Kellner: Labour needs a vision of “Total Britain”

The president of YouGov, Peter Kellner, has argued that Labour party allusions to ‘middle Britain’ are “no longer useful” for developing a political strategy.

Daisy Blacklock blogs at Dress to the Left

The president of YouGov, Peter Kellner, has argued that Labour party allusions to ‘middle Britain’ are “no longer useful” for developing a political strategy. Instead, said Kellner, talk of “class” should be dropped, and exchanged for a vision of what he called “Total Britain” – the acknowledgment of the “totality of… experience of people across our country”.

He went so far as to describe the targeting of specific groups of people on the basis of class as a “complete red herring” for Labour’s political and policy renewal, on the grounds that such simple “circumstantial” distinctions can no longer be drawn between Labour and non-Labour voters.

Speaking at an event for Progress, the New Labour pressure group established in 1996, Kellner argued that while New Labour’s 1997 election campaign had been “utterly brilliant” in enlisting Labour votes, it had subsequently failed to make people “feel Labour”. This will need to be overcome if the party is to regain power.

But just what is the “feel” of contemporary Labour? For one, it should not concern itself with a return to the movement of the 1950s, a move which some people “in the ranks” are drawn to, argued Kellner.

While it is a recurrent criticism that Labour has “lost touch” with its base of working class supporters, Kellner observed that with big shifts in both the “mix and meaning of class”, the class war argument had lost its resonance.

He explained:

“If you go back to the 1960s, which is as far back as you can get to reasonably reliable and comparable data, at a time when more than 60% of the electorate was working class, Labour got 60% of that vote. The middle class made up around 40% of the electorate, and Labour got 20% of that vote… a class gap of forty points.

“Last year, the middle classes represented around 55-6% of the electorate… the working class accounted for around 40% of actual voters. Thirty three per cent of working class voters voted Labour, 27% of the middle class voted Labour. So where you had a 40-point class gap half a century ago, you now have a six-point gap.

“Now you can deal with this in either one of two ways. You can either say, it’s the problem of Labour and the working class, and if you can get that 33% back up to 40, or even 50 or 60 per cent, that’s it, done and dusted, you win. I think that’s unwise. There is a reason why the class gap is so narrow. And it’s to do with the fact that in terms of class experiences, conditions, and ownership, there has been a huge convergence.

“When I look at YouGov polls… the thing that they find consistently is that attitudes are incredibly similar. It not just that class seems to be useless as a predictor of votes, it’s pretty useless as a predictor of anything.”

Making reference to the polling company’s research on class differentiation and identity, he remarked:

“I think it is more useful to talk about Total Britain, because with the exception of a relatively small number of people at the top, and a relatively small number of people at the bottom, the essential range of experiences is pretty much the same.

“Whether you’re at 25% of the income range or 75% of the income range, the chances are you’ve got a computer, you’ve got Sky television, you’ve got a bank account, you’ve got a mortgage, you use public transport quite a lot although you own a car, and so on… you have to speak to the greater majority of people.”

While Kellner acknowledged there were some traditional differences between the values of Labour and non-Labour voters – citing the public versus private sector dichotomy, and newspaper choice – he concluded that such comparisons were no longer inherent enough to be the basis of a political operation.

He expanded:

“If you are trying to put together a package to police those concerns, you’ll find that whether it’s about security, or taxation, or housing, or inflation, or interest rates, or immigration or whatever it is, that actually the concerns of people in the 20% from the bottom are pretty much the same as those 20% from the top.

“You’ve got this middle 50, 60, 70 per cent [of people] where actually the underlying differences of their conditions and their concerns and their worries are much the same. And that’s where operationally you need a total reconstruction, not a middle reconstruction.”

The debate around the Labour party’s identity crisis continues.

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