Comment: Blairism is no solution to identity crisis

It should be a matter of huge concern to Labour that working-class voters feel they have to turn to UKIP


The ‘Blairites’ are certainly right about Labour’s so-called 35 per cent strategy. How one envies the SNP, for whom every Scottish voter is a target voter.

Whatever happened to ‘One Nation Labour’? They are right to suggest that we should help people fulfil their aspirations but their definition of aspiration is too narrowly focused. It’s one thing to aspire to shop at John Lewis – I might aspire to shop at Fortnum and Mason – but what about those who aspire to make the shift from Food Banks to Lidl?

And what about those who may be well off themselves but who aspire to live in a more equal society? Man cannot live by bread alone.

Labour was always a coalition of the liberal intelligentsia and organised labour, but the deal was that the workers would support the liberals’ agenda in return for greater economic equality. It’s a bargain that hasn’t been kept.

Think of that wonderful film ‘Pride’ about the Lesbian and Gay Miners’ Support Group in South Wales in the 1984. Since that time, the LGBT community has won almost everything it set out to achieve and more.

Who would have thought it possible that a Tory government would enact gay marriage? Meanwhile, the mining communities in South Wales (and elsewhere) have been left to rot. The security of reasonably well paid, albeit dangerous jobs, in mining have been replaced by zero hours contracts on an inadequate minimum wage.

All of this proves that greater equality in the social sphere does not lead to greater equality in the economic sphere. Thatcherism was about policing the bedroom whilst allowing the market to rip in the economy. Labour should be about the opposite – supporting individual rights through a socially liberal agenda whilst promoting economic equality through greater state intervention and regulation.

But the ‘Blairites’ are surely wrong to suggest that simply rehashing ‘Blairism’ is the solution to our current problems. It’s worth looking at the General Election results in a bit more detail and comparing them with the last time Labour formed a government (under Tony Blair’s leadership), which was in 2005.

At that election, Labour polled 9,552,436 votes, the SNP polled 412,267 and the Greens 257,758*. In 2015, Labour polled 9,347,304, the SNP polled 1,454,436 and the Greens polled 1,157,613. It is clear that Labour lost votes to parties perceived to be to the left of it (primarily the SNP and the Greens).

However, it is also obvious that Labour lost votes to UKIP as well. In Wales, Plaid Cymru – also campaigning to the left of Labour -achieved its best ever General Election result, and UKIP were runners up to Labour in a whole swathe of previously iron-clad Labour strongholds in the valleys.

What is less well known and gives the lie to the ‘Blairite’ argument is that in England Labour polled more votes under Ed Miliband in 2015 than it did under Tony Blair in 2005 (8,087,684 compared with 8,065,213). That remarkably accurate exit poll showed that we increased our share of the vote amongst the middle class but lost heavily amongst working class voters.

It is surely a matter of concern to my party that 61 per cent of UKIP’s supporters are working class?

It is not immediately clear how a return to ‘Blairism’, presumably complete with foreign wars fought by expendable working class youths, will win back voters from the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.

It is even less clear how a return to ‘Blairism’ with its love of globalisation, slavish adherence to the EU ‘project’ and support for free movement of capital and labour can win back those who deserted Labour for UKIP. The ‘Blairites’ solution to ‘left behind’ groups voting UKIP would appear to be to leave them there.

There are no easy answers and it is dishonest to suggest otherwise. Labour needs a clean break from the past and new faces at the top. Whoever leads the party will need to appeal to the voters we have lost in such large numbers.

It is difficult to see how they can appeal to those voting for the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens at the same time as appealing to those who voted for UKIP. But it is not impossible, because polling data suggests that these groups have a lot in common. For example, UKIP voters are overwhelmingly in favour of re-nationalising the railways and higher spending on the NHS.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the ‘cultural anxieties’ of UKIP voters (as Will Straw puts it) and the confident nationalism of those who voted Plaid Cymru and SNP – by the way, the clue is in the name: Scottish National Party. The SNP taps into a sense of national pride, shared history and community which too many on the left regard as ‘false consciousness’.

In a world which moves on at frightening speed, destroying communities in its wake and causing mass insecurity people are looking for a sense of identity (did anyone notice the Liverpool fans’ banner just after the election? ‘We’re not English, we’re Scouse’ it said), and most of us have multiple identities. Labour needs to understand this and connect with it.

Richard Cotton is a Camden Borough Councillor. He has been a Labour Party member since 1967, and volunteers at Primrose Hill Community Library.

*2005 figures taken from The Times Guide to the House of Commons 2005

10 Responses to “Comment: Blairism is no solution to identity crisis”

  1. James Chilton

    The Labour party has consistently refused to face the immigration problem and deal with it honestly.

    As far as I’m aware, the Labour hierarchy is not even prepared to put a ceiling on numbers of immigrants. Will “enough be enough” when the population of this country reaches 75 million or 80 million? No one will say. Some, like Gordon Brown, will call you a “bigot” for asking.

    To state the obvious: Many working people most affected by the pressure on jobs, housing, and the infrastructure (made worse by mass immigration), have registered a protest by voting for UKIP.

  2. stevep

    Probably the best and most honest appraisal of Labour since the election.
    We need to reclaim the high ground, fast.
    We need to recognise that New Labour`s Immigration project (because that`s what is was), although nothing new, sowed the seeds of poison and fear into working class hearts, largely stoked by The Tory press barons.
    We need to recognise that the average person is working much harder for less reward than previous

  3. Doc Martin

    Firstly I’ll nail my colours to the mast. i was a Labour Party member from the late 1970s until Blair became leader and then I left. Last year I joined the Green Party and the 2015 election was the first time in my life that I have not voted Labour.

    I think this appraisal is excellent and certainly Labour (and other parties on the left) need to ask why so many ‘working class’ voters supported parties on the right despite the fact that these parties do not have workers’ interests at heart. I know that the Green Party is cock-a-hoop about its 1m plus voters but UKIP polled 4 times that.

    Until recently I lived and worked ‘man and boy’ in what were seen as traditional working class suburbs of northern industrial towns. Many of these people were actually very conservative (with a small ‘c’). They thought the Royal Family was wonderful, disliked immigrants and gays, were anti-EU and if not actually against trade unions they certainly weren’t very ‘pro’ them and many actually didn’t think their bosses were nasty or greedy. Many voted against the Tories rather than for Labour because the Tories ‘were for the rich’ (not so much that Labour ‘were for the workers’). They were aspirational not so much for themselves but for their children who they wanted to move out of the working class and up the social ladder. This meant going to grammar school and then to university. As far as I am aware no-one was on long-term benefits, indeed those on such benefits were seen as scroungers; there was a strong work ethic and looking after oneself rather than relying on what was seen as charity.

    i have recently re-visited some of these areas and, at the risk of sounding racist, there is not a white face to be seen, the local corner shop is now a halal meat shop, the Methodist church is a Muslim Community Centre – you get the picture. Not all of the suburbs are like this but it is not uncommon. UKIP have tapped nicely into this feeling of discontent with established parties – none of whom are perceived by many working class to be interested in their anxieties or concerns. UKIP have largely hidden it’s extreme right wing agenda and focused on it’s populist policies about immigration and the EU, Farage has done a good job of coming across as ‘one of the lads’.

    I am not saying that the people I lived and worked with are representative of the ‘working class’ but I have no reason to believe that they are greatly atypical. The middle-class, political elite who currently run the Labour party seem to think that they are the natural party of the workers – i am trying to show that, in fact, they are not and many do not vote for Labour so much as against the Tories. UKIP have offered another choice that many took a few weeks ago.

  4. James Chilton

    Good fair comment which shows how much there is to do and to think about before Labour can climb again to the mountain’s top.

    My only reservation is that there’s no rush. No need for panic. Labour won’t be rebuilt in a day. After the complicated reasons for this defeat have been thoroughly understood, there will be plenty of time to devise a realistic set of proposals on which to campaign in 2020.

  5. AlanGiles

    I think the condescending attitude of the likes of Mandelson, Umunna and Hunt has a lot to do with it, and the rank hypocrisy of Margaret Hodge and Keith Vaz,expoliters of the expenses system who affect faux outrage at the greed of big business, and non-entities like Rachel Reeves who pretended to be opposed to Duncan-Smith, while stating that she would be “tougher than the Tories on welfare” at the same time. They try to point both ways at the same time and merely end up looking at best confused, at worst, dishonest

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