Labour must start standing up for the ‘left behind’ | Nick Cohen

4 Jun

Whatever the result, Labour’s woes will not pass with this election, for they are woes that afflict social democrats and progressives across the west. Parties that knew how to fight free-market conservatives are struggling against the new nationalist right in Britain, the US and large parts of Europe.

Nowhere is the struggle more evident than in the north of England. Gleeful predictions of Ukip wiping out Labour were once a staple of Conservative commentators who rarely ventured north of the home counties. Ukip’s English nationalism was meant to destroy Labour in Lancashire, Northumbria and Yorkshire, just as the SNP’s Scottish nationalism destroyed it in Scotland.

Having successfully driven us out of the EU, Ukip has been supplanted and absorbed by the post-Brexit Tories. Before going any further, I should say YouGov has made the bold claim Labour has no need to worry about them. Apparently, its northern MPs are so safe from an upsurge of working-class nationalism we could have a hung parliament. We could even wake on Friday morning to find ourselves in the first glorious day of the Corbyn administration. What an unexpected treat that would be.

Not a single northern Labour MP I’ve spoken to believes it. Not all are in danger. There are northern, working-class seats so safe that the Labour MP would be the only inhabitant to survive a nuclear strike. As elsewhere, Labour MPs with large concentrations of young, educated and ethnic minority voters tell me they’re confident of hanging on.

But in the north of cliche, the north that’s not on Twitter, the north of declining manufacturing towns, of pound and charity shops, of rugby league and working men’s clubs, of a white working class that has lost security and status, of a hurt pride that can topple into racism, Labour MPs still find previously loyal voters say that they cannot vote for a party led by Corbyn.

“Britain could be a Labour country,” said one MP standing again in a former mining constituency, who expects to lose. “But we keep giving people reasons not to vote Labour. I’ll be all right. I’ll get another job. But I look at my constituents and think that Labour has let down the vulnerable again.”

We will find out on Friday morning if the pollsters or the politicians are right. For what it is worth, I believe the politicians, but then I thought Donald Trump was bound to lose…

Today’s arguments about percentage swings and the Labour leadership miss the wider crisis, however. Theresa May cuts a miserable figure as prime minister. I’ve never seen a politician look so unhappy in a campaign. I keep expecting to hear her stop mid-speech, turn to her husband and scream: “Philip, just take me home.” Yet if this born second-rater wins it will not just be because she is up against a third-rate Labour leader.

Labour, like progressive parties everywhere, is caught in the conflict between ideals of equality and fairness. Equal treatment and universal human rights demand admitting refugees and immigrants rather than leaving them to suffer or live poorer lives. For why should they be treated worse than British citizens? Equality demands that the poor and, particularly their children, should receive benefits. It’s only fair that wealth should be redistributed. In any case, why should innocent children be punished?

But traditional Labour voters believe in fairness, not equality. It is not fair to them that millions who have not contributed to Britain should enjoy the benefits of living in Britain.

Working-class resentment at benefit scroungers is equally easy to understand. Many on the middle-class left still cannot grasp why vicious Tory welfare cuts were not met with popular outrage. They do not put themselves in the shoes of workers who cannot afford to have a home in a decent area or a larger family and imagine how galling it is to see others receive what they are denied. You get a better understanding of the gap between fairness and equality when you notice that, despite the explosion of wealth, the only plutocrats on the receiving end of true class hatred are bankers. And they are not hated because they are rich but because they are scroungers too, who forced the public to bail them out.

Most striking of all is Brexit. The EU is an egalitarian confederation. Citizens could love who they wanted, marry who they wanted, make a home and work where they wanted. The fury whipped up by the anti-European movement against mass immigration persuaded 17 million to vote to limit their horizons and leave us a smaller people.

Knowing this, northern Labour politicians have nevertheless bowed their heads and accepted the verdict. I will never forget hearing Rachel Reeves describing how she was told to canvass the middle class and students in her Leeds constituency but keep away from council estates. Brexit put her in the intolerable position of being a Labour MP who was cut off from the very class her party was founded to support.

She became a reluctant supporter of Brexit. I have every sympathy with her and MPs like her, but the question remains: how hard can social democrats embrace anti-European, anti-immigrant, anti-welfare sentiment before they stop being social democrats?

Will they still be able to denounce Theresa May’s Brexit as living standards fall and job losses rise? Will they allow the children of “scroungers” to suffer for the sins of their parents? If they go along with the government’s aim of cutting immigration to the tens of thousands, will they find the courage to tell their constituents that they must pay a price because – whisper it – immigrants give more to Britain than they take in services and benefits?

There are now dozens of books berating left-of-centre politicians for forgetting about the “left behind”. To use David Goodhart’s distinction, the values of the locally rooted and socially conservative people from “somewhere” have vanquished the rootless urban cosmopolitans who can live “anywhere”.

As an explanation, “left behind” polemics just about pass muster. But as a guide to what will happen next they are hopeless. I have yet to find a writer who can explain how a populist government can rule in the name of the “left behind” without threatening their fragile living standards.

Time is the great destroyer of governments and the great healer of oppositions. The “left behind” are about to learn the full costs of Brexit and Trump. For all the sneers they receive, it would be better if we had opposition politicians in place who could tell them plainly how those who took their votes have wrecked their futures.

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