11 August 2015

Do we really understand English politics?

One of my favourite, counterintuitive political facts is that Oxford has fewer Tory councillors than Glasgow.  The Edwardian stone, the tweedy dons, the unselfconscious wearing of straw boaters - in the Scottish public imagination, you might expect the educational centre of the British establishment to be true blue, all the way. Not so. Oxford wards return precisely no Conservative representatives, while Pollokshields yields up Glasgow's solitary Tory. 

In fairness, the city is a speck of red in the surrounding blue: Banbury, Henley, Witney. Labour are entrenched in east Oxford. The Tories snatched Oxford North and Abingdon in 2010 and held it comfortably after the Liberal Democratic collapse of 2015. But when I first learned this small statistic, it made me wonder: did I really understand English politics as well as I thought? Was I projecting onto, rather than really appreciating, the complexity and ambivalence of the political ideas and identities of the folk who lived around me? 

There is a tendency among Scottish political obsessives - and I count myself among them - to imagine that we understand English politics because we keep abreast of what happens at Westminster. But just as what goes on on the green benches is a poor guide to the constituencies we live in, so too, the Commons feels a million miles away from the sleepy back streets of Oxfordshire, or the noisy conurbations of the midlands and the north. Logical consequences follow. You'll have heard the old gag about the United States and Great Britain being "two countries separated by a common language." The shared language in which American politics is transacted creates an illusion of accessibility. But as we listen to Clinton drone on, or try to follow Trump's latest quackery, you gradually realise that we really miss and misunderstand as much as we appreciate. 

When I moved to the south of England, I also came to realise - a bit guiltily - that was I interpreting the politics of my English colleagues and neighbours using a series of very crude, roughcast ideas. And often as not, my stock characters proved dead wrong. They were false friends. There was the medieval historian - a picture of crusty reaction - who radiated social snobbery but who was a Labour man to his fingertips. His politics recalled the establishment of the old Labour Right: Healy, Wilson, Smith.  A conservative figure - make no mistake - but with only scorn for David Cameron's Conservative government. 

Then there was the bluff College porter who was a dyed in the wool Tory. Not a Scullion, but a tough-minded and conclusive kind of character, satisfied with his lot. Even stranger was the delightful, kind-hearted and subversive old dame who seemed to support little in the party manifesto but who had also voted Tory all her days. Still more perplexing were the floating voters who had ping-ponged unselfconsciously between Labour and the Tories for decades.

It seemed to me like Beowulf voting for Grendel's mother, and vice versa. I struggled even to begin to compute the idea of politics which made these choices seem reasonable and understandable. James Meek did a power of work for UKIP in the same vein in the London Review of Books -- but somehow the idea of a Labour-Tory voter remains elusive. The only two I can think of are Alex Massie and Chris Deerin -- hardly a representative sample of what is a commonplace character in English constituencies. We struggle to take off our Scottish political goggles, and too often, they distort our vision and our understanding.

The political passions of others you met were more obvious. The bumptious former city trader with army affectations might have come from central casting or Tory central office. The young, highly-educated precariat, preoccupied by questions of social liberalism, who once voted Liberal Democrat, but now cast ballots for Labour without much enthusiasm, or tacked Green. The North Oxford Liberal Democrats - wealthy, worthy, perjink - who couldn't vote Labour out of social snobbery, and declined to support what they saw as the vulgar, worldly Conservatives for much the same reason. This mortgaged, property-owning tribe were entirely unmoved by the 2010 coalition and continued to return local Liberal representatatives with thumping votes. Theirs was a liberalism of the polite centre.  

But having spent a number of years living south of the border in growing suspicion -- more and more, I find my own prejudices a poor guide to English politics. Perhaps they always were. But the political conversation north of the border has now diverged so significantly from the experience south of it, I now acutely mistrust my own impressions. In Labour politics, the importance of these issues and judgements are now acute.

If Jeremy Corbyn wins the UK Labour leadership, can he carry the country in 2020? Will England warm to him, disappointing his many detractors who cry him "unelectable"? Or is Liz Kendall right - that only tough medicine will do and that Labour must make further concessions to Osborne's vision of Britain to win again? Judging this correctly is critical for Labour's future. A couple of weeks back, SNP spinner Erik Geddes posted this fascinating table on Twitter. Based on research by YouGov, it asked what folk thought were the most important reasons for Labour's defeat in 2015.


The divergence between the explanations giving in Scottish and English samples are revealing.  The preoccupations which drove Labour's disastrous showing in May north and south of the border are fundamentally different. They are seen differently. Andy Burham is, I think, dead wrong to argue that Labour's route back to power runs through Glasgow. 2015 did not represent a temporary blip, but a generational shift in political allegiances north of the border. It wasn't a sudden change, but the logical consequence of decades of Labour decline. It only completed the process which has been chipping away at the party's electoral performance for years.

To put it at its harshest, if UK Labour's route to victory runs through Glasgow, then Labour is going to continue to lose to their Conservative opponents for the foreseeable future. Finding a winning strategy for England is essential. I have no idea which of the four candidates - if any - is best placed to do so. However, in striving to identify that winning strategy, they'd be well-advised to ignore the advice of their Scottish comrades, critics and fellow-travellers. We just don't get it.

19 comments :

  1. Replies
    1. In your defence, you've been at it longer! You've soaked up the Bath atmosphere. Even thon UKIP rally. More seriously, drawing on that experience, does this ring any bells at all?

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    2. Yes, in my experience Scottish political commentators are certainly as clueless, by and large, about the English public as the other way around.

      Whatever the social-attitudes surveys might say, the two countries think about politics in fundamentally different ways. That's obviously a sweeping generalisation subject to all sorts of localised variations, but like a lot of sweeping generalisations it's one founded in a basic truth.

      Though I suspect it's less to do with that as such, as to do with the fact that pundits exist in a little bubble where politics is more like a Radio 4 panel game than anything related to real people's lives. They actually care about all the silly wee points politicians score off each other, whereas the electorate doesn't give a toss, which is why they're so surprised when the electorate doesn't do what they expect it to, but also why they seem unable to learn no matter how many times they get it wrong.

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    3. "You've soaked up the Bath atmosphere."

      A courageous pun. Were you steaming at the time?

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    4. I am conscious of Stu's talents for litigation. #innocentface

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    5. Indeed, the Scotsman faced a steep learning curve when they tried to scour him. Shower of scrubs.

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  2. Lived in the Cotswolds for 20 years. First thing that always stops me in my tracks is that most of the Tories are working class - a different country!

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    1. And, of course, the urban-rural dynamic adopts a different shape in England (and increasingly, in Wales too).

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  3. Well never mind English politics, I'm not sure I understand Scottish politics.

    Re Oxford and Glasgow, they were quite different in the 18th century of course: Jacobite Oxford and Hanoverian Glasgow (there was a fierce Jacobite riot in 1715 in Oxford)

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    1. Ha! You don't see many of those these days ;-)

      Unless May morning has a subversive message I missed...

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  4. When I moved to Bolton in 1989, I lived in a cul de sac of 'executive' homes. In Scotland, such houses would be occupied by head teachers, bank managers, accountants, solicitors and (as in my case) insurance executives.

    In my cul de sac in Bolton there were a carpet fitter, a burglar alarm salesman, a builder, a curtain pole saleswoman, a fireman, etc.

    Up the road was a Conservative club (I had never *seen* a Conservative club in my life) and to vote Conservative was to declare that you thought you were middle class. Private medicine and private education were signs of social status whereas in Scotland they were seen as social stigmas.

    It brought it home to me that Scotland and England were two societies which seemed superficially similar but were actually deeply different.

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    1. 'It brought it home to me that Scotland and England were two societies which seemed superficially similar but were actually deeply different'

      Well Scotand is not really a homogenous cuture and never was. You may have drawn different conclusions about Scotland had you moved to, say, Larkhall and its lodges, or to Stonoway and its Wee Frees.


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    2. You are making assumptions about me and you don't even know me! I lived in Inverness for several years and did business in the Outer Hebrides for four years, so I have a very good idea of social attitudes in more than one part of Scotland.

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    3. Fair enough Mr Morton, you have lived in different parts of Scotland and have your own views, which differ from mine.

      To expand on my view, I think that people living in Banchory may well have more in common with people in Blandford Forum than they do with (to stick to the Bs) Baillieston. I just don't see that great England v Scotland division you do. There are other factors such as class.

      I remember meeting a nice young English Tory in the late 70s who was horrifed by his encounters with sectarian Glasgow Tories - 'I can't work with these people'. On the other hand, there was Tory David Young Glasgow council leader and a Good Guy (unlike Labour LP Hodge he would never never have invited the SA ambassador to lunch)

      I rememember going to Portree for the first time when they still locked up the playground on Sunday. Unlike you I have never been to Bolton, but I expect - like most of Scotland now - a child can go for a swing there on the sabbath.

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  5. I was friendly with the lady Registrar at Dunvegan who said that she had been frowned on by the minister because she had worn a trouser suit to church.

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    1. Andrew, I went to a funeral in Portree and only the men were supposed to go to the burial - an English woman married to one of the relatives insisted on going out to the cemetery and was deeply disapproved of by both the men at the graveside and the women who had stayed in Pprtree. This was the 1980s. You have to respect different traditions of course. We tend not to condescend when it comes to gender apartheid in other communities.

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    2. Religion is risible? That's my guess.

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  6. Swag Bucks is a very recommended work from home website.

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