Saturday, March 04, 2006

HonkeyTonk, Hillary, Hampstead and Hartlepool

On a year-long academic sojourn in Rhode Island, USA, it is not easy to see "The Culture Wars" at first hand. Brown University is a leafy enclave of the liberal North-East, and the only culture warrior is the occasional trustafarian rebelling against their liberal establishment parents. However, last night, I ventured deep into the heart of Conneticut and Mohegun Suns casino to see 'Toby Keith's Ford Truck Big Throwdown Tour II': a night of country music headlined by Toby Keith. Toby is one of the biggest names in Country: a no-nonsense singer who belts out catchy tunes and plays to people's sense of fun and patriotism. Some of his biggest hits play very heavily on the latter theme, with hits such as The Taliban Song, American Soldier, and his most famous song about his reaction to 9/11, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).
Going to the concert was a practical insight into political cultures. Often conflicts are as much a case of conflicting cultures as of politics or interests: the lack of knowledge of the life of your opponent makes their suffering less apparent also. So it is with much of America: most Brown students would consider Toby Keith's fans as hicks and yahoos, while Down South they regard most 'Ivy League types' as snooty, interfering quislings. The truth is they are more similar than different beneath the surface, but never the twain shall meet, and never shall they realise.
This way of looking at politics is less neat, theoretical and heartening than many of us would like. How much would we like a new position on tax to be met with cheers of approval on the doorstep? A principled approach to local taxation that combined a mix of ability of pay, taxation of wealth and created a hedged basket of taxes for extra fiscal reliability? The Westminster press' parlour game of asking how comparatively minor events in Westminter will play 'in the country' is as absurd as it is entertaining for us politicos. Just as Toby Keith's army of fans shows that culture would never let sharp-dressing, serious Hillary Clinton every win a plurality of presidential votes, so too it shows that the Tories needed to change. Thatcher's economic revolution made the country both more economic liberal, but also much more socially liberal. The Tories won the hearts of the nationalistic working classes but lost the professional middle classes. Hampstead, until 1992 a Tory seat, is now a three-way marginal and seen as ripe for Lib Dem plucking. The political culture there changed as the Tories refused to.
So where are the Lib Dems in Britain's (comparatively sanatized) culture wars? Any breakdown of our voters or members show that we are an overwhelmingly middle class party, and the seats that we hold (bielections notwithstanding) reflect this fact. When we are 'left' of Labour according to the pundits, we don't pick up seats like Barnsley or Merthyr, but middle class Labour seats like Manchester Withington, Cambridge, and come close in similar seats like Islington South and North and Oxford East. Our 22-23% in the polls largely represent the middle classes with a conscience vote. And our culture reinforces this approach. To move beyond it, we might have to challenge some of the assumptions of that culture or try to speak beyond it.
Ming Campbell, a man who rose to prominence from a housing estate in Glasgow, has declared a war on poverty- both in income and ambition- and this should be a permanent theme of any liberal party that does want to see people given the opportunity to fufill their God-given potential. But in order to address the people who poverty is an everyday issue for, and to widen the electoral battlefields to parts of the country that previously only Labour could reach, then the Liberal Democrat political lexicon might have to change. Policies like tuition fees and free long-term care for the elderly, financed by higher taxes for those earning over £100,000, can only be regarded as left-wing in that a fiscal transfer from the upper-middle classes to the lower-middle classes is seen as such by the press, but it won't wash on the housing estates. In order to make the Lib Dems a truly progressive, liberal force under our new leader, tough fiscal choices and a relentless focus on spreading opportunity for the worst off should go hand in hand. Reforming public services should be seen as a service to the working class rather than a hindrance, while more prominence should be given to issues with massive externalities like youth unemployment, childcare, vocational training and FE colleges as well as helping to get the socially excluded to feel able to participate in any level of British society that their ability allows them. A plan of tangible policies to make people's daily lives easier, rather than sociological theoretizing, could be a nice campaigning tool as well as a spur to action. Only by expanding our political culture can the Lib Dems expand their electoral base. After all, stranger things have happened. For one, Toby Keith is a registered Democrat who voted for Clinton twice.

4 Comments:

  • At 9:01 pm , Blogger John Locke's Ghost said...

    Brown University? Have you by any chance attended the activities of the Brown Students for Liberty, which a friend of mine helped to found while he was studying there?

     
  • At 6:25 am , Blogger GoodLiberal said...

    I shall get in contact and see what happens. They do have a great series on lunch with discussion about liberal thinkers here though run by a Prof Tomassi. Maybe they merged?

     
  • At 6:11 pm , Anonymous Francis said...

    Policies like tuition fees and free long-term care for the elderly, financed by higher taxes for those earning over £100,000, can only be regarded as left-wing in that a fiscal transfer from the upper-middle classes to the lower-middle classes is seen as such by the press, but it won't wash on the housing estates.

    Indeed. That's because you have described exactly what it is (and the problem for that matter) - a fiscal transfer from the upper-middle classes to the lower-middle classes. I.e. keeping the finances within the middle classes. The housing estates are working rather than middle class and thus don't stand to gain from this (and other) Lib Dem fiscal policies. While you continue to shuffle money to those that could put it to good use, rather than shuffling it to those that actually need it (see the Child Poverty initiatives of the current government), the Lib Dems will remain a party of the middle classes.

     
  • At 9:12 pm , Blogger John Locke's Ghost said...

    "Maybe they merged?"

    I don't know, as the friend I mentioned graduated already a couple of years ago, but it is of course possible.

     

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