Alex Massie

Britain is in desperate need of a truly national party

Britain is in desperate need of a truly national party
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I am not sure I can think of any great public assembly in Britain I’d enjoy less than Glastonbury. Within reason, I’m not sure you could even pay me to go there. Glastonbury is a place for dear Hugo Rifkind not for me, and that’s the way I imagine we both prefer it. 

Still, there was something worth seeing at Glastonbury this year. Jeremy Corbyn, obviously. His appearance was remarkable, even if it has also prompted a fresh outbreak of one of Britain’s under-appreciated traditional sports: members of the middle-class sneering at other members of the middle-class. 

Even so, two things can be said about this. First, the Labour party cannot win unless it is a broad church. Even if it hadn’t always enjoyed some middle-class support, it can no longer in any case afford to be the party of the workers. For there are no longer enough unionised or manual or semi-skilled workers in Britain to deliver an election victory. We are not all middle-class now but around half of us are. 

Secondly, the Conservatives cannot win unless they too are a broad church. I do not think it has yet dawned on the Tories how much courting the Ukip vote in recent years has harmed them with younger voters for whom Nigel Farage is not very much more attractive, if at all, than that Nick Griffin bloke. By younger voters, incidentally, I mean anyone under 50. 

Of course, people’s views often change as they grow older. But it is also the case that many voters show remarkable loyalty to the party they vote for in their first and second elections. The surest way of having a voter at the next election is to have them at this one. So Labour’s performance with first-time and younger voters has some implications for future elections too. 

At this election, the Conservative share of the ethnic minority vote fell - undoing, in the process, some gains it had made during David Cameron’s leadership - while it also, according to Lord Ashcroft’s election day poll, won the support of just 29 percent of Britons who declare they follow no religion. Neither of these findings suggest long-term good news for the Conservative party. Perhaps it was a mistake to suggest millions of Britons were “citizens of nowhere” because their identity and lifestyle choices didn’t map neatly onto those of, say, the Prime Minister and her cabinet. 

Demographics are not destiny, for sure, but a Britain that is increasingly metropolitan, socially liberal, multi-ethnic, and university educated is a Britain in which some old certainties are going to be challenged. 

And when half the country goes to university on the promise that university is the path to wealth and happiness and that this will include a well-paid job and the chance to buy a house of your own only to discover that, actually, it might not always work like that after all then, well, then you help create the conditions in which even fantastical politics might seem better than the alternative gruel promised by the government of the day. And that’s before you even consider the impact of tuition fees that, however justified they may be, were supposed to be one part of a bargain, or a contract, that many people think is no longer being honoured by the other party to it. You don't have to agree with their choices at the ballot box to be able to have some understanding of why those choices were made. 

So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Jeremy Corbyn was the darling of the Glastonbury crowd this year. Oddly, some people seemed to think there something grim about the Labour leader being feted in this fashion; something ludicrous in this lifelong socialist being saluted by a crowd of middle-class festival goers who’d each paid £238 (plus £5 booking fee) to be at Glastonbury this year. 

Well, perhaps there is. Glastonbury has become a thing that’s so far from being my kind of thing I don’t feel the need to comment on the people who go there. But, as noted above, the Labour party needs the middle-classes too and, again, perhaps it would be more useful to ponder some of the reasons why no leading Tory politician would be even half as welcome somewhere such as Glastonbury. 

But suppose the Glastonbury crowd WAS in fact overwhelmingly working-class. Would that have made Corbyn’s appearance better or more acceptable? Somehow more “authentic”? Other pop festivals are available and some of them are so working-class they’re actually essentially classless. That is, they are a summer rite of passage for the young, whoever they are and wherever they are from. 

There is a strain of thought - invariably comfortably-off thought, it must be said - that sneers at conspicuous consumption when it's the working-class that’s doing the consuming. There is some truth in Marx’s suggestion that, for some at any rate, “The worker is only permitted to have enough for him to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have”. 

This is a view - does it need to be said - that increasingly covers our increasingly transactional approach to education but it also manifests itself in other areas of life too. The poor cannot be genuinely poor if they enjoy material comfort. Scoff at these people just about managing with their iPhones! Sneer at those on the margins of society who nonetheless have flat-screen televisions! Heaven forbid, too, that after a long week’s work for a wage packet that’s much the same it was a decade ago a man - or even a woman! - might want a night of Netflix and some cans. Never mind too, that if those on low incomes are, say, also attending football matches overseas it might be because they’ve been saving for these trips for six months or even longer. Pleasure, I guess, is not for the likes of them. They must scrimp but they may not enjoy the rewards of their scrimping, lest they be thought reckless or depraved. 

Conversely, of course, there is the lumpen idiocy of those others who sneer at the uselessness and irrelevance of much culture. As though Mozart and Auden and Shakespeare were somehow reserved for the wealthy or those fortunate enough to grow up in rooms furnished with books; as though culture and beauty and art were only for the few, not the many. 

All of which, I suppose, is a roundabout manner of observing that the real state of British - and particularly English - politics these days is that, even with the return (at least for now) of two party politics, neither the Conservatives nor the Labour party shows any sign of being a truly national party. 

Increasingly, the Labour coalition looks more and more like the Democratic coalition in the United States - urban, multi-coloured, educated - while the Tory coalition looks more and more like the Republican party: rural, white, older and, increasingly, nationalist-minded voters from small towns suspicious of the so-called metropolitan elite. This is a cultural divide just as much as it is a political one or, if you prefer, a reminder that culture and politics are intertwined.

Neither coalition, it turns out, is yet large enough to win but neither party, at least at the moment, has a leader capable of reaching across the divide to build the broad coalition that brings with it a convincing majority. Such coalitions may well prove short-lived and inherently unstable but there’s a great reward there for the politician who can build it in the first place. Whoever he - or she - may be.