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Home Opinion Progressives must embrace a more cosmopolitan electorate
Britain's cosmopolitan future

Progressives must embrace a more cosmopolitan electorate

Philippe Legrain - 30 July 2015

Courting younger voters could help ensure our politics catches up with social trends sooner rather than later

Britain is becoming more like London: its people are increasingly diverse, urban, university-educated, international, and socially liberal. This cosmopolitan future is overwhelmingly a good thing, and one which today’s politicians neglect at their peril. That is the essential message of Jeremy Cliffe’s clear-eyed and persuasive paper, which ought to be carefully read and digested by anyone interested in British politics.

His conclusions are particularly valuable because they go against the grain of most political analysis in Britain, for which the dominant trend is the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party (and that of the Scottish National party in Scotland, which is a separate issue that Cliffe does not elaborate on). How often does one read that both Labour and the Conservatives need to do more to win back Ukip voters and sympathisers, with the (incorrect) assumption that Ukip-lite policies are the way forward?

Yet Cliffe convincingly counters that Ukip’s success marks not a resurgence but rather the swansong of social conservatism. We are all going to die one day – and older people tend to die sooner. So an electoral strategy that relies on catering to the cultural characteristics of the current elderly generation is at the very least short-sighted and likely to do long-term political damage.

Aspiring politicians ought instead to have an eye on Britain’s cosmopolitan and confidently liberal future. While London is in many respects unique, London-like characteristics are spreading across Britain. Immigration is increasing, while the existing non-white population is spreading out and the number of mixed-race people is multiplying. Cities are growing, as are commuter towns which are their cultural as well as economic satellites. Foreign travel and international connections are multiplying. Above all, university graduates are proliferating, and with them liberal, internationalist attitudes, while even those who do relatively menial service-sector jobs tend to have similarly liberal cultural attitudes. Overall, British people are becoming more individualistic, “more entangled and less attached”, and more relaxed about diversity of all kinds.

Cliffe has a refreshingly positive take on most of modern British society. In contrast to grizzled, grumpy old commentators who hark back to a romanticised past (not least because they were still young then), Cliffe, a fresh-faced 27-year-old, has the youthful confidence to celebrate the more relaxed and open Britain that is emerging. His optimism is particularly appealing because so many so-called progressives have become deeply reactionary.

Optimism also tends to be a winning electoral strategy. To win elections in future, political parties will need to be “relatively open to the world, socially liberal and comfortable with the country’s plural, multi-ethnic society”, Cliffe argues. One might think this gives Labour a natural advantage, since non-white, socially liberal and urban voters tend towards it. But in its panicked pursuit of the “white working class” – or at least those it perceives as Ukip-minded – it is in danger of taking cosmopolitan voters for granted, as it did previously Labour-voting Scots.

That leaves a big opening for the Conservatives. Tory voters are disproportionately white, rural and old, while the anti-immigrant rhetoric of many Conservatives is a big turn-off for cosmopolitan voters. But Cameron’s modernisation has moved the party in the right direction: championing the legalisation of gay marriage may have seemed a thankless task, but it is in tune with increasingly socially liberal attitudes. Looking to the future, the Conservatives’ political strategy is increasingly set by George Osborne, a metropolitan liberal. There is also a broader awareness that the Tories need to do more to win over non-white voters, and the rise to prominence of business secretary Sajid Javid and others helps.

This liberal, cosmopolitan future might also seem like natural territory for the Liberal Democrats, although for now they seem to be retreating into their comfort zone as a protest party. The Greens might also benefit, if they became more liberal. Or new parties might emerge too.

Critics will object that current opposition to immigration is broad-based. But Cliffe makes the crucial point that opposition to immigration in general does not translate into hostility to immigrants in person. On the contrary, “familiarity breeds content”, to use Peter Kellner’s words. As someone born and bred in London, I agree that growing up in a diverse environment makes it seem normal and, typically, desirable. As it does, a loose, modern concept of Britishness based on civic values rather than ethnicity is taking hold. It is a fallacy that diversity is inherently divisive: on the contrary, London’s diversity is a cherished part of Londoners’ collective identity

Politicians tend to follow, not lead, social trends, often with a long lag. The fact that older people are much likelier to vote than younger ones may make the lag particularly long in this case. That leaves a huge opening for forward-looking politicians who want to cater to Britain’s cosmopolitans, especially if they can find ways to boost turnout among young people. As the SNP’s success shows, young Brits can be engaged by electoral politics. More open, genuinely empathetic politicians who are honest about their convictions can do more to mobilise them.

Cliffe also points to many policies that could bridge the cosmopolitan/nativist divide, not least building more houses and investing more in infrastructure and skills. He could also have mentioned making public services more responsive to changing needs, so that a population on the move does not cause strains on public services. Older people may also be won over by persuading them that social changes they dislike will make the world better for their children and grandchildren.

There is not much I disagree with in Cliffe’s pamphlet. It documents, develops and crystallises many things I have been thinking and writing about since the publication of my book Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them in 2007 and my latest one, European Spring: Why Our Economies and Politics are in a Mess – and How to Put Them Right, last year.

If I had to sound a note of caution, it is that attitudes can change. For example, if generation rent’s living standards continue to stagnate, their frustration and resentment may make them more illiberal. And if Britain were to leave the EU and Scotland to leave it, a rump little Britain might turn inwards and try to stamp on difference.  All the more reason to ensure that they do not and Britain can enjoy a bright, cosmopolitan future.

Philippe Legrain is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics European Institute

This article is a response to Jeremy Cliffe's Policy Network paper Britain's cosmopolitan future. You can read further responses and a new supplement to the paper here. You can listen to the debate that took place at the paper's launch event here

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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