Labour and 'Traditional Voters'
Eight weeks after gaining 40 per cent of the national vote on an unapologetically forward-looking social democratic platform, Labour MPs who still perceive their majorities to be under threat are again saying that the party is failing to appeal to its ‘traditional voters’. Whether the term deployed is ‘traditional’, ‘heartlands’ or ‘white working class’, the dog-whistle is back.
Jeremy Corbyn initially held firm against the insistence from the party’s right wing that ‘white working-class’ voters needed reassurance that any government led by him would listen to their ‘legitimate concerns’. In a BBC interview last month, however, he appeared to cave in, using language on immigration policy that sounded at once slippery and nakedly populist. He referred to the ‘wholesale importation’ of workers from other parts of the EU, suggesting – whether intentionally or otherwise – that it was a cynical ploy to lower the wages and living standards of British people.
On election night, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, noted with enthusiasm that voters in his Black Country constituency raised a wider range of issues than he’d ever heard in a single campaign, showing familiarity with Labour’s manifesto and a desire for government to reflect and to respond to the complexities of their lives. Days later, however, he said that Labour could only win with ‘traditional voters’ by sounding tougher on national security, policing and immigration.
The Labour MPs Graham Jones and Gloria De Piero have also entered, or re-entered, the argument, claiming that Labour can only win a general election if it adopts conservative positions on, again, national security, immigration and Trident. Jones, who unlike De Piero has refused to serve on the shadow front bench under Corbyn but was elected last month to the party’s Parliamentary Committee, asked ‘how thick does this party have to be?’ not to embrace nuclear weapons, nationalism and forceful counter-terrorism measures to avoid losing votes to the right.
When Watson, Jones, De Piero and the former leadership candidate Liz Kendall, among others, talk about ‘traditional Labour voters’, they mean white, working-class men who don’t live in large cities. Afro-Caribbean and Asian voters, who have overwhelmingly voted Labour for half a century, aren’t ‘traditional’ enough to count. Nor are urban working-class voters of any ethnicity.
On this view, 'traditional Labour voters' are obsessed with, in Jones’s words, ‘counter-terrorism, nationalism, defence and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism’. They are, it is patronisingly assumed, not concerned with social justice beyond their immediate patch. They think about ‘fairness’ in blunt terms of ‘what about me and mine?’
The Labour peer Maurice Glasman claimed before the election that the Tories were about to win, and win big, because they had an ‘enchanted story’ of Britain’s glorious past and Labour did not. The enchanted story, in his mind, revolved around an idea that working-class people, as one, thought the empire was great and the NHS was created for whites only. The Tories are wedded to this idea, though they believe that working-class people somehow ‘buy’ these values – like a dinner service – because they aspire to be middle class.
Glasman told Ed Miliband in 2011 that a Labour government should stop all immigration to the UK because it would show that Labour was truly on the side of ‘the white working class’. To him, ‘traditional voters’ are simple folk who react to the prospect of change by retreating into nostalgia.
Yet the sort of voters by whom Glasman is precoccupied – if they form a like-minded voting bloc at all – deserted the BNP and then Ukip when they realised neither party had the slightest interest in doing the donkey work of real political representation. At a local level, the Greens have made inroads in working-class areas that had Labour councillors for decades, winning council seats on estates in the north-west and West Midlands.
June’s election result showed that millions of people are quite capable of loving their families, their homes, their neighbourhoods and their country without wishing to travel back in time. The idea that Labour’s increased vote share came exclusively from middle-class support is nonsense.
Knocking on doors on a Wirral council estate on election day, I met a few voters who admitted to being less than keen on Corbyn, but who still felt that Labour’s manifesto directly addressed their needs and hopes. Many said they felt enthusiastic about voting Labour for the first time in years. The party’s election campaign showed respect and gratitude for the disproportionate social burden borne by working-class people without fetishising or condescending to them. For Labour MPs to hark back to a time when the party relied on – or appeared to rely on – a socially and ethnically homogeneous voting group is essentially to wish for the death of the party.