A few days ago, I argued that opposition to the EU is in large part based on a fear of change; as I alluded to at the end, fear of immigration is in large part driven by similar attitudes. The argument that public services are under pressure because of immigration is pretty obviously specious, but it’s not entirely a smokescreen to disguise xenophobia, and it is a genuine issue for huge numbers of voters. As I suggest in that article, it’s not a fear of impending change not here yet, but a fear of a process of change which has occurred and continues on. This is a change from a defined starting point; it’s that starting point which makes any Labour attempts to capitalise on anti-migrant sentiment (like the regional migrant allocations proposed over this weekend) ultimately doomed to a dismal failure.
Earlier today, Tom Whyman, writing in the New York Times, suggested ‘the Brexiteers want is to return Britain to a utopia they have devised by splicing a few rose-tinted memories of the 1950s together’, and, fundamentally, he’s right. The societal shifts people fear are the ones that shift away from a society they already had and liked. Evidence of a popular affection for the 1950s is oppressively omnipresent. If you avoid the Keep Calm and Carry On mugs, you bump into the Great British Bake-Off, and if you try and run from that, the banal Muzak of Mumford & Sons might just find you. Owen Hatherley suggests these cultural currents are driven by an ‘austerity nostalgia’, exemplified in political longings for a return to an imagined 1940s solidarity; it is interesting to note that the same groups which he suggests are seeking after this mythical grail are the same, for the most part, as those currently pressing for anti-immigration policy within the Labour Party — the Labour Right, to put it bluntly, ‘Jerusalem’ fan Jon Cruddas, ‘Englishness’ fan Tristram Hunt.
There is a clear link between this popular obsession with the 1950s and a vote to return us to the 1950s. It can be found in a world uniquely unwelcoming of analytical rigour and Medium posts (in fairness, all worlds should be unwelcoming of Medium posts): feelings. Feelings of security, of being welcome, of neighbourliness: people identify those feelings as ones which were important to them, and which have been lost, and in turn pundits have been quick to pin these beliefs on racism, and that’s not wholly unfair — the image of a ‘neighbour’ in particular is a highly racially charged one within UK politics, there in Smethwick, there in the Rivers of Blood speech. But feelings of neighbourliness are also tied up with the safety net which enabled people to feel that lost sense of security. The loss of that safety net is, in part, why change in itself feels so frightening and sinister. That safety net is, of course, a vision of the welfare state, seen through a glass murkily.
There’s a major and obvious problem here, at least at first glance, but I don’t buy its premise. As a general rule, I believe that the politically involved expect average voters to be considerably less intelligent but considerably more ideologically coherent than they actually are. It may seem impossible that someone could at once inwardly feel lost at the demise of the welfare state and outwardly complain vocally about scroungers living off the state, but to think that is to forget hypocrisy is a fundamental part of human nature.
Scroungers are important to this, more important than it’s comfortable to allow. In that piece about bananas, I said people chose to believe that societal changes were mandated by the European Commission because that means you can assume they are changes from the margins and on the margins, not in the fabric of society itself. As has been pointed out before me, one of the more interesting and dangerous aspects of right-wing rhetoric over the past twenty-five years is the conflation of the powerful and the powerless. The Conservative Party’s argument for a few years has been that the welfare state is the victim of other marginal figures, this time the ones without any privilege at all. Benefits are under pressure not because of institutional flaws or change, but because of scroungers. The ‘pressure on public services’ argument stems from a drip-feed of misinformation: schools are bad because they just don’t have room for the asylum-seekers. The NHS is not on the verge of collapse because we are getting older and poorer. It is on the edge of a vertiginous precipice because…but of course, you got there before I did. Scroungers, asylum-seekers, migrants, European rules; all fundamentally un-English, and therefore all fundamentally alien. They can therefore be excluded. And with this the right can defer blame and defer blame and defer blame, until one day everything changes for good, in secret.
Labour can’t ape this narrative, and it can’t pander to fear of immigration, because that fear is a yearning for a world Labour can’t access for two reasons. Firstly, they could never do it as well as the Conservatives. Secondly, the world dreamt for is one which never really existed. All nostalgia distorts reality, but this is a particularly idealised utopia, in the original sense: nowhere land. You can’t return to somewhere you’ve never been.
Even if the view of the late 1940s and 1950s was true, there’s no road back there. Like it or not, the social democratic model is dead, and has been in this country since 1979. The Conservatives have an alternative model to this, and a fairly electorally convincing one; this article trades in generalisations and platitudes (you’ve got this far, I’m admitting it now) to create a narrative which I think goes some way to explaining the paradoxes of British politics — why migrants are least popular where there are the fewest of them, in places unsuited to change, why migrants are blamed for pressures on public services when they are net contributors — but it’s necessarily an inchoate one. There are huge numbers of people who think that the model outlined by Cameron’s conservatives is best, a model of technocratic neoliberalism, but not, perhaps, voters Labour will ever realistically target. What those voters were won over by, for both the 2015 election and 2016 referendum, seems to have been a narrative of entitlement and exclusion. People who are not entitled to state aid are taking it from you, who is entitled to it; they are excluding you, but by excluding them we can return almost effortlessly to the childhood world we just stepped out of for a moment. While May is ideologically and temperamentally distanced from her predecessor, she was nonetheless one of the most skilful spinners of that narrative. Labour can’t sell that, and while the Conservatives can tinker with the mechanisms of public services and pray the market saves them, Labour is left falling back on an ideology which will never succeed and is impossible of succeeding.
We are left with a creaking public sector, propped up by the work of migrants, both directly and in their indirect contribution to the UK as a global economy. It’s hard to accept that, which is part of why a return to the safe days of the 1950s is such a reassuring notion for rural baby boomers; they’re not left behind by the globalised economy (this post was not brought to you by a shit Chris Arnade) but disorientated by social transformations which seemed to have undermined the foundations of their world — changes which go beyond economics alone, changes in urbanisation and global conflicts and, well, everything. The problem is that the Labour Party has also retreated back to the 1950s, refusing to accept that it needs to offer something, anything, and is busy fighting its 1950s fights all over again. Appropriately enough for our exhausted, saturated age, the Labour Party now seems like a pale postmodern parody of its triumphant incarnation, doomed to repeat its sectarian bickering and feuds with a gradually blander, more farcical cast. A poundshop Tony Benn as leader, a knock-off Hugh Gaitskell for his deputy. The answers do not lie in those fights; they don’t lie in indulging the rejection of the outside world, or by migrant quotas, or by anything which offers veiled xenophobia and doesn’t address the long-term breakdown in a trusted, flawed, idealised, rejected welfare state. God knows where they are, though.