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Corbynism and the middle class

You have your hot takes, and you have your duff takes. There’s little doubt which category Daniel Allington’s latest lazy missive on Corbynism and the Labour Party falls into. His piece looks at the some features of Labour’s electoral performance that should be a cause of concern: that ethnically homogeneous (white) working class voters with few formal qualifications are less likely to vote Labour than was previously the case, and that this has accelerated between 2015 and 2017. He also notes that if a Labour-held constituency voted leave in the EU referendum, there was a swing toward the Conservatives and vice versa if it voted Remain. To use the old management speak cliche, it’s one thing to bring me problems but I want to hear solutions. Otherwise, what is the point?

Alas, it quickly becomes clear this is a polemic without one. First things first, it’s interesting that ethnicity, education, and “class” are the characteristics picked out to “prove” blue collar Toryism. Because if he had added age to the mix, a different story is told. Across all the so-called class categories, Labour was the preferred choice for young people, and here you found a class effect too. The lower down the grades you travel, the more youngsters turned out for Labour. Secondly, according to the same you found a less muted but nevertheless strong correlation between position on the scale and the 35-54s. Or, to you and me, the bulk of Britain’s working population. The, for want of a better phrase, conservative worker effect primarily plays out on the over 55s. As these are more likely to vote than the rest of the population, it skews the figures for class in general, even though the bulk of this group do not work. Therefore, while there is much to be done addressing this issue, no one’s interests are served by pretending the “working class problem” is bigger than it is – especially when, as noted by James Semple, the correlations on which Daniel’s argument rests range from weak to the point of negligible.

Then there is the issue of class itself. As any half-decent sociologist will tell you, the social grades system used by the Office of National Statistics (your ABC1s and suchlike) carries two conceptual dangers. It is a static definition of class that maps occupation into discrete categories. As such it can only provide a snapshot of a process, for class is a set of fluid and dynamic relationships, at certain points in time. The second issue is a matter of definition. Because skill and knowledge are the defining characteristics, it falls well short of grasping the full complexity of class. For example, if I’m a computer programmer, am I in the AB group regardless of conditions of work, whether salaried, on a temporary or zero hours contract, or work for myself? Likewise, if I’m a manual labourer of some sort, a gardener, a window cleaner, a haulier, but work for myself where do I fit? The first example would see me in the top grades regardless, and the latter in the C2 or D bracket. Such a tick list approach distorts actual class relationships. This is fine for crunching numbers, but buyer beware if you want to do more with the scheme. It should be taken as an invitation for further, finer grained analysis. It definitely should not be used as the basis to draw political conclusions.

Unfortunately, these weaknesses are on show in Daniel’s piece. He commits the basic scholastic error of confusing the things of logic with the logic of things, of treating class as if it really is a fixed, freeze dried phenomenon. I don’t know if he claims to be a Marxist or thinks he’s informed by materialist analysis, but his treatment of class leaves out a very basic property of social relationships: the law of tendency. That is, looked at at a certain level of abstraction, sets of relations tend to move and develop in particular directions. Daniel doesn’t take the working class Tory vote and interrogate it in its movement, there is no sense of where it has come from (apart from Corbyn’s bad mmmkay) or where it is going. I think that answer is pretty obvious, but Daniel doesn’t ponder whether this is a trend or the high tide of the Tory vote. And because he can’t get beyond a schematic view of the social world, he is blind to the wider processes that are reconfiguring society and redrawing class relations. I would contend the middle class/working class distinction is increasingly meaningless, especially when (outside of the professions) conditions of work are similar, cultural diversity has and is continually dissolving cultural barriers between the salaried and the waged, and that the nature of labour in advanced capitalist societies is increasingly immaterial. This is giving rise to a new proletarian mass of networked workers drawn from all socio-economic backgrounds. This is the law of tendency in action. Meanwhile, Daniel potters around an anachronistic approach to class and class division. All that’s missing is t’cloth cap and whippet.

And this brings me on to the most hare brained of Daniel’s innovations, the “socialism fans”. Making a splash earlier in the year, his argument amounts to Labour getting taken over by virtue-signalling middle class lefties who aren’t interested in changing the world but are in a narcissistic display of radical credentialism. It’s a hobby for them, they don’t need socialism, it’s something jolly interesting for them to do when quinoa smuggling loses its shine. This argument isn’t entirely a stranger to this blog – we were talking about lefty identity politics before virtue signalling became an insult of choice among hipster fascists and small-headed Tories. But in Daniel’s case, it does fulfill two political objectives, whether he’s aware of them or not. It allows for an out-of-hand dismissal of Corbynism, of not bothering to critique it seriously because it itself is unserious. And it circumvents the need to think, because grasping afresh what’s happening can only raise serious questions about established politics. And for some, that is difficult bordering on the impossible – especially when it tells you everything you know is wrong.

The second point about the socialism fans argument is its historical ignorance. Just look at the state of the title, “Does the working class need to ask for its Labour Party back?” It implies that the working class were in charge of the Labour Party prior to Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership. That’s right, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, all of them horny handed sons of toil. In the real world, it’s no coincidence they, and their army of Oxbridge spads-turned-frontbenchers came to the fore during a period in which the labour movement had been politically defeated, was in retreat, and barely asserted itself through the party. The second point is Labour wasn’t founded as a “working class party”, it was fundamentally a proletarian party. The distinction is important. It was and remains the party of people who have to sell their labour power in return for a wage or a salary, and that encompasses the overwhelming bulk of everyone who has to work. Nothing says this more clearly than the fact the Fabian Society is as much part of Labourism as the forerunners of today’s affiliated unions, that the professional associations organised by the socialist societies were there from the start alongside the industrial worker. It has always been an alliance of ‘middling’  and ‘working’ strata because that’s what the labouring class of 20th century Britain looked like. What is different now is as the ‘old’ working and middle classes makes way for the networked worker, so Labour is reflecting that change. It has to, otherwise it will die. Daniel’s concept of the “socialism fan” fails because it doesn’t help understand any of this. Even worse, it actively hinders it.

When I write about political matters, which is nearly all the time these days, I always ask what am I trying to achieve. When it comes to the Tories and the right, it’s checking and rechecking whether the decline thesis is being born out by events. When it’s Labour it’s getting to grips with its transformation and trying to offer words that might help it along. When Daniel sat down and wrote his piece, what was he trying to achieve? Without any suggestions of a solution, with a concept so flimsy it screams bad faith, we’re left with a self-indulgent lament of narcissistic miserablism.


  1. John P Reid says:

    If you think labour wasn’t founded for the working class in those days the middle class were the employers,so weren’t in trade ipunions, so wither it was for the working class or the trade unions founded labour for the working class too

    Sorry if this is missed
    But the turnout of the over60’s was a lot higher 80% voted compared to 35% of the under 30’s so where it’s said gat more middle class people who are young voted Tory, but more working class people who are old voted Tory, as the turnout was a hell of a lot higher from the oldies that number massively out does the percentage of the young

  2. Here’s the strange thing. Those on the right of the party who are playing up this loss of working class support are also the ones doing their best to lose that support.

    Let me explain that. I think we can probably agree there is a connection between lost working class support and the way that lost support voted in the EU referendum. Corbyn’s more nuanced approach to Brexit as stopped the loss becoming a hemorrhage. Those who are attacking Corbyn for the loss are the same ones who seem to want to force the party into pro-single market membership position which will not fix the problem just make it worse.

    Something very similar happened with the Scottish independence referendum where Labour suddenly became a unionist party and we lost an awful lot of our catholic working class core support.

    1. John P Reid says:

      You sure the ones attacking the loss of the ao king clsss vote are, right wing remainers,look at where the rot started, with Gordon brown and ed Miliband and their arms Duffy, Emily thornberry sneering at the Union Jack, plus both thought that getting the daily mail, or the public sector core vote would be enough

      And they were both remainers

      1. Not sure if you are agreeing with me or arguing against, John.

        1. John P Reid says:

          Well I wouldn’t call Ed Miliband on the right of the party, but yes, his wing are the ones who first lost that support, yet are criticizing Corbyn fo doing noTHing to get it beck now

  3. Bazza says:

    Jeremy has won many of us from working class backgrounds and from the progresive middle class because he agrees with us!
    Whilst continuing to appeal to both of the above we need to also get over to the general middle class that if you have done well in life, well done, and we wish you continued success but if we can eliminate poverty, build decent homes for all, have decent wages for all and interesting jobs for all whilst sorting out the economy how much sweeter would success taste – in short this is your chance to reach a higher social plane and join the progressive middle class.
    We also need to harness JCs supporters IDEAS i have always argued the greatest victory of Neo-Liberalism was to stop the Left from dreaming; time to start dreaming again!

  4. The transformation of the dominant mode of production in the UK economy from the production of tangibles to the creation of intangibles requires an update in the language socialists use.
    In service industries, workers create value in partnership with colleagues, customers and the community. This value is intangible and only subjectively perceptible at the level of the individual. Physical capital supports the value-creation process but value-creation can occur with no or minimal amounts of it.
    Anyone who creates value in services (including those involved with untraded services like homeworking and child-rearing) is a worker.
    The key issue is whether a worker is exploited.
    In tangible good industries, this was objectively obvious. If you were paid less than the full value of what you had made, you were exploited.
    It is less objectively obvious in services, but still possible. If you feel you are exploited, then you are.
    This allows the definition of the exploited working class to encompass zero-hours shop workers to well-paid finance ones.
    There are around 31m people in employment in the UK. The overwhelming majority are workers (using the definition above).
    Retired people may not be in the labour force, but they create value within their families and communities. Most intuitively understand that family members, friends and other members of the community are being exploited.
    And you don’t have to be poor, weak and exploited to stand up for the poor, weak and exploited.
    The only section of our society that is beyond ideological reach are the small minority that are exploiters and like it that way.
    The reality is the absolute number being directly and indirectly exploited and the degree of that exploitation has never been higher.
    There are two challenges. The first is helping the exploited understand that truth. The second and more difficult one is defining a practical alternative.
    If that’s addressed, then it’s possible for Labour to secure more than 75 per cent of the vote in the next or future elections.

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