by Peter Franklin
Monday, 15
February 2021

Why Labour can’t unite the tribes of Britain

by Peter Franklin
If the Left focused on economic interests alone they might get somewhere. Credit: RSA

Snapshots of Insecurity is a new report from the RSA — and the latest piece of research to divide up the UK population by ‘tribe’ rather than party preference (see here for another one).

In the RSA’s case the tribes are defined by economic security and their ‘values’ (on a ‘traditional’ to ‘progressive’ continuum). At the traditional end of the spectrum are two tribes — the economically secure ‘arch-traditionalists’ and the economically insecure ‘discontented right’.

At the ‘progressive’ end, there are four tribes. The ‘established liberals’ and ‘professional urbanites’ are both economically secure, but the latter is younger and more urban than the former. These two tribes have economically insecure counterparts — the ‘progressive working class’ and the ‘metropolitan precariat’ (again, the distinction is geographical and generational).

Finally, in the middle of everything, are the ‘squeezed moderates’. 

One can quibble with these categorisations, but what these studies illustrate is just how difficult it is for a party like Labour — progressive in ideology and working class in origin — to assemble an election-winning coalition in the 21st century. If the Left focused on economic interests alone they might get somewhere, able to unite the insecure tribes, despite their widely varying social attitudes. 

However, the contemporary Left is not content to do that. Only this weekend, Labour shadow minister Alex Sobel made headlines for advocating the official use of the gender-neutral title ‘Mx’ as an alternative to Mr/Mrs. As in the US, where progressives insist on the use of ‘Latinx’ as a alternative to Latino/Latina, the British Left seems keen on policing everyday language and making it unpronounceable.

This sort of thing doesn’t just anger the ‘arch traditionalists’ and ‘discontented right’. It also alienates people in other tribes who just want someone to fight for their economic interests instead of prosecuting a culture war. 

Unfortunately, for Labour, the economic interests of those who might vote for them are no more coherent than their cultural biases. There are obvious conflicts on ‘open’ versus ‘closed’ issues — especially globalisation and immigration; but even where economic policies could run in parallel e.g. investment in London versus investment in marginalised areas, there is question of prioritisation. 

So why doesn’t this fractured political landscape also prevent the Conservatives from assembling an election winning coalition? Fundamentally, it comes down to pragmatism and flexibility. The Tories straddle the divide on cultural and social issues — and, to a growing extent, on economic issues too. Even on Brexit, where colours were firmly nailed to the mast, the message was ‘get Brexit done’ — which wasn’t solely a promise to honour a referendum result, but also a promise to move on. 

So, as the things stand, the Tories are beating Labour and every other challenger, because they have the capacity to face more directions at the same time. Whether or not you think this betrays a lack of principle, the fact remains that it works.

Join the discussion

  • When did they last talk about law and order, mass immigration (and all that that causes), technical colleges, jobs for working-class and lower-middle-class citizens, the threat from China (economic and cyber-security)…?

  • The ‘culture wars’ are played out in the pages of the Mail, Telegraph and Unherd. Pretty much every where else they are unheard of and an irrelevance.

    I would say, rather, that it is there that it is made a thing – that attention is drawn to it.
    But a culture war is going on, and is evident even when it is denied. For example when we are told that there is no such thing as political correctness, no such thing as cancel culture, etc.
    the side that is most eagerly prosecuting the war denies that there is any such war going on – because everything it does and says is entirely reasonable, and only white supremacists, transphobes etc would disagree.

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