hopes that Labour’s election defeat on 12 December would lead to a period of quiet reflection on behalf of the most prominent press and social media advocates of Corbynism proved short lived. Although all the evidence – from exit polls to anecdotes from the doorsteps and focus groups – indicates that our economic policies were quite popular, but the non-economic preoccupations of Corbynism – anti-imperialism, nuclear disarmament, Israel-Palestine, gender identity – led to our biggest defeat since 1935.

Instead of displaying a willingness to tone down their cultural radicalism for a chance to implement the sort of socio-economic policies the country desperately needs, the hobbyist Left have doubled down on their arguments, claiming that the voters are wrong; that the ‘real working class’ are underemployed millennials in big cities; and that demographic change will ultimately make their values popular. Above all, they resist any attempt to mitigate the cultural aspects of Corbynism that proved so abhorrent to traditional Labour voters, claiming this is analogous to wanting to become ‘racist transphobes and trash the environment to win votes’.

Their argument is based on two false premises. Firstly, the patronising assumption that ethnic minorities, LGBT people, young people, disabled people, and, most bizarrely of all, women, are all in rough agreement on social and cultural issues. In reality, not only are the values of the disparate groups of this ‘rainbow coalition’ often antithetical to each other, they are certainly antithetic to the values of the biggest Corbynite cheerleaders in academia, the press, and social media. 

The second false premise is that in order to appeal to the small-c conservatism of most Britons, there needs to be some kind of distinctive shift to the Right in policy objectives. I would argue that to mitigate this glaring and devastating weakness, Labour does not need adopt reactionary policies, but simply cease self-consciously pitching themselves squarely at people who are well-read in post-colonial and feminist theory. 

And here are some of the reasons why. 

According to research led by Professor Anthony Heath at the University of Oxford, South Asian Britons are more hostile to asylum seekers than the white British, and British Indians were more supportive of the war in Afghanistan than white Britons. When asked about trust in Parliament, politicians and the police, Heath and his fellow researchers dound that: ‘Strikingly, on all but one of these indicators of satisfaction and trust, the overall minority level of confidence in British democracy and institutions is either significantly higher than, or no different from, the white British average.’ Likewise, Professor Shamit Saggar of the University of Essex argues that in terms of issues such as criminal sentencing ‘there is virtually no potential for constructing an agenda of common interest among ethnic minorities’. 

Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is mostly the Tories’ reputation for racism that puts off ethnic minority voters, rather than any close identification with the aims of Labour. Academics such as Paul Gilroy and journalists like Afua Hirsch have argued that black Britons are especially ‘neoliberal’, anti-statist and antipathetic to trade unions. As Hirsch acknowledges, the Tories speak most to the ‘pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps, socially conservative and Republican values that have such resonance in West Africa’. 

The sociologist Gargi Bhattacharyya claims that ‘dark-skinned folk of varying hues have embraced the promise of neoliberal subjecthood with enthusiasm…if anything, there is more vocal enthusiasm for some kinds of markets among black and minority populations’ than among whites: ‘the compromise of Keynesian-enabled economic and social policy, despite the many gains for ordinary people, did not deliver in an equitable fashion’.

While New Labour was able to win up to 90% of ethnic minority votes in 1997, Labour won just 77% in 2017, in spite of doing disproportionately well in metropolitan seats. Last year, a pre-election BMG Research poll suggested only 40% of BME Britons were intending to vote Labour on December 12. British Indians have become far more inclined to vote Conservative — a record 40% did so in 2017, up from 30% in 2010.

Evidence from more racially diverse societies supports this thesis: according to the academic Jasbir Puar, African Americans are more likely than whites to support ‘ethnic profiling’ of terrorist suspects, while Asian Americans are more hostile towards blacks and Latinos than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, huge numbers of black and mixed-race Brazilians voted for Jair Bolsonaro, and fully one third of his party in the Brazilian legislature is non-white.

I have focused so far on the varied and unpredictable views BME Britons due to the large amount of research on this topic, but there is evidence that the same can be said for other groups assumed to be receptive to the cultural claims of Corbynism. For example, in 2017 as many women voted Tory as Labour, but this time around the Tories led among women by a whopping 44 to 35 per cent. Meanwhile, 25% of university graduates backed Brexit, as did half of women and people from urban areas (and 33% of BME Britons). While in the US, almost half of white millennials voted for Trump, and a 2018 Pew survey found 43% of all millennials held conservative views, with only 25% being consistently liberal across all issues.

None of this means that Labour should abandon social and cultural liberalism. Nor would this even be electorally beneficial: public support for issues such as reproductive rights and same sex relationships, and opposition to racism and sexism, remain robust. Apart from a few fringe voices there is no desire, either in Parliament or the electorate, to roll back the progressive gains of the past 50 years.

But it is important for well-educated Labour activists to downplay our cultural radicalism, which puts off plenty of people we are trying to attract – BMEs and metropolitans as well as the white working class in post-industrial towns – and focus on social and economic policy. 

As Matt Singh argues, ‘a focus group and doorstep response of which I’ve heard numerous reports refers to the sea of Palestinian flags seen at Labour’s conference. One variation I heard from a Labour candidate was “you’ve got more Palestinian flags than union jacks”. Which isn’t to say that Palestine isn’t important, just that many voters will be more concerned with putting food on the table.

Peter Hirst makes the good point that it would seem insincere for Labour to wrap itself in either the St George’s flag or Union Jack, given how few Labour politicians or activists care deeply about patriotism. But you don’t have to have a leader who genuinely would decorate his house in England flags for the World Cup – probably there is no such person in the PLP – just don’t choose as leader someone who has spent their entire career sticking two fingers up to patriotic values.

Labour does not need to shift to the Right on social or cultural issues. But it is imperative that we do not mould the entire image of the party around divisive fringe issues, which is the equivalent of the Tories going to great lengths to associate themselves with fox hunting, badger baiting and the Bullingdon Club. We need to quarantine these voices on university campuses, and not let them anywhere near the mainstream discourse of the Labour party. 

The Tories provide evidence that this approach can work: as instinctive liberals, Cameron and Johnson’s Old Etonian pedigree mattered much less than it would for someone like Jacob Rees Mogg, with his Victorian cosplay and reactionary views. Likewise, it is not difficult to believe that someone like Lisa Nandy or Dan Jarvis would have more success pushing a Corbynite prospectus than Corbyn did.

Given how obsessed many Corbynites are with Israel, it is ironic that their continued ascendancy within the Labour party might leave UK political alignment looking a lot like the Israeli version.

Israel has a higher proportion of university graduates than the UK and has seen the immigration of millions of people of colour over the past 50 years, yet this has not prevented the Israeli Left, such as it is, from being reduced to a obsolete rump, supported by highly educated Ashkenazi elites, while Netanyahu owes his power to Arab and Ethiopian Jews and immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

For me it is a real fear, if still unlikely, that Labour might follow this route and eventually become the party of post-graduates. The nightmare is of a tiny Labour party, supported only by a highly educated cultural elite, wailing on about Sykes-Picot and heteronormative relationships, while the Tories win election after election on a broad, multi-ethnic coalition of different classes and communities. If 12 December didn’t act as a wake-up call, nothing will. 

David Swift is the author of A Left for Itself: Left-wing Hobbyists and Performative Radicalism (Zero Books). He tweets at @davidswift87


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