The Young Fabian book club met up to discuss David Goodhart's The Road to Somewhere.
Chris Spencer writes up the event for our blog. Look out for the next edition of the magazine for the accompanying book review by Leon Alleyne McLaughlin.
About a dozen politically-engaged young people at Fabian HQ discussing a book with George Eaton, political editor of the New Statesman; is this a picture of ‘Anywhere’ politics in Britain today? Maybe. To consider that though, and probably to gather an understanding of what ‘Anywhere’ politics could be in the first place, you’ll have to read David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere. This happened to be the subject of Young Fabians’ Summer Book Club on 30th May, a book which attempts to describe ‘the new tribes shaping British politics’ at a time when so many of us are suggesting that the time-honoured left-right axis is becoming obsolete. Goodhart, its author, channels a range of phenomena playing out in our politics, from immigration fears to resurgent populism and even feminism, into a binary of ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Somewhere’ politics, giving the reader a suggestion of the identities which are influencing our political discourse today.
Book Club elicited a fascinating mixture of perspectives on the text. Most participants in the discussion could appreciate certain sentiments in Goodhart’s argument, even if, as some admitted, other parts of the book made for uncomfortable reading. The book deals much with understanding how different people’s identity with politics is influenced by experience of education and work and also the issue of immigration and integration. Interestingly, these two issues represented what most at Book Talk could agree with and what they couldn’t. Goodhart’s articulation of how the lack of investment in skills has left so many people in Britain behind was largely supported, however, arguments for stricter rules governing the rights of immigrants in Britain to satisfy ‘Somewhere’ concerns were not met with enthusiasm by our group.
Elements of the argument also left our Young Fabians unconvinced, particularly surrounding the evidence underpinning the proportions of people who conform to being ‘Anywheres’ or ‘Somewheres’. Goodhart does suggest that approximately twenty-five percent of people straddle the divide as ‘Inbetweeners’, however, our group’s scepticism was heightened by what some suggested was a tendency to caricature ‘Anywhere’ perspectives in particular. Some said they believed this led to Goodhart making comments that weren’t accurate in their experience. George Eaton picked up on this in the conclusion of one section of the book, talking of the divergence in the identity issues that concern the younger left-winger compared with those that concern the populist party voter, in a quote which read “The Twitter accounts of Labour activists are more about rape culture or bullying than economic inequality”. I think everyone in the discussion agreed, as young activists affiliated with the Labour Party, that such comments are inaccurate and a mischaracterisation – it is certainly possible to speak out on both of course.
Beyond these disagreements with particular components of the text, the book stimulated wholesome discussion on wider themes raised, such as why on issues such as homosexuality or the death penalty public opinion has become consistently more liberal (even if authoritarian attitudes do still exist), whereas when it comes to immigration, we have experienced a return to a more conservative narrative. There was pronounced division in the group here; some argued this reflects politicians’ narratives on the issues – an implication on the debate of whether politicians influence or respond to public opinion, perhaps – whereas one person argued it’s possible that these trends can be explained by the fact that immigration has increased rapidly since the 1990s, leaving some fearful of the unknown of its increasing effect on Britain, while this ‘increasing effect’ isn’t relevant to an issue such as homosexuality. This got to the core of the debate within the book itself about what motivates people’s identity with issues.
The Road to Somewhere also raises reflection on the last Labour government, and particularly Tony Blair, as an exponent of embracing modern globalisation, a globalisation that many argue has been challenged through political occurrences in the last few years that I’m sure I don’t need to list here. This led our group to reflect on the kind of modernisation espoused by Blair and other centre-left figures in the 2000s, and particularly the belief in its inevitability. To some, the narrative of globalisation has often appeared as a vision of the future where robots do our jobs for us and where communities and nations are no more than transient locations for factors of production. For those who struggle to find evidence of the opportunities of globalisation in their lives, this version of the future is pretty dystopian. Our group agreed that painting this vision as an inevitability that people must stop whingeing about and adapt to is going to alienate many. People also understand the future is never certain, therefore, if you give people a vision of the future, it will ultimately be up for contest. Discussing this in our group, we considered various narrative examples of how people have been urged to accept the global tide and how this has often come from the spectrum of left-wing politics in our era; one participant raised the globalist parallels between elements of the centre-left and the workless, equal, global society of ‘luxury communism’ espoused by Novara Media, as an example from the radical left. Some of us in the group agreed that this is evidence of how elements of the Left, in an anticipation of a global future, have sleepwalked into discounting the strong identities with work and with communities (local and national) that still prevail across the West, suggesting that we have got to have a conversation about incorporating these identities back into our politics.
Our discussion included an array of other elements, such as what The Road to Somewhere could potentially tell us about the electoral map and our electoral strategy for the future, but our discussion concluded with most of us agreeing, whatever our reservations for the text’s arguments, that it’s a signpost for us on the centre-left to incorporate community, localism and worthwhile work more clearly into our politics so to dignify the identities of people we have lost the ear of in recent times. Across the West, the years since the financial crisis have marked a time when the centre-left has failed to establish an effective antidote to rising populist and parochial sentiments. From those left behind by deindustrialisation voting for a multi-billionaire, to those who benefit most from European markets voting Brexit, sometimes politics has baffled us, and this is why The Road to Somewhere is such a salient text for our times. Agree with it or not, Goodhart boldly broaches how identity is crystallising in our politics, and in a way which makes debate and discussion on the issue irresistible. The breadth and the liveliness of the discussion we had at Book Club clearly demonstrates this.