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Whatever happened to the workers? Is Labour now a middle class party?

working classThe key to “professional” success in the land of comment is to never let the facts get in the way of a good narrative. If hard numbers and social realities are inconvenient, one can safely shove them aside in the assured knowledge they won’t come back to haunt the writer. Especially if one is a star columnist in a newspaper with broadly the same politics. On this occasion, it’s Janan Ganesh writing in the Financial Times about Jeremy Corbyn, class, and UKIP. And yes, it’s rubbish. Here, Janan had given his own spin to the political meme doing the rounds – that the Labour Party has got taken over by the middle class.

As it happens, there are numbers – not consulted in Janan’s piece – that bear out this analysis, but only to a degree. Published by The Graun last week, the party has attracted disproportionate numbers of home-owning inner city yuppie/hipster-types. They account for something like four per cent of the general population, while they’re a mahoosive 11.2% of our party’s membership. 10% of members are in “prestige positions“, as against nine per cent of the population. Meanwhile, rural workers and the less well-off are underrepresented.

So for one, talk of a middle class take over is somewhat overstated. It’s an issue, certainly, but represents a little over one-in-five members and, anecdotally, appears to be geographically concentrated in the big cities. My own sunny Stoke constituency party remains as working class as it was back before the membership surge, for example. And while we’re at it, show me a party that is more demographically balanced than the Labour Party. Many low paid workers in the Tories, do you think? Are numbers of students in the LibDems proportionate? Is UKIP rammed with working class supporters?

Ah, well yes, if you follow the narrative. Apparently, it is white working class voters who are most susceptible to UKIP’s dubious charms. Locally here in North Staffordshire, the purples have given us most grief in solidly working class districts that were at one time Labour-loyal. Silverdale in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Abbey Hulton and Bentilee – the last two former bases of the late and unlamented BNP – have returned kipper councillors, or came within a whisker of doing so. Yet the studies looking at UKIP support tell another story.

Prior to last May, the British Election Survey found working class voters were only a little more likely to support UKIP. Of more significance was the disproportionate support of middle class professionals and small business people. As anyone with a dim awareness of radical right and fascist parties in Western Europe will tell you, such a composition is par the course for parties of UKIP’s character. And, yes, the same was true of the BNP’s core support as well. Of course, what the NRS measure of social class used to bolster these kinds of analyses neglect to mention is that the ‘E’ class at the bottom of the scale – itinerant workers, the unemployed, etc. – have traditionally been the fodder of reactionary movements, as even Marx noted in his day. Lumping in the lumpens, who are also present in disproportionate numbers, lends the radical right a working class appearance when, in fact, it’s the middling, small business, and declassed elements who predominate.

This isn’t to say Labour should be chillaxed about such things. Neglecting UKIP in the context of a Tory campaign characterised by nationalist fear-mongering was fatal for Labour, and the jury remains out on whether sufficient numbers of working class voters can be won back by Jeremy’s leadership. But Janan should beware smugging his way through the situation Labour finds itself in. In the first place, he betrays no understanding of different gradations and substantive experience of class. The idea working class jobs are confined to manual occupations is complete nonsense. Changing technology, the deskilling of occupations, the rise of part-time working, and the spread of temporary and zero hour contracts has effectively proletarianised what were traditionally regarded as middle class occupations.

This ‘new working class’, if you like, is inchoate, disorganised, and largely atomised. But it’s big and it’s growing, and sooner or later the multiple frustrations it faces will find political expression. I hope it will be by recruiting millions of these people to the labour movement. Yet there is a chance the Tories could exploit their insecurities and ride them back into Downing Street. Or anti-politics and “apathy” could rule the day. Or Jeremy Corbyn’s message about equality and life chances could cut its way through. It’s possible.

The second problem for Janan is his revisionism. He argues that New Labour was no middle class take over of the party (though the demographic composition of the PLP accelerated in this direction during the Blair years). He says

By hardening its line on crime and defence, by cloaking it unsqueamishly in the British flag, by taking school standards and welfare abuse seriously, Tony Blair returned a party captured by the whims of the Brahmin left to actual working people.”

That’s funny, because at the time (what a wonderful thing memory is), all of these moves were justified by the need to pitch to the middle ground, which has always been code for nice middle class people in nice middle class marginals. The other problem with Janan’s assertion is whatever one thinks of Blair’s strategy and policies, a number of previously Labour-loyal working class voters started flirting then voting for alternatives. Labour got wiped out in Scotland in 2015, but the ruin dates back much earlier. The BNP and UKIP grew strongly under St Tony too. The political consequences of tough talk on immigration and of repeating scrounger narratives was to prepare the ground for right wing parties with simple populist “policies” we could never hope to compete with.

The truth of the matter is Labour has never been a working class party, as such. It was founded to represent the interests of people who have to sell their labour power for a living in the British political system. It’s a proletarian party, which is a key difference. That category is vast, ranging from well-remunerated professionals with qualifications spilling out of their hats to “traditional” workers to the low paid and the destitute. It is now as it was then an alliance between different categories of occupation, and the party’s strength lies in these links it has to these organised interests of the vast majority of working people, blue collar and white collar. Sure, Jeremy’s leadership presents the party with a series of tough challenges, but if his leadership continue to hammer home issues that can speak to our people, it’s not without opportunities either.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

15 Comments

  1. jim says:

    Hmm, 38 labour councillors in my town. 28 are retired /LTU and just under half have degrees or similar. Average age 60 ish – 65% male. No BME candidates though we do have a low level of Commonwealth immigration. I’m with Ganesh on this one.

    1. Tim Wilkinson says:

      Local councillors don’t comprise a random cross-section of the local population. They are unrepresentatively interested in politics, for example, and it’s all downhill from there (free time, education, various more obviously attitudinal social biases…)

      Your expression of mild dissatisfaction at this state of affairs seems nicely pitched.

      However it doesn’t seem to have anything whatsoever to do with the demise of NuLab and concomitant rise of Corbyn, or with any associated changes in the composition of the party and its supporters.

  2. David Pavett says:

    I wonder if I am the only one who after reading this article has little idea what Phil BC means by “working class” or “middle class”.

    In the last paragraph we are rushed through ideas about Labour being (1) a working class party, (2) a proletarian party and (3) a party of working people.

    I have little idea what all this is intended to mean. It is not as if these distinctions were agreed and established.

    It would be useful if Phil BC could provide some links to where he thinks these distinctions are spelled out.

    1. Tim Wilkinson says:

      I took the key distinction to be between

      1. ‘working class’ as a ‘social class’ – defined by heritage, accent & other mannerisms, various cultural shibboleths, etc.
      and
      2. ‘proletarian’ as an economic class – defined by role in the economy, viz., earning a living by selling one’s labour power (as the formulation in clause IV had it: “workers by hand or by brain”)

      1. David Pavett says:

        Okay, you may have taken the distinctions to have those meanings but what is the basis for that? How do you know that those were Phil BC’s intended meanings? The meanings you attach to the words are certainly not universal.

        Marx used “proletariat” and “working class” interchangeably as did Tom Bottomore, Ralph Miliband et al in their Dictionary of Marxist Thought. My non-Marxist Dictionary of Sociology does the same as does the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (2nd edition). So I still think that Phil BC needs to tell us what distinctions he things are represented by these words.

  3. swatantra says:

    It was always a middle class Party with the Webbs and GBS and Keir Hardie and countless numbers of drawing room socialists, to teach the working classes their P’s and Qs. I won’t mention Wells and Morris and Ruskins and the Artisans and Crafts Movements.

    1. James Martin says:

      You are right, there was always a strong middle class/intellectual core in the Party from 1900 onwards with groups like the Fabians. But when you look at the other socialist societies that also joined with the unions at that time to form the Party the ILP, who provided by far the most actual members, was overwhelmingly working class and had a very strong base in the northern industrial and mill towns, and no one could ever accuse Keir Hardy from the ILP of being bourgeois. But the key then, and the key now, in whether Labour is a working class party is with the trade union link, and now as then while we have millions of workers affiliated via their unions the make up of the individual membership is very much a secondary issue.

  4. John Haylett says:

    Keir Hardie a drawing room socialist? Stop embarrassing yourself and learn a little about this self-educated Scottish miner who grew up in abject poverty.

    1. swatantra says:

      Ok, both Keir Hardie and Ramsay Macdonald coming from humble origins, self educated, emerging from abject poverty by pulling on their own bootstraps. But then going on to become Drawing Room Socialists.

      1. John Haylett says:

        Leave it alone, Swat. You’re 10 feet deep down a hole already. Put your pick and shovel down.

    2. Tim Wilkinson says:

      HG Wells is an odd addition to that list too. The general tenor of the comment fits well with the standard stereotype pushed by the right – that the ‘true’ working class is anti-intellectual, prizes stupidity and can only be mobilised by an irrationalist right-wing (indeed proto-fascist) politics of tribalism, fear and hatred.

      (BTW, it’s never a good time to mention atavistic, racist sexual insecurities, but it is quite important to note that we are at present seeing a lot of false propaganda designed to push that particular button. One obvious example, which the Cons helped to fabricate and capitalised on very heavily in a number of ways, was the supposed ‘muslim child rape epidemic’ in Rotherham.

      In its direct appeal to sexualised fear, the Straussian War on Terror/Clash of Civilisations project outstrips its predecessor mythos, the Cold War/Red Scare.)

  5. John Penney says:

    There seems to be a lot of petty terminological sniping at Phil’s article here, yet the main points made about the changing and ambiguous nature of “class” and political leanings, all seem perfectly tenable to me .

    The “Working Class” for socialists (as opposed to bourgeois sociologists and the mass media) should surely always be seen as the entire class of wage-dependent workers , by hand OR brain. We should not buy in to the petty lifestyle or petty income self identification “class subdivisions” promoted by the capitalist mass media – or indeed the self-serving Labour Right. The Labour right’s latest attempts to discredit the entire “Corbyn surge” new membership as a bunch of middle class , Big City, Toffs, ie, not “real workers” is so transparently yet another special pleading to set aside our views as Labour Party members, in favour of the fantasy image of the pro capitalist class creatures of the Blairite PLP as spokespersons for the working class electorate.

    Of course the views that these career-long Blairite grovelers to the interests of Big Business want Labour to adopt are those NOT of the wider working class in all its ultimately trivial sub-divisions – but the anti-immigrant prejudices, ” anti Welfare Scrounger” scapegoatism, petty nationalism and anti trades unionism, fed perpetually to society by the mass media – and particularly absorbed by both the “Poujadist” small shopkeeper/small businessperson class and the “Lumpen Proletariat ” of the uneducated, unskilled, job insecure, often criminalised, and usually non-unionised. This unorganised, increasingly impoverished grouping is growing fast in the structurally dysfunctional UK economy, and with the Poujadist small shopkeeper petty capitalist class is indeed the mainstay of UKIP – and also of the most corrupt and neoliberal “Blue Labour” , Blairite PLP and local rotten borough local LP Councillor types.

    The Labour Party certainly needs to work to recruit from the manual working class, but need not fear the current influx of radicalised workers “by brain” . We all actually stand oppressed in the same relation to Capital. What the Labour Party must NOT do is pursue the support of the (often wrongly assumed to be solely White) Lumpen Proletariat on its own prejudiced, capitalist propaganda saturated terms. We can actually win major sections of the “lumpen Proletariat” to a radical Left programme on our own terms. We need to offer a mass social housing building programme and real jobs creation, and defence of the Welfare State to those in most despair – not feed on this despair by adopting all the divisive ideological poison that largely originates from the mass media, as Labour’s electoral offer “selling points”, as the Labour Right constantly advocates. That route is simply one of unprincipled opportunism , ie, Blairism in a nutshell. We can be better than that, and still win in 20230.

  6. John Penney says:

    Oops that should conclude as “2020”. Just a typo, not a gloomy prediction that we can’t win till the year 20230 !

  7. John P Reid says:

    To win general elections when as McMillan put it in 1959,you’ve never had it so good.
    labour since has needed either the Tory vote too collapse or labour to get middle class votes
    Circa 1997′ the question was when labour was concentrating so hard on getting the middle class votes in 1992, 2005 or 2010′ where did the working class vote go, if not to the Tories, in 2005 it was partly to the BNP, in 2010. Partly Ukip, or nationAlists, but 2015 labour may have had some of the public sector middle class votes, especially women with young children, but aren’t pensioners who had blue collar jobs all their lives, working class and didn’t they vote Tory.

  8. PETER WILLSMAN says:

    Our Party’s governing body is the NEC,which,as per the Rule Book,is all powerful.The vast majority of the NEC are from a working class background.Blackpool is a totally middle class-free zone.The NEC is not quite Blackpool,but it’s not far off.

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