LONDON – The thrashing of Britain’s New Labour Party – which came in a weak third in local and European Parliament elections this week – may seem a minor event compared to Barack Obama’s triumphal overseas tour. Yet in many ways the humiliation of New Labour should send some potential warning shots across the bow of the good ship Obama.
Labour’s defeat, of course, stemmed in part from local conditions, notably a cascading Parliamentary expense scandal that appears most damaging to the party in power. Yet beyond those sordid details lies a more grave tale – of the possible decline of the phenomenon I describe as gentry liberalism.
Gentry liberalism – which reached its height in Britain earlier this decade and is currently peaking in the U.S. – melded traditional left-of-center constituencies, such as organized labor and ethnic minorities, with an expanding class of upper-class professionals from field like media, finance and technology.
Under the telegenic Tony Blair, an Obama before his time, this coalition extended well into the middle-class suburbs. It made for an unbeatable electoral juggernaut.
But today, this broad coalition lies in ruins. An urban expert at the London School of Economics, Tony Travers, suggests that New Labour’s biggest loss is due to the erosion of middle-class suburban support. The party also appears to be shedding significant parts of its historic working-class base, particularly those constituents who aren’t members of the public employee unions.
Even some longstanding ethnic minorities, most notably the highly entrepreneurial South Asians, also show signs of drifting away from Labour. The only Labour supporters left, then, are the liberal gentry, the government apparatus and the most aggrieved minorities.
This process started before the Parliamentary scandals, Travers adds. Last year a Conservative, Boris Johnson, was able to unseat the sitting Labour-ite mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, largely due to votes from the outer boroughs of the city.
The shift reveals the weakening hold of gentry liberalism. At its core, gentry liberalism depends on massive profits in key sectors – largely finance and real estate – to maintain its affluence while servicing both its environmentally friendly priorities and redistributing wealth to the long-term poor.
This has also allowed for a massive expansion of both the scope and size of government. Today government-funded projects account for close to half of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP), and this share is heading toward its highest level since the late 1940s. In some depressed parts of country, like in the north of England, it stands at over 60%.
As long as the City of London was minting money – much of it recycled from abroad – the government could afford to pay its bills. But with the economy in a deep recession, Labour can no longer count on the same sources to finance expanding government.
Although the liberal gentry are not much affected by diminished job opportunities, higher taxes or reduced services, those problems do afflict the tax-paying working and lower middle classes who dominate suburban areas. “We are not [just] dealing with upward mobility,” notes Shamit Saggar, a University of Sussex social scientist with close ties to the Labour Party, “but also the prospect of downward mobility.”
Both in Britain and America, these middle-income suburban voters remain by far the largest electoral bloc. Last year they divided their votes about evenly between Obama and John McCain, which helped the Democrats, along with the huge supermajorities Obama racked up in the urban core, forge an easy victory.
In Britain, however, now these suburban as well as small-town voters are tilting to the right, notes Sarah Castells of the Ipsos-Mori survey organization. This is in large part because they no longer believe the Labour Party supports their aspirations. “This is where we see a shift to the Tories,” Castells explains.
The now-diminished Labour base of public employees, minorities and these gentry liberals is not a sustainable electoral coalition. In total, Labour can’t count for more than one-quarter of the electorate.
Although vastly different in their class status, these groups share a common interest in an ever-more-expansive state. For public sector workers and the welfare-dependent poor, there is the reasonable motive of self-interest. In contrast, the liberal gentry’s enthusiasm for expanded government stems increasingly from their embrace of environmental regulation, which has become something of a religion among this set.
You have to wonder what average Brits must make of the likes of Jonathon Porritt, the head of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission – a member of the gentry in both attitude and lineage. The Eton-educated Porritt’s recent pronouncements include such gems as a call to restrict the number of children per family to two to reduce Britain’s population from 60 to 30 million. He also has scolded overweight people for causing climate change.
These do not seem like sure electoral winners. Today extreme green policies that were once merely odd or eccentric are becoming increasingly oppressive, leading to even more actions that disadvantage suburban lifestyles. Environmental activists’ solution for the country’s severe housing shortage – particularly in the London region – is to cram the working and middle classes into dense urban units resembling sardine cans and force even more suburbanites off the road.
Even so, large-scale house production over the past decade has lagged behind demand and, as a result, the tidy single-family home with a nice back garden so beloved by the British public may soon be attainable only by the highly affluent – and, ironically, that includes much of the gentry. What an odd posture for a party supposedly built around working-class aspirations.
“New Labour has brought in ‘New Urbanism,’ and the results are not pretty,” suggests University of Westminster social historian Mark Clapson, as he showed me some particularly tiny, surprisingly expensive new houses outside of London.
This kind of approach has gained some proponents among the Obama crowd. Recent administration pronouncements endorse such things as “coercing” Americans from their cars, fighting suburban “sprawl” and even imposing restrictions on how much they can drive. It makes you wonder what future they have in mind for our recently bailed-out auto companies.
It’s possible that America’s middle-income voters will eventually be turned off by such policies, as is the case in Britain. President Obama’s remarkable genius for political theater may insulate him now, but it won’t for eternity. Over time, some of the Democrats’ hard-won, suburban middle-class support could erode.
The key here may be the quality of the opposition. In Britain, the Conservatives may have found at least an adequate leader in David Cameron. People see him as a viable prime minister. Right now, the Republicans have no such figure, allowing themselves to be led by gargoyles like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich.
Yet the president cannot count on Republicans’ continued ineptitude. There’s only so much tolerance in the U.S. – both for cascading public debt and ever-expanding government regulation.
Of course, Obama still has time to get it right. But if he remains the prisoner of the gentry, he and his party could experience some of the pain now being inflicted upon their ideological counterparts across the pond.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.