Is there a new Ed Miliband coalition?

New polling shows that Labour supporters are more liberal on issues such as immigration than in 2010.

Much of the autopsy on Labour’s 2010 general election performance has focused on the "traditional" supporter and their apparent drift from the identity and values of the party over the last decade or so – especially on immigration. The Gillian Duffy demographic has become the party’s preoccupation.

However, new polling data suggests that Labour has been successful in attracting a rather different voter in the last two years – the liberal centrist.  Should the party now aggressively seek to appeal to working-class conservative support as some advocate, the liberal centrist may be repelled. These liberal centrists are, like their culturally conservative opposites, "values" voters. A populist agenda on immigration, culture and Europe may not be the one-way street that is often supposed. What’s more, an Ed Miliband coalition that doesn’t rely on such populism is one potential route to a majority for Labour.

In 2008, Barack Obama was able to win the presidency by assembling a coalition of support tapping into new sources of political energy ignited by demographic and social change. Unable to reverse the Democrats’ deficit amongst white voters or even significantly improve his vote in that demographic, he relied on Hispanic, young, and professional voters. With the obvious exception of Hispanics, the question is whether such a new coalition could be an option for Labour? A new poll hints that it could be a possibility.

Respondents were asked in the YouGov poll commissioned by Extremis Project whether they were more or less likely to vote for parties pursuing a particular agenda based loosely around populist themes such as concern about political and financial elites, nationhood, immigration and culture. The shift amongst Labour supporters from 2010 was very striking. Conservative support showed no such shift.

In 2010, Labour voters were "more likely" to vote for a party that pledged to stop immigration into the UK by 36% to 31%. That figure has now reversed with 36% to 32% "less likely" to vote for such a party. The poll asked the same question of a party pledging to reduce the "numbers of Muslims/presence of Islam in society". Again, we see a reverse. Thirty four per cent to 25% of Labour voters were "more likely" to vote for a party with such a pledge in 2010. It is now 31%-29% in favour of "less likely."

By comparison, the Conservative figure on the same question is 50%-15% in favour of "more likely", which is almost identical to the figure for its 2010 support. The overall figure is 37% to 23%. The likely explanation would appear to be Labour’s success in wooing Liberal Democrat supporters and young voters since 2010. The poll shows a clear generational divide between younger and older voters.

A new Ed Miliband coalition would combine liberal centrists, young voters, those in the public sector as well as the more traditional working and lower middle-class support who are concerned about whether the Conservatives speak for them.

The values voter Miliband seems to be attracting is more, not less liberal on immigration, more, not less accepting of other cultures, and less prone to muscular articulations of national identity. Would he really want to reverse these gains in a populist race that he would find very difficult, if not impossible, to win?

Again, the echoes of Obama’s strategy are striking. The president has embraced gay rights, the green agenda and pitches at both young and professional, college educated support through improving access to higher education (Liberal Democrats take note) and an emphasis on investment in science. He pitches towards both the Hispanic and more liberal audiences with a commitment to immigration reform: better managed borders combined with pathways to earned citizenship.

A critical aspect of this strategy is the frame. So Obama’s pitch is not open borders instead of closed borders. It’s managed immigration versus inaction. It’s not renewable energy instead of oil and gas. The frame is rather pitched around energy security and economic growth. On gay rights, a choice has been made but the articulation is around committed relationships and a contribution to society.

The issues that Miliband faces in political terms are slightly different, but the strategy of pitting pragmatism against ideology and incompetence is instructive. While the default position on immigration is anxiety and scepticism, a majority of people are pragmatic when it comes to certain migrant groups – a failure of the Conservative immigration cap will help his cause. It is to this pragmatism that Miliband could appeal to.

The same goes for Europe, green issues, and potentially even welfare as long as there is an understanding of the deep concern with the welfare state as it is. Given that the Coalition is heading in a distinctively Thatcherite direction – blue collar populism has taken over from progressive conservatism – on these issues, that leaves the pragmatic centre open to Miliband should he wish to take it.

What’s the catch? Most critically, the economy is not going away and a perceived failure of the coalition to turn things around will not be enough for people to invest their faith in Labour. A credible approach to the economy and the deficit is critical. Just as important is the leadership question. If Miliband is not seen as a convincing and competent alternative to David Cameron he will equally struggle to maintain this new-found support. Obama passed both these tests.

Further research is needed to understand how this coalition works on a seat-by-seat basis – could it be too metropolitan? Moreover, this strategy certainly doesn’t mean that Labour should not concern itself with the very serious under-currents of cultural antagonism that exist in British society as poll after poll – including the Extremis Project/YouGov poll - has demonstrated. This is real and in, many ways, frightening.

More broadly, this strategy involves a very fine balancing act. An authentic emotional engagement with nationhood and a sense of national values is critical. See Michelle Obama’s speech where she emphasised that her husband "knows the American dream because he’s lived it". Equally, it involves clawing back assumptions both within the Labour Party and the wider media establishment that these cultural issues can only be dealt with in a discordant way.

With these caveats in mind, embracing and motivating this new coalition nonetheless seems like a more natural fit for Miliband than something more traditional and conservative. Avoiding over-adjustment in addressing Labour’s electoral weaknesses in 2010 is smart politics too. Labour now needs to look forward. Crafting a workable centre-left pragmatism is sound politics. Constructing a solid policy agenda is very different set of questions. For Labour, though, an Ed Miliband coalition of voters could be available to it – and it is one that could have the potential to see it into office.

Extremis Project  is a new platform for news, analysis, data and research on extremism across the globe co-founded by Dr Matthew Goodwin  and Anthony Painter. Anthony Painter writes in a personal capacity.

Ed Miliband has attracted a more liberal breed of Labour supporters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Anthony Painter is a political writer, commentator and researcher. His new book Left Without A Future? is published by Arcadia Books in November.

PRIVATE COLLECTION/PRISMATIC PICTURES/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Why can you change gender but not race?

Marina Benjamin on the curious logic of modern identity politics. 

At my daughter’s state girls’ school, many of the students see themselves as gender fluid. Some feel more like boys than girls. Others feel like boys on some days and girls on others. A lot of the girls are out, with many identifying as gay and quite a few as bi- or pansexual. No doubt, in time, a small minority of them will migrate across the gender spectrum entirely, crossing permanently from one side to the other.

Such freewheeling thinking about gender and sexual identity was unimaginable until just a few years ago, yet in this brave new world of gender mutability, most teens are as fluent as they are fluid. It is a testimony to the speed and success with which gender­queer and trans activists have challenged societal norms around masculinity and femininity, bringing about the kind of meltdown in gender roles that feminism was unable to achieve despite 50 years of trying.

This is a world in which, controversially, subjective feeling reigns supreme. If you feel male and wish to be known as “he”, then that is your prerogative, regardless of your sex. As Frank Browning points out in The Fate of Gender, US colleges (those ever-sensitive barometers of social change) now routinely ask students for their preferred personal pronoun. They provide “gender-neutral” toilets and free counselling for transsexual students. One elite college recently cancelled a production of The Vagina Monologues after some students protested that “not all women have vaginas”.

Browning’s interest is in the way “gender radicals” have “[upended] the routines, rituals and rules of gender”, leading to radical transformations in how we live. Like a disaster tourist travelling through an earthquake zone, he finds his eye drawn to “upheavals”: to kindergarten ­teachers in Oslo, dedicated to eradicating what they see as gendered behaviour in the very young children they teach; to same-sex couples negotiating new ways of parenting post-­surrogacy or adoption; to a voyeuristic drive-by past Naples’s femminielli – street-walkers famed “for their beautiful legs, their sumptuous breasts and their large penises”; to discussing masturbation with a middle-aged Shanghai sociologist who offers classes in self-stimulation to empower women.

The politics of the transgender movement skids in and out of the narrative but never moves centre-stage. Browning is more interested in gender equality at work, or how the Catholic Church is and isn’t adapting to gay marriage.

Browning spent many years working as a radio journalist and his book resembles nothing so much as a mid-morning magazine programme. There’s a bit of chat, a bit of travel, a sprinkling of interviews with academic experts and some sharp insights that get somewhat lost in the babble. The result is a loose collection of gender-busting exemplifications, rather than a tightly argued thesis. You could reorder half the chapters in the book and still enjoy the same mildly entertaining reading experience.

Some of the most fascinating subjects that Browning touches on remain underexamined. He notes, for example, that at least one in every 1,500 (some suggest the figure is more like one in 150) children born in the US and Australia is intersex: that is, they possess genitalia and a chromosomal identity that admit of ambiguity. Until very recently, doctors in the US would perform sex reassignment surgery on such newborns, at the risk of leaving them infertile and, just as dreadful, in bodies that they would often grow up believing to be wrongly sexed.

Browning doesn’t interview anyone who has had such an experience, or mine literary works for perspective, or link the intersex phenomenon into broader identity politics, or discuss the painful subterfuges that hermaphrodites such as the late Olympic track and field star Stella Walsh resorted to in order to “pass” – in her case, as female. Instead, he makes a rather tenuous link between the horrors of institutional surgical reassignment and tribal female genital mutilation. Cutting is cutting, of course, and always reprehensible, but readers never get to grips with what it means to be intersex.

It’s a shame, because, as Rogers Brubaker argues in his pacy and stimulating extended essay Trans, it is in the in-betweenness that our binaries break down, whether we are talking about nature v nurture (where discoveries in epigenetics are busy dissolving firm oppositions); male and female (those tired categories with which trans politics is playing havoc); or, most interestingly, black v white. Following social scientists such as Alondra Nelson of Columbia University, Brubaker takes up the case that race has little basis in genetics: it is an epiphenomenon, or, to use the lingua franca of anti-essentialists, a “social construct”.

Brubaker’s book was inspired by the media’s synchronous pairing of Bruce Jenner’s rebirth as Caitlyn and Rachel Dolezal’s outing as white in 2015. Dolezal had lived as a black woman for years, braiding her hair and darkening her skin. She identified as black and became head of her local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Yet in most quarters her claim to be black met with angry ridicule. Her reception was in pointed contrast to Jenner’s, whose debut as Caitlyn was heralded by a sexy Vanity Fair cover and a reality TV series. If public legitimation could be ­extended to Jenner, why not to Dolezal?

Dolezal’s teacher memorably called her “a white woman with a black soul”, but this was not enough, Brubaker says, to counter the flurry of negative commentary about “passing, choice, authenticity, privilege and appropriation” – which are precisely the themes that animate his lively book. He makes a persuasive case that the trans movement belongs to “a much broader moment of cultural flux, mixture and interpenetration”, of a piece with the “burgeoning discussions of hybridity, syncretism, creolisation and transnationalism in the last quarter-century”. Simply put, Trans illus­trates a sharpened tension between the language of choice and that of givenness.

The nub of Trans’s argument is that we are culturally primed to be more receptive to transgender journeys, whether male to female or vice versa, because these are framed as identity or even civil rights issues, whereas racial identities are still categorical. In public discourse today, there is no such thing as a racial spectrum: you can’t be a bit black or a bit white. You have to choose and you certainly can’t cross over to the other side. As Brubaker sums it up: “Dolezal was living a lie; Jenner was being true to her innermost self.” Dolezal was guilty of “cultural theft” (in contrast to Michael Jackson, who was deemed a race traitor, she was a “race ­faker”); Jenner was fighting gender oppression.

I remember getting flamed on Twitter when I asked why the hell Dolezal couldn’t be considered black. The hot-button term, it turned out, was “transracial”. This expression emerged in adoption circles, where activists concerned that adoption “could lead to changes in racial identity – in particular to the loss of one’s authentic identity for want of social support for it”, sought to strengthen racial categories. I also received a dozen tweets telling me that Dolezal hadn’t suffered enough to be black – a line likewise pushed by some feminists critical of the territorial claims made by transgender women.

With respect to Jenner, I was sympathetic to views expressed with wicked humour by Germaine Greer, but more acceptably by ­Lionel Shriver, who, in response to Jenner’s claim to have a “female brain”, railed against the neo-essentialism of the trans movement for relying on and reinscribing outmoded gender stereotypes. Pointedly, Brubaker also notes “the remarkable power of the binary gender system to adapt to and reabsorb transgender people”. Better to make a show of taking in migrants than to acknowledge that your borders are fundamentally weak.

With its push-me-pull-you politics, gender fluidity understandably creates controversy. The irony is that, in theory at least, transracialism ought less to do so. Not only is there no genetic basis for racial difference, but the boom in genetic ancestry testing, which tests autosomal DNA (inherited from both parents, and accounting for the full, multi-stranded range of one’s genetic ancestry), often reveals complex mixtures of biogeographic lineage, thus leaving considerable room for what Alondra Nelson calls “affiliative self-fashioning”.

Genetic ancestry testing gives credence to the likes of Dolezal, who might wish to see herself as environmentally, psychologically, culturally, emotionally and intellectually black, even if the “technologies of migration” which support transgender journeys – institutionalised in legal, medical, social and activist bodies – are not yet in place for transracial journeys such as hers.

However mind-bending such ­determined migrations might seem, the brouhaha over race and gender shows that we are primed to understand categories of identity in ways that are legibly embodied. In this, we are not so different from our intellectual ancestors the ancient Greeks, who, as Adrian Thatcher reminds us in Redeeming Gender, championed a “one sex” theory on the basis of bodily homologies between men and women that saw female genitalia as mirroring male genitalia. Only inside out.

Marina Benjamin is the author of “The Middlepause: on Turning Fifty” (Scribe)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times