Tobias Phibbs: Vapid politicians will never unite our country
Another month, another report on Britain’s demographic tribes. This time from Onward, which argues that there is no turning back for the Conservatives: their new coalition of provincial voters in the south and ex-industrial working-class voters in the midlands and the north is less divided than was previously assumed, and by embracing a leftwards shift on the economy and a rightwards shift in culture they cement that coalition. Labour, meanwhile, are left fishing about among ‘new radicals’, ‘metropolitan liberals’ and ‘progressive professionals’ — who between them amount to only 37% of the country.
It is not the first report of its kind and it won’t be the last. In Blue Labour and Red Toryism the warnings to both major parties were sounded years ago. Again and again their analysis has been confirmed, not just in the UK but across the Western world. And yet, nobody seems able to find the sweet spot — that top left quadrant in the political compass.
Every attempt ends in disappointment. New Labour combined a policy of (something close to) open borders with an asylum system that was individually punitive — precisely the wrong combination. The Big Society collapsed into a mix of austerity and cultural progressivism. We had Theresa May’s tepid and quickly shelved plans to put workers on company boards, and Ed Miliband’s sad attempt to define a ‘progressive patriotism’ by occasionally mentioning John Ruskin and William Morris in speeches. Blue Labour has been co-opted by vapid, two-faced politicians for years.
Part of the problem comes from the framing of Onward’s report itself, and the technocratic approach to the politics it belies. Everything and everyone is segmented into discrete categories that need catering to. What is needed, politicians seem to conclude, is on the one hand a bit of this, but on the other hand a little of that. More money for ‘our NHS’ and hospitals with big Union Jack stickers emblazoned on them. That is the vision the best of our political class has for the country.
Nobody is able to take on the entrenched power of capital, nor redirect our country away from its dependence on insecure supply chains and services, nor build homes and infrastructure on the scale we need. And nor does there seem to be any appetite for taking on the soft power of cultural progressivism, by now embedded in every public institution in the land, in the enormous blob of quangos, charities and think-tanks. Above all there is no vision: from the Right we have vague rhetoric about ‘levelling up’ and from the Left we have the notion of state as NGO. All that’s left, to quote the prime minister, is “more drift, more dither and […] more paralysis.”
Who will emerge with a genuine vision for these islands? For a settlement that is both radical and conservative, not as separate things (that trite slogan ‘Left-on-the-economy’, ‘Right-on-culture’ should be retired) but as part of one unified vision of the country and what it could be. A politics of the common good and a country at ease with itself, and an economy based on jobs with real dignity in a land re-enchanted and resplendent. Human beings enmeshed in physical communities, in right relationship with each other and the natural world, not condemned to neo-feudalism, with an abandoned periphery and an unhappy, unequal hub with all the trappings of success and none of the substance.
Our political class — along with the media class — is defined by mediocrity rather than mendacity. The spiritually devoid heirs of New Labour, all they know is triangulation and concession. Incapable of leading, they follow polls as though they offered anything more than a superficial grasp on reality; as though their transparent phoniness didn’t jar as it came through every radio and TV screen in the land; as though we believed they meant any of it, even for a second. Radical and conservative; it’s a nice idea. This lot aren’t up to it.
James Blagden, Senior Researcher at Onward, wrote for the Bennett Institute at Cambridge University about the effect of transport connectivity on regional earnings.
Will Tanner writes for the Sunday Telegraph on the politics of net zero, following a recent visit to Redcar.
Will Holloway writes for ConservativeHome calling for the launch of a National Plan for Manufacturing, following findings in our research 'Making a Comeback'
Alex Luke writes for BusinessGreen calling for the creation of net zero academies in regions least prepared for a green jobs revolution.