Open and closed
In 2006, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair made a prescient speech to a hostile TUC audience where he argued that “open versus closed” had replaced “left versus right” as the main divide in politics. Spool forward a decade and a lot has changed. Blair is now a persona non grata in the party he led for thirteen years. The cockiness and naivety of his supposed heir triggered one of the country’s biggest political crises. British politics has turned into an episode of House of Cards meets Games of Thrones and The Thick of It with A Very British Coup. But one thing is clear: Blair was right.
The old dividing lines that forged our politics, such as “left versus right” and “capital versus labour”, are now obsolete. If one examines many of the important debates of our generation — immigration, multiculturalism, the Port Talbot steel crisis, the rise of new technologies, gay marriage, and yes, the European Union — the battleground has been dominated by two tribes. One tribe believes that the three main liberal revolutions of the last fifty years — the social liberalisation of the 1960s, the economic liberalisation of the 1980s and the large-scale immigration of the 2000s — were forces for the worse. For them, change breeds a sense of loss and should therefore be resisted as much as possible. The other tribe takes the opposite view and argues that these liberal revolutions have been forces for good. Change for them is not just a necessity but an article of faith.
Some commentators, such as the brilliant Janan Ganesh, have wondered whether this new cleavage could usher in a new political realignment. According to them, we could have a pro-openness liberal party and a globalisation-sceptic conservative party, and while both parties would be broad churches, they would correspond to the politics that we have right now. Given the mercurial nature of British politics, this could very well happen. However, it would be an undesirable change that would damage our body politic and render millions of voters politically homeless.
A pro-openness liberal party would rightly embrace the huge opportunities of the twenty-first century and ensure that Britain remained an outward-looking nation. Its flaw would be to express a haughty insouciance towards those people who do not share their metropolitan sensibilities or who are at the sharp end of global economic forces and technological change. A globalisation-sceptic conservative party would champion those people but the risk is that such party would harp back to an idyll from a bygone era that probably never existed. Worse still, the main drivers of social progress in this country — the Labour Party — would be completely irrelevant (although that is not helped by the fact that it is already hell-bent on self-destruction).
But all hope is not lost. If the centre-left fundamentally reinvents itself, it can turn this crisis into an opportunity. Firstly, it has to build a coalition between the beneficiaries of economic change (including those who aspire to join their ranks) and those who feel left behind. That means appealing to those who voted Conservative, particularly in affluent areas such as Putney, Chingford, Chipping Barnet and the Home Counties. It also means reaching out to those who opted for UKIP, especially in old de-industrialised places like Hartlepool, Stoke-on-Trent, Thurrock and Dagenham.
Secondly, it needs to build a new political economy that embraces globalisation and technological change while at the same time mitigating their effects. That way everyone will be able to prosper in our brave new world.
Thirdly, the left has to reconcile its social liberalism with the palpable sense of cultural conservatism that many people feel. One myth that has been promulgated by the left is that Blair and Brown were not leftwing enough. The truth is that they were not conservative enough. By adopting a cavalier approach to globalisation, as well as accepting a welfare system that focused on need instead of reciprocity, the party became disconnected from many voters. That is an uncomfortable truth for many on the left (including a black, Remain-voting, falafel-eating, London-dwelling student like myself) but it is one that the left needs to hear.
So what would this party look like? It would support membership of the Single Market but ensure that issues around free movement and sovereignty are resolved. It would set up Free Trade Zones in ‘left behind areas’ and give extra investment to communities affected by large-scale immigration. It would be pro-business and fiscally sound but seek to reform capitalism through widening asset ownership, workers on boards, investment in skills and vocational education. It would devolve much more power to cities, counties, communities and individuals. It would champion middle class aspiration and working class values. It would unashamedly drape itself in the flag. It would promote diversity through muscular liberalism rather than through multiculturalism. It would call for a contributory welfare state. It would be tough on security and law and order.
Theresa May understands this. She has done for many years. With the help of her cerebral lieutenant, Nick Timothy, she intends to turn this agenda into a reality. Unfortunately for her, she is still a Conservative Prime Minister. Brexit will consume her premiership and the vested interests that bankroll her party will oppose her vision. This gives the left an opening. Through a combination of Blue Labour’s Christian Democratic brand of ethical socialism and New Labour’s reformist zeal, the Labour Party can conquer the new political territory that has been carved out by Brexit. It will simply not happen under Jeremy Corbyn. Although Owen Smith is an infinitely better choice, it remains to be seen whether he can deliver this agenda. However, whatever happens in September, the left must start adapting to this new landscape. It is not an option but an imperative.