Let Our People Go: On Labour’s Lost Voters

Peter Kellner’s findings of Labour’s ‘lost votes’ make interesting reading. The polling supremo has published complex research into the people who stopped voting Labour in the last decade or so. It’s all very wonkish but basically the Labour Party lost around three million voters since the Blair landslide of ’97. The profile of these lost voters is roughly working class and Kellner says that between 1997 and now there has been ‘a marked decline in Labour’s working-class support’. Kellner also found that the views of the three million working class ‘defectors’ are way out of line with the Labour leadership. Defectors read mass market right wing papers rather than Labour house journals like the Mirror or the Guardian. They want us out of the EU, a hard line on welfare and net migration down to zero. No surprise there. Every social attitudes survey of the 2010s has said the same.

Kellner’s research is obviously going to be used as a stick by the Labour right who still don’t understand that the world changed in 2008. The Blairites will say, look, Ed, it’s all very well going on about ‘predistribution’ and banking reform but if you go down the Dog and Duck they will tell you to hang, flog, deport. Forget all this new politics crap and let’s have some honest-to-goodness mid nineties triangulation. And we do need to lose leftwing illusions about the revolutionary potential of the working class. Activist Luke Akehurst writes: ‘We need to be very careful that we don’t start appealing to an imaginary radical working class vote while the real working class vote is assiduously wooed by Lynton Crosby.’

But the findings should also worry the political right – at least, that part of the political right that actually has to be in power and make serious decisions. A conservative friend of mine, ‘TC’, commented that: ‘These poll results should worry Labour and Tories alike. Populist, statist, anti-business on economy, hard right elsewhere.’

Take the example of immigration. People who want zero net migration – a huge 78% of our defectors – aren’t going to be satisfied by Tory crackdowns. The coalition has slammed the door on the family route and the student route but even with a migration cap we are still going to have some inward migration – as does every country in the world except maybe North Korea.

Which brings us to another problem for Labour activists: the policies that the lost tribe want are completely unworkable. This applies to all their policy demands but again let’s stick with the call for zero net migration. Here is Hopi Sen:

The last time there was zero net migration in the UK was the early nineties recession, and it was not a good thing. the big shift since then has been a major increase in people coming to the UK for formal study, and while there are certainly some abuse issues there, for the most part this is a huge transfer of income to the UK, without which we would really suffer.

Aside from the ‘cutting off our nose’ element to this policy, there’s a whole host of practical problems. To run this policy, you need a one in-one out style rule. So you’d be trying to estimate how many people want to leave the country, then trying to replace them, preferably with younger, better models. But say you got it wrong, and hit your cap just as Infosys or Wipro say they want to set up a major research centre just outside Cambridge, which would need around a thousand potential migrants.

Do you say ‘No’? Of course not. In which case you’ve just admitted your policy is a joke on the macro scale, which means it’s a joke on the micro scale too.

So what do you say on the doorstep? Hopi Sen gives us two potential options. The first is to make sympathetic noises: ‘say that you certainly understand why people are concerned about these issues, and that their concerns are reasonable, and founded in a real concern for their communities.’ This has been Labour’s strategy so far, when every six months the leader makes a well publicised speech in some godforsaken cowtown saying it is time to ‘listen to people’s concerns’ and ‘have a proper debate’ about immigration. This is basically a rite of propitiation and has absolutely no impact on policy. It’s a condescension, and therefore an insult to the white working class voter.

Notice that so many of the tubthumpers who are always telling us to ‘engage’ with the council estates on this issue, have almost nothing to say on the multitude of other problems facing the working class, on jobs, housing, welfare, debt, crime, health, education, access to legal representation and life chances. Chris Dillow nails it for me: ‘There’s something nastily hypocritical about a political class which has been indifferent (at best) to the well-being of the unskilled suddenly caring when it comes to immigration.’ The ‘engagement’ approach debases political discourse, and disillusions white working class voters, many of whom defect to the far right. Say one thing about the BNP: when they tell you they are going to kick the Pakis out they mean it.

Hopi’s second idea is to simply be honest. Tell the angry doorstep fishwife that ‘you’re not going to do what they want, because it’s a load of bollocks that would end up costing them their job.’ This is my preferred option. But where do we find an activist or a politician brave enough to tell people what they don’t want to hear?

There is also the fact that our lost three million is nevertheless a minority. This passage of Kellner’s really jumps out:

Half a century ago, two-thirds of voters were working class. In 1997, they still outnumbered middle-class electors by two million. Today, Britain has six million more middle-class than working-class electors. Of course the profile of Labour support has become more upmarket since 1997. That’s because Britain’s economic structure has changed, not because a disproportionate number of the party’s historic core voters have rebelled against the policies of the Blair/Brown years.

That is striking. People like me think of society as a pyramid with the bottom composed of the proletarian muscle and blood that holds the country together. If Kellner is right, the masses are actually composed of bourgeois voters living in various degrees of precariousness. How do we explain this change? Is it that low income people are self identifying as middle class or that more and more bourgeois graduates are slipping into warehouses and service industries? Is it even a good thing: do we want a society defined by Twitterstorms, burgers on sticks and smoking bans? Whatever, Kellner’s results are gamechanging. The BNP, Telegraph Blogs, the Daily Mail, the Labour right and everyone else who claims to represent The People are just ventriloquising for another minority interest group. The white working class is approaching extinction. They’re done.

All the more reason for sane heads to take the initiative. I can’t agree more with Dillow’s prescription:

The ‘debate’ on immigration is currently skewed against the evidence, and against freedom. Personally, I think the role of decent informed people… should be not to acquiesce in this bias, but to fight it. We should try to shift the Overton window towards good policy. And this means being less tolerant of those who’d like to sympathize with ‘concerns’ about immigration.

A concerned focus group, yesterday

One Response to “Let Our People Go: On Labour’s Lost Voters”

  1. Colin Says:

    As a spoilt upper-middle class brat I have nothing to add about the plight of the working class, but…

    As far as the immigration thread of your post goes… As one who has been lumped in with Poles and Ukrainians as someone who has come to this country to scrounge on benefits, or whatever, and possibly take up the place of some more deserving, I’ve never had much sympathy for the arguments against immigration.

    You could possibly call that self-serving, of course, but since I hold the pass-port I’m not sure they could boot me out if they tried. I might leave, but it would be my decision, and to put it somewhat more arrogantly, it would be their loss. 😉

    I have nothing but disdain for the likes of Nigel Farage that seem to thrive as an acceptable version of the BNP leader. In my darker moments, I almost hope that this country does leave the EU and close the borders because it would be so devastating to the economy when the continental multinationals move their industry to inside the remaining EU, and the precious banks all pack up and move to New York or Berlin.

    Maybe then it would show the UKIP:ers and the anti-immigrant voters how small and isolated we are in the world. We’re not the Empire on which the sun never sets, exactly. We’re a medium country with a suffering economy that’s too dependent on one industry that’s shifty and flighty. I mean, it’s not like we make as good cars as the Germans, Italians or even the French.

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