Between ‘liberal elites’ and ‘lost heartlands’ – coordinating the renewal of the left

The last Labour government (1997-2010) has fallen decisively out of favour, and may well be judged harshly by history. Despite its achievements (minimum wage, educational maintenance allowance, Good Friday Agreement, to name a few), its best known and most despised legacies are, to most, the Iraq War and the culture of political ‘spin’. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s formal apology for the Iraq War on behalf of the Labour Party in July 2016, and with the lack of effective communications and PR evidenced since the days of Ed Miliband – now intensifying ever more to the point where some may yearn for the days when ‘spin doctors’ managed to ensure everyone was ‘on message’ – Labour is truly shedding its Blairite past. Yet, the centre-left finds itself in a conundrum, caught between the old politics of left and right and the new politics of the global, digital age; between a supposed urban, liberal elite on one hand and dwindling support in its former working class heartlands on the other.

In this impasse, the days of New Labour may yet have one final legacy to contribute. Specifically, the main intellectual influences on centre-left politics in the late 1990s, and Labour’s failure to operationalise one of their most critical observations.

Following the end of the transformative years around 1990, a number of sociologists contemplated the newly emerging political landscape. They saw tensions arising not just around the old left/ right axis, symbolising the struggle between socialists and capitalists, unions and employers, but around a range of new issues, brought into existence in the 1960s and 70s, and now in evolved form firmly on the political map: should we have nuclear weapons? How do we source our energy? How should we produce our food? Should we export arms? How important is international aid and development? Should criminals be punished or rehabilitated? How can families function beyond the old gendered ‘division of labour’? When does a foetus count as a human life? How do we live on this planet without destroying it? Aspects of life that had once seemed either unalterable or unimportant were on the political map. As Ulrich Beck concluded, everything had become political, and Anthony Giddens drew the distinction between ‘emancipatory politics’ (the old left/right politics of life chances) and ‘life politics’ (the new politics of life choices).

New Labour and other governments around the world engaged in many of these ‘life political’ issues from the 1990s onwards, and a host of new ones have come on the map since, notably owing to the rise of the internet (surveillance, child protection, cyber-bullying, wikileaks, and so on), the advent of climate change, and the stellar rise of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric and heated debates (conflicts?) about national or global identity. Yet, despite all these ‘new’ politics, the old politics of left and right far from disappeared: from the greed of the financial sector to sweatshops in Bangladesh and zero hours contracts closer to home, excess at the top and precarity at the bottom have rarely been so front-and-centre as they are today.

But the old politics of left and right and the new politics of life choice are in danger of diverging, often catering to separate constituencies (oversimplified, the ‘urban liberals’ versus the ‘former heartlands’). Moreover, the two frequently come into conflict. Consider calls to restrict arms production, and how these might be viewed in deprived areas where an arms manufacturer is the last remaining major employer. Consider parental leave where both partners are on precarious zero-hour contracts. Consider calls for global responsibility and ‘doing our bit’ to help with the global refugee crisis and how these are read in areas where economic deprivation has led (justifiably or not) to toxic xenophobia. Consider the relevance of solar panels among the vast sections of populations no longer able to own a property on which they might be installed. Consider finally what merits a vegan, ethically sourced, all-organic diet might have for someone whose welfare benefits have been slashed to the point where they are forced to buy only the absolute cheapest goods on offer – or indeed, whatever the local foodbank might have on its shelves.

To be sure, governments now routinely produce policies on life-political questions, from environmental regulation to parental leave to gay marriage to international aid commitments. But for the most part, these progressive issues are often divorced from core centre-left concerns – particularly those that historically have had the greatest traction in the ‘lost heartlands’ of the left. However, if we look back in particular to the work of Anthony Giddens, we find that this split was never intended. Quite the contrary: Giddens’ work – The Consequences of Modernity (1990), Modernity and Self-identity (1991), Beyond Left and Right (1994) – highlights that life-political issues almost always relate back in some way to the old left/ right axis. Herein lies a critical way forward for the future of the left, one that was virtually invisible in New Labour’s policy making, yet contained in the work of at least one of its main intellectual influencers.

Any political party, left or right, can and does talk about the environment, parenthood, energy supply, immigration, the internet, and so on. And some – graciously – also talk about inequality, exploitation, tax evasion and unemployment. But it is up to the left to combine these two dimensions of our landscape of political issues: to present and act on them not side-by-side, but in an integrated approach.

In the globalised, digital age, where ordinary citizens, policymakers and politicians alike have access to unprecedented flows of information, life-political issues are ever present, and new ones will continue to emerge, often unexpected; some may not require formal political or legislative action, but many will. At the same time, the growing inequalities and economic exploitations we witness every day will not disappear. Solutions are needed that address both. Tax breaks for installing solar panels on owner-occupied properties might be part of the solution to the problem of energy supply; equipping council housing with such measures, saving energy and utility bills for those least able to afford them, might be an additional or alternative option that better integrates the new politics with the old (as, on a grander scale, would re-industrialisation and re-skilling around green technologies). Combining international aid explicitly with job creation at home (e.g. through more direct industrial collaborations) may alleviate the sense of ‘outsiders’ receiving money of which ‘insiders’ may feel robbed. Cutting VAT on ethically sourced foods may bring healthier lifestyles closer into the reach of most than banning battery chickens. Combining a greater effort to take in refugees fleeing war and destruction with commitments to finally invest in the long overdue housing, healthcare and primary education for both ‘our’ and ‘their’ sake might well take the sting out of current tensions.

These of course are illustrative examples, some of which have been noted by others – many more may come to mind. But it is these connections that the left must desperately make, if it is not to split between its various constituencies. This not least has implications for how government is ‘done’: our long-established form of policymaking, where we dice matters up into discrete sectors (ministries of health, education, environment, work and pensions, industry and innovation, transport, etc) may no longer be appropriate. Project-based policy platforms would likely need to take centre stage. Policy experts in innovation, education, foreign affairs, defence and local communities will all need to converge to operationalise a way to end arms exports to conflict zones without pushing into complete ruin the already precarious communities dependent on manufacture back home. Consider further, what different sectors of policymaking might have relevant input to tackle issues such as obesity, digital safety, energy supply and fuel poverty, or work-life balance beyond the days of the traditional family. The need to integrate concerns around inequality and redistribution on one hand and questions around sustainability and organisation of life on this planet on the other, becomes inescapable.

Integrated policy making of this kind must ensure that the plethora of issues confronting us every day is no longer seen as an atomised cloud of policy-needs, but where instead solutions are contemplated that coordinate the politics of choice, ethics and sustainability with the politics of equality and empowerment. To keep its ideals and long-held goals, whilst not slipping back into the past or catering in the future only to a bourgeois, ‘enlightened’ elite, this integration may offer not merely survival, but genuine renewal of the left in the global, digital age.


Peter Kolarz is a policy consultant at Technopolis Group. He has authored and co-authored reports on a range of policy topics for organisations including UK government ministries and the European Commission and Parliament. He previously lectured in sociology at the University of Portsmouth after completing his PhD at the University of Sussex in 2011. His book ‘Giddens and Politics: beyond the Third Way’ is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

2 thoughts on “Between ‘liberal elites’ and ‘lost heartlands’ – coordinating the renewal of the left

  1. When has Labour or the left ever ‘talked’ about immigration except to call people ‘racist’ when they raised the issue.
    The left in the name of ‘equality’ seems more concerned with those who do not even have a vote rather than those who do.
    So it must now pay the price.

  2. Excellent article Peter. One concept that would integrate all the many concerns of the left in today’s complex world is the concept of our all-round wellbeing. This encompasses not just our material wellbeing but our psychological, social and environmental wellbeing as well. Indeed major international bodies like the OECD are now coming round to rising all-round wellbeing being the goal we should be aiming for rather than simply rising GNP which up till now has been the main measure of a nation’s success. These ideas were recently carried forward at a top level international conference at the LSE organised by the OECD and anyone interested in an integrated approach to advancing the left cause would do well to acquaint themselves with its findings.

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