The erasure of decades of footballing trauma from the national psyche can lead to a distorted perspective on the passage of time. Yet it is in fact just a week since a run of politically revealing by-elections was rounded off by Labour’s narrow win in Batley and Spen. One should not overread the results as guides to the future – by-elections are little more than the political equivalent of a good qualifying campaign. Nevertheless, the judgements are in and perhaps it is the Tories who have most to be nervous about the ‘tournament proper’ to come.
Yes, in Hartlepool, they could practically weigh the votes, so comprehensive was the victory. Yes, Batley and Spen felt like a particularly unique and unusual set of circumstances. But the latter showed that a Labour Party that currently offers the electorate vanishingly few positive reasons to vote for it can still find a way to compete in some towns in the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Meanwhile, the crushing defeat to the Liberal Democrats in Chesham and Amersham shows that a potential backlash to Johnsonism from hitherto true-blue seats in the south-east has perhaps been underestimated.
At this point in such articles it is customary to point out how the tectonic plates in British politics are shifting towards questions of culture not economics. This, the theory goes, is why the south-east commuter belt is drifting away from the Conservatives, just as coalfield communities move towards them. The latest and most detailed offering in this vein comes from the superstar American political consultant, Dr Frank Luntz, who has just published a forensic account of Britain’s political subconscious for the Centre for Policy Studies. Or at least that is the angle a click-hungry media has zeroed in upon, pointing out that people viewed the “woke v non-woke” culture war as more significant a social divide than “north v south”, “young v old” and even “leave v remain”.
Alas, what some of that reporting failed to add however, is that this ‘war about woke’ was still found by Dr. Luntz to be some way short of our top five social divides, a list topped – by some distance – by the gap between rich and poor. Indeed, if you read his report in full the Britain that emerges is one that is rather more concerned by rising crime, the state of the NHS, inequality and whether their children will enjoy a healthy future. Concerns about wokeness are sort of there, if you squint – 31% of Britons are worried about “losing our culture and traditions”. But it is hard not to be left with the impression of a country somewhat detached from the online debates which so frequently occupy Westminster’s attention.
Full disclosure: this reading of Luntz’s work would, if accurate, confirm all my prior political biases on such questions. For all the upheaval and tumult of recent years, I believe the character of British politics to be relatively unchanged. There is a centre of gravity, in terms of our more prosaic political concerns, around which orbit two fundamentally class-based groups of opinion. By class here I mean no more and no less than two groups united by common bonds of culture and economic interest. And yes, the political alignment of those groups is changing and that is interesting. But the nature of the contest between those groups does not seem to me to have changed much at all. Had Luntz written his report ten or even 30 years ago, I suspect he would have found us much the same.
What is more, I view the regular efforts to try and separate cultural questions from economic ones in our understanding of contemporary political debates to be something of a folly. There was never a golden era of economics-only politics – not in the technocratic 90s, nor in the “class-based” 50s either. Neither are we living through a unique era of culture war politics. The two forces work in tandem to shape voters into broader blocs. Just as they have always done.
At this point, some readers might feel inclined to shrug ‘so what’? But, once fully appreciated, this understanding can help shine a light not just on the unique political appeal of Boris Johnson but also, perhaps, his limitations. Because when you think about politics in this loosely class-based manner, the key question that emerges is: “whose side are you on?” And for the small towns that make up the so-called Red Wall, the truth is they have not had a politician explicitly say “yours” to them – as Johnson arguably has – in living political memory.
The Labour Party? Its answer to that question has always been the social democratic half-reply “everyone’s”. And if the party manages to sort itself out strategically you can bet your mortgage on it being it’s answer at the next election too. The old song that state investment can raise everyone up is simultaneously the party’s best and only tune. But for many people in these towns – who look askance, not just at Labour’s cultural aloofness but also its success in expanding higher education and economically transforming Britain’s large cities whilst in government – it will not be enough. Certainly not put next to Johnson’s more full-throated pitch and a bond of trust forged in the heat of the Brexit battle.
Yet strangely, Johnson’s and Labour’s strategic worries may stem from exactly the same source – that a zero-sum political battle conducted between two blocs might damage their wider chances.
For Labour the worry is their half-answer to the “whose side” question continues to fall on deaf ears. Meanwhile, the Tories’ concern is that their rather noisier answer will increasingly be heard by voters outside the Red Wall, for whom it is much less appealing. It is too early to make firm predictions – a lot of politics yet to be played and all that – but that might just be the real lesson of this by-election season.
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