Corbyn may have the right political strategy; the policy challenge is greater
The 2017 election was a change election in some ways. The Government remained in power. But the structure of UK (or at least English) politics changed. Age became a more fundamental divide – albeit with class nestled within that. Under 40s shifted decisively to Labour in both relative (vis-a-vis the Tories) and absolute terms (in numbers and as a proportion of the total electorate in numbers). Over 50s sit firmly in the Tory camp. Two party politics returned and the electorate split between cultural and economic anxiety – the first anxiety went blue and the latter red.
Two very good analyses of the political sociology of 2017 were published yesterday by Policy Network – Don’t Forget the Middle and The Broad Church. Patrick Diamond and Charlie Cadywould present a compelling picture of the state of political play and underlying dynamics. They map out an ‘Attlee strategy’ involving broadening Labour’s base into a greater proportion of the skilled working class vote versus a ‘Sanders strategy’ involving targeting the most enthusiastic elements within the Corbyn coalition such as 18–24 year old voters.
The Attlee strategy is clearly the right one but I have two disagreements with the analysis. Firstly, the Corbyn strategy is more akin to an Attlee strategy. As their analysis shows (something I also outlined a few days after the election on Twitter), Labour’s support was driven not predominantly by the very young but by 25–44 years olds. C2s broke more towards the Conservatives than Labour but that is a reflection of the different dynamics within collapsing UKIP support. The culturally anxious went Conservative, the economically anxious towards Corbyn.
My second disagreement is that a winning Labour coalition should depend on wooing social conservative voters back to Labour. Another Policy Network report (they are good at this stuff) from 2015, Britain’s Cosmopolitan Future by Jeremy Cliffe, shows why. Cliffe identifies a key dynamic within Britain’s working class. It has become divided.
There is an industrial working class (often experiencing post-industrial Britain) which is more socially conservative, culturally anxious, and linked to the big economic and social institutions that dominated Britain half a century ago. This explains the C2DE shift to Conservatives in the north. Then there is the post-industrial working class which is more cosmopolitan, diverse, and more likely to be in service jobs. They are highly economically stressed and insecure but this has not morphed into strong or overriding cultural anxiety.
For Labour to politically shift towards cultural anxiety to woo the new Tory C2 support would unpick their current coalition. The mistake that Cliffe made, and, well, I made to be honest was to assume that a moderate Labour Party was the most likely to energise this coalition. Corbyn has done it. And he should carry on building it further. Mobilisation rather than conversion is the strategy of the moment: Attlee plus Sanders.
Where Corbyn has been strategically smart, perhaps by accident, has been on Brexit. By not pursuing the anti-Brexit strategy advocated by many in the centrist part of Labour he has succeeded in keeping Labour’s door open to remainers and leavers alike. To either go strongly anti-Brexit or adopt harder Brexit to attract the culturally anxious C2s is not wise. The former strategy will have no impact on attitudes to Brexit but will have a big impact on support for Labour – ask the Liberal Democrats. The strategy adopted does mean, however, that the Conservatives will own Brexit as it is likely to become ever more fraught.
Don’t get my views wrong on any of this – I am vehemently opposed to Brexit – but this is an analysis of Labour’s political strategy rather than my own views (there are few things more tedious than hearing people say ‘I think x so party y should adopt the same viewpoint’). The moment of truth for Labour will come as the final deal or transitional deal is agreed. If public attitudes have shifted towards holding a second referendum which they might (and do appear to be heading in that direction currently) then Labour can suggest that and have the opportunity to not only stop the Conservative’s Brexit deal but also to bring the Government down in the process. If it doesn’t take that opportunity and backs the Government then pro-remainers will walk away. Labour has currently positioned itself in a way that keeps their door open for economically anxious leave voters. In other words, for whatever reason, it is positioned about right on Brexit currently though it’s a moving space.
So Corbyn should continue as he is in political terms. Let the Conservatives tear themselves apart on Europe as they did in the 1990s and wait to pounce. The coalition he has plus a couple of extra percent will be sufficient for a majority Labour Government in 2019. He has broad based support across most of the electorate and classes. Tory support is deep but narrow. The challenge to convert this support into seats is lessened as Conservative support ebbs even without more socially conservative support.
The bigger concern is policy. And this is where the Policy Network papers have some very good suggestions: eg beefing up Labour’s regional rebalancing policies. As I have argued previously, Labour’s manifesto was popular but one-dimensional. Whatever the challenge, Labour’s answer is more clunky central state: tax, ban, centralise, or nationalise are its four gears. That may be fine as a political package but would backfire in Government – not least through fiscal and financial destabilisation.
As Conservative austerity has advanced – an austerity aimed at the ideological shrinking of the state as well as the more justifiable end of moving toward greater fiscal sustainability – it is clear we can’t run a decent society in this way. Go to any city and see the on-street homelessness as a visible reminder. So there is too little state to provide for a complex modern society.
However, the state can’t be the answer to all. A complex social and economic environment necessitates a rethink about how to blend a secure base for people to manage and develop their lives; a new social infrastructure. But it also requires innovation at an individual, community and city level. The private and voluntary sectors will be needed if we are to lean in to a stronger sense of societal mission (you can read more of my thoughts on this here). And, by the way, this blend of social infrastructure and innovation has universal benefit. Just because some groups may not be attracted to Labour’s future coalition, it does not mean that policy shouldn’t do all it can to provide widespread support. Socially conservative Britain may not be attracted to the 2017 Labour coalition but the policy strategy should not ignore them – quite the opposite in fact.
When the facts change, I change my mind. It’s good to see others who have also been more associated with Labour’s moderate wing coming to the same conclusion. The modern political condition is that everyone is wrong so we are all in good company – and a time of rapid political change. I suspect the election 2017 signalled a major political change to come. That potential change makes the policy challenge greater rather than smaller.