Posts

MONTHLY BLOG 71, HOW IS GROWING INEQUALITY DIVIDING THE BRITISH TORIES FROM WITHIN?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

How will history interpret the views of millions of Tory voters who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum on the EU? It’s a good question that merits further attention. Since June, many commentators have defined the motivations of the Labour supporters who voted Leave – 37 per cent of all those who voted Labour in 20151 – as an angry rejection of the status quo by the socially and economically ‘left behind’. These electors have justified concerns about the impact of globalisation in eroding traditional industries and of immigration in undercutting working-class earnings. It’s a perception specifically acknowledged by the new PM Theresa May. At the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016 she promised to remedy past injustices with the following words: ‘That means tackling unfairness and injustice, and shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working-class people’.2

It’s a significant political ambition, albeit complicated somewhat by the fact that a majority of Labour voters in 2015 (63%) actually voted for Remain. May was clearly trying to shift the post-Referendum Conservative Party closer to the centre ground. And it’s a long time since any front-line British political leader spoke so plainly about social class, let alone about the workers.

But Theresa May’s pledge strangely omits to mention the rebellious Tory Leavers. After all, the majority of the national vote against the EU in 2016 came from the 58% of voters who had voted Conservative in the General Election of 2015. They voted for Leave in opposition to their then party leader and his official party policy. In the aftermath of the Referendum, many known Labour supporters, such as myself, were roundly scolded by pro-EU friends for the Labour Party’s alleged ‘failure’ to deliver the vote for Remain. But surely such wrath should have been directed even more urgently to Conservative supporters?

Either way, the Referendum vote made clear once again a basic truth that all door-step canvassers quickly discover. Electors are not so easily led. They don’t do just what their leaders or party activists tell them. Politics would be much easier (from the point of view of Westminster politicians) if they did. That brute reality was discovered all over again by David Cameron in June 2016. In simple party-political terms, the greatest ‘failure’ to deliver was indubitably that of the Conservatives. Cameron could possibly have stayed as PM had his own side remained united, even if defeated. But he quit politics, because he lost to the votes of very many Conservative rank-and-file, in alliance with UKIP and a section of Labour voters. It was ultimately the scale of grass-roots Tory hostility which killed both his career and his reputation as a lucky ‘winner’ on whom fortune smiles.

Divisions within political parties are far from new. Schematically considered, Labour in the twentieth century drew ideas, activists and votes from reform-minded voters from the professional middle class and skilled working class.3 That alliance is now seriously frayed, as is well known.

So what about the Conservatives? Their inner tensions are also hard to escape. They are already the stuff of debates in A-level Politics courses. Tory divisions are typically seen as a gulf between neo-liberal ‘modernisers’ (Cameron and Co) and ‘traditionalists’ Tory paternalists (anti-EU backbenchers). For a while, especially in the 1980s, there were also a number of self-made men (and a few women) from working-class backgrounds, who agreed politically with the ‘modernisers’, even if socially they were not fully accepted by them. It remains unclear, however, why such divisions emerged in the first place and then proved too ingrained for party discipline to eradicate.

Viewed broadly and schematically, the Conservatives in the twentieth century can be seen as a party drawing ideas, leadership and activists from an alliance of aristocrats/plutocrats with middle-class supporters, especially among the commercial middle class – all being buttressed by the long-time endorsement of a considerable, though variable, working-class vote. Common enemies, to weld these strands together, appear in the form of ‘socialism’, high taxes, and excessive state regulation.

Today, the upper-class component of Toryism typically features a number of socially grand individuals from landed and titled backgrounds. David Cameron, who is a 5th cousin of the Queen, seems a classic example. However, he also has a cosmopolitan banking and commercial ancestry, making him a plutocrat as much as an aristocrat. In that, he is characteristic of the big international financial and business interests, which are generally well served by Conservative governments. However, appeals and warnings from the political and economic establishment cut no ice with many ‘ordinary’ Tory members.

Why so? There’s a widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest. The Conservative Leave vote was predominantly based in rural and provincial England and Wales. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different agendas, reflecting their different histories). The farming communities were vocally hostile to regulation from Brussels. And, above all, the middle-aged and older middle class voters in England’s many small and medium-sized towns were adamantly opposed to the EU and, implicitly, to recent trends in the nation’s own economic affairs.

Tory Leavers tend to be elderly conservatives with a small as well as large C. They have a strong sense of English patriotism, fostered by war-time memories and postwar 1950s culture. They may not be in dire financial straits. But they did not prosper notably in the pre-crisis banking boom. And now the commercial middle classes, typified by shopkeepers and small businessmen, do not like hollowed-out town centres, where shops are closed or closing. They don’t like small businesses collapsing through competition from discount supermarkets or on-line sales. They regret the winnowing of local post-offices, pubs, and (in the case of village residents) rural bus services. They don’t like the loss of small-town status in the shadow of expanding metropolitan centres. They don’t like bankers and they hate large corporate pay bonuses, which continue in times of poor performance as well as in booms. With everyone, they deplore the super-rich tax-avoiders, whether institutional or individual.

Plus, there is the issue of immigration, which puts a personal face on impersonal global trends of mobile capital and labour. Tory-Leavers are worried about the scale of recent immigration into Britain (though tolerant of Britons emigrating to foreign climes). It is true that many middle-class families benefit from the cheap food and services (notably within the National Health Service) provided by abundant labour. But sincere fears are expressed that too many ‘foreigners’ will change the nation’s character as well as increase demand for social welfare, which middle-class tax-payers have to fund.7

A proportion of Tory Leavers may be outright ethnicist (racist). Some may hate or reject those who look and sound different. But many Leavers are personally tolerant – and indeed a proportion of Tory Leavers are themselves descendants of immigrant families. They depict the problem as one of numbers and of social disruption rather than of ethnic origin per se.

Theresa May represents these Tory-Leavers far more easily than David Cameron ever did. She is the meritocratic daughter of a middle-ranking Anglican clergyman, who came from an upwardly mobile family of carpenters and builders. Some of her female ancestors worked as servants (not very surprisingly, since domestic service was a major source of employment for unmarried young women in the prewar economy).8 As a result, her family background means that she can say that she ‘feels the pain’ of her party activists with tolerable plausibility.

Nevertheless, May won’t find it easy to respond simultaneously to all these Leave grievances. To help the working-class in the North-East and South Wales, she will need lots more state expenditure, especially when EU subsidies are ended. Yet middle-class voters are not going to like that. They are stalwart citizens who do pay their taxes, if without great enthusiasm. They rightly resent the super-rich individuals and international businesses whose tax avoidance schemes (whether legal, borderline legal, or illegal) result in an increased tax burden for the rest. But it will take considerable time and massive concerted action from governments around the world to get to serious grips with that problem. In the meantime, there remain too many contradictory grievances in need of relief at home.

Overall, the Tory-Leavers’ general disillusionment with the British economic and political establishment indicates how far the global march of inequality is not only widening the chronic gulf between super-rich and poor but is also producing a sense of alienation between the super-rich and the middle strata of society. That’s historically new – and challenging both for the Conservative Party in particular and for British society in general. Among those feeling excluded, the mood is one of resentment, matched with defiant pride. ‘Brussels’, with its inflated costs, trans-national rhetoric, and persistent ‘interference’ in British affairs, is the first enemy target for such passions. Little wonder that, across provincial England in June 2016, the battle-cry of ‘Let’s Take Back Control’ proved so appealing.
2016-11-no1-lets-take-back-control-dover-cliffs

Fig.1 Slogan projected onto White Cliffs of Dover
by Vote Leave Cross-Party Campaign Group
(June 2016).

1 See http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/

2 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-speech-tory-conference-2016-in-full-transcript-a7346171.html

3 What’s in a name? In US politics, the skilled and unskilled workers who broadly constitute this very large section of society are known as ‘middle class’, via a process of language inflation.

4 See A. Windscheffel, Popular Conservatism in Imperial London, 1868-1906 (Woodbridge, 2007); and M. Pugh, ‘Popular Conservatism in Britain: Continuity and Change, 1880-1987’, Journal of British Studies, 27 (1988), pp. 254-82.

5 Queen Elizabeth II is descended from the Duke of Kent, the younger brother of monarchs George IV and William IV. William IV had no legitimate offspring but his sixth illegitimate child (with the celebrated actor Dorothea Jordan) was ancestor of Enid Ages Maud Levita, David Cameron’s paternal grandmother.

6 One of Cameron’s great-great-grandfathers was Emile Levita, a German Jewish financier and banker, who became a British citizen in 1871. Another great-grandfather, Alexander Geddes, made a fortune in the Chicago grain trade in the 1880s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_of_David_Cameron

7 This sort of issue encouraged a proportion of Conservative activists to join the United Kingdom Independence Party UKIP), which drew support from both Left and Right.

8 https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/famous-family-trees-theresa-may-1406260824.html

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 71 please click here

MONTHLY BLOG 54, POST-ELECTION SPECIAL: ON LOSING? 1

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Losing is not fun. That is, losing in a cause that means a lot to you, both intellectually and emotionally. In fact, it’s grim. Coping with defeat feels a bit like coping with a death. Again, there are deaths and deaths. Losing in a cause that means a lot feels very like coping with the unexpected death of someone close. So the first and unavoidable response is to grieve, rather grimly.

This BLOG arises from my personal feelings about Labour’s loss in Battersea at the General Election on 7 May 2015. It’s a short report, because grieving makes me feel distinctly brisk. For the record, we had a lively campaign. But we lost with a perceptible swing from Labour to the Conservatives, alongside a (predicted) heavy fall in Liberal Democrat votes, and a weak but not negligible showing for the Greens and UKIP.2

By the way, since the election I have attended a Wandsworth civic event where I bumped into Jane Ellison, Battersea’s Tory MP who was duly returned, and congratulated her. She was gracious (not hard when victorious but better than gloating). Jane Ellison also commented on the amount of venomous personal abuse that she had encountered via Twitter during the campaign. I was disgusted to hear that. I’d already heard of some personal abuse in the Twittersphere being directed at Will Martindale, the Labour candidate; and afterwards I learned that he too had received many unpleasant personal accusations, mostly made anonymously. That doubly depressing news made me feel even grimmer. It’s a tough baptism for all people in the public spotlight and especially tough on the electoral losers, who don’t have the consolation of victory at the polls. This half-hidden dimension to the electoral struggle made me appreciate yet again the dangers of anonymity and the civic advantages in open declarations of political allegiance, as was the norm in the pre-1872 practice of open voting.3

Anyway, after a public loss, the next task is to get on with all the business which follows. Clearing out the campaign headquarters comes high on the list. It’s a bit macabre but best done quickly. Undelivered leaflets seem especially sad, registering obsolete hopes. But it’s essential to keep an archive for our own record.

There’s also an amazing quantity of personal junk which accumulates in places where hundreds of strangers pop in to help. Lost umbrellas and bags are relatively explicable. But who leaves a vanity case with hundreds of lipsticks? Who leaves a sack of old clothing? Did some canvasser arrive fully dressed and leave starkers?

Perhaps it’s symbolic of rebirth after trauma? Certainly that would fit with the third stage, since, after grimly grieving and clearing the decks, it’s time for a major rethink. I now feel more brisk than grim. We’ve already had some meetings and more are planned, to assess what happened and where we should go next. Happily, large numbers have continued to attend. The feelings of outrage at the inequalities and unfairness of life in Battersea, which motivated many of Labour’s canvassers, have not gone away. And why would they? The extremes of wealth and poverty, side by side, remain stark. One of the Wandsworth foodbanks, run by dedicated volunteers in St Mark’s Church on Battersea Rise, helps a regular stream of desperate guests,4 while on the Thames riverfront a series of soulless ‘ghost towns’ of empty flats,5 held by absentee investors and potential money-launderers,6  mock the concept of community.

I have my own suggestion (in which I am not alone): I think that the Labour Party needs to update its language and its name. As part of that, I also favour a re-alliance of the progressive Left: Labour, plus Liberal Democrats, plus Greens. As it happens, the votes of all these parties would not have ousted the Conservative candidate from the Battersea seat. But the (re)birth of a progressive, redistributive, co-operative, green and libertarian centre-left is still the best long-term answer, for British political and cultural life as a whole. It has been much discussed over the years. But now’s the time, fellow Britons: political leaders and grass-roots alike. We should follow the pithy message from the Swedish-American Labour activist Joe Hill: ‘Don’t mourn; but organise’7 … with a new popular front.
2015-6 No1 Joe Hill

Swedish-American Labour activist Joe Hill: don’t mourn but organise (song 1930).

1 With comradely sympathy for Will Martindale (Battersea Labour candidate), Sean Lawless (BLP organiser) and the hundreds of Labour campaigners in the constituency.

2 Battersea’s votes, in a turnout of 67.1%, went to: Jane ELLISON (Conservative) 26,730 – up 5.0% from 2010; Will MARTINDALE (Labour) 18,792 – up 1.7%; Luke TAYLOR (LibDem) 2,241 – down 10.3%; Joe STUART (Green) 1,682; and Christopher HOWE (UKIP) 1,586.

3 But there were good reasons for adopting the secret ballot: see PJC, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting? Standing Up to be Counted’ BLOG no 53 (May 2015).

4 Project seeded by the Trussell Trust: see www.wandsworth.foodbank.org.uk.

5 See Vauxhall Society (July 2013), www.vauxhallcivicsociety.org.uk/2013/07/: for viewpoint of Peter Rees, City of London chief planning officer, that under current redevelopment plans Vauxhall will be getting a ‘ghost town’ which would need no more than a ‘single-decker bus once an hour’, not the projected Northern Line [tube] Extension

6 Zoe Dare Hall, ‘Prime London and the Threat of Money Laundering’, 3 June 2015, in The London Magazine: reported in www.harrodsestates.com/news/361/prime-london.

7 Joel Hagglund, known as Joe Hill (1879-1915), hymned in ‘I dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’ (lyrics Alfred Hayes c.1930; music Earl Robinson 1936), a song especially loved by my father Tony Corfield, a lifelong activist in trade-unionism and adult education.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 54 please click here