Monday 25 January 2016

Is the Labour Party Middle Class?

The 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 FT 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 with and 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.


Phil said...

The idea that socialism = fluffy student-friendly social movement stuff = middle-class is lazy nonsense, but it's lazy nonsense with a long pedigree. Remember St George: "The first thing that must strike any outside observer is that Socialism, in its developed form is a theory confined entirely to the middle classes." As Raymond Williams said, it depends what you mean by 'Socialism', it depends what you mean by 'in its developed form' and - looking at Orwell's diaries for the 'Wigan Pier' period - it depends how selective you are with your evidence.

(The idea that left = 'arrogant elitist' and right = 'in touch with the common man' is a more recent American import, but I'm afraid that's catching on here too.)

Speedy said...

I think you're being a bit disingenuous yourself.

The petit-bourgeois, the lower middle class, tend to be attracted to the far right.

How does one define "middle class"? In the UK sense I would say, educated bourgeoisie, which is not, on the whole, the petit-bourgeoisie.

The people with the time and inclination to be involved in local Labour politics tend to be this second group, the "polytechnic lecturers" as a disgusted Jim Callaghan once described them. after attending a meeting of his own local consituency party.

This has been a long process, but it has been a definite one. Hence the shift away from class toward identity politics. The bourgeois are inherently uncomfortable talking about class because they come from the ruling one, and the reason they join the Labour party is that they feel that same sense of entitlement, but also want to feel good about themselves.

Of course Attlee was part of this trend, but he was surrounded by working class giants. The proof is in the pudding Phil - we don't even have John Prescott now!

DB said...

I agree about Ganesh - he seems to be a real favourite among elite politicos though. Here's a great quote from a Guardian article in 2001 which is quite revealing:

[...] the new breed of New Labour student seems personified in Janan Ganesh, from Croydon, hoping to study law at the London School of Economics next year.

Mr Ganesh, 19, joined the party on the day, two years ago, that Tony Blair delivered his "forces of Conservatism" speech at the Labour party conference, so inspired was he by the prime minister.

Yet despite that pedigree, he describes himself as "essentially a Portillista" - liberal on social affairs, centre-right on economics.

Loyal to a tee, he is still at a loss to understand the failure of the Frank Dobson candidacy in the London mayoral contest, and abandoned constituency meetings after a couple of events because they were "too dominated by Trots".

No wonder he fits in at the Times.

Controversial Christian said...

Yes it is. It became a vehicle for the middle England who pretend to have a conscience, and also when it abandoned the working class and working class concerns.

Democracy suffers enormously when parties represent narrow class interests. Time for a change. Bread and butter issues matter most to most people, not trendy lefty concerns in Camden Town.

BCFG said...

"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."

I disagree profoundly with this. It confirms the comment I made the other day about some elements of the left, which was:

"This is still better than the modern approach of trying to reconcile the wealthy Middle Classes with the proletariat."

A movement that sees no difference between the professional Middle Classes and those on the average wage and below will inevitably reflect the interests of the Middle classes. Otherwise it will lose their support. I would accept that New Labour is a fundamentally Middle Class party, and not a party of the proletariat. Corbyn is changing this, which will lose certain elements of the Middle classes. But I think this is a good thing.

Phil said...

Once again. BCFG's keyboarding gets the better of what's written down here. Since when does pointing out the historical roots of the Labour Party suggest a unanimity of interests between better and lesser well-off proletarians, of between the middle and the working classes? There are broad interests, but sectionalism and culture has always got in the way. And seeing as the profile of this blog, such as it is, was partly built thanks to the nuanced approach I take to such things, it's not like this is news to me.

Charlie Mansell said...

1. It’s overstated as you say, but the density in inner London is now massive with some CLPs on 4,000 members. However it does trail off a bit outside zone 4 so my suburban CLP now has 400 though we did poll just 11% at the last general election. Thus the membership density is likely to have widened for certain types of seats

2.Mosaic. What we need to see some data more properly applied. You might want to start with some research of the Mosaic breakdown of your CLP as it will be against every member on Contact creator. The full break down of all mosaic groups is here (do not download)
and a summary here
Good luck with any local research you do on it

3. Proletarianisation. This as you say is a much better term which goes beyond the market research 40-45% for C2DE in occupational class structure which dates back to 1921
What are the metrics of proletarianisation though? Assuming the 99% framing is considered a bit too simplistic, Peter Latham for the CPB in 2011 considered an 80% UK figure based on the census. which seems very neatly pareto/power law distribution, but may of course be wrong. The bigger challenge we then face is the old one: why do many proletarians vote against their material economic interest? In the more class conscious 1950’s 33% of the old working class voted Tory and 25% middle class voted Labour. As you say it is an even more complex and inchoate class structure now. The problem with false consciousness posited by those who hold ‘elitist catastrophist opportunist’ views tends to come across as cognitive dissonance/confirmation bias at best and patronising at worst. I’m currently exploring how material scarcity, willpower depletion and subsequent ‘demotivation’ impact on the creation of our mindset, attitudes and values using excellent recent research here
This is likely to have some scientific metrics that go deeper than alienation does and beyond the usual false consciousness metric of an election result that goes against the theoretical expectation

Charlie Mansell said...

4. In terms of drivers of UKIP vote as with Trump. The largest correlate is attitude towards authoritarian ism.
Post-materialist Cosmopolitans like you and I will be nationalisers when it comes to railways but much more individualistic but when it comes to our views on immigration,. UKIP voters tend towards nationalisation of the railways and ‘nationalisation’ of immigration issues too. I would agree with you that Blairism was not working class, but it clearly did pitch to authoritarians with the frames and messaging that the FT article describes

5. Their class composition may be of less of importance than UKIP voter’s actual bidability. Most of the polling showed that 70% of UKIP voters 2015 had voted Tory in 2010, so that no doubt makes us all feel they are just Tories. In some ways this is not good as the Tory/UKIP share in 2015 was 51% of votes cast. However the big mistake is just measuring UKIP voters in just a 2010 frame. The polling I have seen of how UKIP voters voted in 2005 was that they voted 43% Lab and 39% Con. In other words they were the swing vote from Lab to Con in 2005as the Labour voter coalition started a process of post-Blair realignment, whilst Labour made up some vote from returning 2005 anti-Iraq Lib Dems. That trend has speeded up further in 2010-15 as this table of voter migration shows with 20% of our vote 2010 Lib Dem voters and has accelerated even more since
Based on these trends my assumption is that by 2020 around 20-25% of Labour votes will have voted Lib Dem in 2005 and more significantly around 15-20% of 2005 of 2020 Tory vote voters will have voted Labour in 2005. That would clearly be a significant realignment over 15 years in the post-Blair issue. For the record my other very early prediction is that turnout in 2020 will be down to 63% which may surprise some but will happen if the current polling gap is maintained

6. Thus the big challenge for Labour is not just occupational class or proletarian composition but whether it we are still a cross values coalition of authoritarians, individualists (these voters of course make up their minds late and are prepared to lie to pollsters as they like being on ‘the winning side’) and us post- materialist cosmopolitans. The Tories are seeking to continue with a wide coalition of the former two (squeeze UKIP and appeal to their individualist core) and Zac Goldsmith presumably represents their cosmopolitans pitch a t the moment. The Tories also have a clear ‘South Asian strategy to appeal to some of the more successful BAME communities around individual success and fear of a Labour’s perceived demonization of ‘rentier’ property portfolios and landlordism. In opposition to all that the big question is are we as a result of our realignment a much narrower political values party like the Greens (cosmopolitans) and UKIP (authoritarians)?

7.In saying all the above I would agree with your other posts where you state that we need to proceed with this ‘experiment’ to see where it leads us. It should certainly lead to further interesting postings by you and hopefully considered responses like this

The Fulcrum said...

Charlie has buried the lede in point 5 in his point 5 - looking at voter migration, you can see that practically everyone gained in 2015, and what screwed Labour over was insufficient gross gain, and the wrong kind of losses in the resultant "net", not any absolute loss per se. But when I say everyone, I mean almost everyone - Conservative, Labour, SNP, Greens, UKIP.

The trouble is, the Lib Dems can't really get mugged again in 2020 (they sort-of can, but the gains are half as much, absolute maximum), so next time it really will be pretty much a zero-sum game. Labour plus SNP plus Green votes don't equal an election-winning amount (it's about 39% versus 37%, and 299 seats maximum in any case).

In other words, some of this vote has to be (not "would-like-to-be") 2015 UKIP and Conservative votes. Complete the following: Corbyn's leadership will help with this because ______________.

Gary Elsby said...

Conservatives rule Labour Stoke.
Who put them there?

David Parry said...

'In other words, some of this vote has to be (not "would-like-to-be") 2015 UKIP and Conservative votes. Complete the following: Corbyn's leadership will help with this because ______________.'

Well, even if Labour succeeds in winning over all the Tory and UKIP voters whom it stands any chance of winning over, that won't in and of itself secure a Labour victory either. To win outright, Labour has to begin winning back Scottish voters whom it lost to the SNP. Complete the following: Labour led by any of the other leadership candidates would fare well in this respect because __________________________________.

The Fulcrum said...

Here's the thing:

Combined Con-Lab seats, UK-wide:
1997 - 583
2001 - 579
2005 - 568
2010 - 564
2015 - 563 the SNP isn't, in numeric terms, presenting much more of a numerically bigger roadblock than the Lib Dems used to when Labour had a majority of 66. Assume the 20-seat addition(from 1997 to 2015) and take out Scotland and the theoretical maximum majority is around 100.

David Parry said...

'Assume the 20-seat addition(from 1997 to 2015) and take out Scotland and the theoretical maximum majority is around 100.'

Be that as it may, but the reality is that there is no way that Labour is going to win over anywhere near sufficient Tory voters to gain that majority. It's just not going to happen.

David Richardson said...

Whatever the percentages and the demographics, what surely has to be achieved in the next 4 years is to uncover where the interests of the majority of people lie, to make sure that the Labour Party represents that agenda, and to put it across as effectively as possible in face of a press and media that is overwhelmingly opposed to any such revelation. The problem for those who embraced the free-market, sleight-of-hand politics of New Labour is that it is very difficult for them now to acknowledge that those politics, however superficially attractive at the time, have been revealed not to represent those interests in the long-term. They have led to acquiescence in the demonisation of the poor, acceptance of the simplistic logic of austerity, and fear of confronting racism and calling it as it is. The PLP, it seems, contains a large number of such people, and it will be interesting to see where they go in the years to come. At the moment, the agenda of some of them appears to lie in attacking the new leadership, and subverting the necessary process of communication and persuasion.