Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Immigration, identity and the ‘culturally threatened’ DEs

An outbreak of psephology has infected the Labour ranks since May 2010. There are few of us left who will hear the words ‘five million votes,’ and not offer up our own interpretation as to why Labour lost them. But converging on a single explanation has proved fraught, almost tortuous at times. Partly due to voter volatility, and partly nowadays because more of us unite around single issues rather than be bowled over by one party’s over-arching vision for governing. It’s getting harder to pin voters down. Hence, the myriad of reasons proffered, with many more on their way, no doubt.

It’s the DEs (22% of the electorate), the semi and unskilled workers, and those dependant on state benefits, who I’d like to concentrate on.  With the C2s (skilled workers, 19% of the electorate), at the last election, they switched to the Tories on a 7% swing. Together, they make up the working class, or Labour’s supposedly ‘core vote.’ Put another way, they are now the minority.
Labour has seen a 20 point drop in DE support: 60% in 1997, down to just 40% in 2010. A similar 20 (50-30%) point drop occurred amongst C2s. As Paul Hunter, from The Smith Institute notes:

Indeed, in 2010 for the first time ever, more middle class than working class people voted for Labour.”
Turnout amongst DEs was a massive 20 points adrift of the ABs (managerial and professionals, 29% of the electorate). And yet their support remains key:

“Of the four socio-economic classifications, Labour still retains its biggest support amongst DEs. And it is those lower earners who saw their relative wages stagnate during the New Labour years.”
So, where did the DEs go? In its excellent dissection of Labour’s missing five million, The Smith Institute, found that:

For men, the biggest drop was for DE voters, with Labour’s lead just three percentage points over the Conservatives. Further to this it is worth highlighting that one fifth of male DEs voted for ‘other’...this is probably only explained by the rise in support for the BNP.”
Similarly, a 2009 study by Channel 4, following on from the BNP’s success in the European elections that year, found that it was mainly men (61%) who backed the far right, despite only making up 48% of the electorate. In total, 36% of the BNP’s votes came from those classified as manual workers.

Whilst Paul Hunter cautions against the prospect of the BNP winning any seats from Labour, he notes their increasing impact on elections:
In 1997 the BNP’s vote stood at just 35,000 representing a meagre 0.1% of the national vote. Today its vote is well over half a million and has almost 2% of the vote. In 2010 it put up 339 candidates, 216 of these candidates were in Labour held seats and 70% of the BNP vote came in seats where Labour won.

“In 2010 if the BNP vote went straight to Labour it would have kept 14 seats that went to the Conservatives and taken three seats that went to the Lib Dems.

“If Labour had won those 17 seats it would have had a total 275 seats and would have been in a much stronger position to form a coalition.”

We can thank our disproportionate voting system for keeping the far right out of parliament, but that doesn’t mean the trends of a core constituency normally sympathetic to Labour won’t play havoc with the electoral arithmetic, denting its chance of winning potentially crucial seats and suppressing its vote elsewhere.

It’s stating the obvious that worries (exaggerated or not) over immigration are behind the BNP being able to cherry-pick disenchanted Labour voters. The seemingly accepted view within leftist circles is to pinpoint the blame on the economy. Struggling to find work, levels of pay (in real terms) decreasing, shortages in social housing, have sometimes produced a highly-charged and scapegoat-inducing backdrop. Immigrants are convenient fodder for those fed on a diet of right wing propaganda and distortions on a mass scale. 
However, according to Matthew Goodwin, a lecturer at the University of Nottingham, this ignores the reality pre the crash of 2008:

“You have long argued that – ultimately – anxieties about immigration and identity can be resolved by tackling economic grievances...The fact that the far right was rallying immigration and identity concerns during periods of economic stability and growth is conveniently ignored.”
It also fails to acknowledge what Channel 4 found which was that the average household income of the BNP voter (in 2009) was £27,000, only just below the national medium of £29,000. 

In an open letter to the Labour Party, published by the Policy Network think tank, Goodwin takes up the theme of the ‘culturally threatened:’
“Decades of research in the social sciences deliver a clear message: it is a perceived sense of threat to the cultural unity of the nation – rather than economic threat – that is the strongest driver of prejudice, and also the desire for more restrictive immigration and asylum policies.”

Rather than just playing the economy card, the left needs to be more adept in facing up to questions of cultural disunity. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these are the ‘non-quantifiables’ that the right comprehends and the left ties itself up in knots over. Ed Miliband’s speech on Englishness was a good start and showed he’s prepared to tackle the contentious issues head on. Not that addressing notions of Englishness should be contentious. You can see where the endless knots come in.
Addressing the ‘culturally threatened’ would help solidify the welfare state. Bringing disparate groups together, united around a common theme (Englishness, or something similar) benefits society as a whole.

“Research in the U.S. has shown that – as a result of perceptions of cultural differences between groups - citizens become less favourable toward using the institutions of the state to reduce poverty and provide welfare.”
Goodwin notes that across Europe the far right have been so effective:

“Not because it has pitched to concerns about resources but because it has spoken to fears about a loss of cultural unity, national identity and ways of life. These concerns are not rooted in individual experience: they are concerned mainly with the impact of diversity on the wider national community.”
Labour needs to ensure that it speaks directly to the DEs, such as the 59% of BNP voters who believed the party "used to care about the concerns of people like me but doesn’t nowadays". Doing so won’t guarantee Labour victory, but it’ll be a start. The days of agonising about not wanting to give oxygen to the far right should be over. A debate on immigration and its impact on cultural unity and identity should begin. There are some things that just can’t be put down to economics.   

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 25th July 2012

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