The changing demographic mix of modern suburbia has made them key battlegrounds in British politics. Inhabited by diverse people, with multifaceted identities negotiating increasingly atomized and time-poor lives, they offer fertile ground for rebuilding community cohesion – and by extension, political rejuvenation. This can come about through local solutions to the common grievances of modern day suburbia’s ageing and anxious populations
This essay touches on the themes of identity, community and social democracy to see how these concepts relate to contemporary suburbia. Although traditionally built as desirable areas in which to live, since their creation the suburbs – areas close to but distinct from the city, boasting the benefits of general salubriousness and greenery – have been accused of social and architectural monotony. They are also where most people in the UK live, latterly attracting political interest from Conservative Boris Johnson’s successful 2008 London Mayoral campaign and alluded to in Labour’s post-mortem examinations of the 2010 general election defeat. Ed Miliband’s concept of the ‘squeezed middle’, Policy Network’s report Southern Discomfort Again
and Nick Clegg’s “alarm clock Britain” all allude to suburban voters and their concerns, which make them an ideal test case for community living.
Changing values and situations
In Anglo-Saxon parlance suburbs evoke aspiration and progress, security and social respectability. Stereotypically seen as middle class and “safe”, suburbs were built in optimism on the principle of defensible space in both their owner-occupier and social housing “homes fit for heroes” versions; their great expansion was in the inter-war years of the 1930s. Yet, as old models of hidebound class fragment in the face of occupational restructuring and ethnic diversity, it has been argued that insecurity characterises modern suburban living – polling shows that immigration and fear of crime are the top suburban fears. Added to this is economic and environmental instability and the spectre of domestic terrorism. All these are arguments for a rethinking of a suburbia that, in the 21st century, is increasingly culturally diverse with a built environment often suffering from un-let retail units and an ageing and anxious population.
How do these characteristics fit with centre-left positioning? Suburban values embody materialism – private house builders marketed suburban living as a consumer choice in contrast to the constraints of remaining in a decaying city. Yet suburbs no longer fit the traditional template of dormitory towns for a male breadwinning city-centre workforce with its attendant housewives. The dual-earner household is now the norm and a networked society allows paid working from home for all. Various centre-left shibboleths have fractured: trade union membership has long been in decline, the public sector is set to contract and, as Michael Kenny argues, the politics of redistribution has been replaced with the assertion of minorities who fight for recognition. David Cameron has continued the tradition of Conservative championing of the suburban values of moralism and property ownership (take Thatcher’s granting council tenants the right to purchase their homes) in promising tax-breaks for the married and changes to inheritance tax. The claim that “we’re all in this together”, coming from George Osborne, a Tory of considerable means, has been contradicted by a lack of action on bankers’ bonuses and the fact that women will be hardest hit by Conservative spending cuts that include changes to the child benefit system.
Other traditional suburban identifications, too, are in flux. Rising rates of divorce and reconfigured households help the property market remain dynamic, with the result that the nuclear family, once the cornerstone of suburban life, is less dominant. Increasing lifespans have made social care a key concern. And it seems the British are less and less a nation of joiners – many early suburbs were constructed around church buildings but attendance has fallen in an age of rationalism, science and progress (though church school admissions criteria has sustained congregations to an extent). Social class is less easily definable than before, requiring new classificatory models. Occupational groupings are more fluid, with indeterminate service sector jobs (e.g. call-centre staff) difficult to place in the old white collar / blue collar binary. However, your parentage and postcode at birth still play a defining role in future life-chances even if some politicians, including John “classless society” Major and croquet-playing John “we are all middle class now” Prescott, have indicated that class struggle is an anachronistic relic of the past.
Mainstream politicians in Britain have tended to pride themselves on the consensual practice of a restrictive immigration policy combined with allowing ex-colonial subjects the vote, which has made minorities a section of the electorate to woo rather than demonise. Old models saw suburbs as a place for ‘white flight’, where those who wanted to move out of cities with increasingly diverse populations could – and did. One could coin the term ‘brown flight” for the embourgeoisement and suburbanisation of Labour-voting ethnic minorities along familiar arterial roads and transport links – African Caribbeans from inner-city Brixton to suburban Croydon, for example, or Asians from Southall to Harrow. Suburbia has been the point of arrival for others – South Koreans in the south London suburb of New Malden, for example. Asian communities (in British terms, those from the Indian subcontinent) have been particularly prone to suburbanisation though, importantly, there are many variations within the ‘Asian’ bloc term – in Harrow and Brent, affluent Indians have helped to deliver previously safe Tory constituencies to Labour since 1997, while in the north of England frustrations over structural decline among Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, stoked by extremist rightwing provocation, flared into riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham in 2001. Ironically, the jobs that the now-parents and grandparents came from Sylhet or the Punjab to do in these former cotton-mill towns have since been outsourced back to the subcontinent. Of all the groups that Britain has sought to integrate, the rise of Islam has caused the most alarm (though anxieties around Islamic tensions predate the war on terror).
Some of the structural features common to the northern towns involved in the 2001 disturbances are also present in the south. Luton is the base of the English Defence League, formed specifically to oppose Islam. It was where the failed Stockholm terror plot was based and where the London bombers set out from in 2005. Once considered to be a town outside London, Luton has become a de facto suburb of it due to the capital’s expanded commuting pull. Luton’s biggest employer Vauxhall, once a thriving car plant allowing employees of different ethnic and religious backgrounds to mix on the production line, now has a dramatically shrunken workforce. Economic woes and an adjustment to de-industrialisation feed simmering tension. Barking and Dagenham, a borough just east of London’s financial district, similarly suffered after its major employer Ford largely withdrew. The area has become popular with African immigrants who often move from inner-London boroughs in the same way as documented in the classic sociological work Family and Kinship in East London in the 1960s. The white electorate’s disenchantment was tapped in the 2006 local elections, where the BNP became the second-biggest force on the local council. One thing that radical Islam, the BNP and the EDL can all agree on is a lessening faith in mainstream politics.
Prospects for social democracy in suburbia
Though opposition is a new phenomenon to many New Labour young Turks, the root-and-branch policy review currently underway allows Ed Miliband the opportunity to fashion a strong manifesto with a clear message that can be steadfastly stuck to at the next election. It is said that parties campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Electoral logic dictates that the resultant policies must appeal to mainstream voters in marginal, often suburban, seats without alienating traditional core Labour supporters. A convincing narrative has to be presented to the electorate without sacrificing principle. Labour tapped into suburban values in recent years by repeatedly emphasising ’hard working families’ but their 2010 offer, ‘A Future Fair For All’, did not appeal to voters’ instincts as directly as the Conservatives’ policy of changes to inheritance tax, and were not as easily graspable as Labour’s 1997 election pledges of targets that were universally popular and fitted on a calling-card.
A pledge of equal access to life-chances for all could appear, to the status-conscious inhabitants of suburbia, to advocate a process of “levelling down” to the status conscious of suburbia. Signals that the new leadership considers the pre-emptive “liberal interventionism” rationale of the Iraq invasion to have been mistaken could rebuild bridges with those who deserted Labour after 2005 and win back lost seats. The collapse of the credibility attached to monetarism as an economic philosophy offers an opportunity to build a new economic policy focusing less on speculative asset bubbles like the housing market and more on better regulation of financial services to curb the actions of ‘casino capitalism’ bankers. A new programme could include employee share options. It should not ignore the politics of aspiration. It should address affordable housing with solutions not only for council housing but also reforming expensive shared equity schemes (often involving flats unsuitable as family homes) and recognising the natural impulse for home ownership. A welfare programme must be devised where the benefits system makes work pay. Political recovery may be upon us already: opinion polls and the Oldham by-election have put Labour decisively ahead, though the election is a long way off.
The Conservatives’ ‘big idea’, the small-state ‘big society’ in which citizens and consumers become owners, exercising autonomy in public services, needs to be exposed as a dangerous dogma-driven cover for cuts. Looser community politics could be a beneficiary of the malaise surrounding traditional politics – Barack Obama’s presidential campaign successfully mobilised voters via the principles of community organisation. Labour has effectively mobilised communities to vote for them. In the 2010 local elections the BNP failed to win a single seat on the council in Barking and Dagenham and its media-courting leader Nick Griffin failed to take the parliamentary seat there after concentrated activity from the pressure group ‘Hope Not Hate’, supported by the TUC and Daily Mirror. This rainbow alliance from inside and outside the party, while not allowing itself to be in any way tempted by the dog-whistle politics of racism, could be a possible model for moving forward. Labour also has a strong local government presence which it needs to build on.
The other story of May 2010 was Labour’s impressive performance in the council elections held all over the country. Labour gains in suburbs including Ealing and Harrow provide a strong local government base where councils can propagate responsible financial stewardship in tough times to popularise the Labour brand country-wide. It is also a mistake to take any voters for granted: the settled UK Asian community often has the most anti-immigration stances. Conservative pandering to social conservatism, e.g. in the moralism of proposing tax breaks for marriage, could well be a misjudgement when opinion polling has showed that attitudes once thought to be socially liberal are now more widespread, increasingly becoming the norm – tolerance of homosexuality, for example. Indeed, before their recession-induced about-turn the Conservatives had advocated sticking to Labour’s spending plans in much the same way as New Labour pledged to retain Tory targets in its first two years of office, suggesting that social democracy has ‘won’, at least intellectually.
The longstanding gulf between people and the authorities has occurred over time and, therefore, will not be solved overnight. Harnessing the opposition to coalition cuts, as exemplified in the recent student protests, could be fertile territory for Labour but it needs to channel that activism to the ballot box. Labour needs to demonstrate to voters that it is on their side and working with communities, i.e. doing things with people and for people rather than to them. The idea of citizenship is a relatively new one in the UK but could be one area that Labour could make its own. A referendum on the Alternative Vote system could be another area in which Labour can shape national opinion, campaigning for a voting system fairer than the one which it did, paradoxically, do well out of right up until 2010; even though, on the face of it, the issue is more suited to the chattering classes and lacks mass appeal. During the last parliament it was the Conservatives who opposed Labour legislation on detaining pre-trial suspects without charge and compulsory ID cards, with libertarian rightwingers like David Davis MP arguing that national security was being used as a cover for eroding civil liberties. Now that the coalition is reneging on promises in this area, for example the pledge to abolish control orders, this is territory that Labour should move in on. At all times Labour should not forget that it is about defending society’s weakest, but this should not mean excluding the aspiring classes.
From 1997 to 2005 Labour was able, to some extent, to assert itself as the natural party of government – a task in which it failed in last year’s general election. The party does not have to be out of power for a generation. It needs to mobilise different groups including suburbanites, women, younger voters and left-wing intellectuals as well as its stereotypical natural voters in industrial heartlands. There needs to be a reconsideration of cohesive communities as a goal for everyone rather than something affecting various ‘other people’ elsewhere. Labour should be heartened that, despite unprecedented economic crises and the most unpopular prime minister since polling began, it was able to deny Cameron the overall victory he craved, forcing him into an alliance with the Liberal Democrats.
Now more than ever before it is the suburbs that will be the most decisive battleground in deciding the next election outcome by which time the fragility of the shaky coalition, as well as the extent of the cuts, will be clearer. Suburbia, however, needs to be saved from its clichés and redefined as a vibrant place of possibilities rather than the neither-here-nor-there territory to which it has long been relegated. As stated in a recent leader in The Independent, “Suburbs and small towns can appear the very essence of parochialism, mediocrity and conformity” (29 December 2010). Modernity has taken its toll in the suburbs. The promised utopia of cool Britannia and its attendant urban regeneration with city centre pedestrianisation with a dash of greenery has barely touched many areas of the city limits or, worse still, has adversely affected them, leaving a trail of empty retail units engendering suburban decay. Labour needs to match and better this. Rather than Labour carrying associations of being in thrall to big business, finance and multinational-led globalisation, its strength in local government offers Labour councils a chance to show small businesses that it is on their side by incentivising local spending. Localism can still be a cause to be championed even if we are tied to international agreements.
Values reflect times and circumstances. The credit search company Experian recently found that 57% of Middle Britain struggle to find enough hours in the day to manage life. Ulrich Beck’s ‘risk society’ concept describes individualism and choice triumphing over old bonds. In France, a country that, like the UK, has been dealing with the stresses of postcolonialism, the term l’insecurité has been part of political dialogue since the 1990s and refers to a clutch of issues including immigration, unemployment and law and order. More recently, it seems that we are constantly told we are in an age of uncertainty. The UK joint research councils launched a 10-year multidisciplinary Global Uncertainties strategic research programme in 2008 to investigate “environmental change and diminishing natural resources, food security, demographic change, poverty, inequality and poor governance, new and old conflicts, natural disasters and pandemics, expansion of digital technologies, economic downturn and other important global developments” (RCUK 2010). Such complexity could explain the solace sought in harking back to simpler times, as seen in the popularity of television costume dramas (the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey) and even a return to the land via social networking (the Facebook application Farmville).
Suburbia is a territory fraught with multiple, overlapping and fundamentally contested cultures. Multiculturalism has fallen from favour, if not been all but discredited, in the post 7/7 climate but perhaps it is wiser to stopping approaching it as a problem to be treated in problem-solving terms. Old institutions (church, state, parliament, party, union etc.) may hold less sway with the suburban voter or British resident/citizen/subject at large but this a reality to be accepted and worked with rather than bewailed. Class consciousness, too, seems questionable as a leftist totem when workers have largely become customer-consumers. Suburbs built to appeal to traditionalism, as seen in their nostalgic architecture, now embody modernity. They are inhabited by diverse peoples, with multifaceted identities negotiating increasingly atomised and time-poor lives. Shoehorning them into constructed categories in a quest to find ‘what people can unite around’ seems a little forced when genuine community cohesion is more likely to be forged rather than occurring instantaneously. Perhaps it is a mistake to seek one banner under which Britain’s diverse multi-faceted mosaic can unproblematically unite.
By 2015 we will be 18 years away from Blair’s high-watermark of 1997: the same distance that 1997 was from 1979. Fighting the next election on the lessons of 1997 would be deeply misguided. So, what certainties can be relied on in an age of insecurity? With the economic crisis exposing the limits of untrammelled turbo-capitalism worldwide, Labour now has an opportunity, free of the strains of office, to develop a programme based on centre-left values to present to the electorate when the time comes, rather than simply promising more of the same. ‘The economy (stupid)’ matters, but not exclusively and not at the expense of culture. For electoral purposes, suburban dwellers should not all be seen as an undifferentiated mass. Britain’s former imperial possessions and post-war immigration have changed the face of suburbia irrevocably. Global uncertainty should not be feared in itself but accepted and negotiated; perhaps the reason that it has perplexed us as much as it has is because in normal peacetime conditions life had become too predictable. Making this argument, Tim Lott has quoted Churchill as remarking that, “Without a measureless and perpetual uncertainty, the drama of human life would be destroyed.”
Contested terms like the neither-here-nor-there territory of ‘suburbia’ or a difficult to pin down ‘age of insecurity’ might be outside policy-makers’ theoretical comfort zones but they need addressing head-on by Labour if it wants to avoid the next general election going the same way as the last one.