When I joined the newly-formed North West Surrey “Young Socialists” (as young Labour members were somewhat patronisingly called back then) in 1985, one of our first campaigns was one to save a 16th-century cottage in the middle of our village (although we never thought of Frimley as a village, to us it was sprawling London suburbia). The house was apparently under threat from Thatcherite property developers, who wanted to bulldoze it to make way for some sort of executive housing. We didn’t do much – maybe we held a couple of meetings and wrote an angry letter to someone at the council. I very much doubt it had anything at all to do with our “campaign”, but Middle Gingers (pictured above) was saved. It was later beautifully restored and extended, and is now no doubt the property of some proud multimillionnaire (with a very un-Elizabethan swimming pool).
It wasn’t social housing, and the campaign wasn’t particularly socially useful. So it may seem like an odd cause for enthusiastic Young Socialists to champion in the white-hot political atmosphere of the 1980s. But there weren’t any pits to save in Surrey and none of us were (yet) students with loans and cuts to protest against. There were apparently 250 homeless families in the borough of Surrey Heath, but we didn’t know any of them. None of us were even on the dole!
But Middle Gingers was local, tangible, achievable. It was also emotional. I think the reason we felt strongly about it was that we’d all learned about the cottage at primary school. It was the oldest building in the village. I think it had a priest’s hole. It was a tangible link to Henry VIII, the Armada, and the lopping off of heads which seemed to be the main feature of English history as taught in the 1970s. Middle Gingers stood right on the former village green, common land where our 16th-century forebears would have been able to graze their animals for free. It somehow felt like part of who we were, both as locals and as English boys and girls (and when you come from the Surrey working class you need every scrap of identity you can get). The idea that it could be done away with by some faceless company on the make felt just as wrong in principle as closing a pit or selling off a council house.
Thinking back over my thirty years in the Labour Party and the labour movement, I’m struck by how much time and energy we’ve spent trying to save things (and usually failing) — trying to stop change rather than bring it about. Think on it: we’ve opposed privatisation, we’ve tried to protect much of the welfare state, we’ve campaigned (mostly) against NHS reform. Lefties have worked to “save” comprehensive education and opposed marketisation at the BBC. We’ve tended to oppose – or at least be sceptical about – foreign takeovers of venerable British firms like Cadbury and Boots. Many of us are very worried by the erosion of communities (particularly in working class areas), the disappearance of pubs, and about not knowing our neighbours or how we barely speak to each other anymore outside of work.
And voters, too, have opposed – often by very wide margins – many of the supposedly “inevitable” changes of the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era. That’s a paradox for the left: for the most part voters have been on our side. Most people want to keep their local hospital and want to keep their local schools open to everyone. Most people didn’t want the Royal Mail sold off and didn’t much like the look of either Labour or Conservative NHS reforms. They wanted British Rail to stay in public hands. Most people now think selling off council houses was a mistake and they certainly don’t want the government to force housing associations to sell up either. Even in Thatcher’s pomp, support for privatising British Telecom and British Gas was at best lukewarm. Polls say most people want to stay in the the European Union, despite the EU’s best efforts to shit in its own nest.
If you look at what we like and what we want, a lot of people seem to be both social democratic and conservative. That’s not cognitive dissonance; it’s actually where most people on the left have been during the last 35 years. But it’s not hard to see why the conservative side usually wins out at the polls. People who support Thatcherism obviously vote for the Tories. They are joined by people who are basically conservative in disposition and actually think the Conservative party is, well, conservative. They vote Tory because of the party’s name and reputation. And then there are people, who for all their conservative and social democratic beliefs, simply think they’ll be better off under the Tories. Their personal financial wellbeing simply trumps their desire to save their local hospital or keep a good local school open to everyone.
But the British “Conservative Party” values nothing. It has been quite happy to sit back and see communities destroyed in the name of globalisation. It has been happy to see London turned into a global investment supermarket, driving more and more of the city’s working population to the margins or out of the city altogether. It’s done little to conserve rural Britain, encouraging fracking, axing transport services, cutting housing and social support, and leaving farmers exposed to the repacious power of global supermarket chains. If the “market” dictates and the market is controlled by a global elite, there is no room for community, tradition or neighbourliness. There’s no room for local people having a say. Those values are the enemy of the atomised, mobile workforce global capitalism demands – demands to which the Conservative Party almost always accedes.
UKIP has tried to cash in on this, but is hamstrung by its narrow and old-fashioned idea of English identity (conservatism isn’t the same as nostalgia), its quasi-racist reputation and hardline free-market ideology. Farage and his party have no answer to the insecurity and destruction wrought by unfettered global free market. Rather than tackle this difficult contradiction head on, they look for easy scapegoats – immigrants and the EU.
And Labour, while actually being more conservative than the Conservatives in opposing destructive change, offers no idea of the nation (despite Gordon Brown’s hamfisted attempts to articulate “Britishness”) and a very negative, cautious attitude to localism and community. Its conservatism is cut off from any sense of identity, heritage or even values. When it tries to be “conservative”, it just comes over as stick-in-the-mud statism or Blairite sucking up to the rich and powerful.
Community and togetherness ought to be something democratic socialists (or social democrats if you prefer) have in their blood. But the left has been terrible at expressing it and often seems ashamed to embrace community activism or localism (look at Labour’s feeble response to Devo Manc and its total incomprehension of what’s going on in Scotland). This has allowed an increasingly anti-community Conservative party to “own” the issue (in England at least) and, with the collapse of the “localist” Lib-Dems, bank the votes associated with it.
Socialism and conservatism (small ‘c’) are different but they are not opposites. As the steamroller of global free-market capitalism presses relentlessly on, they will be pushed even closer together. And, if blended well, conservatism and socialism are a powerful political cocktail. What is the SNP insurgency other than an effective mix of social democracy and traditonally conservative ideas about identity, national pride and “looking after your own”? What are the bouyant Greens if not a left-wing party of conservation trying to prevent what they see as cataclysmic change. Democratic socialists need to stop fighting it and embrace their inner conservative. Before it’s too late to save anything.