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Labour needs to rediscover its conservatism

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

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

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.