Six months before the 1959 general election, Roy Jenkins, then a young Labour MP for Stechford in Birmingham, wrote a short book laying out The Labour Case. The final chapter was titled Is Britain Civilised?. To which his tacit answer was no – not unless Britain abolished the death penalty, decriminalised homosexuality and suicide, made divorce easier and abortion legal, and promoted racial harmony.
At that point, Labour had been out of power for eight years. The party wouldn’t win for another five. Reading Jenkins’ book recently, I found myself wondering whether Jenkins – who, once Labour finally won in 1964 carried through all those promised reforms as home secretary – gave much thought to whether his opinions tallied with those of his voters. What did he do when his constituents told him to “send ’em back”? Did he argue with them, or did he nod sympathetically?
Whatever happened on the doorstep, he didn’t let it influence what he did in office.
I tried to imagine Jenkins – a social liberal, though not a socialist (who eventually left Labour to set up the SDP in the early 80s) – tossing his programme of reforms in the bin, swayed by voters’ “legitimate concerns”, but I couldn’t. He knew the stakes were too high: that the future health of British society depended on doing things that the majority didn’t necessarily approve of, and that without radical change what was merely stagnant could rapidly become necrotic.
That’s where we were at the end of the 1950s, and it’s where we are again now. The young and indebted have effectively been taken hostage by the old and propertied, regardless of occupational class. The economic and social wellbeing of the country is now being held back in favour of an elaborate courtship ritual towards those who voted Tory, perhaps for the first time, last December.
Where is Jenkins’ equivalent, now we need them most? It’s looking less and less likely that it’s going to be Keir Starmer. Since succeeding Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in April, Starmer hasn’t just shown caution on social issues that are deemed to put “red wall” voters into a red mist. He appears to have assumed that in order to win those voters back, Labour must try and prove its cultural conservatism.
Why else would Starmer take positions that will lose him as many supporters as he possibly stands to gain? It’s impossible to imagine an 18-year-old hear him equivocate over the Black Lives Matter movement and believe he had any desire, let alone a vision, to help society move forward. Nor when he blindly applauded the police, shortly after it transpired that police officers had taken selfies with the bodies of the murdered black women Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman.
Starmer could be taking his cue from Robbie McGrath, a white headteacher in Sheffield, who wrote to parents in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, encouraging them to talk to their children about structural racism. Instead of press-ganging his shadow cabinet into wild displays of flag-waving on last month’s Armed Forces Day, he could have encouraged them to highlight what Labour would do for ex-soldiers’ mental health, their risk of homelessness, and the fact many young men join the army after being actively recruited from places in the country where there are few other options to obtain a decent, regular income.
In 1994, aged 18 and living in a part of the Midlands where working-class Tory voting is not a new phenomenon, I watched Tony Blair’s first speech as Labour leader on TV and joined the party on the spot. He attacked the Tories and everything they stood for like an angry wasp, calling them “the most feckless, irresponsible group of incompetents ever to be let loose in government”. At the same time, he offered a clear and detailed alternative that, at the time, showed no patience for the social conservatism that went along with that fecklessness.
Of course, we know what happened next. Like many others, I had mistaken Blair’s fanatical globalism for genuine internationalism, and believed he’d be as “tough on the causes of crime” as he ended up being on the people who committed them. Nevertheless, he understood that education was a social good and that it was possible for people, with support, to learn the value of difference.
For all its manifest faults, New Labour stuck broadly with Roy Jenkins’ belief that social progressivism was necessary for the broader health of society, and that to ditch it was to do everyone a disservice. Freedom of movement was one example: the academic Harris Beider notes that opposition to large-scale immigration has been a majority opinion since 1964, regardless of who is in power or how well or badly the economy has been doing.
In his infamous 1968 Rivers of Blood speech, Enoch Powell told of meeting “a quite ordinary working man” who expressed racist fears that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”. Powell’s fig leaf had to be “a quite ordinary working man”; it was the 1968 version of hearing “legitimate concerns on the doorstep”.
If you’re a politician now, the choice is the same as it was then. You can take great care to amplify what voters tell you, regardless of how ignorant or prejudiced, or you can refuse to get drawn in, with good reason. The very voters who complain constantly of being ignored by a supposed “liberal elite” are those for whom every policy tweak and public announcement is calibrated. It’s true that many voters, particularly in newly Tory seats, have been ignored for decades. One of the things people hope for from government is the promise of economic security, and no one has delivered that since the 1970s. But paying attention and pandering are entirely different things. The very least we ought to expect from the leader of a progressive party is to know the difference.
You could ban immigration, as the Labour peer Maurice Glasman recommended in 2011, and the demands would shift to repatriation. You could pretend, as Owen Smith did in 2016, that you’ve never seen a cappuccino when there’s a Costa in every petrol station. And, yes, you could get us out of the EU, knowing it’s only being done to assuage feelings rather than solve real problems.
But there are some people you can never please. Perhaps the solution, then, is not to try, but instead to attempt to shape a vision of society that you believe will benefit everyone. Starmer’s attempts to “lead from the top”, as he is fond of repeating, will work only if he refuses to cave to those in Labour who tell him his job is to follow voters and not to try to change their minds. I grew up in that country, and I don’t want it back.
• Lynsey Hanley is a freelance writer and the author of Estates: an Intimate History, and Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide