More than once during the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool I witnessed cheers and thumbs up from delegates at the sight of black cabs plastered with banners saying ‘The Sun: Not Welcome In Our City’, and it struck me that what is normal here is not elsewhere.
In 2008, a Newsnight producer called me to ask if I would appear in the studio with the British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, to debate ‘the white working class’. The BNP had been gaining seats on local councils since the mid-2000s, and Griffin was engaged in a campaign to make it seem a respectable electoral choice. I told the producer he had to be joking. What was he doing even thinking of having a fascist on the programme? He seemed mystified by my response. Wasn’t it a good thing that the BBC were listening to the concerns of ‘the white working class’? And shouldn’t we have these debates so the fascists won’t win? No, I said: fascists belong under stones, not on national television. Griffin didn’t appear on Newsnight that time; perhaps they couldn’t find anyone on the left willing to go on with him.
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.
The only thing we can say for certain in the immediate aftermath of the referendum is that David Cameron will be remembered as one of the worst prime ministers we’ve ever had: at once ignorant of his own people and reckless with their lives. And yet I don’t entirely blame the Tories for the disaster they’ve set in train, even though the avoidable misery and cultural polarisation we are now seeing only tends to happen under Tory governments. Labour’s last period in office was the biggest missed opportunity since Thatcher’s decision to spend North Sea oil revenue on tax cuts and subsidising council house sales. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour sowed the seeds of the cynicism and anger that have propelled today’s result.