Saturday, 21 December 2019

Northern towns will attend to themselves. It's the cities who are left behind.

This week we're seeing searching questions from the left asking how they reconnect with left behind communities in the north - the working classes who've abandoned Labour. They'll have a job because they're chasing a phantom. There is no such thing as a "working class community" anymore. We live and work independently, commuting far and wide where most of our interactions are now online. Centres of mass employment barely exist now.

Throughout Brexit, though, we've seen no end of poverty safaris from the Guardian and FT venturing up into the north to see the post industrial slums for themselves, usually concluding that more money must be splurged on the poor benighted northerners. The subtext being that the urchins wouldn't have voted to leave the EU had there not been a lack of investment and they'd still be voting Labour.

Consequently we will now see Labourists falling over themselves to patronise northerners and talk up the need for infrastructure spending, totally missing the point that the politics is changing because the composition of these places is changing.

Here we can easily paint a picture of dead end towns and villages but such a picture is obsolete. Maybe in the last decade and through the nineties this would have been a useful picture to paint, but we are now at least two decades on from deindustrialisation and many of these places have found a new purpose as dormitory towns. Aspiring younger families lengthen their commutes in search of affordable homes and decent schools away from the cities. Places that were once "former mining towns" are shrugging off that identity, an increasingly meaningless identity to younger people who couldn't even point to where the local pit used to be.

This is not just a northern phenomenon either. To a large extent this is happening because transport infrastructure has improved, enabling longer commutes so we're seeing the London commuter belt extending as far north as Peterborough, with sleepy fenland agri-towns now seeing new housing pop up all around.

You can still paint a picture of abandoned places though. The poster boy for Brexiteers is Lowestoft, not least because of the loss of the fishing industry. Unlike the towns surrounding Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester, now undergoing a process of gentrification, Lowestoft is nowhere near anywhere useful. It's two hours from anywhere remotely civilised. Longer if you've rightly concluded that Cambridge isn't civilisation. Leaving the EU won't fix that.

This is key to understanding the new working class (if such a thing even exists). If asked what would improve their lives, the cost of commuting comes somewhere at the top of the list. Even a decent middle income puts you in the "just about managing" bracket when you discount income tax, NI and the weekly tank of petrol. Also, the time spent commuting is creeping up to three and four hours in the day, worsened by incompetent eco-inspired traffic calming measures.

Labour perhaps understood this when promising cuts to rail fares and the four day working week, but it just wasn't convincing. Somebody has to pay for it and raids on billionaires isn't going to do it. The left succumbed to unsophisticated populist ideas but the public aren't so easily taken for fools. If there are solutions then, much like immigration, they are smaller strategic interventions rather than headline policies and big ticket gestures.

In any case the narrative is all wrong. The question should not be why isn't Rotherham voting Labour. These towns will regenerate themselves as they become more middle class. The urgent crisis is that the cities are voting Labour. There's a reason people are leaving the cities in search of a better life - and if the aspirational classes are moving out, what's left but a crime ridden dirty, crowded, noisy slum. That the regions are gradually shaking off their "working class identity" (ie no longer dilapidated shitholes) is indicative of a larger problem.

It's all very well calling for more transport infrastructure, further enabling this trend, but commuting is a massive waste of time, a dreadful way to live, and massively wasteful in terms of individual and national resources. Families are pissing money away through their petrol tanks while we're blowing vast sums on roads that will reach their capacity within months of being upgraded. The question is how we prevent the exodus and how we end the misery of commuter slavery.

In respect of that, there is an immigration angle to this. It's no sin for people to want to live among their own kind with mutually accepted social norms which are near impossible in multicultural suburbs - and it's not controversial to say that multicultural inner suburbs tend to be shitholes, making it too expensive to live in the outer suburbs as house prices skyrocket. This has been characterised as "white flight" but it's not just white people who don't want to live in crime ridden dirty slums.

This then goes some way to explaining Labour's problem. We talk about "working class communities" but this is a euphemism for white English people living anywhere north or west of Peterborough. Labour panders to minorities because the real Labour strongholds are the city slums - and in so doing, Labour has nothing to say to white people, who (unlike Labour) think something has to be done about immigration and that it's not ok for Pakistani men to rape underage girls.

Fundamentally, though, Labour's problems run deeper. Labour is not a Labour movement. The Labour movement of old was comprised of actual workers who lived and worked together, went to war together, went to the seaside on holiday together. Working class solidarity once meant something and its politics set out to achieve something for those it represented. But that politics doesn't exist anymore because those mass employment industries no longer exist. Consequently Labour is just a brand name for a political company based in London trading on its legacy identity as a workers movement. But now the workers have different ideas and other aspirations.

Being that it is just a brand name, rather than setting out an agenda based on their values and selling it with a view to accomplishing something, they see politics as a marketing game, and will change their politics to suit, retailing whatever policies they think will reach their target audience in the swing seats. This is indicative of a wider debasement of politics and the Tories are just as bad. They're just better at marketing. Elections are retail, not politics.

This time around Labour lost the election because of its dinosaur attitudes. And by that I don't just mean Jeremy Corbyn. Even the Blairite/progressive wing of Labour is still fixed on the idea that the northern working classes are a huddled mass waiting to be rescued by the metropolitan betters. Even now, Labour's thinkers are chasing the same phantom, with James Bloodworth (by no means a Corbynista) falling for the "left behind" narrative.

Ultimately they're deluding themselves. You can travel anywhere in the country and find an armpit of a town with an unemployable welfare underclass and paint a picture of a deprived and poverty stricken country but the rest of the country doesn't recognise that picture and won't buy into a policy agenda based on that set of assumptions.

While everyone in politics is in a rush to display their working class credentials, the truth is that as a country we are not badly off, we moan too much and life doesn't suck that hard. It would be better if we had a bit more money to spend and more free time, and government could easily make that happen, and we'll vote for anyone who can make that happen. We don't give a toss who owns the trains just so long as they turn up.

Beyond that we Brits just want a safe and quiet life to live, according to our own values, without being lectured and coerced. That's why nobody is in a hurry to vote for a party who thinks women have dicks, immigration control is fascist, and anyone who thinks differently is basically Reinhard Heydrich. It's really not rocket science.

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