Demographics and Politics

It makes you think. The long term advice to Labour from the commentariat (and Labour’s right) has always been to go beyond the party’s ‘natural supporters’ in the working class. Most standard history reflects this view. Here is Martin Pugh (Speak for Britain: a new history of the Labour Party, 2010) on the crucial electoral objective for Labour of extending its appeal to the socially mixed constituencies; ‘to keep reaching beyond its heartlands into wider society’. Labour showed that it was becoming a national party by ‘its advance up the social scale during the 1920s’. This at a time when around 75% of the population was working class on official definitions.

Today, Matthew Goodwin, author of ‘Revolt on the Right’, says Labour’s electoral problem is that it draws its support from young people, women, minorities, and  middle-class professionals; the party is haemorrhaging support to UKIP from blue collar, old, white, males, with few qualifications. He is joined by a host of commentators urging Labour to reconnect with the ‘left-behind’. Rather less reliable official data puts the working class proportion of the population at about 30%.

What does it make you think? Pugh wasn’t entirely wrong and Goodwin certainly isn’t; and much has changed in the societies that each wrote about. But I can’t help thinking it doesn’t help much either. A political appeal based on a coherent idea of what needs to be done has more chance of attracting support across social groups than trying to stitch together a demographic coalition based on supposed interests and existing ideologies.

What else to do? Keep banging on about ‘cuts’ and throw the left-behind a nationalist bone; promise young, black, professional women an eventual return to Europe?

On Newsnight (3 Jan 2017) Goodwin categorically asserted that social democracy was in potentially terminal decline because it had no answers. In the newspapers on the same day Owen Jones painted a bleak picture of social democratic decline across Europe. The left is certainly in trouble. The first thing it will have to do is decide what social democracy is for, the kind of society it wants to create. Appeals to sentiment and morality about fairness won’t do it. Identifying big structural changes in the way power is distributed and exercised, and in the way the economy and society work, might.

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