LS Lowry Going to Work

This essay, on the debate about social conservatism and the working class,  was my Observer column this week. It was published on 152December 2019, under the headline ‘The idea that the British working class is socially conservative is a nonsense’.

‘It is easier for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on identity & culture.’ So tweeted politics professor and TV pundit Matthew Goodwin on the morning of the Tory election victory as the moral of the night before. The Tories, so the story goes, won over huge swaths of Labour voters by a willingness to back greater state intervention and increased public spending. Labour lost them by a refusal to shift on questions of crime or diversity.

Long before the Tory demolition of Labour’s ‘red wall’, it had become accepted almost as a given that the working class was intrinsically socially conservative. The abandonment by working-class voters of social democratic parties throughout Europe, and their embrace of populism, was seen by many as a rejection of the liberal values that define the left.

The working class, runs the argument, is rooted in communities and cherishes values of family, nation and tradition. It has little time for liberal individualism or for the language of diversity and rights. That belongs to the ‘metropolitan liberals’ and to a different political tradition. Indeed, many argue that if Britain’s electoral system were not rooted in a first-past-the-post system, the Labour party would have already broken into two, one part representing the socially conservative but economically leftwing working class, the other liberal metropolitans. Labour now faces a choice: either accept that its traditional working-class voters are gone forever or abandon liberal social policies.

The trouble with this argument is that the key feature of Britain over the past half century has been not social conservatism but an extraordinary liberalisation. The annual British Social Attitudes survey, which began recording public attitudes in 1983, has tracked ‘the onward march of social liberalism’. On a host of issues, from gender roles to gay marriage, from premarital sex to interracial relationships, Britain has liberalised to a degree that would have left the average Briton of the 1980s aghast. It’s not just metropolitan liberals but society as a whole, including the working class, which has embraced this change.

So much has Britain liberalised that those who still cling to values that would have been consensual just 30 years are now seen as not properly British. When Muslim parents in Birmingham protested against primary schools teaching children about gay lifestyles, they were not welcomed as embodying solid working-class values, but criticised for not being properly integrated into British life.

In today’s discussions about working-class attitudes, ‘social conservatism’ has been redefined to mean not opposition to gay marriage or premarital sex, but support for a far narrower cluster of views: harsher punishments for criminals, a more patriotic attitude and, in particular, a clampdown on immigration. Even here, the reality is more complex. It’s true that there are deep class divides on immigration, with differences between the views of unskilled workers and those of professionals being the widest in Europe. Yet, nearly a third of unskilled workers are ‘pro-immigrant’ and almost half think that Britain should allow in ‘many’ or ‘some’ migrants from poorer European countries. That’s a sizable contrarian minority within a supposedly uniformly hostile working class.

Equally telling are the reasons for hostility to immigration. Sociologists Vera Messing and Bence Ságvári, using data from 20 European nations, have shown that the scale of immigration has little impact on anti-immigrant attitudes. In societies in which trust is low and social solidarity weak, hostility towards migrants is high, even when immigrants are few in number. Where trust in public institutions is high and social stability strong, people are more open to immigration. The BSA similarly found that attitudes to immigration were intertwined with issues of trust.

Working-class wariness of immigration is not an expression of an innate social conservatism but of the loss of trust, the breaking of social bonds and a sense of voicelessness. Working-class lives have been made more precarious not just through material deprivation, but through the erosion of the more intangible aspects of their lives – their place in society, the sense of community, the desire for dignity. Immigration has become symbolic of this loss. We should not, however, confuse anger at social atomisation and political voicelessness with social conservatism.

Historically, hostility to liberal individualism has taken conservative and radical forms. Conservatives saw history, tradition and the nation as the means by which the individual became part of a greater whole. For radical critics of liberalism, an individual realised himself or herself not through tradition but through struggles to transform society, from battles for decent working conditions to campaigns for equal rights. These struggles created organisations, such as trade unions and civil rights movements, which drew individuals into new modes of collective life and forged new forms of belonging.

These broad ways of thinking of ‘community’ have long coexisted in tension. But in recent years, as trade unions have weakened and social movements crumbled, it has seemed for many that the only form of collective politics left is that rooted in conservative, Burkean notions of national or ethnic identity.

At the same time, many sections of the left have also given up on traditional modes of social change, retreating instead into the vapidity of identity politics and diversity talk. In so doing, they have often abandoned not just class politics, but their attachment to traditional liberal values as well, transforming the meaning of equality and rejecting free speech.

The problem is not that metropolitan liberals have become too liberal or the working class more conservative. It is that social and economic changes have unstitched the relationship between the social and the liberal that defines the left; the relationship between a defence of community, of policies that put social need before private profit and a defence of rights, whether of gay people or migrants, and of opposition to unequal treatment. It’s a relationship expressed throughout the history of working-class struggles, from 19th-century opposition to slavery, to the defence of Jewish communities against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 1930s, to the support for the Grunwick strikers in the 1970s.

Today, the unpicking of that relationship is visible in everything from accommodation to antisemitism and anti-migrant rhetoric, on the one hand, to the easy dismissal of working-class voters as ignorant and racist, on the other. The challenge for the left is not to embrace social conservatism but to reforge the link between the social and the liberal.


The painting is ‘Going to Work’ by LS Lowry.


  1. It is a measure of Labour’s failure to market itself that crime remains a Conservative issue, despite the most dramatic possible display on London Bridge, a few days before the election, of the damaging incompetence of Conservative parole and sentencing. Recall that Blair, whose marketing I admire if little else, adopted the slogan “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” to link law-and-order issues to those of social justice.

    • ‘The End of (Whig) History?’. We have finally been forced to confront the fact that the brand of ‘liberalism’ espoused since the end of the Cold War has been far from liberal. It has driven a wedge between the academy and the working class through its often demagogic censorship. It has transformed the unbounded artistic and intellectual speech that existed until the early nineties into an almost dictatorial ‘ready to hand’ rhetoric of harm, attack and alibi.

      This is what was rejected at the last election, on both the right and the left.
      It is often forgotten what won the Cold War: leading ideas, more Jackson Pollock than McDonald’s. Both the left and the right courted this Medea, and both rejected her when they had reached their ‘Corinth’ of a neo-liberal promised land. Maybe now she has been whispering and had her revenge.

  2. damon

    “The trouble with this argument is that the key feature of Britain over the past half century has been not social conservatism but an extraordinary liberalisation.”

    This is true. Everyone has liberalised. Even right wingers are more liberal.
    But not everyone has become ‘woke’. Working class people haven’t gone that far to the left that they’re agreeing with Owen Jones and watching Novara Media. Or have started to read the Guardian and articles like this.
    There is still a wide political gulf between those traditional working class people and the modern mainstream progressive culture that’s pushed in the media.

    An example of that was just a couple of hours ago on BBC London radio, when they had two guys in the studio to review the papers. They have a podcast called “A gay and a non gay”.

    You don’t have to be homophobic to find that kind of prissy nonsense irritating.
    The main point of discussion was that last night’s Gavin and Stacey TV show had included the Pogues/ Kirsty MacColl Christmas song where “the homophobic F-word” was sung at a karaoke.
    They found it such a “hurtful” thing to hear broadcast on the TV.
    Even football hooligan types aren’t that homophobic anymore, but there are limits to how much modern wokeness they can swallow.

    This is a Guardian piece on segregation in Bradford.

    “It’s 3pm on Thursday at the Brown Cow Inn, the only pub left in Little Horton, two miles south-west of Bradford city centre. Inside, the all white group of afternoon drinkers watch children from a nearby school stream by and the racially charged contrast between the two communities could not be more stark.

    “That was my school,” said one man, as the group of British Asian children in smart blue blazers filed happily down Little Horton Lane and home. “When I left in 1970, there were three Asian lads in the whole place. Now it’s a case of spot the white kid.” Another said: “If you stand up on the hill, you used to be able to see mill chimneys. Now it’s just bloody domes.” ”

    They are authentic working class voices as much as more as more left wing Labour Party supporting ones are.
    I know that the strategy has been to marginalise and silence voices like that as much as possible, but they still persist.
    This was another Guardian piece on Blackburn. The diversity experiment doesn’t always run smoothly.

    The progressive, Guardian opinion writer’s arguments say that Britain has to become more and more diverse, because it’s not right to resist people wanting to move to the U.K. And that the resulting change will probably create a new communities that are even better than the existing ones.
    The country has liberalised, but there is also reluctance to embrace radical change like that (without reservations at least). Not everything has gone well everywhere. And the northern mill towns are just one area where there have been ongoing diversity problems.

  3. damon

    Matthew Goodwin was interviewed on the TRIGGERnometry youtube channel a few days ago.
    It’s well worth closely listening to what he says.

    I tend to side with him and the two guys who run the site, more than I do with Kenan and the other Guardian opinion columnists. I think he was right. It may be possible for the Tories to turn left more easily than it is for working class people to turn left.
    And by “turning left” I mean left enough to be reading Kenan and Guardian columnists like Maya Goodfellow.

    Immigration isn’t bad for the economy or for ‘British culture’.
    It’s anti-immigration politics – not immigration – that’s the real problem in the U.K. Remember that in this election.
    Get a copy of HOSTILE ENVIRONMENT if you want to hear more

    That’s still too “left wing” for the kinds of working class people that are said to have swung the election for the Tories. “Workington Man” etc. They tend not to be that open to views such as Maya Goodfellow’s.

    There is a real divide in class consciousness, and I feel it reading Guardian pieces like this and then comparing them to what I experience in the everyday world. Whether it’s in London or in Eastern Europe.
    I really don’t think that much of Eastern Europe wants to follow England’s move into having such diverse open societies. And even in England, there are a lot of reservations about it that mostly now just remain hidden and stifled.
    So I think that Stormzy had a point the other day when he said that there was hidden racism in Britain.
    I’m just not sure if he’s being entirely fair to people who don’t like the subculture of racial difference (and you could even say ‘separatism’) that his musical subculture promotes.
    I don’t like it – but maybe that’s just a generational thing, as I’m twice as old as he is.
    Old ones often don’t like the latest youth culture.

    Middle class liberals though aren’t going to get THIS.
    “Outcry as residents want to turn London youth club into coffee shop
    Bollo Brook youth centre credited with saving children from knife crime is at centre of gentrification row”

    That’s just a small story from everyday London. That’s the culture that we’re living with in the capital now.
    It’s all around us. The “urban street culture” has hegemony across London. Even young white people defer to it.
    It’s my guess though that there is more resentment to how the modern inner city culture has developed than can really be acknowledged publicly. And so that’s why Stormzy has a point. But he’s wrong to say that it’s necessarily race that people have the problem with. IMO, it’s not race but these race based subcultures.
    It’s too nuanced a discussion for wider society though so we just have to call things out as racism etc.

    Lastly, I smiled at this tweet last week from high profile rapper J Hus.
    He’s since been involved in a bit of homophobia controversy when he said that white liberals shouldn’t force their LBGT agenda on “African people”
    But this tweet said even more about general sectarian attitudes I think.

  4. damon

    This is a great bit of social history. Showing an Islington council estate only a few decades ago.

    Are these people “socially conservative”? Are they really served by either of the two current Islington MPs?
    The area has been transformed by both time and diversity. Those young boys are middle aged now.
    How well did they move with the changing times? Could they continue living in such a place where their accents now seem old fashioned and antiquated?
    When people on the left go on about “the working class” I often have the idea that they don’t actually know or understand people like this.
    Although some of these boys could still be living in the area and be big Jeremy Corbyn supporters.
    But just as likely, they might feel estranged from that modern kind of political leftism.
    You don’t often hear those kinds of accents in inner London anymore – which I think is quite a shame.

  5. Hostility to immigration linked to mistrust ?

    But mistrust is linked to lack of social provision – most notably, of social housing.

    If New Labour had been as good at building social housing as they were at bringing in migrant labour, Labour would now be in power.

  6. damon

    I think that many working class people would be closer to the views of Katharine Birbalsingh are than they are to those of the people criticising her over what she says about Stormzy and modern Grime music.

    I’m glad to see it wasn’t just me.
    For years, people on the other side of the argument have been downplaying this issue and scoffing at those who raise it. That’s an example of the left finding it impossible to “turn right” I think.

    I see that Andrew Doyle has also been getting some unfair criticism from the left.

    The left is pretty shocking these days. But Doyle is going to do a comedy tour with Douglas Murray.
    He really is a right winger – isn’t he?
    But he too is probably closer to “working class” concerns on diversity and immigration than the modern left.

    I went for a walk through Islington and Hackney yesterday. From Finsbury Park down through central Hackney to the City of London.
    It’s quite amazing to see how much of the population has changed since the 1970s.
    I did eventually spot some white working class people. In the Wetherspoons pub opposite the Hackney Empire.
    They looked like a bunch of blokes who were getting ready to head off to watch a football match.
    But they are such a “rare species” in that part of London. Ethnic minority people are far more numerous.
    And then I walked down to Broadway Market E8.
    That is just so “white” and middle class it’s almost a parody.

    My thoughts on this are that middle class left and liberal people just don’t see things the way other people (like myself) might see the same things. The upper (pedestrianised) part of Mare Street is proper ghetto.
    There are dodgy drug dealer types all over the place and it has a sinister feeling.
    Certainly not a place to be getting your iPad out to look at the map.
    The Paddy Power bookmakers there looks quite pathetic on a Saturday morning.
    Just across from it is a shrine of remembrance put up by friends of the recently murdered black 22 year old Exauce Ngimbi.
    It’s not a city at ease with itself I’m my opinion. There’s too much divergence of people and ways of life.

  7. Greetings and best wishes … I’m currently reading Christopher Wylie’s account of his role at Cambridge Analytica – I would be very interested in your reaction or review of his account of the way in which they increasingly used psychological profiling to target and promote racialised thinking … particularly in his ‘The Dark Triad’ chapter of Mindf*ck.

    In my opinion this gives important insights into a number of perplexing trends that we’ve had to confront – without clearly understanding what was fuelling them. I think he’s done us a great service here by exposing what went on.

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