Labour needs to rediscover its conservatism

The party used to care more about family, high streets, order and community.

I hold my surgery on the Consort estate, Peckham. Traditionally Labour, some residents have turned Tory but many no longer vote. Housing matters most; benefits run high. The tenants' association is energetic. Grandparents play bingo in packed halls whilst kids do karate. Teenagers struggle to find work. There’s a nostalgia for a time when Rye Lane had a proper tool shop rather than a string of pay day loan companies. They feel hard done by the estate next door, anti-social neighbours and unresponsive services. They love family, honour and order. Community minutes are taken seriously.

“The country is going down hill and politicians are pushing us down,” one tenant told me when I was first elected, “…all their changes make us worse.”

Politics is not left and right for them. It's about who is on their side. But for all the anger on the Consort, revolutionary change doesn’t appeal to them, and the radical left speaks over them. They’re more concerned with the preservation of something slipping. They’re not moved by votes on AV, or Lords reform, or gay marriage or windfarms or “changing the rules of the game” – no matter how important these issues are. They’re interested in family, hard work, honesty and security. It's not about the head, it's about the heart. It's about a warmth that liberal politics can leave cold.

"The saddest thing", Ed Miliband said last week, was not when people on the doorstep said they weren’t voting Labour, but when they “weren’t voting for anyone”. 

Let’s be clear the Conservatives are also failing to appeal to this group. Tim Montgomerie criticised Cameron last week, lamenting that he had reduced them to “a party of white-collar liberalism rather than blue-collar conservatism.” This shift is pushed partly by the Liberal Democrats in coalition, and partly by an obsessive focus on liberal swing voters rather than the larger number of small c conservative voters who no longer come out on polling day. Labour makes the same mistake. We’re moving to a situation when the divide in this country isn't between left and right. It's between a liberal elite who runs the country and a small c conservative public that doesn’t. Abu Qatada is just the latest example. Whoever wins that ground takes all.

Polls support this analysis. Ipsos MORI data shows that in 1998, one third of people agreed that they wanted Britain “to be like it used to be”. Ten years later that figure had risen to 61 per cent. The Campaign Company divides voters not by left and right, but by “settlers” who want stability and order and “pioneers” who want change. The former group now makes up a massive proportion of the electorate that is being ignored.

Of course there are trade-offs. A more conservative agenda might lose Labour some liberal support. But we must be careful not to over simplify. There is an increasing intellectual fascination with “post-Liberalism”. Demos, the left wing think tank, is drawn to the work of Jonathan Haidt, who believes that liberals overly focus on fairness at the expense of wider human concerns about sanctity and loyalty, as this blog eloquently explains. Oxford University and a tide of progressive academics are chattering. The tide is turning.

The left is worried about all of this. But it shouldn’t be. Labour used to care more about family, high streets, order and community. It used to take a stronger line on gambling and alcohol. It used to have a narrative about what it wanted to preserve as well as change. Look at the influence of co-operatives, mutuals and unions. This work is still carrying on in pockets. Stella Creasy’s work on payday loans; David Lammy on bookies. Jon Cruddas’s approach in Barking and Dagenham is part of a conservative tradition stemming back to George Lansbury. Blue Labour.

This is not hollow triangulation. There is a difference between being conservative and being Conservative. The former is prepared to take on the market, and its grounded in working people and institutions rather than big money. Whether Labour can rediscover this agenda remains open. Until we do, we are unlikely to earn the trust and respect to tempt many of the residents on the Consort back to the ballot box.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99. She is also a Labour councillor.

Betting forms sit in a pile at a Coral betting shop. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.