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How ‘liberal’ should Labour be?

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It is simply no longer possible to be disabled and a Tory, says angry activist,” was the Guardian’s headline about Graeme Ellis, who ran the Conservative Disability Group website until March’s budget, when he closed it down and denounced Osborne’s cuts to disability benefits. He has now applied to join the Labour Party.

Over the next months, it should be increasingly easy to demonstrate that there are a lot more predicaments and situations in society that are incompatible with being or voting Conservative. If the new Labour leadership is to win over the social majority necessary to take real power and drive forwards its programme of transforming society, it will need to win over many layers of society that have not always looked to Labour for support. In this article I want to focus on one particular section of the electorate.

In the US they would be called libertarians. In that ideologically polarised country, they are the one group that tend to swing between the two main parties. Often young and economically secure, they are drawn more to Republican commitments to lower taxes and spending but are repelled by the Party’s social conservatism and moral preaching against gay rights, abortion and soft drugs. On issues of personal freedom therefore they are more attracted to the Democratic Party, even if its traditional commitment to big government is less appealing to some. They are estimated to constitute 13% of the electorate.

Is there such a phenomenon in the UK? I think there is, although one would hesitate to call it “libertarian”, where the term is much more associated with both economic neoliberalism and, oddly, social conservatism. The least liberal party of all, UKIP, describes itself as “libertarian”. Yet its opposition to same-sex marriage, vociferous lobbying for strident anti-immigration policies, Islamophobic discourse and obsession with increased defence spending shows it is anything but – and voters, young, urban ones especially, are not fooled.

The phenomenon that has been identified in the US might better be described as “socially liberal” here, although that term too has ambiguities. The fact that this vote exists and is significant is supported by a range of evidence. The growing vote for the Liberal Democrats during the Blair years was a rejection of New Labour’s increasing social authoritarianism – this was the government that gave us anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), a continuation of the ‘prison works’ policy inherited from Major’s Conservatives and a swathe of petty regulations about live music licences, for example. These voters also gravitated towards the Lib Dems over the war in Iraq and the accompanying crackdown on civil liberties, such as internment without trial for foreign nationals and Blair’s attempt to bring in 90-day detention for terrorist suspects before the police got around to charging them.

The Conservatives too understood the significance of the socially liberal vote. By the turn of the century, the cumulative authoritarianism of the Thatcher-Major years, demonstrated for example by the demonisation of gay people and single parents, saw Tory support plummet among younger voters, with the average age of Conservative members at this time said to be over 60. Cameron understood the need to detoxify the Party on social policy, while maintaining the Thatcherite economic legacy. There was a recognition that younger voters especially were not interested in being told how to live their lives by an elite whose morals in practice were often very far from what they preached.

And he succeeded – for a while. But the current battle for the soul of the Conservative Party, and over how far to concede to the agenda of UKIP, is as much about what direction to take on social policy as it is about the EU.

Evidence for this liberal-leaning vote can be found in those parts of the UK that bucked so-called national swings to UKIP in the 2014 local elections and the 2015 general election, especially in London and other urban centres, such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. Our detractors often insinuate that this is because London – Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington especially – is full of middle class professionals disconnected from the bread and butter needs of the traditional Labour voter. This divisive idea has been erected into an entire theory by Maurice Glasman – Blue Labour. It claims that the British working class is inherently conservative on issues like immigration, the EU and crime and argues that the Labour Party must adapt to this outlook if it is to win back core voters.

Rising Labour star Dan Jarvis MP made a few nods in this direction in his much trumpeted speech to the Demos think tank on 10 March. His references to the “dignity of work”, “support for the family” and throwaway phrases such as “The people I meet don’t attend economic seminars” and “We are a practical people, not given to chasing bubbles,” illustrate this point.

In fact, the voters of London – and Manchester and other larger cities – are distinguished more by their diversity and multicultural outlook than their alleged middle class elitism. They are more resistant to the ideas of UKIP because they are more likely to agree, as a recent Class pamphlet explained, that immigration makes a positive contribution to the economy – a net surplus of £25 billion in taxes between 2001 and 2011 – and may, contrary to popular claims, have a positive effect on wage rates. They are also more likely to believe that an anti-migrant policy could well pave the way for policies which will be bad for all less well off voters – for example on eligibility for benefits, or increasing landlord rights over tenants, where migrants are targeted first before a repressive policy is extended across the board.

A recent poll showed 80% of first time voters want the UK to continue to be a haven for those fleeing war, violence and persecution. Urban voters especially are far more likely to be aware of the social, cultural and human positives that a humane approach to refugees and migration can produce. Attitude surveys show rising support for a more inclusive approach to sexuality, ethnicity and other identities, indicating a tolerant, more liberal view of society.

Of course, it’s not just urban voters. There has been some amazing work done by smaller communities, such as Malvern Welcomes, to extend a hand of friendship to migrants.

Labour, if it is to win back the social majority that is rightfully ours, needs to embrace these changing outlooks. The Liberal Democrats have collapsed, the Conservatives are becoming increasingly authoritarian and the Greens are being squeezed by the election of a Labour leader with a long-term commitment to migrants’ rights, civil liberties, multicultural integration and opposition to war.

Jeremy Corbyn’s response to a question about the sex industry that he wanted a society “where we don’t automatically criminalise people” will have struck a chord among liberal-minded voters. These voters should also feel reassured by John McDonnell’s new fiscal credibility rule and his commitment to raise tax only back to the 50% rate it stood at under the last Labour governments, while at the same time developing policies to combat social and economic inequality which New Labour felt wasn’t worth bothering about.

The Blair years notwithstanding, Labour in government has a proud history of liberal activism. Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 government can be criticised for many things, but it decriminalised homosexuality, ended theatre censorship, legalised abortion, liberalised the divorce laws, introduced the first legislation against racial discrimination and scrapped capital punishment. It was also responsible for the Equal Pay Act of 1970 and for lowering the age of majority to 18.

Liberal voters should vote Labour. But as many such voters are also likely to be young, they also fall into a category of the electorate that is least likely to vote at all. So they not only need to be appealed to, they need to be enthused and galvanised by a clear vision to extend personal freedom.

The drive to win over these voters must be part of a broader strategy that recognises that the Corbyn agenda has a popularity that goes well beyond Labour activists, “traditional” voters or other trusted demographics. If we are to create the social majority that can put Jeremy Corbyn into Number Ten, we must understand that the current government’s policies benefit only a tiny wealthy minority and therefore every other section of the electorate is potentially winnable. When it comes to disseminating the Corbyn message, there must be no no-go areas.


  1. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

    The Tories are making it ever more difficult for any Tory to vote for them, but they don’t care, they have achieved their Neo-Liberal objectives and are finalising the last details of the agenda.

    Win or lose the next election they think that the private sector will be in control and can spend the rest of their time creaming the benefits that will be bestowed on them for a job well done.

    That is why we need to make the case now for a total reversal of the policies carried out over the last forty years and sweep away the apologists who say we can’t.

    1. Danny Josephs says:

      A great point, Mervyn. What an utter condemnation of the toxic legacy of New Labour that the author of the article feels he has to restate the obvious – that Labour should appeal to young urban adults, as well as the rest of the 99% in society! I’ve no doubt that is the direction of travel of ‘Project Corbyn’, but they need to recognize that, sooner or later (preferably sooner), they are going to have to face down their detractors in the PLP, the inheritors of the New Labour mantle, in order to progress. In the words of that shrewd political commentator, Will Shakespeare: “‘If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”.

  2. James Martin says:

    There have always been these sorts of splits. The Tories have always had a socially liberal layer who are at the same time fiscally conservative. Equally Labour has a layer that is fiscally ‘liberal’ (as in Keynes) but socially conservative. Indeed that is the basis of much of ‘Blue’ Labour and Cruddas arguments around things as diverse as nuclear weapons and immigration. And while it is not wrong to recognise a large support for the first and opposition to the other in some working class communities, it is wrong to either want to pander and reinforce them (as ‘Blue’ Labour does) or see them as static and unchanging – in fact anyone connected to LGBT issues over the past few decades will know there has been a seismic and very welcome shift in attitudes that is not just generational.

    This is not to say as socialists we don’t need to take account of difficult issues like immigration or welfare. Until we are in transition to world socialism local immigration controls are necessary in order to plan and direct resource allocation and spending effectively, and while we recognise the damage of poverty that has scarred areas and generations, we also should not forget that a socialist society is built on contribution and work as well as redistribution. In other words it is entirely possible to make a socialist argument that answers issues like immigration and welfare from sections of the working class themselves, particularly as anyone who has been without work for any length of time due to the capitalist crime of unemployment knows how mentally and physically destructive it can be.

  3. Chris says:

    I would describe myself as a libertarian socialist – anti-political correctness, anti-identity politics, pro-trade union and public ownership.

    There are more of us around than the trans-Atlantic progressive elite would like to think.

  4. David Pavett says:

    I was surprised to read “The Blair years notwithstanding, Labour in government has a proud history of liberal activism”. It’s not an issue I have studied but I immediately thought of some of the authoritarian, anti-liberal measures in the years when Jack Straw was Home Secretary. For example he whittled away the right to trial by jury (this won praise from Mrs Thatcher who said “I would trust Jack Straw’s judgement. He is a very fair man”) along with other authoritarian measures. Then I thought back to the track record of that notorious authoritarian Herbert Morrison who, for example, as wartime Home Secretary, dealt with the criticisms of the Daily Worker by banning it.

    In fact Labour in government has a long track record of illiberal stances. These were outlined by Hugo Young in a Guardian article of 2002.

    Trying to make a case based on picking on the policies which support it and ignoring those which don’t is really the problem here. It is, I believe, a faultline which runs through Mike Phipps’ whole piece. The Labour right like to debate politics in terms of issues which appear to have public support and those that don’t. Of course they conveniently ignore policies that have wide public support (e.g. public ownership of the railways) but that is not the point here. The point is the method of debating politics on the basis of the alleged popularity of specific issues in the absence of an over-arching narrative, a clear social philosophy. The Tories, despite their feuding, have it. Labour doesn’t.

    Mike Phipps’ article reads to me like an attempt to debate Labour policy opportunities from a left-wing stance but doing so on a piecemeal policy basis without a broad picture. I think that if we argue in this way we will win the occasional argument but lose the overall battle.

    It was easy to argue for socially liberal view in the past an to point to the traditionalist social conservatism of the Tories. But it was also too easy because there was no reason in principle why they should not dump those archaic views. And that is what they are doing. It is possible to support gay rights or to demand equal pay for equal regardless of gender and to support capitalism as the only possible economic system (in fact, come to think of it, there are a lot of people in the Labour Party who take exactly that view).

    The case for socially liberal views should not, I suggest, be thought of as an electoral manoeuvre to sweep up new groups of the electorate but should flow coherently from an overall critique of present society based on a clear social philosophy. Is Labour capable of such a thing? Not as at present constituted. Can we get there? I don’t know but it seems to me that the strong activist bias and lack of interest in theory that marks most of the left are a major obstacle to such a transformation.

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