A mythology has grown around Labour’s relationship with the British working class. The party’s historic role, we are told, is to promote the interests of the workers and be loyal to them. However, over the past 120 years they have not consistently reciprocated that loyalty.
In the 1960s, when 70 per cent of the electorate were categorised as working class, pollsters such as Mark Abrams advised Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson that Labour’s relationship with working people must change, while academics such as Peter Pulzer continued to state boldly: “Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”
If most of the electorate were deemed to be working class, you would think Labour would never be out of power. But it was and it is. Something was and is going wrong somewhere.
Bold statements by academics may have helped to reinforce the belief of Labour Party traditionalists that the “class struggle” was real and winnable, as if the culture of a pit village was relevant everywhere. That image shackled the Labour Party to the past, not only ideologically but also in the mind of the voter.
Voters have changed and moved on. Labour, except for brief interludes in the party’s history, has not. For long periods Labour has preferred the past to the future. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party became catatonic with nostalgia.
That is why Peter Kellner’s polling reports “From Red Walls To Red Bridges” and now “Red Walls To Red Bridges – Politics After Class”, published by the Tony Blair Institute today, are timely. They show that the working class isn’t what it used to be. It hasn’t been for quite some time. While only two out of five voters are now categorised by their job as working class, three out of five self-identify as being so – a figure that has been consistent since the 1980s.
This may give some hope to those who see merit in class struggle, but the electors are a lot more reserved about that approach. They still see the purpose of Labour as representing working people and the Conservatives as representing the middle class. As a cost of living crisis rips through families, they also remain more than aware of divisions in society. At the same time, the dividing line between social classes starts to blur as you look in more detail at what is really going on.
There is a group of blue-collar workers whose jobs make them working class but who see themselves as middle class. They account for just over one in 10 of the electorate. They voted 54 per cent Conservative and 22 per cent Labour at the 2019 general election. Another group, in middle-class jobs, identify as working class and account for about a third of the electorate. They voted 44 per cent Labour and 39 per cent Conservative. Other voters who self-identified with the class assigned by their job voted in significant numbers for the Conservatives in 2019.
For both parties, but especially for Labour, social class offers no guide to how people will vote.
While politicians and pollsters pore over the electoral data on class, the voters themselves aren’t really interested in their class definition. The Kellner reports reveal that the majority may self-identify as working class, but they believe being working class mattered more to their parents than it does to them. Family and where they grew up were more relevant, so was being British. Professional qualifications combined with educational skills, indicators of aspiration, were also in the top three responses. Only one in four thought being either working or middle class was important to them. Volunteering and even a person’s hobbies were more significant indicators of their identity than what social class they belonged to.
The working class is a multi-dimensional concept in 21st century Britain. It means all kinds of things to all kinds of people all at the same time. Unlike at the birth of the Labour Party, occupation is no longer a prime indicator of how people see themselves in society. This will continue as the century progresses and the industrial origins of the Labour Party are seen even more as ancient history.
Labour’s ability to adjust to an increasingly fractured and atomised voter interest was put into reverse in the 2010s, especially during the madness of the Corbyn era, when the party’s offering was a vision of pit wheels and factory gates. That is now behind us, and Keir Starmer is injecting a good dose of decency, principle and competence to Labour. And he wants to win.
Labour’s preoccupation with class has also left the party with an image problem, which is not helped by everyday Labour language. When, as part of the Kellner polling research, focus groups were asked for their views on words such as “solidarity” and “comrade”, the response was clear: they were “old school”, “extremist”. Not the greetings you hear down the pub.
As for the clenched fist salute or logo, used by left-wing factions and sometimes seen on the floor of the Labour conference, participants said the image was “aggressive” and “like 1920s Soviet Russia”, taking their view of Labour back a century. The electors’ impression of Labour will not change unless Labour continues to transform its image of itself.
I grew up on a council estate purpose-built for miners and their families. Surrounded by collieries and pit heaps, the village was part of the Durham coalfield. Although the collieries were closing, coal mining was still a big employer. Every household along my street, except one, was home to a miner. Dad worked down the pit for the best part of 40 years. Class wasn’t something that was discussed in the working men’s club and welfare halls, leek trenches and pigeon crees. It was a given. We belonged to our class. And everyone was Labour. That was a given, too.
If I thought I belonged to the working class all those years ago, today it would seem people only identify with the working class. As Claire Ainsley writes in her book The New Working Class: “Given the fragmented character of the new working class, the term itself cannot be viewed as a rallying call, because there is not a strong enough collective affiliation to it to make it useful in political communications.”
If the working class is no longer a homogenous whole, why pretend it is? It is an anachronism. And one thing is for certain: the new working class will look to Labour only if Labour stops looking like the old working class.
If Labour was to target the working class based solely on the economic definition used by pollsters since the Second World War, the party’s electoral strategy would be doomed to failure because the working class is defined as a minority and a third of them would vote Tory anyway.
If Labour was to take solace in the self-identification of the 62 per cent of the electorate who see themselves as working class, the party needs to think again. The same group of people are more interested in being identified with their hobbies than they are being a member of the class Labour claims to represent.
Labour was founded as the political wing of the labour movement. A strong and relevant alliance 100 years ago, it has failed to reform over the years, and is now more a monument than a movement. Today, just one in 10 working people in the private sector are in a trade union, yet the trade unions affiliated to Labour hold half of the votes at the party’s annual conference.
The solid working-class belonging I felt growing up is no longer there. Yes, people identified with their family and where they lived back then too, but today their job, their aspirations, their Britishness, their willingness to volunteer, add further identities for them to select from and which are more relevant to their lives. More like belonging to a community than a class.
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When the Labour Party was established in 1900, there were moves to ensure only “members of the working classes” could represent the working classes in parliament – something the left of the Labour Party still calls for today. Those early manoeuvres were overwhelmingly defeated. Which was just as well, otherwise Labour would have barred the party’s three great election winners, Clem Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, from standing as Labour candidates. Francis Williams, the Labour Party historian, said the “door to a classless socialist party had been left open”.
Maybe Labour’s next Clause IV moment is to throw off the shackles of class and embrace the meaning of community as the first step through that door. As for the “socialist” part, that too is something we need to re-invent without the “comrade” and clenched fist.
Values leading us away from the dead end of ideology because community, not class, is the new belonging.
Phil Wilson was MP for Sedgefield until 2019
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