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6 July 2017updated 07 Jul 2017 11:17am

Why Labour lost and how it can win: an essay on rebuilding a broad church

Labour is the only party that can give form and meaning to this new, old country – its politics must be parochial, national and international.

By Jonathan Rutherford

It was an extraordinary election. Labour in the ascendency. Expectations were confounded. A terrible, self-destructive Tory campaign gifted a victory to Labour. But we lost. We need a discussion about why and how we can win next time. When all is in flux and wild claims are flying about the best things to focus on are the fundamentals. These remain unchanged.

In June 2016 an alliance between the Tory shires and the ex-industrial working class took England and Wales, and so Britain, out of the EU. It was the same alliance that brought Churchill and Attlee together to defeat appeasement in 1941 and hold the country united against Hitler. This One Nation coalition contributed to the Atlantic Charter and so to the post war welfare state and a new liberal international order. That post war domestic settlement and its liberal international order is under great strain.

In the same year of 1941 George Orwell published his essay ‘England Your England’. It remains the best guide to the character of the country, saying “it will change out of all recognition and yet remain the same”. The same is true of Labour’s politics. The question remains the same. How does Labour reclaim its role as the party of the labour interest? And how does it set about its task of building a winning electoral coalition that will redress the power of capital for the common good?

Labour class and culture

In 2010 Labour suffered a devastating defeat after three terms in government. Intellectually limited and institutionally conservative, Labour failed to renew itself. In the June 2017 election campaign Jeremy Corbyn galvanised the party’s coalition of public sector workers, BME voters, and the liberal middle class, and added traditionally non-voting students and young people. He transformed Labour’s standing in the country, and dramatically increased our vote share across the electorate.

It was a bravura performance, but Labour again fell well short of majority government. In 2010 it had held 258 seats on a vote share of 29 per cent. In 2017 it increased its seats to 262 seats and a vote share of 40 per cent. An increase of just four seats on a much larger vote share suggests that Labour has deepened its coalition but not broadened it out into areas where it needs to win support. The Conservative Party ran one of the most inept campaigns in its long history but still held 318 seats on an improved vote share of 42 per cent. It was a third defeat for Labour.

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Despite the generational differences the fundamentals of British politics remain unchanged. In working class areas political support is moving towards the Conservatives and away from Labour. Majority support is for leaving the EU. The areas in which the professional middle class live are strongly Remain and shifting to Labour and away from the Conservatives. Labour is becoming the party of the better off and higher educated at the expense of its working class and lower-income vote. To check this trend and build a genuinely cross-class national coalition Labour has to tackle cultural inequality and the conflicts of ethnic and cultural difference. The politics of economic inequality will not be enough.

Labour’s coalition is coming apart as the economic and cultural identity interests of two sometimes antagonistic class cultures diverge. One is the metropolitan professional middle class, closely linked to the public sector and professions, and priding itself on its cosmopolitan liberal tolerance. The other is a culturally subordinate, ethnic-majority working class, disoriented by the loss of its industrial economic role, trapped in a low skill low wage economy, and determined to hold on to its national cultural inheritance in the face of the changing ethnic make up of the country. One reaps the benefits of globalisation, the other fears the redundancy of its way of life.

Caught between the two is a minority multi-ethnic population. Some groups are integrating and thriving. Others are struggling and segregated. A third group lives outside the mainstream.

To reclaim its role Labour must build a new labour interest out of these estranged class and ethnic cultures. In the last decade Labour has been moving away from being a ‘whole nation party’ toward a coalition of interests. Labour can only win if it wins in the towns and country as well as the big cities. It will only form a great reforming government if it restores itself as a one nation party with the labour interest at its heart.

The local and the global

Globalisation has created historically high levels of inequality, cultural disruption and demographic upheaval. Geographically and demographically Britain is structured around the places that are connected to the functioning global economy and the low skill, low wage and insecure peripheries which are not. The economy used to be integrated into society and the different classes used to have a share in this same economy, if not an equal one. But not now. In the geopolitics of inequality location matters.

The economic winners of globalisation are the asset-rich elites, and the metropolitan professional class of creative, media, knowledge and finance workers, as well as opinion formers. They are concentrated in London and the Thames corridor, and to lesser degrees in the large cities and university towns. The places they live are rapidly changing as commercial and residential property markets create zones of class and racial exclusion from which lower-income citizens are either driven out or restricted to social housing. Expanding service, retail and hospitality sectors for the elites employ low paid migrant labour rather than the old established working class, many of whom are now excluded from the productive forces of the new economy. In urban locations multiculturalism is a misnomer for profoundly unequal parallel lives. The recent fire in Grenfell Tower is a brutal reminder of this fact.

The professional managerial class escaped the first wave of globalisation and economic restructuring in the 1980s and 1990s, but their adult children have not. They face global competition from graduate talent as well as the rise of automation making professional roles redundant. Unlike their parents their graduate status no longer guarantees access to a traditional middle-class lifestyle and security in the status hierarchies of consumption. Young people have been excluded from the housing market and while higher education provides their principal source of esteem and reproducer of class cultural power, its function as gatekeeper into a disenchanted world has become a form of negative equity hanging over unpredictable future earnings.

As the journey from adolescence to indepedent adulthood is frustrated and delayed, a generation of young people are uncertain where they fit in. In the transient condition of their lives, the difficulty of making a home of their own and the intensity of competition for decent work, they have become the animating if not numerical force behind the “genuine and compassionate” leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. What they want however is quite conservative. It is simply the same opportunities their parents had.

The rising influence of this class has coincided with the decline of the industrial working class and its institutions of solidarity and its small c conservative values. The social stability won by the skilled working class during the industrial era has gone for many. Old industrial jobs have been exported to low wage economies or lost through new technologies. New jobs have been either low paid and low skilled or for the professional classes. Family life has changed with the collapse of mens wages and the necessity of the two-earner household. Marriage rates among the wealthy remain high but they have dramatically fallen in poor communities. Between 2007 – 2015 wages suffered a 10 per cent fall. The traditional working class has lost its economic function. Some have succeeded and found new opportunities, some of their children have made it to university, many find themselves struggling to get by on the peripheries of the global market economy.

The class cultural faultlines that divide the economic winners and losers are distinct. There is little social or cultural traffic between the two. Social mobility has fallen. Marriages, friendships and social occasions across this class cultural divide have become rarer. The middle classes behave like a cartel controlling access to the best state education via the housing market. Here, housing helps to reproduce class and ethnic segregation in schools. The prestigious universities and the national media, and our cultural and political institutions, are dominated by the professional managerial class and so reproduce the class hierarchies. These differences of inequality and exclusion have become more intense amongst younger generations.

Labour should be the national organisation capable of reaching across class cultural divisions. But while it can speak about economic inequality and the numerical problem of class representation in the parlaimentary Labour party, it has failed to address cultural inequality. The Labour Party has become part of the problem of class segregation. Its membership has been increasingly concentrated amongst the higher educated and in the globally connected cities and towns where the economic winners already live. As the party has become more socially liberal it has grown more culturally exclusive, and so has found itself estranged from the class it once represented.

The metropolitan professional managerial class is now the dominant influence in the Labour Party. It is a class fraction of the elites; economically secure but politically subordinate to capital. With its growth through Higher Education in the 1970s its members gravitated toward the Labour Party. They brought with them the liberationist ethic of the 1960s that valued individual self-expression and fulfilment. Identity politics around gender, sexuality, race and lifestyle replaced class. The national boundaries of traditional Labour internationalism were transcended with the adoption of a liberal cosmopolitan worldview.

Liberal cosmopolitanism

The significant development in cosmopolitan thought came in the work of the liberal philosopher John Rawls. Rawls had developed his abstract notion of justice and equality in the context of a singular, bounded society. In Political Liberalism (1993) he updated his theory of justice to take account of the way markets, immigration and the global flows of information and culture were breaking down the distinction between national societies. The virtue of justice needed to transcend borders. Human rights are universal and not relative to national political systems. Obligations to others should no longer be confined to fellow national citizens or simply to national institutions but should be an allegiance to humanity in general.

Rawls’s approach to the virtues of justice and equality was transcendental. Their fulfilment requires an unobtainable state of universal perfection. The cosmopolitan model of liberalism rejects the pragmatic, situated and democratic negotiation of the common good and so it detaches political agency from the local. It becomes the preserve of a mobile elite. The academic Sheldon Pollock and colleagues link this universal and abstract worldview to a highly mobile western cosmopolitan elite culture. Despite its claim to being universal it is actually “tethered to a tenacious ethnocentric provincialism in matters of cultural judgment and recognition”.

Craig Calhoun describes a cosmopolitan as someone who “cares about people to whom he or she does not have a strong personal connection and about the world as a whole”. Cosmopolitans reject parochialism. But parochialism, says John Tomaney, is about the task of dwelling in the world and learning the social virtues that govern our everyday lives. Belonging is the commitment to this task. Membership of specific solidarities is the entry point into humanity. But to cosmopolitans the particular and the local impede justice and equality and limit the scope of human potential. As Calhoun argues the ethnicity and country we are born into are inherited identities and so anathema to cosmopolitan liberalism. But the ideology offers no account of what holds society together, nor the inheritance of culture as a source of meaningful life. It reduces society to a collection of cultureless, socially unattached individuals.

The metropolitan middle class is the principal carrier of a cosmopolitan worldview. It gained ground in the Labour Party, first in the radical Bennite insurgency of the 1980s and then in a different form in the New Labour revisionism of the 1990s. New Labour inherited a progressive politics from Clinton’s New Democrats. Cosmopolitan liberalism was linked to liberal market economics in what Robert Reich, Clinton’s secretary of Labor, called progressive globalisation: “There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will no longer be national economies. At least as we have come to understand that concept.” With the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn it has become ascendant once more but this time linked to an old fashioned tax and spend statism.

By the first decade of the new century progressive politics had taken on a broader meaning. It was an expectation of the world as being in an unconstrained state of continuous, rapid change. The exemplary progressive individual was the one who broke with the past and the social ties that bound him or her in pursuit of ambition. From 1997 to 2010 progressive politics held together a national coalition sustained by 60 quarters of continuous economic growth. The 2008 financial crash brought it to an end. Labour forgot that change brought loss. It had a determining force which was an unconstrained global capitalism, and its opportunities were structured and distributed along class lines. Labour’s political aspirations and moral values started to detach themselves from its traditional labour interest.

Immigration became the issue around which the class cultural conflict in Labour’s coalition surged.


The global geopolitical dynamic of inequality has made migration to Europe a defining political issue. The World Bank economist Branko Milanovic argues that 50 per cent of an individual’s income now depends upon the average income of the country in which he or she lives or was born. The income levels of poor people in rich countries is often greater than the incomes of the middle class in poor countries. Life chances are now significantly determined by citizenship.

“The way to improve one’s standard of living,” writes Milanovic, “is simply to move to a richer country.” People who cannot become wealthier in poor countries will try and migrate to richer countries.

There is no precedent in modern British history for the scale and rapidity of immigration over the last decade. In post war years immigration was a policy solution to acute manpower shortages in specific industries. Migrants were invited to fill vacancies. Both here and in Europe migrants not only faced racism and discrimination, they often found themselves propping up dying industries. When these eventually collapsed migrant communities were excluded from new jobs, reinforcing discrimination and confining minority ethnic groups to the lower end of the jobs market. Despite this racialising of the labour market, high performance in education has driven class and geographic mobility amongst the more successful groups.

In recent decades, with the introduction of the EU’s single market and its free movement of labour, immigration has also become an integrated function of the free market economy. Following EU enlargement the asymmetrical nature of its economies created large flows of migration from peripheral countries to the core economies. In Britain, low paid, low skilled migrant labour has enabled government and business to sustain the economic status quo and avoid the costly disruption of innovation and the training and educating of a skilled and productive workforce. The peripheral countries benefit from remittance transfers that sustain millions of families. Poland for example receives over $7bn annually. But the social and cultural cost of emigration and the loss of skilled labour is devastating for some of the already weakened societies both inside the EU and on its borders.  

The orthodox view of immigration as an economic good ignores the social and cultural externalities at both ends of the process. EU immigration was a decisive issue in the referendum campaign, but polling data published by Simon Hix, Eric Kaufmann, and Thomas Leeper indicates that the priority among a majority of British voters is a reduction in non-EU immigration. Ending the free movement of labour does not resolve the political problem.

Labour’s reforms in the 1960s were a major advance for liberal freedoms and helped to transform race relations. The struggles of black parents to end racism in schooling, the campaigns against police racism, as well as popular culture, music and sport have helped to create a multicultural society. More recently inter-faith dialogue has forged relationships across religious divides. But the pressures of globalisation and high levels of immigration have exposed the limits of Britain’s laissez faire approach to multi-culturalism. It has neglected the problems of segregation and disarmed its ability to resolve conflicts of difference. This has become acute with the threat of Islamist terrorism.

Labour historically is the party of the common good and so best placed to resolve these conflicts and build reciprocity. However it is handicapped by a liberal cosmopolitanism which tends to reduce these conflicts to moral questions of right and wrong over which it is the arbiter. Cosmopolitan attitudes and knowledge have also become a badge of class cultural status. The exercise of cultural power is prevalent in the elite universities where virtue signalling and safe spaces, despite their good intentions, silence those uninitiated in the correct language. Class cultural power is used, often inadvertently, to negatively define subordinate class identities. Sometime this is more blatant. After the referendum result well known writers and intellectuals were vocal in their contempt for Leave voters, accusing them of being uneducated, ignorant and gullible.

Elite and middle class condescension has helped to drive working class whites toward right-wing populism. It has limited the ability of social democratic parties to stem the loss of its blue collar support.

Populist anti-immigration and anti-Islamic movements believe that Europe is a civilisation in decline. It lacks the will to defend its Christian values. Post-colonial guilt, declining birthrates and the failure of multiculturalism threaten the end of Europe. To introduce millions of people from often illiberal cultures requires a strong and confident culture to ensure their integration. Europe believes Douglas Murray is “guilty, jaded and dying”. Why asks writer Christopher Caldwell should a member of a vital world culture like Islam want to get caught up in a European culture “marked as much by self-doubt as by arrogance”? Europe has “squandered its religious and moral inheritance on a forced march to modernity”. It can offer “no higher ideal of the good life beyond, travel, longevity and consumerism”.

The left dominated by liberal cosmopolitanism offers no compelling counter argument. It does not have an alternative model of a multi-ethnic nationhood nor a democratic politics to forge it. Instead it has promoted globalisation, immigration and supranational governance. Its failure to offer a new idea of the nation has been compounded by a post-colonial absolutism in which all minority ethnic people are victims of imperialism past and present. It’s a politics that views the social and institutional fabric of the country and the minds of white people as constituted in racism. The nation is simply the constitution of an exclusionary “we”. Ethnic majorities who use territorial notions of origins, culture and religion to define their identities are racist. The desire to belong is an assertion of “I was here before you”. While it is permissible to belong as in to feel at home, it ceases to be legitimate if an individual protests at its loss. Liberal cosmopolitanism has intensified divisions within Labour’s coalition. Post-colonial absolutism turns identity politics into a zero sum game in which achieving reciprocity among estranged groups is impossible.

Belonging and the common good

For millions of migrants and natives alike, questions of identity and belonging are central to our national political culture.

Belonging to a culture is about emotional attachment to others, to a place, an inheritance and to a language. A sense of belonging is the social foundation of democratic politics. Voting intention is shaped by the partisan loyalties of social groups that are rooted in ways of life. For the great majority politics is not about assessing the policies of one party against another. It begins with the question ‘where do people like me fit in?’ And then, ‘which party is for people like us?’ 

Cultures absorb new ideas, identities and ethnicities. They are dynamic and elastic. They change and adapt. But if the economy that sustains a culture begins to break down that culture can start to fall apart.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict describes the collapse of a culture as a “loss of something that had value equal to that of life itself”. Life continues but the symbols and practices that gave it meaning are gone. When this threatens the new starts to overwhelm what once felt permanent and secure. As social researchers like Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson have shown, the identities of the members of the culture become vulnerable to negative reinterpretation by other more powerful cultures in a moral economy of status seeking and shaming. Invidious comparisons between one’s self and others, and between one group and another creates feelings of inferiority and chronic levels of anxiety. The shame of failing in education, of being a loser, of being invisible to those above, and of having little control over one’s life cuts a deep wound in the psyche. Racism has a similar pernicious impact.

Deindustrialization has threatened such collapses across the economic and geographic peripheries of the country. The consequences can be traced in the geographic distribution of for example, chronic illness and Employment Support Allowance, prescriptions for anti-depressants, and lower levels of life expectancy. Globalisation has created flows of migrant people for whom religious beliefs and the traditions of home are vital sources of life and the bastion against the threat of cultural disintegration.

Labour needs to help facilitate inter-ethnic relationships and challenge class cultural inequality. It means understanding the growing complexities of race and class, recognising the value many give to the religious life and the sacred, and developing a democratic politics of the common good which can build mutual understanding and reciprocity.

Making a nation (without nationalism)

The Labour Party grew out of an urban Liberal party which failed, despite its turn toward a more collectivist New Liberalism, to represent the labour interest. It inherited a common culture that was parochial and conservative. Unlike continental social democracy it was proletarian in character. Its middle-class influence was small. Labour came of age in the Dock Strike of 1889 when it organised unskilled labourers and brought together the estranged interests of Catholics and Protestants, the churches and socialists, the working class and parts of the middle class in a democratic politics of the common good.

The Labour Party of the industrial era has gone. Labour now needs to follow the example of its Victorian forebears and construct a new broad labour interest. A Labour Party dominated by liberal cosmopolitanism and its post-colonial derivative ends up imposing an elite culture and its definitions on subordinate identities. It is too divisive and tied to the interests of a dominant class culture to build a national coalition in a multi-ethnic country.

A majoritarian national coalition requires Labour to grapple with different views on relations between men and women, between people and their god, with different ideas about the meaning of sexuality, with the position of the individual within the group, and with the importance to each ethnic culture of rights, responsibilities, freedom of expression and speech. Government action can tackle racism, Islamophobia and discrimination but an enduring social stability needs the countless individual and group relationships and encounters that take place across social and cultural divides. Belonging to a nation takes the form of a membership earned by reciprocity.

Now more than ever Labour needs to be a broad church and to have a story about national renewal. To be a great reforming government Labour must build a multi-ethnic coalition between the Remainers and the Leavers in the big cities and towns, across the north and the south, and amongst the middle classes and the working classes.  In 1948 the year of Indian independence, the historian Arnold Toynbee wrote, ‘our non-Western contemporaries have grasped the fact that, in consequence of the recent unification of the world, our past history has become a vital part of theirs . . . our neighbours’ past is going to become a vital part of our own Western future’. Almost seventy years later a new country is struggling to emerge out of the complexities and conflicts of race and class.

Labour is the only party that can give form and meaning to this new old country and so its politics must be parochial, national and international. As the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh has said, all great civilizations are based on parochialism. ‘Parochialism is a universal and deals with fundamentals”.

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