The big divide that politicians ignore

Ukip is quick to exploit voters' disenchantment, but the London-based elite should pay more attention to the reasons behind its success

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Labour will comfortably retain the Wythenshawe and Sale East seat in Thursday's by-election, but the headlines are likely to be about the advance of Ukip and how it wins votes in Labour as well as Tory places.

The fascination with Ukip is galling for the big parties but fully justified – not only because the Ukip vote will be one of the key factors in the 2015 election, but also because of what it tells us about modern Britain.

To many voters, Ukip is just a convenient vehicle for a grumpy protest vote, accompanied by vague feelings that politicians are self-interested and remote. But the rise of Ukip is also a corrective signal, a reaction to the overprofessionalisation and overcentralisation of politics in London and Brussels and a symptom of a new fault line in political values between a London-centric graduate elite and much of the rest of the country.

Our political system is not in crisis – indeed, the emergence of Ukip is evidence of its responsiveness – but it promises too much and delivers too little. Democracy has come to mean not just a way of peacefully changing governments but also a way of controlling one's individual and communal destiny. Yet democracy is also unavoidably collectivist and compromise-based; you cannot achieve control as a democratic citizen in the way that you can as a shopper on Amazon.

Moreover, democracy's promise of control conflicts with the logic of the markets that generate our wealth. The market is restless and disruptive, giving you the iPhone and cheap flights but also exporting your job to China and then importing east Europeans to compete with you at home.

So the puffed-up politician is bound to be deflated by our semi-internationalised economies, and by promising a control he cannot deliver he fosters the cynical attitudes of today's voters.

But there's another reason for the sense of lassitude that drives populism. As left vs right has faded, the value divide between the political class and the ordinary voter has grown wider. This is especially true on the "security and identity" issues such as welfare, immigration and national sovereignty, but also in education and the labour market – partly explaining the "you're all the same" response from so many voters.

The political elite used to represent a range of experiences and interests. Now, MPs may have different starting points but, like other members of the upper professional class, they mainly leave home in their late teens to go to university and thence into a world of physical and social mobility with an identity based on career and achievement. Most non-graduates are less mobile and draw their sense of themselves much more from place and group. (About 60 per cent of Britons live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14.)

Our elites tend to be liberal both economically and socially, the ordinary voter communitarian or post-liberal. Post-liberalism is a policy wonk term, but it essentially means sticking with what works in the market liberalism of the 1980s and social liberalism of the 1960s but responding to their failures and unintended consequences and paying greater respect to the intuitions of more rooted citizens.

It combines ideas from left and right and post-liberals can be found in both main parties. Several coalition policies – including welfare reform and reducing immigration – appeal to the latent post-liberal majority, and Jon Cruddas (among others) is nudging Labour in a more post-liberal direction.

Post-liberalism is comfortable with the "individualism plus rights" basis of modern politics but wants to balance it with ideas that mainstream liberalism has neglected: the value of stability and continuity in communities, character, the dignity of labour. It favours particular allegiances over universal claims, and is uneasy about the unconditional openness imposed by globalisation: it knows that change is often experienced as loss and wants to cushion it.

By contrast, many upper professionals favour wide but thin attachments and a more universalist outlook – and therefore tend to think public goods should be distributed mainly according to need. Most people believe support should be based on contribution or on past service.

Another point of tension between the elite and the majority is over social mobility. Nobody in Britain is against bright people from whatever background travelling as far as their talents will take them, and who is against getting the best qualified people into the right jobs? But listening to politicians talk about social mobility it often sounds like the upwardly mobile (or the already privileged) insisting that everyone should become more or less like them. Not only is that logically impossible, but it also presents a very narrow vision of what a good life entails.

Post-liberalism is not against aspiration or ambition, especially for those at the bottom, but it prefers the idea of vocation; aspiration implies a moving up and out which casts a shadow over the lives left behind. The focus in the past 15 years on reforming higher education and the continuing neglect of technical/higher manual skills reflects the concerns of a graduate elite whose own children are insulated from the negative aspects of the "hour glass" labour market in which about 40 per cent of people are in skilled, well-paid work but a bottom third are stuck in poorly paid service jobs.

A good society is not a collection of ladders; it is a circle of mutual interest. The best and brightest still rise to the top but all contribution is valued. Michael Young's famous critique of meritocracy is more relevant today than ever.

All mainstream political leaders will be getting tough on populists like Nigel Farage in the coming months, but let us also be tough on the causes of populism – and one cause is the ascendancy of a liberalism that rubs up against the values of too many decent people. Post-liberalism is the reasonable answer to the march of the populists.

David Goodhart, director of the think tank 'Demos', discusses post-liberalism in the new 'Demos Quarterly' (quarterly.demos.co.uk)

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