Values: Talk of the Town

Tim Colebatch on Australia:

Mr Salt said big swings to the Liberals among people on welfare were no surprise. "Even people in housing commission flats no longer see themselves as aligned to a particular class, but to the values set of middle Australia," he said. By contrast, "I think most sea-changers and tree-changers are Labor voters. These are inner-city people so they've got property wealth and green values."


Cristina Odone on Britain:

In a post-communist world, where the market is accepted by all, conventional political divisions over taxes, government spending and big business are giving way to more deeply felt differences on issues such as when life begins, the make-up of the family unit and the boundaries of medical science. Adrian Woolridge, US correspondent of the Economist and co-author of The Right Nation, sees Britain progressing from the class politics of the trade unions, through the managerial politics of the Blair-Brown era, "to arguments about the sort of people we are and what we value. Profound issues, in short, are coming back to the centre stage of politics."


Gregory Hywood on the USA:

While they are the subject of heated debate, what constitutes marriage and when life begins are areas of legitimate dispute rather than, as liberals would have it, evidence of intolerance. The celebration of the traditional family is clearly an electorally popular notion except at the extreme end of the socially liberal constituencies attached to the Democrats. Yet these groups have as much sway over the Democrats as do the fundamentalists over the Republicans. This is the rub. To their ongoing electoral cost, social liberals have difficulty accepting these issues as matters of debate even though the American electorate clearly does.


The fault lines of politics in the west are changing, and those on the left have got two options - they can fight it, or they can adapt to it. The recurring theme through these and other commentaries in recent times is that the major political divide has moved from being an economic division to being a social or moral division. Whilst in the past politics could appeal to voters' sense of alligience and economic interests, instead voters are now concerned with values.

On the question of values, it is the right which have claimed the firm middle ground for themselves, having pitched a tent and gone off to fish in the river, whilst the left are too busy being occupied on the fringes to make a serious pitch. Mainstream social values are innately conservative, driven by a mix of religion and back-of-the-mind fears of social engineering. So on questions of abortion, gay marriage and environmentalism the right have successfully struck a chord many voters who would lean to the left economically. Working class people who stare in scorn at the rampant lifestyles of the small-l liberals.

The response of the left has so far been to deny that there's a problem - namely, to deny that their social values are different to those of the middle and working class whom they are trying to woo. Note Latham's pitch to the green fringe with the forestry policy, and Kerry's ambiguity on gay marriage - both were targetted at well-to-do social liberals, but pissed off the working class social conservatives. If the left are to make themselves electable, they need to confront the divide, and temper their policies accordingly.

Lefties in Australian and the US alike can walk around with a moral superiority complex, but languish out of government, or they can try and engage and win over those over whom they feel so superior. A good place to start would be to look to Britain where Blair has claimed that turf for the Labour Party, and with great success (again, from Odone):

Under Blair's stewardship, new Labour stealthily and successfully claimed territory that had traditionally been Conservative. With words such as "good" and "bad" seeping into speeches, with talk of moral responsibility and educational ethos, new Labour stole the high horse from right under the Tories. It could well prove a shrewd move: Thomas Frank, one of America's most acute observers, warns that the 21st century will be a time when "good wages, fair play, the fate of a trade union - all these are distant seconds to evolution, abortion, gay marriage".

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