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

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.