Photograph: Flickr

A View from the North: Why the Labour leadership debate is all wrong

Photograph: Flickr
Photograph: Adrian Scottow via Flickr

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The Labour leadership race has been heavily debated, including, recently, by this newspaper. This commentary has been defined as much by the commentators’ competing analyses of why Labour lost the general election as it has by the actual candidates on offer. Pundits of all stripes are keen to pitch in, offering their version of a debate that has been defined by the narrow question: was Labour too left wing or right wing to be elected?

A particularly good illustration of this debate can be seen in this video, where Owen Jones and Toby Young discuss the merits of Jeremy Corbyn.

Both these analyses are reductive and only offer partial answers to the questions that should be asked about Labour’s loss. The leftist idea that Labour was only offering ‘austerity-lite’ and the more centrist narrative about trust on economics, aspiration and ‘electability’ both represent important criticisms of the party’s politics, but neither get to the root of the issue.

The root is evidenced all around us in Durham. I was in a taxi recently with three other students and the taxi driver commented that the town ‘only builds’ student housing. The response from one of my companions was that this is okay because students bring ‘a lot of money’ into the city. It wasn’t a very comfortable taxi ride. I’ve written before about students and locals, but this incident seems to me as emblematic of some of the problems that Labour faces. Labour has a lot to say to the three students in the car and less to say to the taxi driver.

This analysis has been borne out in Jon Cruddas’ report into the Labour election loss. Cruddas identifies three classes of people: pioneers, prospectors and settlers. The eventual conclusion is that Labour offers a lot to pioneers who are socially liberal, at home in metropolitan modernity and value openness, creativity and self-fulfilment. Settlers who have a concern with social order and tradition, are more socially conservative and are concerned with home, family and national security found little support from Labour. To Cruddas this distinction is part of “a broader trend of working class voters’ detachment from Labour”. The party is increasingly metropolitan, socially liberal, and elite.

My taxi ride is symbolic of this kind of distinction. The four students in the car are the pioneers: destined for careers in law, HR, academia and, crucially, politics. The students of Durham and other elite universities are going to be setting the agenda in politics for the foreseeable future. This isn’t wrong in itself but it does explain the growing disenchantment that many voters now feel with Labour. When the upper echelons of all three parties are made up of a middle class, university-educated elite then it becomes very difficult to tell which one is really representing the interests of ordinary or working class people. Or, in Cruddas’ terminology: when the pioneers are setting the agenda, what does this mean for the settlers?

It is this analysis that is being hidden by the current debate that focuses on the centrist vs. leftist narrative. In the video I linked, Owen Jones cites Scotland as an example of how Labour failed to offer a progressive agenda. Scotland is the main example that people who support this view of Labour constantly cite. Toby Young responds that Labour lost seats in Scotland because of the ‘nationalist vote’. Neither of them are right. The SNP’s victory was down to a popular blend of nationalism and progressive, anti-austerity politics. It wasn’t about being left wing as such, but presenting an alternative to ‘politics as usual’ which was defined vividly by the SNP’s anti-Westminster rhetoric.

‘Westminster’ has become a metaphor for a lifestyle, rather than a place. It is a lifestyle that is divorced from the experiences of ordinary people. Those who live that lifestyle may offer policies that will help such ordinary people, but the ‘Westminster elite’ will never really understand them.

In terms of the Labour leadership contest this matters a lot. Once we understand that the definitive issue is not about being left or centrist, but about a party that is increasingly seen as not understanding the interests of ordinary people then the debate shifts. Take, for example, the Guardian’s profile of Liz Kendall which cites her Marc Jacobs watch, shopping habits at John Lewis and evenings in Belgravia. So few people live like this that it’s not hard to see why she wouldn’t be a good candidate.

Although the level of his popular support and a recent poll suggests Jeremy Corbyn might be the best candidate to address these concerns, it’s important to understand that this doesn’t make him the solution. Although electing Corbyn would look to many like a move against Westminster and the Labour party’s elites he would still face a lot of difficult problems. The structural barriers for understanding working class concerns will still be there. Jeremy Corbyn’s immigration policy will not appeal to a lot of settlers, and runs the danger of patronising social conservatives.

The problem is bigger than policy: Labour is losing its ability to talk to, understand and, ultimately, engage with ordinary people. This is a problem none of the leadership candidates can hope to address. The real change will begin when the Labour party asks itself the substantial questions about understanding ordinary, working class people — that’s when the party will make itself electable. In more concrete terms, it’s when the students can understand the taxi driver’s concerns. A part of me worries that this might be impossible.

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