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Home Opinion Cosmopolitanism is an observation, not a strategy
Britain's cosmopolitan future

Cosmopolitanism is an observation, not a strategy

John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira - 31 July 2015

Addressing the economic insecurities of the anxious white middle-classes has to be part of Labour’s plan for political recovery

Jeremy Cliffe’s paper, Britain’s Cosmopolitan Future, is a provocative and worthwhile contribution to the discussion of the road forward for progressives after the debacle on 7 May. The main thrust of his argument is that the demographic and geographic structure of Britain is changing dramatically and that the major parties, including the Labour party, must change with it or be left behind.

Cliffe lumps these changes under the heading of “the Londonisation of Britain”. They include: rising racial diversity; the geographic spread of racial diversity; the growth of cosmopolitan urban areas; metropolitanisation; the “postindustrial” transformation of the class structure; secularisation and increased individualism; increased diversity in family forms; increased global linkages and the rise of the highly educated. Together these changes add up, according to Cliffe, to “an emerging cosmopolitan majority”.

Observers of US politics will note the similarities between the “emerging Democratic majority” thesis, originally put forward by John Judis and one of the current authors in 2002, and Cliffe’s analysis. Indeed, Cliffe highlights some of the similarities in his text. We do think Cliffe is on to something with this line of argument and, in fact, we have made similar arguments ourselves about the significance of modernising demographic change, not just in the UK, but in Europe as a whole.

This does not mean, however, that we are in full agreement with Cliffe’s analysis as presented here. We see a number of problems with the analysis, especially as it is presented on the prescriptive level. Chief among these is that cosmopolitanism is an observation not a strategy. Yet to the extent Cliffe presents a strategy, it does seem to boil down to ‘be more cosmopolitan’ plus some vague generalities about promoting lifelong learning, digital access and town-country transportation linkages. He also urges Labour in particular to focus on young voters and to not take ethnic minority voters for granted.

All this is neither particularly objectionable nor particularly helpful. The Labour party’s problems run far deeper than can be addressed by these bland nostrums. Start with how Labour can craft a plausible growth programme that can meet the aspirations of this “emerging cosmopolitan majority”. In the last election, Labour’s programme was a strange amalgam of some modest populist and spending measures grafted onto the absurd budget responsibility lock—bad policy that was probably adopted for political reasons, but manifestly failed in its objective of reaching ‘swing’ voters. It neither looked, nor sounded like, a programme that could successfully deal with chronic low productivity growth, high inequality and other structural problems leading to stagnant wages and living standards.

Cliffe’s implicit approach on these issues appears to be that Labour will win elections by fully embracing cosmopolitanism, after which they can leave macro policy and structural economic problems alone and simply provide the cosmopolitan majority with the tools they need to succeed. Whether you accept that approach will depend entirely on whether you view New Labour’s economic policy as having been an unqualified success or not. We do not and believe Labour has to craft a genuinely new approach to the very difficult problems the British economy currently faces.

Another striking lacunae in Cliffe’s strategic recommendations is the blithe assumption that future British politics will continue to be about how the two major parties can generate majority support. This is a reasonable assumption in the American case, but surely the latest election calls it into question in the British case. The Scottish National party is not likely to go away, and neither will the Greens and Ukip and, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats. Given this emerging multiparty system, the future for Labour does not lie in going it alone but rather in cobbling together a progressive majority across parties. This is the challenging new reality Labour faces and there are no easy answers on how to build such coalitions. But we can be sure of one thing: a starry-eyed embrace of cosmopolitanism is highly unlikely to get the job done.

Finally, Cliffe invokes the unifying rhetoric of Barack Obama from the 2008 campaign as example of the type of cosmopolitan unity he envisions. Obama’s rhetoric about helping kids across racial and ethnic lines and treating them like our own certainly appeals to a large portion of Americans. But that cosmopolitan spirit does not really exist in many areas of American society, nor do we expect that it exists that much in Britain. The vast (primarily white) middle- and working classes are tense, anxious and suspicious about claims of unity as they see their own fortunes floundering in relation to those at the top and bottom who are perceived to be favored in policy-making. An agenda of integrating the anxious middle into a cosmopolitan future through broadband, education and better transport is useful, but will not cut it in appealing to the deep-seated anxiety of modern voters. These voters want better jobs, higher wages and more security. Above all, they want some assurance that their voices and lives matter. The trick is knitting this ‘white identity politics’ into a more cosmopolitan spirit that embraces progressive policies across class lines not by making people into something they are not; but rather by saying to them, ‘You too are part of us.’    

John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira are senior fellows at the Center for American Progress

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

Tags: John Halpin , Ruy Teixeira

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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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