On 13 December, Labour activist Luke Pagarani tweeted one of the most convincing post-mortems on the results of the general election. He explained that his encounters with the electorate – through around 120 hours canvassing in London, Bedford and Milton Keynes – revealed something about older (50-80 year old) white voters, both middle and working class: many of them hated Jeremy Corbyn not only due to his demonization in the press, but more fundamentally due to the fact that he ‘believes that British/white lives are of equal value with the lives of others.’ Against Corbyn, these voters believed ‘the prioritisation of British lives must always be assumed, never justified, taken for granted as the ground the state is built on.’ Pagarani’s point here on the problem of Corbyn’s internationalism for Britain’s aging post-war generations should be of significant interest to historians of the British left.
Since the election, there has been talk of a political reconfiguration – the end of the ‘red wall’, the political end of the legacies of industrial Britain, the end of white working-class socialism. But there has been talk of this before, in 1970, in 1983, in 1997. Taking the long view, this election was less a definitive ending of progressive politics in Labour’s ‘heartland’ and more a symptom of an ongoing tension within British socialism – between liberal internationalism and protectionism. These terms sound like two tired old men in Edwardian suits, antiquated and unable to make sense of today’s realities, barely concealing their cultural imperialism or racism. But the domestic politics of equality in an unequal world must wade through all the barely concealed racism and attempt to take this ideological tension seriously. Britain’s post-war social democracy was by definition exclusionary – framed around a politics of ‘the people’ – and built on global inequality. In the context of the climate crisis, borders will likely become more not less significant.
Just eleven days after Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, London’s 1968 May Day parade splintered down this fault line. Marching Powellite trade unionists and anti-Powell student protesters came to blows and were separated by a police line.1 Radical internationalism has a long tradition in Britain – among missionaries, trade unionists, Fabians and black and South Asian community organisers – but in 1968 it was framed around a rejection of imperial nationalism, the decolonisation of British culture and the world. As the ‘old’ and ‘new’ lefts yelled across a police line outside the House of Commons, Corbyn was volunteering as a teacher for VSO in newly independent Jamaica. To Powell’s supporters, Corbyn would probably not have represented a new political formation, a new anti-racist global agenda (like today’s climate activists) but likely would have been seen as a continuation of a middle-class missionary impulse.
Even more, Pagarani’s reading of older white voters’ understanding of their social rights reminds me of my research into the letters of Powell’s supporters in the late 1960s and 1970s. As Pagarani tweeted:
When these voters talk about having paid into the system all their lives, they’re not just talking about literal national insurance payments and the financial benefits they’re entitled to in recompense. They’re talking about a life of loyalty and deference to the state they expected to be their exclusive patron; and now they see a Labour leader who seems to invite the whole world to his allotment, to offer his homemade jam to anyone who needs it, no matter which flags their ancestors have spilt their blood for.
For white working-class supporters of Powell, social welfare was less a human right (intrinsic and exportable and without end) than a political victory won from ‘the Establishment’ as recompense for their labour and their wartime sacrifices. One anonymous letter written two days after Powell’s speech sums up the Powellite sentiment best:
Our British working classes have maintained this country all down the years with the toil of our hand and the sweat of our brows, and shed rivers of blood in its defence, as you know. We have bled for it, fought for it, worked for it and paid for it. And now, two packs of the dirtiest traitors on Gods earth [British politicians], for the sake of a rotten, old tradition of a dead Empire (which by the way was acquired by the sacrifice of millions of British lives, mostly the workers) have wrenched our birth-right from us and handed our country over on a silver plate to millions of immigrants from all over the world … We don’t owe these people a living as some of the dirty traitors in this country seem to think. Our British people took civilization to their countries many years ago, at a great cost of British lives and money … Our British working classes have been sacrificed on the altar of a dead colonialism.2
This vision of a broken contract between the state – or, more accurately, the patrician class – and ‘the people’ of course profoundly ignored the wartime sacrifices of colonial forces, not to mention the British state’s violent extraction of the wealth of colonised people. Black intellectuals and activists – from Claudia Jones to Stuart Hall to David Lammy – have countered this exclusionary vision of a birth-right, which is no doubt animated by racism, by insisting that the postcolonial migrants who came to Britain after the war also ‘bled for it, fought for it, worked for it and paid for it.’ Despite the depressing outcome of this election, their arguments have expanded Britain’s political imagination, expanded the bounds of ‘the people’. But an expectation of deference or loyalty to the nation remains written into Britain’s social democratic experiment and, as Pagarani’s analysis forces us to ask: what of the lives of others?
As the attempted revival of Blue Labour shows, this is a question that will continue to divide Labour. Renewing the welfare state is an urgent priority. But this must be about more than funding models and delivery modes. It means building understanding of the struggle for economic and social rights that draws from both traditions, both international solidarity and the postcolonial nation.
1. ‘Dockers and Students in Angry Scenes,’ Times, 2 May 1968.
2. ‘Anonymous’ to Powell, 22 April 1968. POLL 8.1.1.