Thursday 19 December 2019

Boris Johnson and 21st Century Class Politics

It's happened more than once. Since last Thursday a number of colleagues have said they thought about me as the election results rolled in. Not because I'm our office's Mr Labour or the fact there's very little to me except politics, but because of my shtick. If I'm known for anything at all it's as the Tory decline guy. I've banged on about how Labour is increasingly aligned with an emergent and ever-more dominant section of the working class, and also how, on the flip side, the changing class structure and composition of the Tory vote is storing up significant problems for them. Problems that could put their viability as a party of government into question in the years to come. Quite understandably, with a majority of 80, a whisker away from 14 million votes and a broad advance in to seats never held by the Tories before, you could be forgiven for thinking my focus should be on the long-term decline of Labour. The Tories, contrary to everything written here these last seven years, are in rude ass health.

Yet despite their handsome win the declinist tendencies have not gone away and, in many respects, Boris Johnson's triumph is a culmination of these trends. This has gifted him a wider base for sure, but as New Labour eventually discovered having support that is miles wide but only an inch deep leaves it prone to evaporation. The new Tory voters have injected some new tensions into Johnson's voter coalition he's going to have to manage, and while he is pressing ahead with gerrymandering the electoral system around party interests his win, paradoxically, might curtail the disappearance of some of the small seats, like Stoke Central, which certainly would be on the chopping block.

First things first, when a party is in decline that does not rule out its capacity to win elections and recruit supporters. For a while. Decline is never linear and can affect periods of growth and apparent renewal. This Tory win should be seen in this light. Writing last year, I argued there were three possible futures for the Tories: disintegration and splits between the hard Brexit right, the traditional Tories, and the remainy-Cameroon continuity wing. The second was stagnation arising from managing the Tories as was by doubling down on Brexit, and a more moderate Christian Democrat-style make over minus the illiberalism and bigotry. As it turned out, Johnson gave us a combination of all three. Signalling his intent in the Tory leadership contest to pile up leave votes versus a disunited remain-adjacent opposition, Johnson's reckless approach - which even saw his brother quit in disgust - successfully broadcast his intent to get Brexit done, to coin a phrase. He wagered that chucking out remainy rebels would trouble few Tory voters, and the horrendous prospect of Jeremy Corbyn would remind remain-inclined supporters that they're Tories first. And it paid off.

There is more to this than just referendum determinism. It is well established by now that there are clear age patterns when it came to the Brexit vote and the last three general elections. And these age splits are not the consequence of essentialist nonsense about people growing more conservative as they age. They are rooted in class relationships and the acquisition of property.

I'm not one for crediting Ben Bradley for, well, anything, but a recent thread of his explaining Tory success in the likes of Mansfield, Bolsover and Stoke etc. shows he knows but simultaneously misrecognises his support. The key to Tory advance, he argues, is understanding that the bulk of the working class is uninterested in socialism and radical change. They join unions out of self-protection, and go on strike to advance wage claims and defend existing conditions if provoked, and not because their heads are filled with Bolshevist dreams. Bradley is right about the pragmatism, up to a point. This was the basis of Labourist politics in the post-war period and, to a lesser extent, the persistent and significant minority of workers who ritually voted Tory. Collective action was a way of defending and raising living standards, but beyond that a quiet life was the heart's desire of the many. And now? A lot of these people, regardless of their politics then, now draw their pension and queue up outside the postbox to mail in their Tory votes. The actually existing working class are, in the main, non-unionised, know little to nothing of collective bargaining and the other institutional trappings of strong trade unions, and are housed, shuffling boxes back and forth, in metal sheds sitting atop the pits the likes of Bradley lionises.

The working class our "blue collar Tories" and their Blue Labour analogues get into a lather about is the working class of the past. The contemporary working class, the socialised worker is disproportionately young, more likely to be disengaged from official politics, but also largely spontaneously anti-Tory thanks to how the Tories are barriers to getting on and have vested interests in keeping this state of affairs so their voter coalition can hold together.

Why the old and the retired then. Why are they prepared to return governments who actively make life tougher for their children and grand children. Well, obviously, they don't see it like that. At its most conscious it's going to be articulated as tough love but ultimately, as a group of voters and a segment within the wider class structure there are certain structural characteristics conditioning their choices. The first is property. After a life time of work under a more benign economic and political settlement than now, they are more likely to own a home and have a decent pension. A decent number hold small quantities of shares. As modest as this property ownership is, you want to keep hold of it. And so suggestions Labour are going to tax the rich is code for 'they want to nationalise my bungalow'. Property, therefore, is something to be jealously guarded.

On top of this has to be considered the atomising effects of retirement. From the discipline of the working day to a modest but real enough freedom, retirement opens up the vistas of free time (conditioned by income, naturally) not available to those in work. As such it is a relative estrangement from the social and, therefore, the interests articulating and clashing within it. Further, whether a pensioner has property or not - about a third don't - the bulk of retirees are on fixed and modest incomes without the means, and in some cases the capacity, to make good shortfalls if, for whatever reason, something goes wrong. This means pensioners are prey to the sorts of ontological anxieties. In this case, a suspicion of change, a bewilderment tinged with fear about the state of the world, and a propensity to soak up stories that feed these anxieties. See The Mail, for example. Within this imaginary Corbyn was a danger because he cavorted with Britain's enemies, and condensed all their fears around tolerance, multiculturalism, softness, and big spending. He epitomised all that was wrong, now and in the immediate future. And so their votes for "change", be it Brexit or Boris, is a vote against a world that scares them, do not understand, and do not want to understand. This is pensioner as petit bourgeois.

Social being conditions consciousness, and the Tory gains demonstrate this better than anything else. In Bed Bradley's Mansfield, over the last three decades (according to Centre for Towns research), the number of over 65s are up 30%. Bolsover 35%. Scunthorpe 40%. Younger people, the socialised workers, have tended to mover where the jobs are - hence the massive Labour majorities in the big cities - and those left are more likely to be stuck in the more precarious, low paid end of the labour market and not be as likely to vote as their pensionable neighbours. Therefore Labour's collapse in these seats has been a long time coming - but could have been headed off. The Tory victory then was brought by attracting older voters by patriotism, their attachment to the eternal solidity of Britain/England in an uncertain world and their outrage at London elites disregarding their leave votes. After all, Brexit for them is not about Singapore-on-Thames but asserting independence, putting the Great back into GB and sparking off national renewal.

Well played then, Boris Johnson. However, taking these deprived constituencies into the roster of Tory seats means the party is going to have to learn to manage them if it wants to keep them. Immediately, under the boundary review undertaken earlier this decade a few dozen of these seats were slated for disappearance when they were Labour's. Johnson certainly has a majority big enough to get rid if he was minded, but that could do the Tories an unnecessary mischief, so the criteria is going to have to be thought about carefully. The second concerns postal votes, which the Tories rely on now much more heavily than Labour, and photo ID at polling stations, which is going to disadvantage the older worker/pensioner base than younger workers who carry more identification you can shake a stick at. There was no suggestion in today's Queen's Speech these were being caveated in any way, so we shall see how they handle this issue - or if they even identify it. Also announced, which doesn't bode well for our blue collar seats, is the absence of a hike to the minimum wage and watering down the already paltry policy concerning nurses' bursaries. Johnson can carry on in this cavalier way while basking in the victory glow, but it doesn't last long. Without a Brexit wedge in four or five years' time, if the Tories have clearly done nothing for these areas, what then?

The curiously empty manifesto offers some clues. Having successfully elided patriotism with Brexit and appealed to enough voters, the planned assaults on Travellers' property, the free speech "protections" and review of "low quality" courses in universities, the move to the much trailed points-based immigration system all offer culture war opportunities as per Bannon/Cummings. They hope running scapegoating and scaremongering campaigns on these issues will appeal to its traditional and its new support alike by prodding their fears and stoking up their anxieties. It's the oldest trick in the right's play book.

Johnson, however, is not invulnerable. His coalition can be undone, must be undone. One is his diet of thin gruel and hard Brexit for these communities. Things will change here alright, for the worse. Undoubtedly, the culture war posturing aided by their press satraps will find ways of blaming those who do not "believe in Britain" for it. Unless Johnson pillages Labour's manifesto and comes up with something. The exacerbation of tensions with the SNP should, at least initially, aid the Tories in terms of the thrifty English standing up to the grasping Scots, but issues around the union could portend a constitutional clash. And there is Labour as well. There is little chance of a lurch back to, as Peter Hain put it, "wishy-washy centrism" and Labour's radicalised activist army aren't going anywhere. If the party spends the next several years organising in communities, meeting people's needs, registering voters, and doing the slow job of winning back the Corbyn-sceptical-but-Brexit-happy, a Johnson government with little to no material improvements to its name and fiddling while climate change burns offers many openings.

The Tories won then because Johnson was better able to exploit the dynamics of working class decomposition better than Labour was able to ride the wave of working class recomposition, as it did in 2017. The Tory victory shouldn't blind us to the fragility of the voter coalition now assembled, meaning it's too early to suggest last Thursday represents a renewal and reversal of their long-term decline. And, happily, thanks to the interests they have to manage already the biggest obstacle to stabilising the composition of this vote is the Tory party itself.


Anonymous said...

Smouldering hot take that I don't *really* believe but - what if this win for the Tories actually turns out a bit like 1906 was for the Liberals?

Graham said...

I would be interested in the demographics of the vote in places such as Blyth Valley, Workington and Stoke.

In the absence of this the pre-election You-Gov poll presents some problems for your analysis.

The age at which voters switch from Labour to Tory fell from 47 in the 2017 election to 40 in 2019.
This shows that “the young” can change their support and leaves 26 years in which people are not the dreaded reactionary pensioners but have still abandoned Labour.

So what do we do about the middle aged and old?
This week a young Labour supporter seriously told me that the old shouldn’t be allowed to vote and I note your comments on postal voting.
Generational war is no substitute to class war.

Dipper said...

may I recommend this analysis of the election.

Great entertainment even if you don't agree with it.

James said...

Much as I'd like to believe it, people in their 40s aren't "young"

Deviation From The Mean said...

I always thought your demographics theory was total baloney.

If the last 50 to 70 years have told us anything it is that modern late capitalism, according to some built on socialised capital, cannot tolerate social democracy in any form and can only accept globalised neo liberalism and the privatisation of everything. Even at the heart of social democracy, in the Nordic nations, the trend has been a move away from social democracy. No nation can seemingly escape its tentacles.

Now some morons/charlatans/servile lackeys equate this globalised neo liberalism as some sort of internationalism, akin to the internationalism of the first international. They equate this globalised neo liberalism as some kind of bulwark against economic nationalism.

The truth is that this globalised neo liberalism is in actual fact economic nationalism in its highest and most extreme form, namely backed by empire. It is about controlling shipping lanes, ensuring key resources are secure and that the privileges at the imperialist centre remain. It is passive consumerism at the imperialist core and a plantation economy at the periphery. It is gangsterism.

Any form of resistance to this structure is crushed, one way or another. Only those nations too big to fail, such as Russia and China can provide any kind of counter balance to this uber economic nationalism. And any attempt to counter this imperialist project, for example, Arab nationalism has been thoroughly put down and replaced with an ethnic division, on one side a sociopathic and Western looking Middle class with arrogance and inhumanity to make the Medici’s and Marie Antoinette blush and the other a traumatised and sometimes fanatical mass. This is the civilising mission in action.

As for the working class of Britain, go to China and the periphery if you want to know what their preoccupations are.

Johnson clearly has fascistic tendencies; his first week in office is proposal after proposal to curtail free expression and free speech. Johnson is actually a reflection of the crisis at the heart of empire.

But at the moment the ruling class are extremely satisfied, as the markets, that barometer of ruling class confidence shows. You can’t blame them really, they have the masses where they want them, they have the government they desire and they are working very hard to get the opposition they require. If i were them I would gloat.

But be careful what you wish for!

Impressionist said...

Just a comment on your mention of the assault on travellers' property. Reading the wording of the proposed bill, it's clear that this is tailor-made to be used against protest of any kind, including peaceful protest. Indeed, a cynic might think it was designed for this purpose, but presented as anti-traveller as being an easier sell. There's a consultation out about this at the moment, which anyone interested can access through GYPSY-TRAVELLER.ORG. This might just be the most useful thing you do before Christmas,

Anonymous said...


I think that the point is that the middle age groups are marginal. 47 to 40 is not a vast shift after all. Whereas the tendency of Labour support to fall off a cliff after 65 or so is unchanged in both elections (and was indeed first really evident in 2015, not coincidentally the first GE after Osborne "stuffed the pensioners mouths with gold")

Boffy said...

Generational war should definitely be avoided, but the unavoidable fact that age plays an important role in explaining voting patterns also cannot be denied in analysing political reality. That is all the more the case, because the material foundation of this division will intensify, for a while.

The material basis is this. The older workers and pensioners are people who grew up and whose ideas were shaped by a particular reality, and they now find themselves living in a different reality. They essentially suffer from nostalgia, and an insatiable desire for the world to go back to how it was 50 years ago, which isn't going to happen.

They grew up and were educated to be mostly unskilled and semi-skilled workers working in manufacturing or extractive industries. Those industries are more or less dead. Trump's promise to bring back coal has failed, because US gas and solar power is cheaper. More people are employed in solar and alternative energy production in the US than in fossil fuel production. Unskilled jobs in pottery manufacture, and even things like car production have gone not because of foreign workers, but because of automation and robotisation. In modern economies manufacturing accounts for only 20% of output and employment. Service industry, in things like telecomms, media production, games production, entertainment etc., accounts for 80% of output and employment.

Those old workers do not have the skills to take on these new jobs. Nor do they have the education to be able to learn them. The new jobs in technology, and high end service production employ younger better educated workers, and wages tend to be higher than average. They are concentrated in cities, but they exist pockets in towns too. This is the material basis of the divide, and is reflected politically too. The condition of the oder workers is bound to decline relative to that of the younger workers, which in itself generates antagonism, just as now, there is antagonism because a significant portion of he older workers have assets (houses, pensions) that younger worker, despite their greater affluence (higher incomes) do nit possess, and are being denied due to astronomical asset price inflation over the last 40 years.

However, asset price bubbles always burst as 1987, 2000 and 2008 showed. Eventually the state can't reflate them. That will remove the latter antagonism as younger workers will be well placed to then acquire such assets. Secondly, the older workers in those manufacturing industries constitute only a minority (20%), which will grow even smaller. Agriculture used to employ 80%, and now only employs 2%. The older workers who have now retired but carry over the same ideas are dying out.

The major source of support for the Tories however, and Brexit, is not workers but the 5 million small capitalists and their families. This group was expanded by the policies of Thatcher and those after her. But large numbers of them hold on by their finger nails. They are zombie businesses in hock to money lenders. They exist because they can pay low wages, give very poor conditions, and so on, because their workers wages are supplemented by huge levels of in work benefits. As the economy expands, many of these businesses will go bust returning their owners to the status of wage slaves.

The important thing now is for Labour not to be tarnished with Brexit and the negative consequences that will inevitably flow from it. Its important for Labour to continue to oppose the Tories Brexit plans and to offer the potential for reversing the damage Brexit will do, by providing a route back to EU membership.

The Tories broke it via Brexit now they must be made to own the consequences.

Anonymous said...

I agree with this blogger. Makes it all the more puzzling that someone like Yvette Cooper thinks they might be in with a chance of the leadership.

I would also like to remind blog readers that Keir Starmer was a chicken coup plotter. Total scab.

BCFG said...

The interesting thing about this article is how nationalistic and out of date it is. While it is natural for British people to be fixated with British events, on a globalised scale socialists shouldn’t really be so taken in or obsessed with this type of analysis.

And in the analysis there is literally no mention of the imperialist dimension, Britain’s place in the world market or the fact there even is a globalised system etc. It is laughable that Boffy, who claims he is an anti nationalist, should not spot this crucial point.

YouGov makes the point that the Tories do better in all social classes and the Labour vote is around 32% in every social class.

This is really interesting, it means class is no longer a key indicator of voting intention, yes the bottom social class and the wealtgiest are both as likely to vote Tory, this seems bonkers if you are a nationalist. But it really demonstrates the affect of imperialism in uniting the classes. It also reflects the fact that if you are on the average wage in the UK you are among the elite 10% taken at the global level, and we do live in a global system. Proper Marxists have and are attempting to calculate a global world rate of profit, rather than pretending, as the nationalists do, that the wages of the people who actually make all the stuff we consume and move around should not be counted in our economic statistics.

From this globalised system point of view Britain is the leafy gated community, and we all know how those fuckers vote!

And from this system point of view this article is a throwback to simpler times. It’s the same nostalgia that the article takes aim at!

CCAAC said...

"just a comment on your mention of the assault on travellers' property."

Do we have a quote from the Chief Rabbi about this?

Dialectician1 said...

Yes, I agree. Without a proper intersectional analysis of age and class, the debate becomes mired in fruitless and spurious generational warfare. My two daughters are already blaming; "the baby boomers, who ungraciously accepted all the gains in health, education, workers’ rights and welfare, won by the pre-war generation and then pissed it all up the wall. The boomers’ legacy will be neoliberalism and eco destruction. Thank you and good night!"

What is so interesting about age-related voting (only 19% of 65+ population voted Labour) is despite a massive class disparity within this cohort, the elderly almost become a block vote, inclined towards putting their cross next to the Tories. Even though for the first time since the war, there a rising death rate among the elderly in the UK (compare this with EU countries, where the death rate continues to fall) they vote for austerity. As Danny Dorling shows:

‘The cuts to local authority budgets and the consequent repeated decimation, year on year of adult social service visits, meals on wheels services coupled with the stalling in the needed rise in health care funding and so much else very neatly matches up to the rising death rates among, at first the most elderly women living on their own and then not quite so elderly women and the most elderly men, and then more and more of the population – almost all originally UK born.’ (Dorling 2018)

Many elderly live lonely & fearful lives, intensified by those living in relative poverty (without property & work related pensions). For sure, their world view is nostalgic (the golden age of 50 years hence) and they cling on to anything that gives their increasingly isolated/privatised lives some meaning: monarchy, patriotism, Empire, parochialism etc.) The Daily Mail and BBC news is often their only source of interaction with the outside world. One news source rarely contradicting the other.

This is the generation that went to secondary modern schools (80%). Many left undereducated and went on to do manual jobs but an increasing proportion entered light industry and clerical work; with a significant proportion benefiting from the employment in the health service, welfare services, education and the booming service sector. Post Thatcher, an increasing proportion of them became self-employed. Those that bought property did well. This generation often explain this good fortune as being solely down to post-war social mobility. As Dorling & Tomlinson show, many believe it is their hard work & cleverness (particularly those who want a return to grammar school education), rather than ‘structural factors’, that brought about these gains.

Eugenics dominates this world view. This generation are more likely to believe the rich are rich because they are born cleverer than the rest; and that cleverness is passed down through families. Despite class being viewed as mostly ascribed (the Downton Abbey syndrome), there is still a place in the hierarchy for the ‘strivers’. Hard work & application will bring their rewards. They hang on to any story that exemplifies the ‘local boy does well’ narrative, despite the data that shows otherwise. This generation, having benefitted from welfare capitalism that provided them with care ‘from the cradle to the grave’ (free school milk, health care, council housing and pensions), now increasingly view welfare as menacing.

Here lies the contradiction. Ontologically, the working class in this generation are becoming poorer and more likely to die early because of a decline in public services, yet they support a political ideology that promotes anti-welfarism. I meet them every day and listen to their grumbles. While acceding to the fact that there has been an frightening increase in public squalor, they still choose barbarism before socialism, every single time.

Sam said...

The old are already waging generational war on the young, of more young people start thinking the old shouldn't vote its because they're systematically being denied privilidges the old have taught them to expect while being quashed in election after election by the gerontocratic mass above them.

1729torus said...

DUP's failure to retain Belfast North shows that you eventually run out of older voters.

Speedy said...

Dipper, I saw that interview with Starkey and couldn't help thinking how incredibly shallow and simplistic it was. I lost any residual respect for him as a historian.

Everyone else - the 47-40 shift is massive. 40 may not be young, but neither is it old. And presumably, there are roughly twice as many 40-80 year olds as 20-40 year olds. Also 40 is a key age for its vulnerability - likely teenage children, mortgage, mid-career. These are people who are more likely, I would say, to make more measured decisions than wealthy invulnerable oldsters, or poor, feeling-invulnerable youngsters. If you can't win 40, you are going to lose the election, which is what happened.

Boffy said...

" If you can't win 40, you are going to lose the election, which is what happened."

This 47-40 thing is a diversion. It isn't that a section of this group switched from Labour to Tory, its simply a reflection of the fact that a section of this group abandoned Labour, because of its absurd pro-Brexit stance.

In 2017, millions of people in this group lent Labour their vote having been former Liberal, Green or Plaid voters. Corbyn kicked them and the rest of us in the teeth by pursuing his old Stalinist fetish of building socialism in one country, and reactionary hostility to the EU and capitalist development. Its a version of the reactionary Sismondist ideas that Marx argued against, and that Lenin railed against when presented by the Narodniks. Its the manifestation of the anti-Marxist, anti-modernist politics of "Anti-Capitalism" which is the modern version of those Sismondist and Narodnik ideas.

As a result, Corbyn lost those millions of votes of younger workers that had been lent to us, and they went back to the Liberals, Greens et al, or simply abstained.

Speedy said...

I don't think it was only Brexit, Boffy. A large amount was Corbyn and the reputation that preceded him. He may have been a virtual unknown in 2017, and May run a particularly poor campaign, but by 2019 his 'danger' had been well and truly publicised.

'Sismindist' and 'Narodnik'... are not in my dictionary, nor most voters - they saw a man whose very evolution was alien to them, who came more or less from a different species. They could not relate to this man so believed he could not relate to them - any hard-left candidate will have the same treatment and effect.

I saw little to disagree with in today's Hattersley article, and the very fact that it would be opprobrium to the majority of commenters here says it all. One has to wonder how Phil really feels about this - presumably, he left the Socialist Party because he was attracted to a party of government, only to have the same destructive forces follow him into Labour and make it unelectable. Maybe you should think about transferring to the Tories, Phil!

CCAAC said...

Labor is dying. As a system of distribution and a way of life, wage "labor is being steadily eroded by today’s technological developments. Capitalist society is so dependent on the social construct of labor that panic is the normal response to this trend. Virtually every day we see frantic new schemes for creating jobs: offering wages for housework or Facebook posts, paying citizens to perform community service and so on. Watching these attempts to save labor is like watching a child on the beach trying to save his sandcastle by stopping the tide. It is time to stop clinging to the past and start adapting to reality. We can adapt to this process with a simple but powerful tool: reducing the amount of time that workers are required to work without a reduction in pay.”

Incidentally that Boffy is a complete idiot