Labour, UKIP and the crisis of male rage
A week on from the UKIP earthquake, there are three main views being expressed by Labour MPs, Labour grouplets and Labour-supporting commentators:
a) The UKIP surge provides further support for my/my grouplet’s view that we must not descend to UKIP’s level, but focus on outing UKIP as a racist party so that non-racist Labour to UKIP switchers switch back (e.g.);
b) The UKIP surge provides further support for my/my grouplet’s view that we must not call UKIP voters racist, but focus on outing UKIP as a Thatcherite party so that Labour to UKIP switchers switch back for fear of Thatcherism (e.g.);
c) The UKIP surge provides further support for my/my grouplet’s view that we must address the concerns of Labour to UKIP switchers, mostly notably about immigration and its perceived-or otherwise economic impacts (e.g.).
All of these miss the point, because they regard these vote switches as the result of expressed preferences for one polity over another*.
But having spent a lot of time on the doorstep asking people to vote Labour over the last month, it seems pretty clear to me that the UKIP surge has little to do with expressed preferences, and that the answer to Labour’s UKIP problem has little to do with Chris’s question of how far Labour responds to populist demand or stands its ground with the experts**.
UKIP’s surge feels and sounds to me like an expression of male rage.
Of course not all Labour-UKIP swtichers are men, but that is where it’s core support comes from – older, white men from outside the big cities. And for anyone who’s ever canvassed a house and heard “I’ll check with my husband but I think we’re Labour”, it’s easy enough to compute why female votes might follow in smaller but not insignificant numbers.
With this gender split so well recorded, it seems odd then that no-one seems to see it as the key to Labour’s or the left’s problem. Even self-defining feminist writers like Laurie, who get that the rise of the populist right vote is rooted in “a feeling of humiliation and hopelessness” ignore the gender dimension.
Fortunately, there are other feminist writers at hand to explain what’s going on.
There’s Susan Faludi’s Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man, a meticulous study of how deindustrialisation – a key feature of areas where UKIP has grown – has ripped away masculine security and created a whole generation of working class men who feel socially useless and inept, especially in comparison to their strong and silent fathers:
[An] important aspect of such a masculinity was the importance of commanding the inner skills to work with materials. Workmanship generated a pride founded in the certainty that what you did bespoke a know-how not acquired overnight. “I was good at it” was a frequent statement that the shipyard men made to me about their work, a remark offered withou inflection or posturing, just as a matter of unassailable fact, a truth on which a man’ s life could be securely founded. Out of that security grew authority-an authority based, as in the root meaning of the word, on having authored something productive. (p. 86, italics in the original).
That was written 15 years ago, and researched 5 years earlier. Now these men,and many of their sons who grew up hoping against hope that they might still enjoy both the security and the usefulness of real work, are not just saddened. They are angry.
And, not entirely unlike the angry men in described in Bird Featherstone et al’s superb new book Re-imagining Child Protection, that anger is expressed through deliberately hostile acts:
Their status and definition of themselves as men is given meaning through protest, an acting out of being everything that is seen as socially valid (p.121, quoting Ferguson and Hogan 2004)
Of course most men don’t lash out in the way with which Bird is concerned, by inflicting torment on women and children (though many more do than is acknowledged, – but what they can do , and did so last week, was lash out on the ballot paper.
So if Labour’s problem is a male problem, the solution need to be a male one too. Labour, as I’ve suggested, is a little way from joining the dots on that. In one of the more thoughtful contributions on Labour’s response (written before the elections), Jon Cruddas makes some headway, though again it doesn’t really convey the sense of male rage:
We can see the consequences across the economy and society in the stagnation and fall in wages, in the rise of low skill, low paid work, in workplace stress, and in the growing levels of mental illness and loneliness. The loss of this institutional expression of solidarity has resulted in two things. It has given greater prominence to expressions of national, regional and local cultural identities. And it has led to a politics of victimhood and resentment. UKIP grows where these two trends converge.
The solution is the standard stuff: regional banks, pro-wealth creation measures, better political institutions, free childcare. All good stuff in their own right, but still the stuff of preference politics, not the stuff to dampen the rage.
Jon is right, inadvertently, to aspire to
an inclusive society that builds our common life together, invests in preventing social problems.
What he’s probably getting at here is the tackling of “problem families” and the need for upfront investment. Again all very well, but not enough.
Because the (loss of) masculinity is the social problem. It’s already here, and if we don’t deal with it now through radical investment in male security and usefulness – and this is not a call for a return to the gender inequalities of last century- then the UKIP and post-UKIP age may be a very bad place for all of us.
How do we do this?
Well, good old state intervention – while perhaps not the best route to and contented society if we had more time – is probably our best best given the speed with which the age of rage has now come upon us. Massive investment in genuinely useful jobs in housing, public transport and green technologies, for starters, with deficit spending as necessary, has become a social must in the past three years or so.
Of course that’s not in the In the Black Labour manual (at least the first version before it lost a lot of ground to political reality and clever Labour planners), but this, comrades, is a crisis. And just as for Cameron when his core vote was flooded, money was no object, so too for Ed Miliband, investment in the working class man must now take precedence.
Jobs, good ones, social worth, solidarity, the revitalisation of trade union councils, the Tawney-inspired vision of not so long ago, depend on the courage to recognise the deep shit we’re in. On that I even agree with Richard.
*It may be that commentators are unwilling to go beyond how to respond to expressed preferences in their analysis for fear of been seen to patronise those who chose UKIP. For myself, as an older white male who might, had it none been for a bit of good old conscientisation a few years ago, have fitted neatly into the Labour-UKIP switcher demographic, I have no big problem with talking about ideological control over the working class and UKIP’s success in that.
* *Here, Chris makes it clear that experts on immigration, for example, include those in cities that have experienced it, not just the pointy-headed metropolitan elite.