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A fragmentation of the Left was inevitable.

12 Dec 2020

Megan Cole

A fragmentation of the Left was inevitable.

Much writing surrounding the left in recent years has focused on the idea of “two lefts”, one defined by economic values and the other by cultural values. We saw this idea of a cultural left fully come into fruition in the years following the 2016 EU referendum while being fully consolidated post 2019 election. Key to understanding the evolution of political behaviour on the left over a period of time are the positions these voters take on a variety of issues.

When looking at the left’s social characteristics in relation to a libertarian-authoritarian scale, it’s clear that this is part of where the left has split. We saw the cultural left continuing to align with more authoritarian beliefs while the economic left identifies with a more libertarian position. Equally, these groups are split geographically too. The cultural left are those individuals who reside in the traditional working-class red wall seats while the economic left belongs to Labour’s city hubs. So, while our support and vote share has continued to rise in the cities with the economic left, it is those who belong to the cultural left that we have left behind.

Some of this is accountable to the rise of “new” issues and social movements, notably the feminist, anti-racist, environmental and LGBT+ movements associated with the left of British politics and the Labour Party. With those traditional Labour voters occasionally reluctantly supporting socially left policies. Of course, this is not true for all members of the cultural left however, it is important to mention that this is where some of the divergence occurs.

The divides on the left of British politics and the way they have evolved, have undeniably had consequences in the polling booth. In 1997 we saw Labour win roughly three out of five votes from the traditional “left” regardless of their stance on social issues. This dropped to around two in five by 2010. As time goes on we continue to see debates about who we represent both internal and external to the party.

Ultimately, we must acknowledge that the institutional and cultural bonds that linked many voters to Labour have become weaker and weaker over time. Within the Labour movement we must not resort to finger pointing and blame. But instead acknowledge that the party has lost many of the institutional roots it had within communities, leading to disconnection. The alienation of the cultural left can be attributed to an alienation from politics generally and the Labour Party particularly. While the likes of authoritarian parties will capitalise on Labour’s losses it is up to us to appeal to them again.

As we look to the future, Labour faces an enormous task. We need Keir Starmer to heal the divisions of decades prior and reassure a disappointed movement. Starmer, must navigate the storms ahead and lead us to victory in 2024. To not regain ground against the Tories in 2024 is a bullet in the head for the party. The difficulty for us lies in providing a policy platform that appeals to both our traditional roots and city hubs. Starmer may believe this lies in a blue-labour approach, it does not. Ultimately we must help the most marginalised in society by representing the values and ideals that make a Labour government a worthwhile endeavour.

It is these divides which Labour must seek to bridge. It is crucial to point out that however deep-seated someone’s values may be, they are not immutable. On the other hand, it is unlikely that telling people they are racist, wrong or immoral in increasingly aggressive tones will win over individuals or their votes. Recognition of the shared agenda is far more likely to produce solidarity to pursue a progressive agenda than the classist narratives we frequently see. Attempts to engage with and understand the positions of others with who we share broad economic agreement with not only makes it more likely to see progressive politics prevail, but also makes a more positive interaction with democracy possible. When Labour continually fails to engage with these voters and allows for their gaps to be filled by those on the far-right, the very principles of democracy well beyond the positioning of left or right are at risk.

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