This essay, on the values gap between voters and politicians, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 5 July 2020, under the headline ‘What are politicians for if they can’t change public opinion?’
‘We look towards the other England and wonder how it could be so provincial, so backward, so completely out of step with the times. And then we turn our backs on it… That is the really alarming thing about this national division.’
That might have been written yesterday, ending some journalistic dispatch from ‘Brexitland’. In fact, it’s from Geoffrey Moorhouse’s 1964 book, The Other England, which exposes in tones of fascinated condescension the reality of life outside the ‘golden circle’ of the home counties.
Five years later, the Tory leader, Edward Heath, drove through the north-east of England. ‘If I lived here,’ he remarked to a friend, as Dominic Sandbrook recounts in his book White Heat, ‘I wouldn’t vote for Harold Wilson. And I wouldn’t vote for myself either.’ ‘Who would you vote for?’ asked his friend. ‘Robespierre,’ Heath replied.
It’s a reminder that many of the themes that dominate British politics today – the cleavage between London and the provinces, the chasm between the working class and the elite, the contempt and pity for the ‘left behind’ – run deep into our political history.
Last week, the academic research initiative The UK in a Changing Europe published a study showing how both Labour and the Tories are out of touch with their voters, though in different ways. Tory MPs are well to the right of the electorate on economic matters. Tory voters are closer to Labour MPs on such issues than to Conservative ones. Labour MPs are far more liberal than the electorate when it comes to social values. On some questions, Labour voters seem more conservative than Tory MPs.
This ‘values gap’ has engaged much debate in recent years, especially in response to Labour’s faltering fortunes. The party, many argue, needs to rein back its cultural liberalism, seen as the mark of the metropolitan elite, and adopt a more conservative tone to attract back its lost voters.
Yet it’s not so simple. For a start, Britain is already socially highly liberal, as I recently observed. The debate about social values today is really about two distinct kinds of issue. The first relates to questions of history and identity, such as the controversy over statues. The second, the issues at the heart of the ‘values gap’ report, are concerns linked to a sense of community – crime, discipline or patriotism, for example.
In neither case are people’s differing views best defined along a liberalism/conservatism measure. Is it meaningful, for instance, to describe someone who supports equal pay and laws against racial discrimination but also opposes the taking down of statues or demands more school discipline as ‘illiberal’?
The second reason to think more carefully about the values gap is that it’s not new. Between 1965 and 1970, parliament passed a series of laws that have come to define social liberalism – the decriminalisation of abortion and homosexuality, the outlawing of racial discrimination, and equal pay for women.
Few today would cavil at these laws. At the time, though, polls suggested that 93% believed that ‘homosexuals are in need of medical or psychiatric treatment’ and that 80% thought there were too many black people in the country. Public school-educated classicist Enoch Powell presented himself as a ‘man of the people’ and his bigotry as ‘common sense’. Sound familiar?
What’s new today is not the values gap, but the way we relate to it. Traditional political affiliations have dissolved. As a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, also published last week, observes: ‘The Conservatives are now more popular with people on low incomes than high incomes. Labour is as popular with the wealthy as with those on low incomes.’
At the same time, questions of culture and identity have come to colonise politics. Whereas in the 1960s, class politics was anchored by material issues – struggles over wages or housing – today, the values gap itself has become the focus of class division.
As a consequence, its significance has become exaggerated. And people have been pushed into taking more polarised positions, whether on statues or on immigration, as a means of placing themselves on the values map.
A final thought. Politics is about both standing on a set of principles and trying to win people over, and about shaping policies so as to build the largest coalition of support. But, as traditional relationships between parties and their voters have dissolved, so principles and persuasion have become subordinated to the art of cutting one’s ideological cloth to fit the public mood. The discussion of the values gap is almost entirely about how the parties – Labour or Tory – should change to fit popular sentiment, rather than being also about how to shape public opinion in a different direction. That, for a democracy, is not a healthy place to be.