The future of the left since 1884

The cultural divide

For me this debate is about culture and race, but it’s not primarily about racism. It’s about the way that inheritance, culture and environment shape the way each of us sees the world, and I will argue that this is...


For me this debate is about culture and race, but it’s not primarily about racism. It’s about the way that inheritance, culture and environment shape the way each of us sees the world, and I will argue that this is now at least as powerful a set of factors as income and wealth in determining our political behaviour.

I may be speaking about the cultural divide from a poor vantage point in that I live in what you might call Labour’s metropolitan liberal ground zero in North London – surrounded by lawyers and media types.

On the other hand, I spend much of my life as president of the John Lewis Partnership with people across the UK whose households earn under £20k, and abroad in countries where centre-left parties are, like Labour, basically on life support. And the analytics company run by myself and Richard Webber uses data on millions of transactions to tell you, for example, what colour to spray your car if you want to sell it to a Scotsman or a Sikh. Or why some kinds of people don’t watch some kinds of TV.

What I’ve learnt is that the left hasn’t caught up with where people are. For example we don’t appear to have learnt anything about behavioural economics. We have nothing serious to say about industrial democracy or employee ownership that couldn’t be said in 1945. Our contribution to consumer empowerment in the online age is Luddite. In effect, we’re still trying to answer 21st century political questions with 20th century tools. It’s like trying to describe the quantum world using Newtonian physics. And that can leave you tumbling into a very nasty black hole.

This is what Donald Trump grasped that Hillary Clinton didn’t. Trump doubled down on identity issues, which in the USA is ineluctably signified by race. Result, he won:

  • amongst white men 62 per cent to 31 per cent
  • amongst white women 51 per cent to 42 per cent
  • amongst white women non-graduates 61 per cent to 34 per cent
  • amongst white men graduates 53 per cent to 39 per cent

And only lost amongst white women graduates by 51 per cent to 45 per cent.

One more point – Trump’s vote broke 85 per cent white to 15 per cent non-white. Clinton’s was 55 per cent white to 45 per cent non-white; and that was probably 50:50 in Obama’s victories.  What should that tell us about the future of a political party whose election victory will depend on voters, over half of whom are non-white – already the case, for example, in London?

To be clear, we can’t comfort ourselves that white Americans have all turned into racists. Hundreds of white dominated counties voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 and then voted for Trump. Probably the single most important reason for Clinton’s loss was that though Obamacare provided insurance for 20 million extra Americans, people who were by no stretch of the imagination racists came to see it as a device to transfer funds from whites to blacks; and, by the way, they were objectively right. My point is that the Democrats simply refused to acknowledge this dimension of change, and were punished for it.

Here, our understanding of the role of culture in politics is to suck up to community leaders so they’ll tell their tribe to vote for us, and we conveniently forget that they may keep their wives locked up in the kitchen. We inveigh against racial discrimination, but don’t recognise faith is an essential part of most ethnic minority identities – Christians of colour are about five times as likely to go to weekly worship as whites. Some gaps I don’t want to bridge – people who think that they shouldn’t have to provide equal services to gay people will always be on the other side of the bridge to me.

Why does it matter? Here’s a couple of examples of why we need to think differently in politics and government – one about white tribes and one about minorities.

  1. In 2014 most people thought that the Scottish referendum would turn out 60:40. We predicted 55:45 because the 10 per cent of people in the West of Scotland who would describe themselves as working class Scots didn’t vote according to economics but according to culture – they voted like the descendants of Irish Catholics they actually are – people who vote Labour because they don’t like Tories – and voted for independence for the same reason.
  2. This week we’ve talked a lot about the NHS. We did some research on overuse of A&E in East London with hospitals which weren’t meeting waiting targets. We showed that a large part of this was differences in cultural attitudes to health services, particularly amongst young Bangladeshi families – so this wasn’t about unfamiliarity with the system. They managed to reduce the usage by 5-6 per cent over a year whilst it kept rising in comparable local hospitals by 2-3 per cent.

In both cases the issue wasn’t money – it was culture. And we currently don’t have a map for navigating this landscape.

There’s more one could say in this vein – for example about change in size of typical workplaces leading to dramatic reductions in cultural cohesion, or about cultural difference in outlook between those who benefit from globalisation and those who don’t –  but the essential point is this: James Carville put up a slogan on the walls of the Clinton campaign in the 1990s: “it’s the economy stupid”. No longer. If we had a slogan now perhaps it should be: “It’s identity you idiot”.

Image: simran singh



Trevor Phillips

Trevor Philips is Deputy Chairman of the Board of the National Equality Standard and a former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

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