17 August 2015

Why the Tories should embrace Britain’s cosmopolitan liberals


The future is another country – and in Britain’s case, it looks more like London. Like the capital, the rest of the country is becoming increasingly university educated, urban, individualistic, international, diverse – and liberal. The changing face of modern Britain poses a threat to backward-looking politicians who fail to recognise it – or decry it. And it offers a huge opportunity to forward-looking ones who can broaden their appeal to liberal, cosmopolitan younger voters. With Labour in disarray and the Liberal Democrats marginalised, liberal Conservatives have plenty of potential to capitalise.

The rise of UKIP – the antithesis of cosmopolitan liberalism – is often seen as the dominant trend in English politics. Many therefore argue, incorrectly, that both Conservatives and Labour need to adopt UKIP-lite policies to woo UKIP voters and sympathisers – as if echoing Nigel Farage would somehow undermine his appeal. Looking to the future, catering to the cultural attitudes of predominantly elderly UKIP supporters is short-sighted if it repels liberal, cosmopolitan youngsters.

The long-term trends reshaping Britain are documented in a pamphlet for Policy Network by Jeremy Cliffe, The Economist’s new Bagehot columnist. The most significant is the huge expansion of university education. While very few pensioners have been to university, nearly half of youngsters now go – and graduates are much less likely to support UKIP. People with degrees tend to be more socially liberal, as do low-paid service workers such as bar staff, carers and call-centre workers who now outnumber the traditional working classes.

University graduates congregate in big cities, which tend to be more economically and socially liberal than the rest of the country. Those city values are spreading to commuter towns and economic satellites, such as Reading. Since the population of cities such as London, Manchester and Leeds is growing fast, boundary revisions will give more weight in Parliament to city dwellers.

Like Londoners, Britons are increasingly individualistic and consumerist. Collectivism is in decline: membership of trade unions, churches and political parties has slumped. A pick and mix of shopping, television, Facebook and internet activism have taken their place. As Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh puts it, “The soul of the nation does not reside in Speakers’ Corner, but in Ikea car parks and middling gastropubs on weekend afternoons.”

While London is uniquely globalised, international ties are proliferating across the country. The easyJet generation travels much more, not least from regional airports. Foreign investment is increasingly outside London too: think of the car industry in Sunderland.

Immigration has also increased faster outside London than within it. Whereas the number of foreign-born residents in inner London rose by 50% between 1995 and 2013, it soared by 90% nationally. Even without further immigration, voters will become more international: 31% of babies born in Britain in 2011 had at least one foreign-born parent.

Britain is becoming a racial melting pot. Non-whites made up 14% of the population in the 2011 census – and by 2025 Britain will be about as racially diverse as America is now. Initially concentrated in cities, non-whites are gradually moving out to the suburbs. The mixed-race population also doubled to 1.2 million in the decade to 2011: witness sports stars such as Jessica Ennis and Lewis Hamilton, and MPs such as Adam Afriye and Chuka Umunna. And whereas there are scarcely any pensioners of mixed race, more than 5% of five-nine-year olds in 2011 were – all of whom will be able to vote in 2025.

All this has already led to a striking shift towards social liberalism (although some immigrants are particularly illiberal). Concern about mixed-race relationships has slumped. Having children outside marriage is no longer frowned upon. Hostility to homosexuals has turned into support for gay marriage.

While there is broad-based concern about the perceived national impact of immigration, voters’ personal experience of immigrants is much more positive. Young people who grow up in a diverse environment tend to consider it normal, rather than threatening. And they tend to view Britishness in civic rather than ethnic terms: a British Dream defined by Mo Farah’s feats, not Farage’s fears.

Young people are also more economically liberal. They are less sentimental about the NHS, more supportive of privatisation, more likely to think that big supermarkets prosper by giving people what they want rather than by trampling on small firms, and keener on low taxes and a slimmed down state. The Economist called this the “strange rebirth of liberal England.”

Long-term trends take time to develop. UKIP is not going to vanish overnight. But London offers a glimpse of Britain’s future, as do young people’s attitudes. To win elections in future, political parties will likely need to be broadly liberal, reasonably open to the world, and comfortable with the country’s individualistic and diverse society.

Better still, politicians ought to celebrate modern Britain: optimism tends to be a winning electoral strategy. But who will do so? Not UKIP, unless it ditches Farage’s reactionary nativism for the libertarianism of its sole MP, Douglas Carswell. The much-diminished Liberal Democrats have chosen an illiberal leader, Tim Farron, who seems intent on retreating into the party’s comfort zone as a protest party.

Many of these trends may benefit Labour. Until now, non-white, socially liberal and urban voters have disproportionately voted Labour. But in its panicked pursuit of the dwindling “white working class” – or at least those it perceives as UKIP-minded – it is in danger of taking cosmopolitan voters for granted, as it did traditionally Labour-voting Scots. The Greens may be among the beneficiaries. But they, like the Corbynistas, have no truck with economic liberalism.

In the absence of a new party to cater for cosmopolitan voters, that leaves a big opening for liberal Conservatives. Tory voters are disproportionately white, rural and old, while anti-immigrant rhetoric is a turn-off for cosmopolitan voters, so failing to move with the times could be very costly. But since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, economic liberalism has come naturally to much of the party, while David Cameron has moved it in a socially liberal direction, notably by championing gay marriage. Looking to the future, political strategy is increasingly set by George Osborne, a London-born liberal.

The next step would be to strike a more positive note on immigration. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has generally succeeded in doing so. Such is his appeal to younger voters of all backgrounds that The Economist has labelled them Generation Boris. Lord Ashcroft has highlighted the Tories’ broader need to do more to win over non-white voters. The rise to prominence of business secretary Sajid Javid, employment minister Priti Patel and others may help. A party associated with aspiration ought to be able to thrive in diverse, dynamic cities.

It may be tempting for Conservatives to dismiss much of this. Labour and the Liberal Democrats look dead in the water. The 2020 election seems in the bag. But like their rivals, Conservatives would be unwise to ignore political demography.

Catering to Britain’s emerging majority of cosmopolitan liberals is a huge opportunity for aspiring politicians – especially if they can find ways to boost turnout among young people, as the SNP has done in Scotland. Elections are won in the future, not the past.

Philippe Legrain, who was economic adviser to the President of the European Commission from 2011 to 2014, is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute and the author of European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics Are in a Mess — and How to Put Them Right.