The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics
By David Goodhart
Penguin; 304 pages; £9.99
The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart, first brought out in May 2017, and recently republished, is an attempt to explain the convulsions in British politics triggered by the 2016 vote to leave the European Union. He charts the growth of the new right-wing populism that has become increasingly central to British politics, with reference to events like the election of Donald Trump in America and the growth of similar movements in Europe.
The first thing to say about this book is that it is essentially a deeply conservative work. Firstly, because it sees the main divide in society to be between different cultural identities which inform political behaviour and allegiance; and secondly, because it sees traditional, conservative values and ideas as virtues to be defended.
Since the 2016 referendum, there have been constant debates about how to address the apparently growing division between a liberal political and cultural establishment, and an increasingly vocal section of the population asserting conservative or reactionary views. This issue has been frequently discussed within the Labour movement, particularly following the 2019 election, with many seeing the separation of the Labour Party’s traditional base as a symptom of the Labour leadership “losing touch” with the conservative values of many working class people.
Indeed, these sorts of ideas have their roots in so-called “Blue Labour”, a set of ideas launched by academics Maurice Glasman, Marc Stears, Jonathan Rutherford and Stuart White in 2010, later taken up by Labour MP Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s post-2010 defeat Policy Review. Glasman’s ideas were gestated in David Goodhart’s controversial magazine Prospect. The idea was floated that New Labour had abandoned Labour’s traditional working class base and its values of social conservatism and patriotism. Cruddas launched the slogan “faith, flag and family” to embody supposedly working class values.
These theories bore fruit in Labour’s 2015 general election campaign – Ed Miliband’s “One Nation Labour” – with its infamous ‘controls on immigration’ mug and stone tablet bearing the same legend. All this resurfaced during and after the EU referendum. Brexit was seen as a working class revolt against the cosmopolitanism of London and the big cities – Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool.
Goodhart was a real pioneer of this collection of conservative ideas. In 2004 his Prospect essay, “Too Diverse?”, led the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips, to accuse it of racism and xenophobia, “the stuff of liberal Powellites”. Undaunted, Goodhart returned to the fray with his 2006 pamphlet, Progressive Nationalism: Citizenship and the Left, claiming social solidarity was undermined by “cultural diversity”. The pamphlet is concerned with how to overcome tensions between “insiders and outsiders” over our “welfare pool”. His full length book “British Dreams: Successes and Failures of Postwar Immigration repeated the argument that uncontrolled immigration was undermining the social cohesion on which the welfare state rested.
In The Road to Somewhere, Goodhart suggests that Britain has become divided into two new groupings: “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. It is along these lines that divisions, such as those over Brexit, can be explained. Somewheres, Goodhart argues, are more rooted in cohesive communities, with more attachment to traditional group identities and values. Anywheres, on the other hand, are educated and mobile, and tend to weather social change much easier. The Somewheres are a larger group, but the Anywheres tend to be more influential in politics and culture. This division has a number of political expressions, including attitudes towards immigration and globalisation.
Goodhart correctly points out that a number of “traditional” communities have been impacted by the effects of neoliberalism, such as the loss of stable work due to the breakup of the manufacturing sector, and the process of globalisation, which transferred many of these jobs overseas. He also identifies a trend over time where such jobs have been replaced by less secure work in the service sector, often centred in larger metropolitan centres, leaving the “deindustrialised” areas outside of city centres devoid of much work. There has also been a trend towards increased emphasis on higher educational attainment in employment, with fewer, and less attractive employment opportunities for those who have not been to university.
Like many conservative arguments, Goodhart’s analysis correctly identifies certain negative trends in society, but is hamstrung by his inability, or unwillingness, to generalise this into a wider critique of the processes involved. He ascribes the problems brought about by neoliberalism and globalisation to what he sees as “Anywhere” bias and domination of society, which puts the liberal priorities of the metropolitan elites before those of the “Somewhere” majority. The entire division between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” is contradictory, and ultimately nonsensical.
Politicians, CEOs of multinational corporations and bankers, appear to be lumped together as “Anywheres” along with call centre workers and NHS employees who live in the inner city, so long as they share the same views on immigration and the European Union. Increasingly, the division between Somewheres and Anywheres appears to be explained by the author as one of education. People from traditional communities who leave to go to university become “Anywheres” by being indoctrinated with liberal ideas. In this way, Goodhart ignores the obvious class distinction within the “Anywhere” division, as being irrelevant, or secondary to the cultural division.
It is this which makes this argument essentially conservative, in that it identifies actual social, political and economic trends, but then explains them as problems of culture rather than of class. The designation “Anywhere” is therefore given, not only to the economic and political elite; but also to precariously employed inner city workers, all black and ethnic minority workers (the author briefly acknowledges the persistence of traditional, community values in some BME communities but still insists they are part of the “Anywhere” tribe, due to their liberal views, something he ascribes, with no justification, to their experience of racism), and, seemingly, all low paid workers who have attained higher education; so long as they all share certain cultural attitudes. These he describes as being comfortable about the modern world, a loose and open idea of national identity, and putting liberty before security in the civil liberties debate.
“Somewheres”, on the other hand, are uncomfortable about the modern world, tend to favour “fellow citizens” on the question of national identity, and are prepared to sacrifice liberty for security. This division includes both poor, white working class people in deindustrialised towns, and the affluent rural and suburban middle class.
The truth is that, for example, the substitution of secure manufacturing jobs which favoured those in stable working class communities, for less secure work, which may favour more educated, urban working class precarious workers is not a sign of priorities shifting to “favour” the latter. It is a sign of capitalism’s needs changing and reshaping the workforce to suit. Urban educated workers do not benefit from such a change, but instead find themselves more acutely exploited, in less secure work, than those of previous generations. This is not an example of one set of workers benefitting and another losing out, but one of all losing out as a result of the capitalist’s ability to reorganise the economy in pursuit of profit rather than any other metric. The lack of community cohesiveness and stability which Goodhart suggests “Somewhere” people are uncomfortable with, is unlikely to be welcomed by those he classes as “Anywheres” either. If anything, they can be the greatest victims of atomisation and alienation that it produces.
There is, of course, an element of truth to his analysis. There are cultural preferences and values that transcend class divides and can often be expressed in politics and voting patterns. These are heavily influenced by factors that Goodhart points to, such as the community in which one grows up in or lives. The mistake is in believing that these, real, cultural distinctions can replace class interests. It is entirely wrong, for example, to believe that poor workers in metropolitan centres are benefitting from the process of globalisation and neoliberalism any more than “Somewheres” in deindustrialised towns; or that employers who exploit cheap labour, but live in the suburbs are as dispossessed and alienated by modern society.
Furthermore, these cultural affectations can often be used to obscure or divert attention from real social interests; something the right in Britain has often done quite consciously and cynically. While cultural distinctions may be an expression of real social processes and divisions, they should not be taken as the division itself. The conservative analysis of class has always pointed out superficial distinctions – accent, clothing, consumption patterns, and so on – which are often (though not always) indicators of a particular class background (often specific to nationality or region), and suggested that these are the actual, real class distinction, as opposed to one’s economic position in society. This has the benefit of making class a personal, individual choice that can be changed.
A good part of The Road to Somewhere is taken up by a discussion of immigration, which Goodhart argues is one of the main political fault lines between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. Anywheres are comfortable with, and welcome, immigration, while Somewheres fear the social disruption that, Goodhart argues, comes with it. Goodhart suggests that it is perfectly natural for people to be uncomfortable with outsiders, and that a notion of community is of necessity exclusive. It is the “mass” immigration of recent years, he argues, that has been one of the motive forces in “Somewhere” resentment, leading to the Brexit vote in 2016. The main fault for this, according to Goodhart, has been “Anywhere” politicians, notably New Labour leaders like Tony Blair, allowing their liberal prejudice and zeal for globilisation to blind them to the impact “mass” migration would have on traditional British communities.
In the discussion of immigration, Goodhart once again displays a conservative line of thinking that has become increasingly apparent in much of the debate on this issue. The negative impact of globalisation and neoliberalism on the working class in Britain is conflated with the “problem” of immigration. Furthermore, the veracity of claims that immigration has a negative impact on the “native” workforce is seen as almost irrelevant, so long as there is a perception that this is the case. “Somewheres” feel threatened by immigration, according to Goodhart, and therefore immigration is a problem.
Despite his blaming New Labour’s “Anywhere” thinking for these problems (as he sees them), here Goodhart is displaying an attitude that was quite common in New Labour and liberal circles. New Labour often blamed its more reactionary policies, on immigration and law and order, for example, on the supposedly reactionary, working class base that it needed to appease. Goodhart assumes an in-built prejudice among “Somewhere” communities to be a natural result of immigration, and this makes it an inevitable grievance which needs addressing. The idea that anti-immigrant racism is the result of deliberate scapegoating of people who are just as, and usually more, exploited and neglected than the people who are supposedly being appeased, and policies that alleviate the exploitation and alienation of both groups of workers would negate this, is, of course, not considered.
At the beginning of the book, Goodhart describes himself as economically social democratic, politically liberal, and socially and culturally conservative. He certainly does appear to be generally opposed to neoliberalism, and in favour of economic policies that would alleviate its effects upon the working class (or at least the “Somewhere” working class). This is accompanied, however, by an emphasis on “traditional” social values. He devotes a whole chapter to demonstrating how the traditional family is under threat from “Anywhere” liberal priorities, and argues that a return to women playing the traditional role raising children would be beneficial to society and the working class, who are most negatively impacted by the social and economic impact of the family’s dissolution. But rather than arguing that, in order for working class people to be provided with greater social support so as to no longer rely upon the “traditional” family unit, he simply argues for a return to the traditional model of men working and women child rearing (a result, he confidently asserts with the support of opinion polls, that most women would prefer anyway). He further argues that these conservative opinions are more common amongst “Somewheres” and not adequately reflected in policy due to “Anywhere” attitudes of politicians.
This “economically social democratic, socially conservative” outlook has, in recent years, gained more traction within the working class and Labour movement. Many, like the Blue Labour project, have noticed similar trends amongst the working class that Goodhart indicates in this book. While many working class people retain a social democratic outlook when it comes to the welfare state, the NHS and jobs, they, according to this narrative, appear to be more conservative on social issues, such as immigration, “family values” or trans rights. They certainly appear more conservative than the “woke” left and liberal politicians who apparently dominate the Labour Party. This argument appears to have been borne out by the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election. It follows that, in order not to lose these people to the populist right, the Labour Party and the left should either be less vocally socially liberal, or even openly advocate socially conservative views, which chime with their more conservative base.
The EU referendum in 2016 and the 2019 general election are certainly examples of how a hard right, populist movement was able to mobilise significant sections of the working class on the basis of cultural, reactionary identity, over those of class interest. The 2017 election, on the other hand, was an example of a social democratic message, on key working class issues such as the NHS, making advances against that message. The opportunist response to this is to argue that by ignoring, or even appropriating, some reactionary social ideas, while advocating popular social democratic economics, we can ensure ourselves a majority of working class support.
There are a number problems with this approach. The that first is by ignoring reactionary social ideas which may exist within the working class, we are, by definition, refusing to show adequate solidarity towards large groups of working class people, for example LGBTQ, BME and women workers, on the assumption that their support for the left is guaranteed. Secondly, the issues remain unresolved. Just as the pendulum swung from reactionary social ideas in 2016, to social democratic ideas in 2017, and back again in 2019, so it can do again. In fact, conservatives and the populist right specifically aim to use so-called “wedge issues”, where they identify support for reactionary ideas within a section of the left’s base in order to capture a section of it. Appeasement on these issues is no solution to this.
Only by challenging such ideas within the class, and changing people’s opinions, can we make them impervious to exploitation on that basis. Socialists have long held that ideas can be changed most drastically in times of struggle, when the common interests of working class people assert themselves in solidarity over whatever artificial divides the right have manufactured. Working class people are obviously united along common economic interest, and it is through united struggle on this basis that we can prove that they also have an interest in fighting oppression against each other in all its forms. This is the essence of solidarity, and is why it is a principle which cannot be discarded for short term electoral gains.
The opportunist, reformist outlook, displayed by those who advocate “economic social democracy and social conservatism” takes workers’ consciousness as it is as set in stone, a passive mass to be marshalled into polling booths with promises based upon their state of mind at that particular time – defend the NHS, better wages, persecute immigrants. The Marxist approach is to try to raise this consciousness by challenging whatever conservative ideas may have gained purchase within the working class, while at the same time fighting to advance the economic and social interests of the class as a whole.
The apparent changes that Goodhart indicates in his book are not all that new. The consciousness of the working class has, historically, always been uneven. Traditionally, around one quarter of the British working class have voted Tory. However, the onset of neoliberalism, beginning in the 1980s, has certainly led to a more atomised, alienated workforce, with less of a tradition of working class solidarity, and also to a section of the working class, that was once the bulwark of Labourism and trade unionism, becoming increasingly impoverished and feeling abandoned. In this environment, the prevalence of reactionary ideas within the working class is certainly apparent, and it should be unsurprising that many of them have been won to right wing populism. This will not, however, be changed by simply accepting it as a natural state. Racist, sexist and homophobic ideas will continue to divide the class, unless they are challenged and changed.
While Goodhart does, at many points in his analysis, correctly identify some important trends and changes in society that are worth discussing, his underlying assumptions, and therefore his conclusions, are basically conservative. He is, correctly, sceptical of neoliberalism and globalisation, but his solution is a return to a largely mythical past with insular communities, hard national borders and traditional gender roles. Modern liberalism is the ideology of capitalist individualism, the idea that we are, and should be, atomised individuals whose relationships are basically transactions. Conservatives react to this by fighting for social ties which are remnants of a time before (real or imagined) that link people together – religion, nationality, family, “values” – which don’t challenge the economic basis upon which this process of uprooting rests – private property. Instead, they move in a reactionary direction, seeing the evils of society as being a result of the abolition of traditional hierarchies and relationships (irrespective of the often extremely oppressive nature of these), and demand their protection, or reinstitution. The very real problems of capitalism destroying human social relationships are counterposed to the utopian, fantastical ideal of the past, completely ignoring the oppressive, violent reality of these institutions in practice.
The “Blue Labour” project, and similar attempts to advocate social conservatism in the labour movement, are equally reactionary. They also aim to hold up “traditional values” as a counterpoint to neoliberal modernity, with a deeply reactionary understanding of class. They hark back to the “ideal” of the working class in the 1950s and 1960s, when sections of it were better off as a result of a strong welfare state, powerful unions and greater levels of class consciousness. These positives were accompanied by a strengthening of traditional gender roles and “family values”. As a result of the affluence of capitalism at this time, largely based upon the imperialist exploitation of the global south, layers of the working class in Western countries, including Britain, were able to extract concessions in the form of better pay, job security and welfare; and were in many respects able to live the “middle class” ideal of a stable family and property. Not only does a socially conservative outlook not recognise that the conditions of capitalism have changed, so that simply winding the clock back to that time is not possible, it also ignores that this “ideal” rested upon the exploitation or exclusion of many black and ethnic minority, women and LGBT workers; as well as upon millions of workers across the world, whose labour was used in order to pay for this relative affluence and stability. Any attempt to end the acute levels of exploitation within globalised capitalism will require the mobilisation of all workers, and ultimately capitalism’s abolition, in the universal interests of the entire, global working class; not a new deal between capitalism and one section of the working class, to the exclusion of all others.
It is therefore unsurprising, if rather sad, that despite Goodhart seeming to recognise the huge, disorientating effects of the changes of the last few decades on people, his solutions are not only wrong-headed, but minimal. Stricter immigration controls, harsher treatment of benefits claimants, tax benefits for married couples and national ID cards. Not only are these “solutions” all clearly aimed at persecuting weaker groups within the population in order to appease the supposedly communitarian instincts of the majority; they are also hardly a solution to an apparently seismic change that has created a new division within our society. Socialists accept that we are unable to wind back the clock, and that it would not be desirable to do so anyway. While capitalism does treat us all as atomised, alienated individuals, its ultimate contradiction is that, in order to increase our level of exploitation, it also drives us together in the workplace, and treats us as one, hyper exploited mass, with shared experiences and understandings that transcend the limited, cultural divides. It is this shared experience as a class that is our ultimate strength. Solidarity between workers is therefore not simply a slogan, but a vital necessity, the prerequisite to any positive social change.
While Goodhart sets himself up as a kind of champion of the “Somewheres” – the ignored majority marginalised by the metropolitan elite “Anywheres”, there is an underlying, patronising approach towards them which suggests a certain snobbery in its assumptions. While Goodhart acknowledges that no-one can fall neatly into either category, too often the sketches of “Somewheres” and “Anywheres” slip into caricature. The main division, apparently, is between the modern, savvy and educated liberals as opposed to the uneducated, slightly bigoted masses who are scared and disorientated by change. It fails to acknowledge the very real, and often antagonistic, political and cultural differences within the so-called “Somewhere” communities, nor the capacity for even the most reactionary elements within these communities to adapt and change. The assumption of a hegemonic liberalism within the establishment ignores the dominance within our ruling political party of a clique of racists and eugenicists whose leader used to burn money in front of homeless people for fun. Anyone who has been to university can testify that racist ideas are far from unheard of amongst the university educated, while few who have actually worked in a blue collar workplace would argue that there are no people there willing to challenge racist views.
The “white working class” should not be viewed as the “real” working class. In fact, the working class is constantly developing, with different and changing jobs and newcomers of varied national origins. The industries and regions predominant in one period will change as capitalism changes. The loss of these old industries – cotton, coal, cars, does not mean “goodbye to the working class” or that the forward march of labour has been reversed. The British workers’ movement has changed and reorganised itself many times but retains in common its exploitation and the fact that only united struggle against its employers and their state can counter and eventually end this.
Older workers in “left behind” industrial areas where the unions and the Labour party were once strong, to the extent that they develop prejudices against immigrants, “the south”, or the bigger cites deserve to be told the truth and drawn into the fight to solve the actual causes of their deprivation and discontent. Part of real respect for them is to precisely to challenge their racist or chauvinist views, which can only divide and weaken them and us all. We need to persuade them that their real objective interests can only be served by solidarity with workers of all ‘races’, nationalities, or regions. That is what a real working class party should be doing – not seeking to gain their votes by pandering to their prejudices.
Rather than viewing the working class as a lumpen mass whose backward views need to be indulged by a liberal elite who know better, we would be better off treating them with the respect that they deserve and challenging such views when they arise, while continuing to see the working class as a dynamic, ever changing group, with the power to change the world infinitely for the better once it casts aside its divisions and works together in solidarity to achieve that goal.