In the wake of Labour’s terrible, soul-destroying election defeat in 2019, the need to “listen” to the red wall constituency voters who had deserted the party became an instant truism. In the trauma of the moment, there was a genuine desire to understand why so many of the places that had sustained the labour movement for so long had voted for the enemy.
But the ability to listen well is a rare and difficult skill. The great German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who devoted his intellectual career to the art of understanding what others mean – defined it beautifully. The good listener, said Gadamer, “does not go about identifying the weaknesses of what another person says in order to prove that one is always right, but one seeks instead, as far as possible, to strengthen the other’s viewpoint so that what the other person has to say becomes illuminating”.
As the first electoral test of Keir Starmer’s leadership approaches this week, how much of that kind of listening can truly be said to have taken place? Labour may yet hold on to Hartlepool in a byelection freighted with red wall symbolism, though the polls do not look good. The electoral windfall of Tory sleaze stories may help shore up the vote in local elections, but a weekend YouGov poll predicting a nine-point northern swing to the Tories is cause for trepidation. A year and a half on from that dramatic December night, the Tories still have more reason than Labour to be optimistic about their prospects in non-metropolitan England. What is it that the left is not hearing?
There were clues in a recent report by UK in a Changing Europe, titled “Comfortable Leavers”, which analysed the views of relatively prosperous Brexit voters. The study highlighted the way that a shared pride in Britain – its national identity, public services and industry – held together a coalition stretching from the comfortable shires to the red wall Labour-voting towns. A “nostalgic optimism” about Britishness united well-off Tories who moaned about the work-shy working class with the type of blue-collar workers the Labour party was founded to represent.
The collapse of the red wall in 2019 was confirmation of the potency of this cultural alliance, which has not disintegrated now Brexit is “done”. Engaging with it is fundamental if Labour is to progress beyond its city and university town redoubts. Valuing forms of belonging that absorb the individual into something greater than themselves, the nostalgic optimists are united by a desire for a politics that has large horizons. But rather than seek “illumination” and insight, many sections of the left have reverted to instinctive disdain and distrust.
When a leaked Labour strategy presentation ham-fistedly sought to prioritise “the use of the [union] flag, veterans, dressing smartly”, it was disproportionately monstered by critics who see pride in Britishness as the gateway to xenophobic nationalism. The relevance of the class dimension of the red wall defection from Labour has been hotly contested: why should the opinions of a young Deliveroo rider in London be considered less authentically working class than those of a retired blue-collar worker in Leigh? Why should Labour privilege the patriotism of a home-owning social conservative in their 50s over the cosmopolitan liberalism of an urban, renting and indebted thirtysomething?
This championing of those who did vote Labour in 2019 is often accompanied by a warning that they may not do so in future, if the party “wraps itself in the flag”. Among some who fear that Starmer is attempting to resurrect Blairite centrism, the typical denizen of a red wall seat is presented as a kind of northern successor to Basildon man in the 1990s, when Tony Blair moved Labour rightwards in order to woo aspirational voters in the south.
There is no legitimate parallel. Basildon man was an upwardly mobile son of Thatcherite individualism. For most of the working-class voters who have turned their back on Labour over the last 20 years, ideas of Britishness, England, place, pride, honour and industry have nothing to do with the right. They are a way of talking differently about values of the left; of excavating a buried but still felt communitarian dimension to life. A fascinating paper published last year in the Journal of Working-Class Studies argues that much of the red wall rebellion was driven by a memory of the “mutual bonds and feelings of togetherness that were engendered by industry and industrial work”. These traces of the past, crucially, outlive the economic context that generated them. They are “reinforced rather than dissipated by the contemporary absences of industry and industrial work”. Anyone who lives in or has visited the mill towns of West Yorkshire or the villages of the Durham coalfield will know how true this is.
More than half Labour’s priority target seats in England and Wales are “standalone” towns that are not part of a wider city conurbation – places like Darlington, Lincoln or Wrexham. If Labour fails to work with the romantic desire for stronger collective attachments and identities, it will find that the Conservative party does the job for it. The New Social Covenant unit recently set up by Boris Johnson’s political secretary, Danny Kruger, has planted its flag on this terrain. Introducing its aims, Kruger wrote: “The purpose of politics is to strengthen the family, community and nation so they can exercise their beneficent influence on individuals.”
Kruger is an Old Etonian, and the Guardian reader can be forgiven a reflex rolling of the eyes. As it should, the liberal left will always interrogate such language for the power relations which that trio of warm nouns conceals, asking questions about who might be excluded from their communitarian embrace. Immigrants, ethnic minorities and single mothers, for example. But if it wishes to win back hearts and minds in the constituencies it has lost, the left cannot simply write this language off as the intellectual property of the right.
From Victorian New Liberals such as TH Green to the great Marxist historian of the English working class, EP Thompson, British progressive thought has a venerable tradition of defending the rights of community against capitalism, the market and individualism. But for fear of creating insiders and outsiders, most of Labour has ceased to think deeply about the “we” and the “in common”. As the totemic Brexit debate over freedom of movement illustrated, its deepest moral concern is to promote the rights and freedoms of the individual. The tension between liberalism and communitarianism could be creative, if both sides of the debate were given a fair hearing. But across too much of the left, for too much of the time, the longings of Labour’s lost voters are still not being listened to.