Wednesday 8 May 2019

Esther McVey and the Working Class

Who would be the next Tory leader? Consider the scene just for a moment. The Brexit Party has taken a bite out of the Conservative Party's electoral coalition which, recently constituted, was in long-term decline anyway. And as last week's local elections established, there are some vulnerabilities where centrist-ish Tory voters are concerned. As if it can't get any worse, most polls are posting good leads for Labour even if, for the moment, the showing for the main parties is depressed by the fragmentary dynamic of imminent EU elections. They're in a pickle then, a very sticky, treacly pickle, and any new leader is going to have their work cut out freeing the party from the morass. Yet there are no shortage of vultures circling the carrion of Theresa May's career willing to try. With one hopeful knocked out of the running, let's focus on someone else who has used her leadership posturing to stake out territory of her own. I am talking about Esther McVey.

Formerly of the GMTV sofa, McVey acquired the sort of bastardy reputation only an association with the DWP brief can confer, both as a bag carrier for Iain Duncan Smith while he was there and again last January when she was made social security supremo, until Brexit pricked at her conscience in ways a bogus work capability assessment never could. Nevertheless, as far as her chances with the Tory membership goes these are both positives. Then again, rivals like Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid, and Dominic Raab possess these shoddy qualities in spades. What then is McVey's shtick, her U to the S to the P?

At the weekend, 'We Tories are the natural party of the working classes' appeared in the Express. The theme of her piece is abandonment. Tory failures on Brexit have detached the party from its base, she says. But not to worry because Labour's abandonment of "traditional working class" voters presents the Tories an opportunity. Leaving aside the Labour's difficulties with "traditional" voters, she argues the Tories could do a job appealing to workers, even low paid workers, because they work hard and "do the right thing". This, apparently, is something Labour does not understand.

Repeating the lazy cliches about a metropolitan elite (has she not seen the people she hangs out with at Westminster), McVey argues that her brand of Toryism, 'Blue Collar Conservatism', really has something to offer. And what might these tasty morsels be? More police on the street to stop criminals thumbing their nose at the law, raiding the overseas aid budget to rectify the issue. She attacks High Speed Rail 2, calling for money to be invested instead in local transport (no objections there), but her main pitch centres on "freedom, responsibility, and choice" - words Labour activists often find cropping up on the doorstep. For McVey, these words are talismans warding off the evils of Corbynist statism with its levelling downwards and removal of incentives for self-improvement. This isn't where most working class voters are, they want social mobility and the Tories are the ones to give it to them!

Even by the standards of May's 2017 pitch to workers, this is pretty abysmal. Unlike McVey, May's then policy brain, Nick Timothy, actually came from a working class background and understood the Tories would have to offer something relatively substantial to catch their notice. This didn't get beyond the philosophical and rhetorical, and the election proved you have to do better than nice words. Where really existing working class people were concerned they went for Labour in droves because it spoke their language. The Tory prospectus for working class voters was zilch.

McVey makes the common Westminster mistake of assuming retirees are typical of workers in general when, in fact, they're not. Pinching Johnny Foreigner to pay for a handful of beat coppers suggests McVey has read too much UKIP material instead of talking to actual wage earners locked out of the property market, and held back by crap wages and, to be truthful, crap jobs. The daily experience of working class life is a better education in Tory rule than any number of Labour Party leaflets. Rhetoric of this kind then might fly with the diminishing electorate of her threadbare party, but like all other Tory offerings McVey's pitch is not about to excite anyone but the Tory faithful, let alone getting anywhere near winning a general election.


Dialectician1 said...

Two points. Neither of which have anything to do with McVey.

One, you use the word rhetoric as a perjorative. The term describes the 'technique of persuasion', which we know works better than coercion. Worth reading Sam Leith's recent book: 'Rhetoric, from Aristotle to Obama'. Leith, a public schoolboy himself, explains the techniques that work. We should not dismis the power of logos, pathos and ethos and see lazily use the term rhetoric to mean 'empty words'.

Two, Labour need to start to use the term 'working class' to mean what it means and not run shy of it. The Tories will steal the language for their own 'creating an open society of opportunity' rhetoric. There is plenty of evidence that 'class language' works for Labour. Use it!

Phil said...

Not much to disagree with here! Rhetoric does have material force, but not in all circumstances - I strongly suspect that if McVey deploys the rhetoric she uses here in the context of a general election campaign she will get nowhere. And yes to class - it is an absolute must for Labour to talk about it and use it.

Ken said...

All we’ve got to do is to decide who belongs to the working class. And, don’t get me started when I hear people use the term middle class.

Peter Briffa said...

Does this mean you’d like her to be the next Tory Leader? Or is there anyone, vaguely plausible, you’d prefer more?

Phil said...

Hell no, I'm pretty indifferent to who would be the next Tory leader.

I guess that's not true. The ideal skills combination would be someone who does very little damage to the people of this country while ramping up the disintegration of the Conservative Party.

bbk said...

McVey's article is just a mish mash of modern, mass franchise era conservative rhetoric. It's the same all over the developed world. "We're for the working class because the working class are by definition the "good" people and we're for "good" people."

It's a meaningless tautology, but it has some resonance because of the psychological hook it can have for some voters. If conservatives can through repetition cement the idea they are for hard working, responsible, play by the rules, etc. people then people who want to think of themselves as being like that too might vote conservative. As a kind of self-affirmation. i.e. "I must be hard working, responsible, and play by the rules, etc because I vote conservative which is the party for those who do those things."

One way parties of the (putative) left can fight against the power of that type of argument is by taking the language for themselves. Like Bill Clinton did in the '90s. The problem is re-appropriating the same language just reinforces its validity and you're screwed if the conservatives can "take it back".

I think the other potentially more effective way to defeat that rhetoric in the long term is be making it clear the conservatives are most definitely not the party of hard work, responsibility, and playing by the rules. Luckily, the conservative parties have made that job pretty easy (in theory at least), by actually being the party of rapacious, rule shredding corporations and rich people as well as lazy, irresponsible inherited wealth. So parties of the left should be hammering conservatives for helping corporations get away with breaking or skirting the rules. For making it easier to live off inherited wealth.

But because a lot of the center left baby boomers have themselves internalized conservative rhetoric they find it difficult to make that criticism and are too easily put off by conservative counter attacks about "anti-business" or "class warfare". So it's going to have to be the new generation of the left in mass politics. People like Alexandria Occasio-Cortez in America and her equivalents across the developed world.