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22 September 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 2:09pm

New Times: Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

The social divide between old, working-class voters and young graduates in the British left is more marked than ever. Labour's catch-22 is whichever side it takes, it loses.

By Robert Ford

One of the lasting symbols of Labour’s failed 2015 election campaign is a mug that promised “controls on immigration”. Like many Ed Miliband initiatives, this was a compromise that pleased nobody. Socially conservative voters concerned about immigration dismissed it as empty gesture politics, while liberal-left activists attacked it as the appeasement of intolerance. The mug, all now agree, was a bad idea. Yet the issue the mug clunkily attempted to address is a serious one, and has not gone away. There is a growing divide of social values in British politics which splits the left’s core electorate down the middle – and Labour, at present, has no effective strategy to address it.

The underlying motors of this value divide are three generational trends: rising levels of education, rising diversity, and shifting social norms. Young voters joining the electorate are forming their views in a markedly more diverse and socially liberal Britain than the one that shaped the outlook of their grandparents. As a result, they have very different views on issues such as national identity, multiculturalism, immigration and social change.

The young are much more cosmopolitan, embrace immigration and diversity as beneficial to the country and are optimistic about the social changes associated with these factors. Older voters, who grew up in a much less diverse country, are much more attached to old forms of national and local identity – and see immigration and rising diversity as threatening to these.

Education exacerbates this social value divide, as higher education levels strongly predict socially liberal views.

The result is two large segments of the centre-left electoral coalition – young graduates and older working-class voters – with antagonistic outlooks on identity and social change: young social liberals regard older voters’ nationalism and anxiety about diversity as prejudice and ignorance; older social conservatives regard the youthful embrace of diversity and cosmopolitanism as threatening to national identity and social stability. As the creators of the ill-fated immigration controls mug learned to their cost, this is not merely a disagreement over policy – it is clash of world-views.

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These differences in outlook are not new – they can be seen in the debates on the left over Commonwealth immigration in the 1960s and 1970s, for instance – but three further recent developments have put them at the heart of politics on the left: declining party loyalty, declining political trust and rising immigration levels.

In the past, appeals to tribal loyalty could be used to pull voters together when controversies over social issues arose. The pull of such loyalties has declined steadily over the decades, and voters unhappy with Labour’s placement on these issues are now much more willing to take their support elsewhere, with social conservatives decamping to Ukip and social liberals shifting to the Greens or (before 2010) the Liberal Democrats.

Cartoon: Anthony Garner

Though politicians have never been regarded affectionately, policymakers could rely on at least some goodwill from voters in seeking the kind of compromises that are necessary to hold broad coalitions together over divisive issues. Such goodwill is now in short supply. Voters with strong views on either side of the social values divide are swift to denounce policies or messages that they think jeopardise their principles, and are unwilling to accept that politicians seeking compromise are acting in good faith.

All of this makes politics more difficult – and not just for the left – yet nevertheless manageable except for the final change: the relentless rise of immigration to the top of the agenda. Migration levels over the past 15 years have been higher than in any comparable period in British history, the product both of surging migration from the EU since the accession of the “A8” central and eastern European countries in 2004 and of rising migration from outside of Europe.

The consequences have been stark: immigration has been at or near the top of the agenda for voters for over a decade – an unprecedented development – and the failure of Labour and Tory governments to bring down numbers has precipitated a collapse in voter confidence in both parties’ ability to deal with the matter. This in turn has stoked voter resentment at a political mainstream that they see as unresponsive to their concerns, and fuelled both the rise of Ukip and the campaign to leave the EU.

Which brings us to where we are today. Immigration has displaced old arguments about inequality, public services and the role of the state and brought the social values divide into the heart of political debate. It has become a symbol of much deeper and broader differences in outlook – on the nature of national identity, the impact of social change, and on the priorities of the left.

The older, socially conservative, economically pessimistic “left behind” voters flirting with Ukip see immigration as a symbol of their abandonment by a Labour Party no longer interested in representing them. For younger, socially liberal voters, openness to immigration is a touchstone of the kind of cosmopolitan, multicultural values they see as core left-wing principles, and any move to restrict migration numbers or respond to voter concerns is an unacceptable appeasement of ignorance and prejudice.

With trust and tribal attachment in short supply, neither side is willing to accept a compromise position.

Which brings us to Labour’s catch-22 on the social values divide: the party has to take a side in this fight, but whichever side it takes, it loses. A full-throated defence of immigration and cosmopolitanism will boost the party’s appeal to the voters of the future: the young, ethnic minorities and liberal graduates – but offers little return in the short run, as such groups are already strongly aligned with Labour, and risks electoral collapse with older, socially conservative voters who turn out at much higher rates and concentrate geographically in “Labour heartlands”, such as Wales and the north of England.

On the other hand, the kind of sustained, high-profile turn to migration restriction and “flag and family” social conservatism now needed to restore trust, thereby shoring up support among “left behind” voters and expanding the electoral coalition, would
severely antagonise young university graduates and ethnic-minority voters, who will be electorally vital for the party in the future.

Nor can Labour solve the problem by splitting. In a more proportional electoral system, various parties could compete for the support of social liberals and social conservatives while working together on a common progressive economic agenda. This is a common state of affairs in European ­countries with proportional representation. But under our first-past-the-post system it is a recipe for electoral disaster.

Brexit was supposed to tear the Tories apart. Instead, it has deepened a potentially terminal electoral dilemma for the left. No wonder Theresa May looks so happy. 

Robert Ford is a professor of political science at the University of Manchester and the co-author of “Revolt on the Right” (Routledge)

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times