Two Views on why the Left Keeps Failing

This Land – the Story of a Movement, Owen Jones. 2020, Allen Lane.

The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, David Goodhart, 2017, Penguin.

Sometimes, reading two books together conveys something more than each of them separately.  Amongst the many things I have read during the long nights of lockdown, I happened to read two such books: This Land by Owen Jones and The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart.  Read together, these two contrasting books provide great insight into the problems afflicting British public life, and the political left in particular.

This Land is the view of a critical insider on the rise and fall of Corbynism in the Labour Party.  Goodhart started writing his explanation of Britain’s cultural and political schism shortly before the EU referendum, and was lucky to publish it as Brexit was dominating the news and paralysing parliament. 

Both books provoked strong reactions, positive and negative.  Some reviewers have conflated their assessments with personal political opinions (“this book fails where the author doesn’t agree with me”).  I will try to avoid doing that here.  I will argue that both authors have missed one obvious conclusion, that we must change our voting system.  That is my personal conclusion but it doesn’t alter my assessment of either book.

A good political book will provoke a different mixture of agreement and disagreement for each reader; on that measure both of these succeeded for me.  Both of them kept me reading and wanting more.  Both books argue for a certain type of politics.  Jones is a socialist, and was a strong supporter of Corbyn and Momentum, although he has sometimes fallen out with both.  Goodhart is more difficult to pigeon-hole, but he seems to be following a well-worn path of left-wingers from elite backgrounds who migrate towards the right as they grow older.

Jones aims to tell a good story and draw personal conclusions – on those measures he succeeds.  His account of how Labour Party staff set out to undermine their own leader is fascinating; so is his assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and twists of fate which propelled Corbyn to a position he never expected and then destroyed his project.  Before reading this book, I could not understand why Labour members regarded the 2017 election result as a success.  Viewed from the inside, Corbyn’s survival and the rebuff to his critics, were unexpected reasons for celebration.

This Land also provides a good explanation of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and the incompetent response but also its use and distortion by political opponents.  Jones’ status as a semi-detached insider was critical to his ability to tell these stories.  The conclusions are his own; he makes no claim to scientific objectivity – a point which some of the more critical reviewers seem to overlook.

By contrast, Goodhart’s book claims to analyse and explain the widening schism in Britain’s culture and politics.  It is a bold claim, partially fulfilled, but underpinned by little objective analysis.  Goodhart divides Britain’s voters into two main ‘tribes’ plus outliers and ‘in-betweeners’.  The biggest tribe, the ‘Somewheres’ are rooted in local communities, socially conservative and patriotic.  On the opposite side, the ‘Anywheres’ are geographically mobile, socially liberal and internationalist.  This tribe “dominates our culture and society”, according to Goodhart, although it suffered a shock when the Somewhere majority voted to leave the European Union. 

Goodhart presents survey evidence of public opinion on specific issues (e.g. immigration or gender roles), which differentiate the two main tribes.  He mentions “clusters” of opinion, but admits in the introduction that he did no cluster analysis.  So he is unable to say, for example, how many people who hold patriotic views are also opposed to immigration and free trade.  In the absence of such analysis he makes “common sense” assumptions about the packages of views people hold.  If you have ever done any social opinion research, you will realise how those assumptions are often wide of the mark.  People’s views on most subjects are diverse and sometimes inconsistent.  They rarely fit the boxes created for them by political parties or media commentators.

In some places Goodhart compounds the error by assuming that people act consistently with their beliefs – there is plenty of research evidence debunking that assumption.  So for example, he attributes the TTIP free trade agreement between Europe and the USA (scrapped by Donald Trump) to ‘Global Villagers’ – the smaller, more extreme tribe of Anywheres.  In reality, David Cameron who promoted TTIP in Britain, was very far from a Global Villager – and many of the activists who fought against TTIP held ‘Global Villager’ views on issues such as unrestricted immigration.

Goodhart exaggerates the political and media influence of the Anywheres – as if British governments quaked in fear of Guardian editorials, whilst comfortably ignoring what the Daily Mail has to say about immigration or crime.  At times his descriptions of the Anywheres seem unduly coloured by his personal experience as an Old Etonian living in London, working in the media and mixing with elites.

Despite those criticisms, treated with appropriate scepticism, The Road to Somewhere is well worth reading, particularly as a complement and contrast to This Land.  The broad sweep of Goodhart’s argument is thought-provoking.  The cultural and political divisions he discusses are real.  His explanation of why populism hurts the left more than the right foreshadowed some of Jones’ observations three years later.

Coincidentally, the cluster analysis Goodhart failed to do was done by Opinium, as he was writing the book.   Their report, Dead Centre, provides some support for his arguments, although the picture they paint is less clear-cut.  The eight ‘tribes’ they identify reflect the diversity and inconsistency of political views held by real people.  One of Opinium’s most important conclusions was that two tribes, holding broadly conservative views, encompass half the adult population.  That makes it much easier for one party, the Conservative Party, to achieve the 40% needed to win majorities under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.  By contrast, the remaining six tribes are highly diverse; deep divisions exist between them, particularly on issues such as immigration, protection of British workers and Britain’s relationship with Europe – the same issues which divide the Somewheres from the Anywheres in Goodhart’s book.

This diversity and division help to explain the perennial conflict within the Labour Party, of which This Land tells only the most recent episodes.  Although individual policies, such as renationalising the railways, may be widely supported, only a small proportion of the voting public has ever supported the package of policies offered by ‘Corbynism’ or ‘Blairism’ – a fact which Britain’s “lesser evil” electoral system sometimes obscures.  Although public opinion on specific issues is constantly shifting, the most divisive issues reflect deeper differences of values, which are more likely to endure.  Brexit was the issue that ripped apart the factions supporting Corbyn, but the value differences between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ (or Somewheres and Anywheres) would have surfaced in other ways if the referendum had never occurred.

Goodhart’s recommendations – to shift British politics towards Somewhere values – has struck a chord within the Conservative establishment, which now seems to have welcomed him as one of their own.  By contrast, Jones’ concluding chapter talks about learning lessons but does not explain what Labour should now do to win the next election.  Jones is a journalist, not a politician, so perhaps he decided to leave that for others, or perhaps he considered the question but failed to find an answer. 

If so, I agree: there is no answer.  People involved in party politics tend to believe that their tactical successes and failures have more impact on elections than they really do.  I remember that from my own time in party politics and I make some similar observations in my forthcoming book about  environmental activists.  To motivate ourselves, we have to convince ourselves that what we are doing is making a big difference.  That is understandable, but if we want to understand the big picture we have to set our feelings aside – something which Jones attempts to do in places, but does not always succeed.

The unfortunate truth for Labour is that no change of tactics, of policies, of fresh new faces on the front bench will unite the diverse anti-Conservative majority in Britain.  At present Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens project all rely on middle-class Anywhere memberships and project that image to the public.  Whilst they compete for the same type of voters, there is no left-wing Somewhere party, and under the current electoral system any attempt to create one would only strengthen the Conservatives.

For Labour, no formula to win back the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies of the North will satisfy the voters where I live in Bristol West, nor vice-versa.  That means, under first-past-the-post, the Conservatives will continue to win unless they screw up so badly that they alienate many of their natural supporters.  Labour might occasionally win by default, but not through their own efforts.  A longer-term alternative to Conservative rule will require a change to Britain’s voting system, and a realignment of parties on the left.  To achieve that, Labour must first repudiate its culture of hopeful denial and face the reality which these two books, plus the Opinium report, reveal.