Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The left needs to campaign for social liberalism

The continuing expulsion of the Windrush generation from their home country to a country they hardly know, splitting up families in the process, is just a deliberate act of state cruelty. Why did the government go ahead with these deportations despite sitting on a report suggesting they should stop? Their pretext was that these individuals had at some stage in their lives committed a ‘serious’ crime, yet all had served their time for these offences. This act of cruelty is part of the Conservatives attempt to appeal to socially conservative voters, both traditional Tories and one time Labour voters. What do we call splitting up families just to make a political point? 

As Paula Surridge shows here, voters who were thinking of leaving Labour for the Conservatives in June 2019 were both more right wing and more socially conservative than loyal Labour voters. Those 2017 Labour voters thinking of voting Brexit were not more right wing, but were much more socially conservative. We have to wait for the BES survey before we can tell whether these were also the voters who finally broke Labour’s ‘red wall’ of northern constituencies, but it seems likely they were.

Brexit was an issue that split voters along the social conservative/liberal axis rather than the left/right axis (apart perhaps from Lexiters). Like immigration, these issues that sort liberals from conservatives are very useful to right wing parties on one condition: that right wing liberals vote on economic grounds but left wing conservatives vote on social grounds. That condition has so far seemed to hold. Furthermore in the UK’s FPTP system, the concentration of liberals in cities will favour social conservatives. So while Labour and Democrat party members obsess about internal disputes over economic policy, to win elections the left needs to focus on winning over social conservatives. [1]

It is tempting to relate the social conservative/liberal divide to basic psychological traits. Liberals tend to value individual rights and embrace change, while conservatives value community cohesion and order. Liberals look to a better future and conservatives look to the past, and so on. However it is a mistake to think individual views on particular social issues are things they are born with. Liberal attitudes often spring from an environment of security while conservative attitudes come from insecurity.

Social attitudes may also reflect experience. It is often noted that attitudes to immigration tend to be hostile in areas of almost no or recent immigration and tolerant in areas where immigrants have lived for some time. A similar effect may come from a university education. The two main predictors of attitudes to Brexit were age and education. This chart, also from Surridge, suggests having a degree is the more important factor.

Here Silent = 75+, Boomer = 54-74, Gen X = 40-53, Gen Y 25-39. There is some age effect among those without a degree, but the defining factor in generating liberal attitudes is having a degree. Surridge argues here that a lot of this effect simply comes from the socialisation that a degree brings.

All this raises an obvious question. Why have we seen a national divide over ‘culture’ emerge as the dominant political divide recently, while in the past the right/left divide seemed to be what mattered? One answer goes back to Windrush. I’m (just) old enough to remember Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech in 1968. Powell advocated a policy of voluntary repatriation for immigrants and their descendants. Today we have selective but involuntary repatriation.

The key point her was that Powell was sacked as a minister of a Conservative government for that speech, and repatriation remained something that only a few on the right and extreme right groups advocated. The Times (not yet owned by Murdoch) condemned the speech and subsequently recorded incidents of hate crimes against immigrants immediately after the speech. This was despite the popularity of the speech among many groups: famously a thousand London dockers went on strike in protest of Powell's sacking and marched from the East End to the Palace of Westminster.

Ted Heath sacked Powell because he feared the damage the speech might do to race relations, and he was absolutely right to do so. Today’s Conservative party is a very different animal, but so is our press. Racism, xenophobia and social conservatism more generally are seen by today’s Conservative party as constituencies to cultivate, in part because on many issues the country is more left wing than the government (e.g. size of the state, nationalisation). The right wing press helps them do this. 

However I think this is not everything. When I used to describe Cameron’s government as very right wing, I got quite a few responses saying nonsense and using gay marriage as proof that Cameron had moved left. I thought it was nonsense at the time, but on reflection it made me think about the extent to which social liberalism has both triumphed and moved forward over the last 60 odd years. At the beginning of the 1960s we still had the death penalty, while homosexuality, abortion and blasphemy were all crimes.

The 1960s Labour government saw a whole raft of liberalising legislation passed, but it is probably fair to say that was mostly not driven by popular opinion. The data we have from the British Social Attitudes survey shows public opinion moving in a more liberal direction from the start of their data period. Here are just two examples.

One interesting feature here is the liberalisation surge that began around 2010. Paula Surridge has aggregated a number of questions from the survey, distinguishing between respondant’s levels of education

The gap between attitudes by education is clear, and there is a suggestion of a widening gap from 2011. (The education gap on left/right questions is much smaller.)

One reason for the overall trend in liberalisation, and perhaps some of the reaction against it, is that the broadcast media is largely populated by those who have a degree. This allows certain right wing newspapers to talk about a ‘liberal elite’ which ignores those with a less liberal attitude, and on this they are largely correct. More recently the broadcast media has attempted to counter its own biases by endless VoxPops and other devices. 

Immigration is part of this liberal/conservative divide. One incredible (for a liberal like me) recent YouGov poll throws a strong light on where this divide comes from.

It is too easy, and I think a mistake, to describe this as reflecting xenophobia, as if you are describing some immutable characteristic. Better to note that it would be very hard to be bothered by foreign languages if you heard them all the time, as many city dweller would.

This evidence suggests two important but provocative conclusions, which for me represent tentative hypotheses rather than anything firm. First, the key division in UK society today as far as elections are concerned is the social liberal/conservative divide, rather than ABCD class divisions or how left wing economic policy is.[2] Brexit was not an aberration but part of a trend. The big divide in the UK is partly age but mainly education. [3] The political right understands this, which is why elections will be fought on proxies for this divide. It is a divide they can exploit because social conservatives feel they are not in control, in part because the tide has been towards liberalisation. An interesting question is what the proxy for this divide will be in 2025 after 15 years of Tory rule.

Second, social conservatism is not immutable. Leavers are becoming more liberal than they used to be just as Remainers have, even if the pace may be slightly different. One clear example is immigration, where attitudes are becoming more positive regardless of Brexit. This means that the left can and must argue the case for more liberal attitudes, rather than regarding social conservatism as a problem to appease while dealing with economic issues, or worse still romanticising older class divisions.

Both the Blair/Miliband left (the control immigration mugs) and the Corbyn left are equally at fault here. The idea that Brexit represented protests from the economically ‘left behind’ has dominated thinking on Brexit, moving the debate on to a more comfortable economic frame. It is far from clear that improving incomes will change people’s socially conservative attitudes, as the large Brexit vote outside 'left behind' areas shows. Left parties must fight for social liberalism, rather than vacating that ground to the right.

[1] Just to be clear, winning them over does not mean adopting socially conservative policies. This does not work for various reasons that I have mentioned in earlier posts. Labour voters are socially liberal, and they have alternatives in the Liberal Democrat and Green parties as 2019 showed. The left needs to challenge socially conservative myths, not validate them.

[2] This is not to say that economic divisions are unimportant - far from it. My point is about where the key divisions are as far as elections are concerned.

[3] Part of the age division may also represent economic rather than social divisions, as Rachel Shabi discusses here.


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