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 Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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