The Conflict Tearing Apart British Politics: An Interview With David Goodhart

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David Goodhart is one of the best-known commentators on British politics.  In 1995, after a career at the Financial Timeshe founded the journal Prospect, which became a key player in the debate over the future of the British Labour Party.  Goodhart himself became a controversial figure when in 2004, he wrote an essay, “Too Diverse,” which questioned whether Britain’s growing diversity in values and ethnicity could undermine its welfare state, which was based on a sense of a common good.  In 2010, he left Prospect to lead the think tank Demos, and in 2013, published “The British Dream,” a book that questioned whether the growth of immigration was threatening the country’s social democracy.  Some critics deemed Goodhart’s views “right-wing” even though he remained a Labour supporter. Goodhart’s analysis described the profound rift in the the county that resulted in the vote for Brexit in 2016.  Goodhart’s new book, “The Road to Somewhere,” which will be out in the United States next month, is the best analysis I’ve seen of why Brexit won out, and his analysis is also very relevant to understanding Trump’s victory in November 2016. I asked Goodhart about the British election and about the socio-cultural conflicts that he saw among British and, by extension, American voters.

Judis:  The results of the June 8 election in the United Kingdom seemed to surprise everyone. Was it a significant election?  Did it suggest a new direction for British politics?

Goodhart: It was a very odd election, because it happened in the shadow of Brexit, and that kind of mucked about with some of the usual allegiances. We had, once again, a two-party race with a Conservative party that campaigned with quite a left-wing, communitarian, Christian Democratic manifesto. That confused things too. It put off a lot of more traditional Tory voters without winning over as many new, particularly working class voters, as the Tories had hoped.

The full demographic analysis of the election has not happened yet. What we do know is that the newfangled Tories didn’t do particularly poorly.  They perhaps slightly underperformed the polls, but they still got 43 percent of the vote, almost as much as Tony Blair got in his famous landslide in 1997, and it was six or seven points more than David Cameron got in 2015.  It’s the most that the Tory Party got since 1983.  So even though May ran a dreadful campaign in terms of her own person and projection, the Tories did do well.

What surprised everybody was how well Labour did. They were led by an extreme left bunch —  Jeremy Corbyn, [Shadow Labour Chancellor] John McDonnell.  They didn’t have much support from their own moderate MPs [members of parliament]. They were expected to score only 28 or 29 percent in the popular vote. And they massively outperformed that expectation. With about 41 percent of the vote so cutting the difference in the popular vote to less than three percentage points.

Why Labour Exceeded Expectations

Judis: Why did Labour do so much better than expected?

Goodhart: I think it was a one-off confluence of factors that benefitted them. Corbyn, although not a particularly impressive figure, came off well compared to a very inflexible and unattractive Theresa May by playing up to this idea that he was principled.  Not that he was. Despite coming from the far left himself, he was running on a relatively moderate manifesto which he included all kinds of provisions that he doesn’t believe in, like commitment to the Trident nuclear program and freezing the welfare benefits of the poor.

He backed a huge shoring up of what one might call the middle class welfare state. Like Bernie Sanders, he was proposing to abolish student tuition fees. He had a huge presence among younger middle class voters. He was also proposing to pay out of general taxation for elder social care. The Tories had actually gone for a more egalitarian position on elder care in which older people who could afford to do so would have to expose at least some of the part of their property wealth if they were hospitalized for a long term.

Judis:  That part of their manifesto seems to have hurt the Tories.

Goodhart:  It did. It was inserted in their manifesto at the last minute and improperly road tested. And yes, and I think it showed that the party was out of touch with its base.

But they were actually dealing with the generational divide in a pretty radical way. The Tories have been accused the last several elections of stuffing the mouths of older people with gold.  And a lot of public policy had been devised in their direction.  Now the Tories, partly because they were so confident they were going to get a big majority, were being rather brave. They were saying that if you are exposed to long term care needs, and you have a house that is worth, say, more than 500,000 pounds, the state is going to come after that, probably after you are dead.

Such is the sacredness of property in this country, and probably in the U.S. too, that a lot of people who didn’t begin to live in places like that, still felt attacked by the policy.  It was brave but clumsily done, and required a U-turn in the middle of the campaign. Theresa May proved to be emotionally illiterate. She would not admit she had changed her mind when everybody in the country could see she had. It put her in a very odd position. And people began to have serious doubts about her.

So the election that was supposed to be defined by a great many non-traditional Tory voters voting Tory turned in a very different direction. And Corbyn was able to exploit that. He managed to revive the rather decayed old Labour coalition between the progressive middle class and the blue collar workers, which had fallen apart in very many ways.

The Labour Party has become essentially a liberal graduate party. Its new base is college graduates, and much of the noise around the campaign came from the youth vote, but this is not working class youth. It is mainly middle class youth. And indeed Corbyn’s policies were designed to reinforce that attraction, like the abolition of student fees. Not only the abolition of student fees, but the retrospective compensation of people who had already paid fees.

He went very hard after that vote. And if you have been through higher education, there is a sort of unthinking left liberalism that a lot of modern kids are part of. It is true in America as well. What was new was that he was able to politically mobilize this often naïve soft left student world view. In the 2015 election, well below half of that demographic voted.  This time around it was closer to 60 percent. That was what pushed up the Labour vote along with the hard core “remainers” who hated the vote to leave the referendum and thought that Labour would go for a less “hard” Brexit.

Judis: But what about his support among blue collar workers?

Goodhart: He also managed to hold onto enough of the old blue collar base. It had been dwindling and I think will continue to dwindle. This is one of the respects in which this election was a one-off.  Corbyn is a cosmopolitan, left-wing figure, he is not particularly patriotic, he doesn’t appeal to the small “c” conservative working class man or woman. But he was able to hide behind the fact that Labour supported Brexit, and the fact that Labour supported Brexit that also meant that Labour supported upper limits on immigration from the European Union, so he was able to hide behind or disguise his real attitudes.

Judis:  So his support for Brexit this time had a double effect. It got him some of the blue collar vote, but the fact that he was for a “soft Brexit” got him some of the youth and militant remain vote?

Goodhart: Yes, that’s a good point. There was a lack of clarity on what Labour actually stood for on Brexit. There are different factions in the Labour Party as there are in the Conservative Party, but it was a useful confusion because people could project their own views onto him. There was certainly a feeling that even if Labour did support Brexit, they didn’t support as hard a Brexit as the Conservatives, because Theresa May as Prime Minister had already defined it as leaving the single market, leaving the Customs Union.

So voters could assume they’d get a pretty thorough going Brexit from one party.  And the other party was pro-Brexit but in a much more muddled way.  Most of the country has to come to accept Brexit.  Just over half voted for it but about 75 percent of the country has now come to terms with it and are not going to stand in its way.  There is a group of 25 percent or so Remainers who are still very sore about the Brexit experience and would like some opportunity to dilute or reverse it.

It was thought that the Liberal Democrats who were the most favorable toward the European Union would benefit from that vote, but they had a weak leader.  If you were a passionate Remainer, you would have probably voted Lib Dem, but quite a few floating Remainers voted for Corbyn, even knowing that he was pretty extreme, as a way of reducing May’s majority.

Jeremy Corbyn probably represents the view of about five percent of the British people, but a lot of naïve people don’t remember the 1970s and the 1980s and the thing called the Soviet Union. They live in this ahistorical world. Even older people who are not so naïve and realize that Jeremy Corbyn was not to their taste in almost every respect nonetheless planned to vote for him as a protest against Brexit on the assumption that he was not going to be prime minister. The things that pushed him up, gave him twelve points more than were expected, were the very high turnout of the blob youth left, the hard core Remainers, and enough of the blue collar voters coming back to Labour on anti-austerity grounds.

[The pro-leave right-wing populist party] UKIP’s vote collapsed from 14 percent to 3 percent. Most of them went to the Tories, but a few probably went back to Labour.

Judis: Was there any Trump effect in the election the way there has been in some other European elections?

Goodhart: Not much. The one thing slightly to the detriment of the government and the Conservative Party was when he tweeted one of his really silly tweets after the latest London attack right before the election.  He misread or didn’t understand something that Sadiq Kahn, the mayor of London, had said about not “being alarmed.” He had said don’t be alarmed about the presence of armed police forces on the street, but Trump criticized him for saying don’t be alarmed  about Islamic terrorism, which was obviously not what Kahn meant. To the extent Trump did briefly enter the election, it probably helped Corbyn.

Somewheres and Anywheres

Judis: You talk in your new book, “The Road to Somewhere,” about the distinction between “somewheres” and “anywheres.”  You portray it as the dividing line in British politics.  Why don’t you explain the distinction?

Goodhart:  It’s about the value divides in British society and to some extent in all rich democracies.  There is a group I call the “Anywheres” who are about 25 percent of the society. They tend to be highly educated and mobile, and the combination of the two is especially important here in Britain because we have an overwhelmingly residential university system.  We also have a very very dominant capitol city that sucks in so much of the professional class. Anywhere people tend to value the kinds of things that you’d expect from people who live those kind of lives. They value openness and autonomy and fluidity. They generally find social change easy to handle, and they have weak attachments to place and to group.

On the other side of the ledger you have a much larger group, less politically influential, but much larger, about 50 percent of the people, who I call “Somewheres.”  They tend to be much less well educated and to be much rooted and attached to places and to value familiarity and security and the things you would expect to flow form those kind of lifestyles. Anywheres can find social change easy and have weak group attachments whereas Somewheres find social change more difficult and tend to have much stronger group attachments, whether to nation or city or place.

This where I see the divide. It can sound simplistic and binary, but there are many different kinds of Anywhere and Somewhere and there is also a big in-between group, which is about 25 percent of the population. The distinction between Somewheres and Anywheres overlaps with a really useful distinction that was made by the American sociologist Talcott Parsons. He was talking about human identities, and he distinguished between ascribed and achieved identities. All of us on a spectrum between the two. For those with achieved identities, their sense of themselves doesn’t come from who their parents were and where they were born or what group they belong to. They passed exams when they were young, they’ve been to good colleges, they have more or less successful professional careers and their sense of themselves is portable. They can fit in anywhere.

But if you have an ascribed identity – for instance, “I’m British, I’m a white male “ —  if your identity derives from things that can never change, you are likely to be more easily discomfited by change, by change to your group, by change to where you live. I think that’s a very useful way of embellishing my Anywhere/Somewhere distinction.

Immigration as a Key Issue

Judis:  I think the distinction really does illuminate the vote on Brexit, but let’s go back to the recent election for a moment. You are really saying that the election wasn’t that significant, that it didn’t amount to a change in orientation in either party, that May’s vote was quite large, but was a disappointment in terms of expectation.  Corbyn’s vote was based partly on his muddling of his message.  And in terms of coming to terms with your distinction between Anywheres vs. Somewheres, neither party is quite there yet.  It doesn’t seem to have divided the parties.

Goodhart: I think my distinction is still of value.  If May had done as well as predicted, it would have amounted to one important attempt at creating a new political settlement between the two value groups.  Both of these views are legitimate. They are decent worldviews. And yet they are tearing our societies apart.  My analysis is better at explaining what happened in 2016, a freakish year when we had Brexit and we had Trump. And a lot of people may be saying that the Goodhart type analysis with all its emphasis on culture rather than traditional socio-economics may have just reflected the freakishness of 2016.

Judis: Yes, that’s what I am asking you.

Goodhart:  I may have exaggerated the extent to which socio-economic politics had faded. Arguments about the size of the state remain or about inequality remain important.   But they have been challenged by the emergence of a much clearer socio-cultural politics. That’s always been true in the United States, but here socio-cultural politics, with much greater emphasis on security and identity issues, is relatively new.

This new emphasis is in response to the much greater economic and cultural openness of the last twenty or thirty years.  You see it in the global economics and in much more globalized culture, and in the integration required by the European Union. Both the international trade rules of WTO [World Trade Organization] or the EU rules have interfered in domestic politics and indeed have have taken many things out of domestic politics. And that has created a reaction.

One of the most visible aspects has been the immigration story.  From the 1940s to the late ‘80s, a lot of people came here from the Caribbean, from Africa, from South Asia, from India and Pakistan. And there was conflict initially, but we broadly came to the terms with it by the early ’90s. Immigrants in Britain were six or seven percent of population, which was not particularly large. We came to terms with being a multiracial society. And governments had been able to respond to people’s anxiety about immigration.

In the early or mid ’90s net immigration was very low or even negative, more people were leaving than arriving. And then the immigration story changed in 1997 with Tony Blair’s new Labour government.  They accepted much of Margaret Thatcher’s free market reforms, but one of the things that really divided them from the Tories and gave them a sense of progressive pride was that they were very pro-immigration and very pro-minority.

They came in and immediately immigration numbers went up pretty sharply, and they went up again very sharply again in 2004 when the former communist countries joined the European Union. EU countries were allowed a seven-year moratorium, but we gave workers form those countries immediate access to our labor market. It was predicted that 15,000 people from Eastern and Central Europe would arrive in Britain a year, but in fact about a million and a half people turned up over a three or four year period.

There was a lot of discomfort about that.  The economy was booming at the time. It didn’t have huge economic consequences, but people were just not ready for it, and it was particularly unpopular in working class communities. This was real in-your-face globalization. It was not just about your factory closing and going to China, but a whole population coming in and competing with you, probably holding down wages in the lower end of the labor market, competing with you for social housing and public services and so on.

Now I think most people in Britain are not xenophobic, and they were not hostile to individual Poles or Slovakians, or Latvians, but they did not accept the kind of freedom of movement that means you cannot discriminate in favor of your own national citizens, everyone from the EU has to be treated exactly the same, and that moves beyond normal nationhood.  Other forms of freedom of movement — of capital, goods and services — are all compatible with normal nation states. Being unable to control the movement of people is not compatible with the normal nation state, and people could see that.  

They remembered that only 25 years earlier we had a sovereign parliament that was able to control the numbers coming in and now we had a sovereign parliament that had no power to control it.  That is probably the single most important reason why we voted last year to leave the European Union.  It brought home to people that this was not a sovereign country in a normal sense, it was not normal cooperation between sovereign nation states the way NATO is.  This had really moved beyond that.  It was really an attempt to create a post-national confederation of states, and that is not popular.

The Future of Politics

Judis:  In your book, you attribute the decline of Labour and other social democratic parties to their rejection of nationalism.  Has Labour begun to reconcile itself with British nationalism by its support for Brexit?  Do you expect these parties to continue to decline and that it will be driven by this socio-cultural divide between Somewheres and Anywheres?

Goodhart:  I think this socio-cultural story still matters enormously and that it is changing the electoral map. I think we are in process of doing what you have done in terms of class and political party.  In your country, the traditional party of property and the middle class, the Republican Party, is becoming the working class party and the Democrats are becoming the party of the progressive middle class and the minorities.  This election [in Britain] seems to be a pause on the way to that outcome too. I still think that is the way we are headed, towards a redrawing of the class map, or rather class getting overlaid by these socio-cultural considerations in such a way that working class voters end up voting center-right rather than center-left.  But you’re right about this election.

The old coalition of the progressive public sector middle class and blue collar workers has been very badly frayed by these socio-cultural changes. Going back in twenty years, one could talk about the Hampstead intellectual [an area of London known for its artists and intellectuals], or the Labour-supporting university professor or doctor.  They would have had different concerns from the blue-collar trade unionist but they would still have had interests in common.

Now I don’t think they have interests in common. Their interests conflict on so many of these issues like immigration and freedom of movement. The Hampstead lawyer or Hampstead lawyer’s children would regard freedom of movement as a great boon. They can go and work without any bureaucratic hassle, they can work in Berlin or Paris without any difficulty.  If you are a blue collar worker working in the food production sector it is very different. The sector employs 400,000 people and 120,000 of those people come from Eastern and Central Europe, just since 2004, and they are competing for jobs and public services and social housing and making your life more uncomfortable. So you approach the whole issue of immigration and mobility in a very different way.

I think the traditional Labour coalition has blown apart, but on a one-off basis Jeremy Corbyn has managed to stitch it back together sufficiently to give him the uplift of ten percent in the vote. By going helter skelter for the educated or semi-educated youth vote and playing on the soft left ideology that so many kids come out of the university with, combined with this bribe to abolish student tuition fees, he is shoring up for his own political ends, the middle class welfare state.  So he has this huge uplift of the student vote and enough of the blue-collar vote, but it’s a one-off and I think Labour is still on the road to oblivion as a party.

If we have an unsuccessful Brexit, then people will be worrying very much about their jobs and their income and they will not be looking to a bunch of quite extreme solutions to fix the British economy. They will definitely prefer the devil they know. And I think if Brexit is a success, it will be a success because it has been negotiated by the Conservative Party. In addition waiting in the wings we will have an attempt to create a new center-left liberal party. I think the success of Emanuel Macron won’t be lost on people like [former Labour Party leader] David Miliband who is now an American and seems to have given up on his political career.

Judis: You also sent us Nigel Farage, the guy from UKIP.

Goodhart:  I’m sorry. A lot of people end up cruising around your streets. I do think Corbyn’s much better than expected performance has saved him in the short run, but it makes it more rather than less likely that a new party will emerge. Corbyn’s temporary success will emphasize to the Milibands, the Peter Mandelsons, people like that that, that they can’t take back the Labour Party and that they’ve got to do something new.

Corbyn is not going to be a good opposition leader, and it’s quite likely that May, after that dreadful campaign, will be replaced either sooner or later. She is a much weakened figure, and whoever they replace her with cannot possibly be bad as she was in the election campaign. For all those reasons, the Labour revival is a sort of mirage. I don’t think Britain has suddenly become a far left country. I don’t think 41 percent of the population are Corbynites.

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Notable Replies

  1. very inflexible and unattractive Theresa May


    unthinking left liberalism that a lot of modern kids are part of

    They didn’t show up in 2015 or for the Brexit referendum, and the old folks believed a heap of lies printed on the side of a bus. Now they’re faced with negotiations in which Britain has no leverage and is represented by a minority government which still insists on a “hard” Brexit.

    But if you have an ascribed identity – for instance, “I’m British, I’m a white male “

    But the working class don’t refer to themselves as British - they refer to themselves as English. “British” is the identity hoisted on people who don’t look Anglo by people who refuse to acknowledge the crazy idea that they might be patriotic citizens.

    What’s hurting the UK? Unfettered entry of Russian, Persian Gulf, and East Asian money used to buy up assets (while at the same time degrading governance), and the misplaced reaction against working-class immigrants that further isolates Britain from Europe. The issue of sovereignty is important, but if you chop off your own legs in a show of strength you become less independent, not more so.

  2. “But he was able to hide behind the fact that Labour supported Brexit, and the fact that Labour supported Brexit that also meant that Labour supported upper limits on immigration from the European Union, so he was able to hide behind or disguise his real attitudes.”

    While it’s true that Corbyn was never a supporter of the EU, the under 40s and Labour both voted to remain. The problem was the lack of turnout - too high a percentage of younger voters and Labour supporters skipped the vote.

    This guy is the equivalent of a concern troll and talks like a “reasonable” conservative.

  3. blah blah blah
    Brexit was voted for by the Brits.
    Trump was elected by the electoral college.
    Americans voted for Clinton.

  4. Wow. That almost made sense. Sterling non-sequitur of a contribution.

  5. Avatar for paulw paulw says:

    He sounds like a Very Serious Person. With a lifetime of investment in the notion that old-fashioned labor values can’t possibly work.

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