Friday, 18 July 2014

Britain's Growing Cultural Divide

David Goodhart writes:

The gap that has opened up between the secular liberal graduate baby boomer worldview that dominates party, governmental and social institutions and the political and psychological intuitions of the ordinary citizen is the new cultural/class divide in Britain.

Policy Network has made an important contribution to the think tank scene in recent years but I find this paper dense, abstract and unconvincing and its 
5/75/20 configuration of our society to be almost completely arbitrary. 

I want to focus some of my response on what the paper describes as the communitarian/cosmopolitan dividing line.

Contrary to the paper’s argument that social democrats should not become “over-obsessed” by it, I believe it lies at the heart of social democracy’s current problems ‒ and it is not just about immigration.

But first to the 5/75/20 issue. These kinds of numbers can be vivid ways of illustrating social and political trends.

The idea of the “two-thirds” society, coined some years ago, in which the rich, the affluent and the moderately well off share interests that set them apart from the bottom third continues to have resonance. 

Why 5/75/20?

The 5 and the 20 may be clear enough, though surely the really big pulling away at the top has been among the top 1 per cent.

Income differentials in general have become more compressed in recent years. The 75 per cent, supposedly the “new insecure”, is where things get fuzzy. What evidence is there for this new insecurity?

Yes, of course, incomes have been stagnant in recent years because we have been through a big recession. 

But there is very little evidence for a powerful new dose of labour market insecurity, despite the increase in zero hours contracts and a sharp rise in self-employment.

Some four-fifths of people working in the UK are permanent employees and if anything they are getting more permanent: average job tenure has been rising in recent years to over 9 years for men and nearly 8 years for women.

The real problem for both Britain and Labour is not so much labour market insecurity as the “hour glass” labour market in which about 35 per cent of jobs (increasingly graduate jobs) are productive, skilled and decently paid while far too many of the rest are low skill/low pay jobs that school leavers have been encouraged to disdain.

The direct effect of globalisation itself on many, perhaps most, British citizens is exaggerated. Take a medium sized post-industrial town like York.

Lower labour costs elsewhere in the world have certainly played a role in reducing York’s manufacturing base of 30 years ago.

The British Rail carriage works, some of the confectionary companies, Redfearn national glass, have all gone.  

But what remains has only a limited connection to the global economy.

There is still Rowntree’s, bought 26 years ago by Nestle, and successfully selling into the global sweets and snacks market.

Yet about 25 per cent of the York population work in the public sector; the largest single slice for the NHS. 

Most of the rest work in the service sector which is not generally exposed to global markets: Aviva the insurance giant has a big office, the tourist industry sustains many jobs in bars and restaurants some of which will be seasonal, there are the usual lawyers and other professional service companies, and a smattering of creative industry companies including a computer games operation.

There is also a successful university on the edge of town that attracts about 15,000 students (including postgraduates). 

So, York is not much affected by “globalisation” and the extent to which it is, it is probably a beneficiary: greater ease of travel is good for tourism, the university has several thousand international students and Britain’s insurance industry is a successful exporter so some of those Aviva jobs may be created by selling insurance products abroad.

The biggest globalisation negative, at least from the point of view of lower income York citizens, is probably competition in the job and housing market from young people from other EU countries, especially the poorer eastern ones.

It is true that York is thriving in a way that many parts of post-industrial Britain are not.

But that is not because the outside world is bearing down in a more hostile way on, say, Hartlepool but rather because the latter has fewer people able to contribute to the productive and successful parts of the British economy.

York has historically been a relatively affluent town and it is now blessed with a larger number of well qualified people, including a large number of graduates.

They fill well paid jobs in the top part of the hour glass labour market, which themselves then generate more such jobs. 

Hartlepool by contrast has far fewer well educated people and has not attracted as many jobs as it should have done because of the low level of basic education in Britain and the fact that even after 13 years of Labour in power, Britain’s technical and vocational training remains a mess.

The British state spends far more per head on higher education than it does on vocational training and the reform and expansion of higher education has benefitted York far more than Hartlepool.

Both York and Hartlepool are Labour seats.

York used to be a “swing” seat that switched parties from election to election, generally following the national trend. It is now a safe Labour seat and getting safer.

Hartlepool is if anything becoming less safe, though it is likely to remain Labour for the foreseeable future.

But the two places do illustrate the point that at the 2010 election Labour for the first time became a middle class party not just among its MPs and activists but among the voters too ‒ a majority of Labour votes came from the so-called A, B and C1 voters with the old working class of C2, D and E now in a minority.

And this is not just because the C2, D and E groups are shrinking, though they are, but because an increasing number do not think Labour speaks for them any longer. And they are broadly right.

The gap that has opened up between the secular liberal graduate baby boomer worldview that dominates our party, governmental and social institutions and the political and psychological intuitions of the ordinary citizen is the new cultural/class divide in Britain.

The liberal graduates tend to be universalistic, suspicious of most kinds of group attachment, and individualistic, committed to autonomy and self-realisation.

Such liberals care about social justice but, as the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has pointed out, they don’t “get” what most other people also get ‒ loyalty, authority and the value of stability and continuity in communities (most people are not that mobile, 60 per cent of British adults live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14). 

The dominant idea of the good life in modern Britain turns out to be something that looks very like the life of today’s metropolitan upper professional: well educated people who leave home at 18 go to good universities, enjoy mobile careers, move to London or abroad for a few years, have achieved rather than ascribed identities, and urge this social and geographical mobility on everyone else.

But it is not possible for everyone to live this life and it sets up far too many people to fail.

Modern centre-left liberalism (and centre-right liberalism) imposes the worldview, and economic interests, of the mobile, graduate, elite on the rest of society.

Why has so much time been spent on expanding and reforming higher education in the past generation, and so little on sorting out our chaotic vocational training system ‒ leaving us with an apartheid system between the graduates of good universities and the rest?

Because it reflects the lives and interests of that graduate elite, of which the political class is one part.

Why have we failed to build enough houses, do something about the utilities and petrol prices or sort out the welfare system?

Either because the interests of the liberal baby boomer elite are not sufficiently engaged or because ideological squeamishness ‒ the liberal stress on need rather than contribution in welfare ‒ prevents it.

And the biggest value gap concerns the security and identity issues ‒ most of which boil down to the common sense notion that we value those close to us more than those who are distant.

At the national level this takes the form of “fellow citizen favouritism”. This is not about race, it is about fairness.

It is the belief that when the interests of a British citizen, of whatever colour or creed, conflict with the interests of a citizen of another country, the interests of the British citizen should normally come first.

Too much of modern liberal politics ‒ whether the EU idea of non-discrimination or some aspects of human rights policy ‒ overrides this basic political intuition.

The dilemma for Labour is not so much how to represent the “new insecure” but how to represent the growing graduate class with its post-modern worldview ‒ which is helping to pile up Labour majorities in university towns like York ‒ at the same time as the more communitarian left-behind parts of Britain like Hartlepool.

It needs to create policy bridges between the two groups.

One such policy is to stop and reverse the thoughtless over-expansion of higher education. This has left us with an over-production of graduates which does not benefit the graduates; nearly three years after graduating 36 per cent of law graduates are doing non-graduate jobs.

It has also left us with a shortage of people with intermediate/technical skills and of people ready and able to do the 7m to 8m basic jobs in social care, retailing, cleaning and so on that still need doing. 

This skills and attitudes mismatch is not only one of the main drivers of large scale immigration, it also helps to create a graduate v non-graduate class divide which is economically inefficient and culturally demoralising for far too many people. 

The education policy challenge is about how to create a new layer of good technical colleges and rebuild the broken apprenticeship system.

But there is an even bigger issue relating to status and esteem: how do you properly reward and respect the middling and low skill jobs that still need to be done, while at the same time continuing to encourage the aspiration, especially among people from poorer backgrounds, to aim for university and a higher professional career.

The modern centre-left has been too much captured by the worldview of the mobile, liberal, graduate class. In many ways that class is the future: it represents successful, progressive Britain in places like York. 

But it is not and never will be sufficient to win general elections, even when combined with the growing, left-leaning ethnic minority vote.

Labour also needs to make itself more relevant to ordinary British people who are not hostile to the modern world and are not suffering from some nebulous “insecurity” but often experience change as loss, have a normal hierarchy of moral obligations, and cannot or do not want to forge a career in the professions or the creative industries.

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