Class isn't Working for Labour
Updated: Jun 9, 2020
Ever since Labour’s disastrous defeat in December, we’ve heard endless analysis of where it went wrong… some blamed Brexit, some blamed Jeremy Corbyn, some blamed the manifesto. The evidence suggests all three played a role, with differing degrees of importance. Which begged the question: Is Labour still the party of the working class? And does it even matter?
With the massive benefit of hindsight, more should have seen this defeat coming – although, of course some did. The signs were there from 2017 and most didn’t notice. Gloria De Piero, former MP for Ashfield, previously a brick in the ‘red wall’ articulated this in the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary “The Left Out of Power.” She stated that many within the party regarded the removal of Theresa May’s majority as a success, despite Labour finishing comfortably behind the Tories after the dullest Conservative campaign in decades and did not consider the size of the Tory vote in constituencies they would never have previously had a prayer of winning. De Piero’s former seat was a prime example – although her own vote increased, the Tory vote doubled, slashing her majority from a comfortable 8,800 to a precarious 441. In December 2019, the Conservatives took the seat, with Labour relegated to third place. Nationally, in both the 2017 and 2019 campaigns, more low-income voters chose the Tories than Labour.
Whilst Corbyn must take a sizeable portion of the blame, it would be unfair to lay it squarely at his door. The EU referendum poured fuel onto an already raging fire of discontent, which led to traditional tribal loyalties being questioned. Since June 2016 we’ve heard lazy stereotyping of different voter groups. In some sections of the media, the narrative essentially divided remainers into sneering, middle class, liberal ‘establishment’ types, and leavers as low skilled, immigrant bashing, ignorant Little Englanders.
This has continued with the election of Keir Starmer as Labour’s new leader. Disgruntled Corbynites and Tories alike were quick to chime in with predictable responses… “Metropolitan elite! Another white man from London! That won’t win back Bolsover!” – ironically indulging in the kind of ‘identity politics’ they claim to oppose. Whilst it is undoubtedly clear that Labour must reconnect with its traditional heartlands, the idea that Starmer’s background will prevent working class ex-Labour voters from engaging with him is patronising and misplaced in equal measure, especially when you consider that he’s the son of a toolmaker and a nurse. It also fails to engage with the issue – it’s about delivering a positive and coherent message, not the leader’s home address.
The only 3 Prime Ministers to deliver significant parliamentary majorities in the last 50 years are Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Boris Johnson -all of whom were educated at Oxford and had either personal or professional links to London, which is now home to the undefined ‘metropolitan elite’. These trends suggest that voters generally identify with their nation rather than their class, as does the fact that it was under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership that Labour finally fell behind among working class voters. His questionable foreign policy associations meant that, rightly or wrongly, there was an overwhelming feeling that he did not love the country, and therefore could not love the people working within it, which allowed the Tories to position themselves as the patriotic option.
Part of the class decline can be attributed to the decline in the Trade Union movement, which began during the Thatcher years and has continued into the 21st century. Although Tony Blair’s time in government was largely successful, and his broad appeal across the electorate hasn’t come close to being matched by any Labour politician that has succeeded him, one burning criticism of his economic agenda is that he did not ease the restraints put on collective bargaining power. Whilst I passionately reject the view that the New Labour years were simply a continuation of Thatcherism, it is legitimate to question whether the unions policy led to a fall in people feeling “tribally Labour”. With whopping majorities in his first two terms, this could have been done without massive negative electoral consequences and upsetting Middle England.
The term “working class” itself also means different things to different people. To many, it simply invokes nostalgic images of blue-collar men and picket lines. However, the reality is that working-class Britain is more geographically and professionally diverse than ever before. For all the lazy stereotypes, Labour and remain strongholds in London are concerned with the same bread and butter issues as the leave voting areas that recently turned blue. Despite the obvious differences in the unpleasant political climate of the past few years, Labour must echo the late Jo Cox’s famous words – it is true that we have far more in common with each other than things that divide us, and that the problems in Bethnal Green are often the same as the problems in Blyth.
As I touched on previously, it’s time to reclaim patriotism from the right… I am not advocating a faux patriotic Farage-esque jump off the Brexit cliff edge shouting “believe in Britain”, but there needs to be a change in rhetoric about the nation uniting as one and moving forward. The 2019 Tory slogan about “unleashing Britain’s potential” seemed bizarre, coming from the party that had been in government for the last decade, but it cut through. There is a common view that Labour has inadvertently patronised many of the communities that need it the most. We should be championing these areas, instead of simply labelling them as deprived. Yes, talk about poverty, but more so about what we could do with a bit of investment, and relate it to the lives of everyday people. Instead of broad talk of a “movement”, local transport, local hospitals and local schools are tangible benefits that send a clear message.
Even among those who voted for him, I do not sense a huge admiration for Johnson, whether that be in Middle England or within the diverse British working classes. There is a feeling that many wanted to vote Labour, but simply felt that they couldn’t. The party needs to make an enticing offer to the country as one, rather than just a few socio-economic or geographic groups. It has a mountain to climb and class does still matter in politics, but in an increasingly volatile political environment, Labour don’t need it to matter in order to succeed as a good programme is a good programme for everyone.