Un-divide to conquer: how the opposition can take back control

A street mural painting in Hampshire by artist Hendog – photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

The Conservatives shattered the Red Wall, triumphed in Hartlepool, and came close in Batley & Spen. They continue to poll at around 42%. The question is: why are they still gaining so much of the working class vote? Why is their support so resistant to their myriad failures? And how should politically progressive people and parties – and indeed all of us who are appalled by the seemingly endless torrent of Tory lies, corruption, incompetence, and attacks on democracy – react?

Many on the centre-left are struggling to understand why so many people choose to vote against their own economic interests. Even though the decline in traditional, class-based voting has continued over several elections, there are many in the Labour Party who still seem to think that if Labour just presents the “right policies” to the electorate, we can return to the politics of the last century. I believe they are mistaken, and the reason for that is deindustrialisation.

Deindustrialisation, the Labour party and the Tory elite

Deindustrialisation has shattered the working class as a coherent political force and produced an increasingly fragmented society. Disorientated people now cling to flag-waving nationalism’s backwards-looking nostalgia with its bogus promises of solidarity, safety and community.

Labour is wholly lost in this post-industrial epoch: a well-meaning, largely middle class party, it is clinging to a form of working class politics which no longer exists.

The Tory elite, on the other hand, has quickly returned to the basic pattern of pre-industrial 18th century politics. It serves itself, its cronies, its super-rich donors, and its paymasters who dish out lucrative jobs to senior Tories. It has no concern for public welfare or for normal businesses, and it has no vested interest in democracy, choosing to weaken it whenever it stands in its way.

The Conservatives used to be a mass membership party serving a large portion of the middle class, but the middle class is now so socially and politically fragmented that, like the working class, it is defunct as a coherent political force.

A vintage Labour party poster from 1948 after the National Health Service was created, reminding people that the Tories voted against the NHS
A Labour poster after the formation of the NHS in 1948

Traditional class politics has broken down

The class politics that dominated the last century has broken down. In the 2019 election, 33% of those in social grade C2DE (representing a span of people in the “working class”) voted Labour, while 48% voted Tory. This is an extraordinary turnaround from Labour’s traditional dominance in those groups.

Almost as remarkable is that Labour gained 32% of AB (“upper and middle class”) voters while the Tory share of 42% among those voters was lower than its share of the C2DE vote. This confirms that class-based voting is also declining among wealthier voters.

Industrialisation radically transformed our political landscape, giving rise to middle and working class politics, so we should not be surprised if deindustrialisation has a similarly far-reaching effect. In the industrialised economy, conditions were harsh and wages low, but the centres of mass employment in mills, mines and factories often endured for generations, producing stable working class communities and organisations out of which the Labour movement grew.

Deindustrialisation has shattered these working class communities and organisations. The sense of being protected by a powerful Labour and union movement has largely gone. Faced with that absence, and bombarded by the fear-inducing propaganda of the right-wing press, socially anxious and disorientated people in a fragmented, post-industrial society have fallen prey to the bogus promise of safety and community offered by tribal nationalism.

A vintage Labour party poster with a smiling 50s-style extended family and the slogan: "Everyone - yes, everyone - will be better off under Labour"
Bygone times: a vintage election poster for the Labour Party

Even economically successful older working class people may look back and wonder where the communities they grew up in have gone. The world of their youth, of their parents and grandparents, has vanished. The familiar has become disconcertingly unfamiliar.

Tribal nationalism does not unite the nation, it divides it

Into this void comes the fake community of tribal nationalism, constantly needing to reassure itself of its reality and power through displays of jingoism and patriotism. But far from uniting the nation, tribal nationalism divides it.

Those on the Brexit right have ruthlessly promoted the idea that there is a conflict between the ‘real people’ also known as ‘decent middle England’ aka ’the silent majority’ and those they depict as their oppressors, the so-called ‘liberal elite’. So rather than uniting the country, tribal nationalism divides us into the ‘real’ British people and their ‘enemies’. It’s a division which today’s far-right Tories are cynically trying to widen and inflame with their manufactured culture wars.

Of course, it is a natural human disposition to seek safety in a tribe. The political right understands this very well and is therefore cynically exploiting it, peddling the politics of fear, xenophobia, and the scapegoating of minorities.

Like all basic human social affiliations, tribalism is emotional. It is little swayed by facts and reasons. It values loyalty and conformity. Criticism is often seen as disruptive and disloyal. One only has to recall the antagonism against critics of Brexit after the referendum, or witness the unflaggingly loyal support for Johnson in spite of his lies and his grossly negligent handling of Covid.

This New Yorker cartoon captured the perplexing populism of 2016 that saw Trump elected just a few months after Vote Leave “won” the Brexit referendum

How can a fragmented opposition beat the Tories?

So how should the opposition respond? We are almost certainly the majority, but a fragmented one, which means the opposition has to bring together people from across a broad social, economic and political spectrum. This includes those moderate Conservatives who dislike the Tory leadership’s lies, corruption, incompetence and jingoism, but who were deterred from voting for the opposition in the last General Election by their fear of Corbynism (or what they believed to be Corbynism). The recent Chesham and Amersham by-election shows that many such voters are now ready to quit the Tories.

Such a broad grouping cannot be united on the basis of detailed policies. Instead it must be grounded on the acceptance of difference and on the politics of cooperation and compromise. This makes it a grown-up alternative to the adversarial tribalism that has plagued British politics.

It is a form of politics that calls for a new, fairer voting system with proportional representation and – in order to defeat the Conservatives under the existing First Past The Post system – electoral cooperation in the form of a Progressive Alliance. Such an alliance is not only needed for the opposition to win the next election, but would properly represent a politically diverse society.

"Democracy is an illusion" - Pie charts showing how the UK electorate actually voted in the 2019 General Election compared with how the parliamentary seats were allocated under our First Past The Post voting system (majority Conservative government elected with a minority of votes).
The pie chart on left depicts how the UK voted in the 2019 General Election vs. how parliamentary seats were allocated under our FPTP electoral system (as shown in pie chart on right). Our current majority Conservative government was elected with a minority of votes.

Using shared values to unite the many

But beyond simply practical political considerations, cooperation and compromise express values about how we should treat each other and the kind of society we want to live in. And it is on values that I believe that we should build our opposition. 

We should be weighing values like truth, honesty, fairness, justice, cooperation and care against the libertarian right’s offering of lies, corruption, manipulation, fear, hatred and division. We should be placing the professional values that guide so many of us in our working lives against the self-serving privilege, venality, negligence and incompetence of the ruling Tory elite.

Values are simple and emotive, giving them a similar political force to tribal identity. We may differ on policies, but we are united by our values and they are very different from, and opposed to, those of the Tory elite. 

That’s the positive aspect of what I suggest should be the opposition parties’ response to the politics of our post-industrial society, but negative campaigning has a role to play too. The Tories have ceased to be a party of the middle class and ordinary businesses. They’re now the party of a wealthy elite concerned only with serving itself and its super-rich paymasters, while cynically manipulating a fragmented public. This is their strength, but it is also a weakness that can be exploited.

We should, for example, be turning the Tory right’s use of identity politics against them. How? By portraying them as they really are: as a self-serving clique that has separated itself from the rest of society to become, in effect, an alien parasitic entity manipulating and exploiting the very people keeping it in power – against their own interests.

We – the people – should challenge this Tory elite, and to coin a well-worn phrase, take back control.

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