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The red wall is not reactionary

Thursday 24 June 2021

In spite of what you hear on GB News, the supposed cultural divide between the so-called “liberal elite” and ordinary British voters is much less stark than you might suppose


Andrew Neil launched GB News last week by telling us that he and his colleagues will be “covering the people’s agenda”. His whole opening monologue was a sustained attack on “the metropolitan mindset”; their tendency to think Britain is always in the wrong; and their preoccupation with appearing “woke”.

In doing so Neil was riffing on a widely accepted analysis of the British political landscape. It is now a commonplace that the Brexit victory and Boris Johnson’s 2019 election triumphs in “red wall” seats showed that those who constitute the London-based elite are hopelessly out of touch with their fellow Brits. 

Conservatives look to exploit this apparent cultural disconnect at every opportunity by, for instance, highlighting their opposition to the National Trust publishing a report about slavery or, rather unconvincingly, complaining that the BBC’s annual report does not contain enough flag imagery. Every time they do this they are applauded by some commentators for successfully baiting the “latte liberals” who find these deliberate provocations, well, provocative. 

This view that “the people” are staunch social conservatives; unthinkingly jingoistic; terrified of change and dismissive of progressive concerns also seems to have taken hold in the Labour party, or at least that part of it that is loyal to Keir Starmer. The fear of taking any position that might be construed as metropolitan elite is one reason why the leader of the opposition and his shadow cabinet have struggled to make any impact. It comes across as insincere in contrast to the perception that Boris Johnson, if somewhat messy, does say what he thinks.

What’s so frustrating is that this belief that “normal people” are innately socially conservative is a myth. The British are, typically, pretty risk-averse, but that is not the same thing. When people perceive that the archetypal progressive position on an issue leads to an increase in risk for them and their family they will oppose it. 65 per cent of people think criminal sentencing isn’t harsh enough compared to just four per cent who think it’s too harsh. 56 per cent think immigration has been too high over the past ten years compared to six per cent who think it’s been too low.

But this also applies to issues where the standard position of the cultural right leads to a perceived increase in risk. This is clearly illustrated by the public’s steadfast support for Covid lockdowns; mask wearing and restrictions on travel. GB News notably ran lengthy segments over their first two nights highlighting their opposition to ongoing restrictions, as their ideological stablemates at The Spectator and Spiked have been for the last 16 months, but in doing so they are emphatically ignoring “the people’s agenda”.

Equally, on climate change, just 19 per cent of people think that scientists have exaggerated its threat and 66 per cent think it’s “every bit as real a threat” as presented. The environment is now in the top three priority issues for the public, lagging only behind health and the economy. In their risk aversion, the public is arguably more consistent than the cultural right, who are quite happy to support harsher sentencing and tough rules on immigration but suddenly become libertarians when faced with the prospect of any rules (lockdowns, emissions charges) impinging on their lives.

When it comes to issues of personal identity, tolerance and British history, the divergence between the Westminster myth of out of touch elites and reality is even more stark. GB News’ other big talking point on its opening night was the decision made by the England football team to continue “taking the knee” as a protest against racism. They even managed to get the home secretary to dismiss it as “gesture politics”. But taking the knee is supported by the English public (54 per cent compared to 39 per cent who oppose it). Critically this support has increased over the past year despite repeated attempts to undermine the campaign as a shadowy front for Marxism.

On a whole range of culture war talking points the public refuse to play their assigned role. For instance: 52 per cent think statues connected with the slave trade should be removed compared to 22 per cent who disagree. Just 32 per cent of people think the British Empire is something to be proud of. 78 per cent think children should be taught about the slave trade at school. While the majority of people think immigration has been too high in recent years, 45 per cent think immigration has had a net positive impact on the country compared to 31 per cent who say it’s net negative. Again, critically, this has flipped since 2015. 

On a wide range of issues related to personal identity and tolerance of difference the public have become vastly more liberal over the last few decades. As recently as 1987, 64 per cent of people thought gay sex was “always wrong”. Now, 75 per cent of people support gay marriage. In the last decade alone the percentage of people who “strongly agree” they’d be happy for their child to marry someone from another ethnic group has increased from 41 per cent to 70 per cent. It is impossible to look at the data and conclude Britain has not become significantly more tolerant and progressive in recent years. 

There’s nothing radical about any of this. People still like the Queen and the flag; are proud of their national identity and think their country can be a force for good in the world. But they are also, in general, kind and respectful and far more relaxed than they used to be about how others choose to live their lives, and the benefits of integrating other cultures. There is, of course, a minority for whom the GB News view of the world appeals. But it is a minority; and a dwindling one.

It’s a mistake to think the Brexit vote against the elites was primarily about cultural change, rather than economics and status. The urban centres that voted Remain have received most of the benefits of growth over the past four decades; and have a much greater proportion of graduates with access to higher status and better paid jobs. The “left behind” narrative is not wrong, but it doesn’t follow that this divide between young urbanites and older provincial voters permeates every aspect of our lives; or indicates a backlash against all progressive views.

It is understandable that the Labour Party feels on the backfoot at the moment; and deeply frustrating for them that the Conservatives are reaping the benefits of an economic disparity they were largely responsible for. But the road to recovery does not require backing away from deeply held beliefs. Indeed this only makes things worse because it looks so inauthentic. 

Instead of running scared of the right’s culture warriors, Labour should acknowledge that the public is largely on their side. That doesn’t mean being needlessly provocative or indulging in every spat. But progressive parties have the opportunity to build a popular counter-narrative about an out-of-touch, anti-science and intolerant right. Backing away from the fight is a terrible strategy; especially when you’re winning the war.

Sam Freedman is a former senior adviser to the Department of Education and a senior fellow at the Institute for Government


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