Thursday 9 January 2020

Labour and the New Working Class

There is something about politics that lends itself to simplistic answers, and that's exactly what we're starting to see emerge in response to the size of Labour's loss. Bugger the complexity of the thing when faction-friendly sound bites will do. For the right it's mainly about Jeremy Corbyn, and for the left it was mainly about Brexit and Labour's pitch into remain territory. Both are correct, and both are mistaken, but merely observing that is not enough. We have to ask why the left read the election wrong, why the result was unexpected and, more importantly, think seriously about why we weren't able to repeat the advance of the 2017 general election.

Jeremy Corbyn was always going to be a hard sell given how much his politics are at odds with the political and media establishment. Indeed, this combined with my habituating to the miserably low expectations of what was then Labour's mainstream meant I didn't vote for Jeremy in 2015. My mind changed primarily thanks to the wreckers on Labour's right who warned a Corbyn-led party was unelectable, and stretched every sinew to ensure this was the case. And so when comrades went on the doors and found common Tory and press attack lines quoted back at us - Corbyn supports terrorists, Corbyn hates this country, Corbyn is an anti-semite, Corbyn can't make his mind up about Brexit - all of these lines were established years in advance and fed by people ostensibly on our side. Nevertheless, in 2017 the party weathered Corbyn scepticism incredibly well and given the trajectory of the polls, just one more week of campaigning would likely have returned Labour to government. Why not this time?

Given what happened then, you can understand why some comrades were champing at the bit for a general election regardless of timing. We had experience of circumventing the media, and the party membership did make a big difference. Not just in terms of volunteers campaigning, but thanks to the millions of conversations non-active members were able to have with their families, friends, and colleagues. This is why mass memberships matter because they can do a lot of the groundwork without the need for direction. Therefore the notion voluntarism could make up for Labour's other disadvantages was not official optimism or Maoist exuberance, but a belief we could decisively leverage the party's weight and make it a significant electoral factor. And the truth of the matter is the Tories knew this potential was there and did find the images of hundreds turning up for canvassing sessions, the take off of electoral registration, and queues forming up outside polling booths demoralising. Unfortunately, their fears proved unfounded.

Two years of demobilisation certainly had its part to play. Internally Corbyn's leadership failed to press home its advantage after the 2017 election, and what we got instead was a soggy compromise to suit trade union tops instead of the mandatory reselection we see in the radically democratic, ahem, Scottish National Party and the LibDems. We did not witness serious efforts about changing party culture to become more participatory and less obsessed by the dull proceduralism that unnecessarily clutter Labour meetings, and once the post-election sheen wore off we saw the party embroiled again in a lengthy and damaging drip drip of anti-semitism, Tom Watson-engineered wrecking, and second referendum remainia proliferate unchecked. Simultaneously, the Commons was the cockpit of Brexit struggle to which members and supporters could only spectate. In 2017, though the election was dropped on us the party was primed for thanks to two years' worth of mobilisations, aided by the fact Corbyn was largely unknown among the wider public. In 2019, we went from a standing start to full pelt in a blink of an eye, but by this point Jeremy was a known quantity and most people had made their minds up about him. The party responded magnificently to the moment, but the perception of the leader and Brexit was too much to get around.

This cannot account for our failure though. If you consider 2017 as a turnout game, where Theresa May assembled a huge pile of Tory voters but was met with a very impressive response by Labour, Boris Johnson repeated the feat while we didn't. Turn out fell by just shy of 375,000 votes and we lost over 2.5m votes. Why? As argued here many times before, Labour's new base is the socialised worker, or the new working class. This is networked but heavily individuated, their work tends to be cognitive and social rather than just physical, and tends them toward socially liberal and tolerant attitudes which, as a consequence, made them more favourably disposed toward the EU. The younger you are, the more likely you are to be employed in this kind of work and be at the sharp end of precarity, uncertainty, low pay, flexible hours and zero hours, bogus self-employment, no prospects, personal debt, and to top it off much less likely to be able to ascend the housing ladder and acquire property. As the Tories are presiding over this, they're storing up problems for the future and, indeed, this election saw an even starker age split than 2017.

As other comrades have noted, Labour lost more votes to remain parties than leave voters to the Tories, but the latter were amplified thanks to their geographic spread. Undoubtedly, had Labour not pitched to the second referendum position the election would have been even more catastrophic. Not because the loss of seats would have been any worse than what actually happened, but because an even greater chunk of the new working class base would have visibly registered Labour acting against their interests and sealed their alienation from the party for many general elections to come. And this matters more not just because they're younger and have more votes left in them than the Tory base, but that they're less likely to vote in the first place. i.e. Our base is numerous, but less inclined to vote, which means every one of our people who stays at home costs the party more than if a Tory voter skips the polling station.

Turnout figures by age have varied over the years, but the same pattern is clear: older voters turn out in greater numbers than younger ones. If the age splits we see in elections and values surveys are functions of a class cohort effect, then it stands to reason the turnout differential also must be structural. What is it about the socialised worker that, at the moment, sees them much less likely to participate in mainstream politics even though Labour is now flooded with hundreds of thousands of its most radical layers, and went into this election with a programme speaking to their interests? If we iron out the conjunctural issues - Brexit, Corbyn's leadership (which was more a positive factor for younger workers) - what are we left with? In the absence of undertaking research, there are a number of hunches. The first is, simply, the absence of workplace organisation and other collective institutions of the working class. Employment, especially at the more precarious and lower paid end of immaterial work is highly individuated and segmented. Workplaces are not large, are criss-crossed by high labour turnover and individualised shift patterns, hours are by no means guaranteed, and that makes the formation of a trade union consciousness more difficult. Trapped in a privatised world of competition for shifts to try and make ends meet, there is little wonder that many find it difficult to lift their eyes to the horizon. This is their lot and nothing can be done about it, all you can try and do is survive. The second is a related political paralysis. Again, the absence of collective organisation means oppositional ideological resources are not simply to hand for millions of people, and in its stead we see all kinds of substitutes fill the vacuum. Nationalism appeals for a small minority of this layer of our class, but preoccupations with creating escapes from the real via fandoms, gaming, dating, and the pleasures of consumerism are much more common, as is conspiracy theory and, crucially, a naive and fatalistic cynicism. This is despite the increasing interest on socialist and left ideas. Therefore in an election where, if you're watching it askance, politicians are making grandiose promises there's no way to separate the lies from a genuine pitch. And so you declare plagues on both their houses and tune out. Especially when what they're arguing about appears to have no direct bearing on your life.

This won't be the case forever, but it's not going to sort itself out. These are our people, our base, so we have to understand them and bring more of them into the party's orbit. This is the sort of listening Labour should be doing, not wasting time flattering two-bit bigots and chasing former UKIP voters by promising to be more racist and wafting nuclear weapons around like giant willies. We've got to think about how the new working class is segmented, the differences that tend to crop up between those who've moved to the big cities in search of opportunities as well as those who remain in the provincial communities we lost, and the rural seats we've never done well in. We have to think about our own membership and its occupational distribution, how they got involved in the party, what their points of contact were before they signed up, and Labour needs to work more closely with the affiliated unions to learn from their recruitment strategies and how to do a better job of pushing the Labour link. All this in conjunction with deepening the party's commitment to social movement organisation and standing with workers in struggle. Understanding our people is not an academic exercise. The aim is to cohere them, grow them and, crucially, be relevant to them. And of we get this right we will not just be back on the path to government in 2024, we can be for the decades to come.


SimonB said...

On a practical note, those conversations you describe often arose as the result of something negative in the media, The lengthy, or even complete silences from the party made the task of winning people over more difficult.

It’s not fashionable to say anything positive about New Labour. It’s a pity because they did some things very well. Communications strategy, with the Instant Rebuttal Unit, could have made a lot of difference. Pledge cards headlining a smaller number of big promises would have been a better way to explain policies. Blunders due to over-centralisation should be avoided too: my CLP didn’t have a candidate until AFTER the election was announced because we had been forbidden from holding selections.

Any review of the election, and subsequent leadership contest, should include this sort of thing. I want to see proposals from leadership candidates on policies but I also want them to explain their ideas for running the party better.

Boffy said...

The defeat is not as big as the Blair-rights and Tories would suggest. In vote share terms the 33% is much better than in 1983, when it was 27%. Its better than Kinnock's performance in 1987 (30%), and about the same as his perfomance in 1992 (34%) when it was expected he'd win.

Take off around 50 seats in Scotland, all of which were lost long before Corbyn became Leader, and which can be attributed to the adoption of Blair-right policies and the corrupt nature of the Scottish Party that Blairism/Brownism allowed to develop, and the seat tally is not dramatically worse either. It would be better than 1983 and 1987, and about the same as 1992.

Moreover, its largely a factor of demographics. Labour is suffering in the way it always has. Its vote is concentrated. It is concentrated in the working-class, and the working-class today is young, better educated, and concentrated in cities, working in service industry that accounts for 80% of GDP. The Tory vote is more dispersed. It is dispersed across sparsely populated, but geographically large rural areas, and now also in depopulating towns that were formerly the base of the old manufacturing industries that are now a relic of the past. Its no wonder the vox pops are always conducted in the latter, and not in the cities where the large majority of young working-class Labour voters are to be found.

Labour should set its sights on the future and forget about the past.

Anonymous said...

Unusually I agree with everything you've written. The Party machine seems to be designed by dinosaurs.

The CLP I canvassed with hadn't a clue about how to talk to the younger workers you describe, let alone to students of whom they had about 18,000 in the constituency. The 19th century model of canvassing doesn't work in student areas where half the addresses are out of date.

The old-timers' attitude is "don't bother telling us that Steve Student at flat 3 is thinking of voting for us cos his name's not on our list so there's no data!" Next year Steve will have moved again so he still won't be on their list. All they think of is their declining cohort of aging traditional working class voters who have voted Labour all their lives.

Despite the presence of a large university the CLP has little or no contact with the University Labour society. There seems to be no organised way of canvassing halls of residence in which more and more students live.

And if any activists make the mistake of looking on the FB pages of the CLP bigwigs they will find them viciously slagging off the young activists who have travelled 100 miles in some cases to help re-elect their Corbyn-hating MP.

Dialectician1 said...

Much what you say is supported by Mike Savage's study of occupational groups in the 21st Century and how recent changes in employment mean we need to reconsider (and give up) older sociological definitions of class. Savage takes a Bourdieuian perspective, insisting upon a multidimensional approach to class: seeing cultural processes as significant as economic ones. He also looks at the myth of meritocracy & the spatial location of class.

While critical of the theoretical and methodological basis of Savage's work, I certainly agree that these cultural process came into play during the Dec 2019 election. There is no doubt that age played a part. Education is no longer a ladder to prosperity, unless you attend the 'golden triangle' universities. Younger people have good ontological reasons to feel disillusioned with contemporary capitalism. They bought into the entrepreneurial narrative, moved to the cities but their life chances remain thwarted. On the other hand, the 65+ age group, despite their class variations, make up an almost impenetrable & reactionary element of the electorate that Labour increasingly fails to engage with. This group are more likely to be influenced by the MSM, live increasingly in towns or the rural fringe, rather than cities and often have strong 'patriot' tendencies. Trying to recapture this group is a lost cause for Labour. The Tories have them in their pocket.

I agree, the future is Labour. It is the party that best captures for the pre-baby boom generation the problems of an atomised (and often lonely) contemporary society with its drive towards alienated labour, squalid public services, hyper-consumerism and eco-destruction. However, I suspect the Labour Party will knee-jerk back to the centre ground and beat its head against the wall with futile appeals to the reactionary elements of the older working class, who were lost to Labour decades ago.

Jim Denham said...

"s other comrades have noted, Labour lost more votes to remain parties than leave voters to the Tories, but the latter were amplified thanks to their geographic spread. Undoubtedly, had Labour not pitched to the second referendum position the election would have been even more catastrophic. Not because the loss of seats would have been any worse than what actually happened, but because an even greater chunk of the new working class base would have visibly registered Labour acting against their interests and sealed their alienation from the party for many general elections to come": an excellent point that needs to be emphasised, especially given the campaign from the Morning Star etc, attempting to put all the balme on Labour being (supposedly) seen as too Remain-ey by "working class voters" - ie prediminantly white males from the "old" industries, now no longer part of the labour movement, and in many cases lost to Labour from before the 2016 referendum.

Alan Story said...


1) Some interesting points here about class that I agree with Phil.

2) I do find this “ our people “ talk rather patronising and smug. Who says they are Labour’s “ people.”?

3) People in the LP would be well advised that, after four defeats in a row, there may well NEVER be a majority LP government again. I am sure you have all heard of Pasokification: . If Labour had chosen say Burnham or Cooper in 2015 (rather than Corbyn), the LP might have already travelled down the Pasok highway. If the LP loses two more times ---- say in 2024 and 2029, which would make it SIX losses in a row ---- the LP might well end up in Pasok land itself.

4) Surprised how few in the LP are talk about proportional representation as one way to stop its slide. The one pro-PR candidate, Clive Lewis, may not even make the ballot.

5) And Labour needs to stop thinking it is, like Jose Mourinho, “the special one.”


Alan Story said...

“The future is Labour”? Really?

The German Social Democrats once said the same thing.

As did Hollande….

As did….

Anonymous said...

We were assured - with total unimpeachable authority - that there would NEVER be another Labour government after 1992 as well.

Less than a year later.....

A major problem in winning a majority, compared to then, is Scotland. But its hard to see the present stasis there continuing indefinitely - in the next decade or so there will either be a decisive move towards independence or a shift away from it. If the latter happens, it is almost inconceivable that the SNP would *not* lose significant support.

Maybe even more importantly, the Tories are now totally and indisputably in power. They can't conveniently blame others any more......

George Carty said...

Boffy, surely the choice of people to interview for vox pops is driven more by:

* Pensioners and other non-working people are more likely to be available to interview than working people, and
* People in Brexity crap towns are more chosen than those in big cities because they know their viewers will be wondering "why did so many people vote for Brexit despite the almost uniformly negative economic predictions associated with it?"

Anonymous, aren't students mostly very reliable Labour voters already? AIUI if Labour has a turnout problem among the young it is more among those young people who aren't university-educated...

Dialectician1, how would you respond to the claim that their lock on the older generations means we're condemned to Tory rule for the next decade or so, as the younger generations are too concentrated in cities to win General Elections for Labour (especially now that Scotland has been lost to the SNP and may well become independent)?

And when you said "pre-baby boom generation" surely you meant "post-baby boom generations" (as in Xers, Millennials and Zoomers)? Baby boomers (along with their predecessors the Silents) are solidly Tory, Millennials and Zoomers are Labour while Generation X is divided: perhaps most of the defections between 2017 and 2019 were in this age group, perhaps among those who were very attached to suburban car culture and spooked by the increasing green emphasis of Labour's 2019 manifesto?

Anonymous said...

What you say in this post is true, Phil. But, whether consciously or not, it is selected from the truth. Not selected is the crucial role of the Brexit Party, which stood against Labour MPs only. That accounts for the loss of the Labour "Leave" vote.

But even when you add the deserters back to the Labour voting figures, you still find a shortfall stops a Labour majority. That shortfall consisted of Labour "Remain" voters.

I can't say for sure that those deserting "Remainers" account for the "Stop Brexit" Lib Dems' 4.2 percentage point-uptick, but I'd feel very comfortable if someone asked me to bet money on it. Slightly eager, in fact.

So, if Labour's hardcore Remainers voted Lib Dem, Labour's hardcore Leavers voted Brexit Party, and (presumably) Labour's not-so-hardcore-either-way stayed at home, the question is...

... actually, there is no question, is there?

Socialism in One Bedroom said...

The most important aspect of Corbyn, and the thing that actually made him radical, revolutionary and a real threat to the ruling class was his anti imperialism, as weak as it was.

What is left with his defeat is a return to normality. And what is this normality, what is the left under these circumstances? In the West leftism is basically this, we rape, pillage, loot, super exploit, control shipping lanes and we share these spoils equally among us, honour among thieves. And we consume at a rate that if applied to the whole planet would destroy said planet.

This is what passes for socialism in this arch imperialist and supremacist nation.

And this is the ‘New working class’ and it abiding priority.

Fuck all that and fuck multidimensional approach to class. Down with the empire, solidarity with Iran!

Heather Wakefield said...

I found this all very interesting but as much for what is not discussed as much as for what is. There is a howling silence around gender and little about the Labour/trade union 'link' (or lack of it!). I am concerned at the sense that age might constitute a class cohort which is immutable and which is undifferentiated.

While overall 31% of men and 35% of women voted Labour in 2019, in the 18-24 year age group, 65% of women and just 46% of men did so - while 28% of men and just 15% of women voted Tory. That's a big difference which we need to understand!! What does this tell us about the composition and aspirations of this New Working Class? Who are they, what do they want and what will it take to engage them in a long-term rebuilding of the Labour project?

One thing (amongst many others) that was clearly lacking in the Labour campaign was any conscious and direct appeal to women - many of whom were never part of the traditional, industrial working class, but who have worked their butts off as care workers, teaching assistants, cleaners, shop assistants and catering workers for most of the post-war period - generally being overlooked (at worst) or patronised (at best) by the 'traditional' working class and the trade union movement. Nonetheless, women in all age groups were more likely to vote Labour. Why?

As I pointed out in my contribution in 'Corbynism From Below', the trade union-Labour link is fragile at best and dependent on TU 'tops' who are largely politically and culturally conservative - whether 'Labour' or not. The link desperately needs rebuilding from below, invigorating trade union democracy and strength, as much as the link itself. This needs to be central to Labour renewal, but it needs to focus as much on forgotten women workers of all ages as simply the young - vital as they are to the future of the Left.

Phil said...

Yes Heather, there is a pronounced gender difference that needs remarking upon and this too has only grown starker over the years. I've got some thoughts about it but would be interested in hearing what others have to say.

Blissex said...

«One thing (amongst many others) that was clearly lacking in the Labour campaign was any conscious and direct appeal to women - many of whom were never part of the traditional, industrial working class, Nonetheless, women in all age groups were more likely to vote Labour.»

Curious situation, here is a fairly analytical Conservative, D Willets, pointing out that:>
«And behind it was an appeal to the consumer - usually female — over the interests of the producer — usually male and unionised. This potent postwar mix contains many of the ingredients of “Thatcherism.”»

Indeed older southern affluent women in general have done very well out of thatcherism: lower cost of living thanks to lower salaries, survivor spouse pensions, 2/3 of welfare while paying 1/3 of the costs, booming property prices (and IIRC most property is owned by older women), large tax-free inheritances from their husbands.
It is the younger women who have not done so well: largely lost the option of being a non-working spouse, and reduced to commodity labour and sources of rent like young men.

Blissex said...

«there is a pronounced gender difference that needs remarking upon and this too has only grown starker over the years.»

Consider the photo at the heading of the article of Deliveroo couriers: what's the percentage of women among them or among Amazon warehouse workers or parcel delivery drivers?
Perhaps one should consider also the percentage of women among ZHC carers, cleaners, cashiers.
But my guess is that a real discussion of sex in work and politics is impossible because of "identity politics".

Consider for example the dramatic evolution from ages in which almost all women's "domestic" work (from laundry to spinning) was worth pretty much the same (or more) as the non-existent or very low wages of almost all men, and to an age where "middle income" salaries are worth a lot more in cash terms than that "domestic" work and the dramatic changes that has caused.

BCFG said...

There is no working class in modern Britain, not in the sense of having a class consciousness and generating a class struggle.

A working class consciousness cannot be generated from an office building, it is absolutely impossible. The only occasion where a class consciousness can exist in an office building is if there is a huge industrial working class.

In other words it is the industrial working class that generates a class consciousness within a society and some of that consciousness seeps and finds it way into the office blocks.

That is why 30 years ago an office would have some class consciousness within it but now it is non existent.

And where there is a working class, in the gig economy, you are unlikely to get pizza delivery drivers organizing among themselves, as this is not easy as they ride by each other delivering their garbage to the gluttonous masses and their disgusting children.

This is why British politics has little to do with class and more to do with identity and human issues such as the climate or consumer issues (all important and worthy struggles, though the gluttonous masses don't really give a shit about anything other than themselves). Given the enormity of the climate crisis it is a good thing that this is a issue which breeds resistance. the problem is because there is no class struggle within Britain the proposed solutions are utterly inadequate and there is no vehicle to bring about the necessary changes.

This explains why the left in Britain can produce such wretches as Boffy and Denham.

Basically and here is the conclusion of my report: Situation hopeless!