A party that works and wins for working people will need to understand us first

Roger Harding
Dec 16, 2019 · 13 min read

I’m nervous to add to what will become an avalanche of post-election analysis. But having seen the response to 2017 from the vantage point of one of the country’s leading public attitudes houses and now witnessing the 2019 campaign from an organisation determined to give working class people the voice we’re so often denied, I already fear that working class concerns are going to be appropriated, mischaracterised and weaponised by politicians and commentators who neither understand nor value the modern multi-racial working class.

Working on the British Social Attitudes reports in 2017 and 2018 I could see the frustration of seasoned pollsters as talking heads leapt to rapid conclusions that months later robust research would disprove.

What follows, therefore, isn’t primarily about what has just happened — the British Election Study, British Social Attitudes Survey and others will show that in time. Instead I want to offer some simple pointers about what the wider evidence shows for when you’re reading articles in coming days:

If any analysis of this election starts and ends with 2019 — and ignores the long-term trends — it’ll likely be wrong.

If the analysis starts and ends with Brexit — it’ll likely be wrong.

If it starts and ends with the analysis of any party leader — it’ll likely be wrong.

If it includes sweeping statements about ‘left behind’ or ‘traditional’ working class people — it’ll likely be wrong and probably dangerous to boot.

Why 2019 is bigger than 2019

The result is obviously an enormous win for the Conservatives, especially after austerity and nearly 10 years in power. The size of their majority could easily mean they are in power for another decade. If we want a different future we need to understand how we got to this dismal present. Here are the seven long-term trends to be aware of.

First, since the late 1990s Labour has consistently shed overall working class support as a portion of its vote while it, to varying degrees of success, appealed to more middle class voters. The loss of this support was hidden in Labour’s electoral dominance in the early 2000s as more of this switched to non-voting than to other parties.

The left of the party made regaining this support a rallying call for the Corbyn project but they’ve only succeeded in exacerbating the problem. To understand this further, I would really recommend The New Politics of Class: The Political Exclusion of the British Working Class by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley. Their analysis — based in part on the British Social Attitudes survey — uses more sophisticated class coding than the crude ABC1 C2DE cross-breaks found in weekly polls. Among other things they highlight that over this period people became less likely to describe Labour as a party of and for the working class and that this feeling was stronger when (where relevant) their Labour MP didn’t come from a working class background.

Crucially this is a long-term trend, meaning any suggestion that 2019’s result is purely about Brexit is likely to be wrong. We get hints of the truth of this from early analysis showing that Labour’s vote also dropped notably in remain as well as leave seats and that Brexit isn’t the top reason people give for voting another way.

Second, the Conservatives are likely to have continued to do terribly amongst BAME voters. In recent elections Labour has returned to the dominant (around 80%) 1997 levels of BAME voter support across all social classes, but this was in evidence well before the 2016 Brexit vote. British Future and the Runnymede Trust have long been pointing this out and urging pollsters to produce the breakdowns of BAME voter support to give us a more consistent picture.

Third, age and education have become much, much bigger voter divides. Again, these trends pre-date this election, with poor support among older voters support costing Ed Miliband dear and formal education level being the single best guide to how people voted in the 2016 referendum. Academic Paula Surridge and others have been pleading with us to pay more attention to this for some time now.

Whereas your social class tends to be a good guide on where you sit on the left — right economic scale (i.e. working class people are more likely to support things like redistribution), education is a better guide to where you sit on what’s called the libertarian — authoritarian scale. This measures your attitudes to things like law and order and whether you think young people ‘respect traditional British values’. Crucially these scales don’t neatly overlap so any party wanting to hoover up the votes on one end of these scales, e.g. the economic left, will have to find a way to appeal to those left-leaning voters spread across the liberal and conservative scale (or vice versa).

It’s important to note the authoritarian/conservative — libertarian/liberal scale doesn’t directly get into issues often seen at the heart of US “culture war” debates, like LGBT rights and abortion. On both these issues we’ve thankfully been getting consistently more liberal across class and age for some time now.

As Paula Surridge has been pointing out, the big group of people who feel politically homeless at the moment are economically left-leaning social conservatives. Labour has been doing especially badly amongst older working class people in this group. During the campaign the Conservatives seemed to appreciate this by honing in on socially-conservative dividing lines (Brexit and crime) while being prepared (at least in messaging terms) to flirt with economic left ideas around more public spending. By contrast journalist Jennifer Williams and others highlighted pre-election that Labour’s failure to major on issues like tackling crime and anti-social behaviour would hurt them.

Fourth, Labour’s vote has become a lot stronger in big cities and their suburbs, and weaker in towns, as the Centre for Towns has charted. The relates to the trends above, with cities themselves becoming younger and more diverse and towns being home to an older demographic. As Lewis Baston has pointed out, the make-up of towns like Mansfield which consistently voted Labour post-war looks demographically very different to the ones that voted Tory in 2017 and 2019. Crucially he adds “Labour is coming close to exhausting this potential source of gains — there are simply not that many city, suburb and university town seats left to win.”

Fifth, the Conservatives have a women problem, and Labour have a men problem. This was on display in 2017 and from pre-election polls looks likely to have been a major factor this time round.

Sixth, Labour also need to resolve their now long-term problem in Scotland which threatens to undermine another redistributive trans-national political and economic union. The Conservatives equally have a problem in Scotland, but it’s easier to ignore when they’ve done so well in England and Wales.

These six long-term trends do a lot of explanatory work, but they don’t explain the scale of the defeat. For that we must also account for the fact Jeremy Corbyn has been an unprecedently unpopular leader. Labour is unlikely to win with a leader as unpopular as Corbyn and his faction need to account for their role in Boris Johnson’s rise to power given he beat Ken Livingstone twice in Labour-leaning London (in 2008 and 2012) and has now demolished Corbyn nationally. Corbyn’s leadership is the top reason given by people for not voting Labour and that’s despite his competition being two PMs who themselves were not well liked at the end of both election campaigns.

Likewise, some outriders are in a bit of a tangle with the much-promoted line that the Labour manifesto swung the 2017 election more toward Labour but bears no responsibility for 2019. It can’t be both. A good starting point in understanding the role of policy in political choice is Drew Westen’s 2007 book The Political Brain where he pleads with Democrats in the US — following their back-to-back loses to George Bush Jr — to realise that their long lists of individually popular policies are little use if the Presidential candidate can’t emotionally connect with voters’ hopes and fears and convince them of their credibility to deliver the policies in office.

Labour doesn’t have a hope of working out where to go if it can’t face up to where it is and why. Members need to take an unflinching look at these six long-term trends alongside the stark reality of the more recent leadership problem when picking a vision for the future. While emerging leadership contenders are already signalling their intentions to run, what members really need to be clear on is which of the following four visions they choose and why.

Four visions of Labour

From my perspective running a organisation dedicated to supporting a new generation of working class leaders, I already worry about how class will feature in this debate. Only one of these options will truly deliver for working people and take account of the six trends above. But the other three all have serious backers and could yet take Labour away from its historic mission.

I. Liberal Labour

Tilley and Evans’ analysis shows that Labour has done especially well in recent decades amongst the ‘new middle class’ –people working in roles like university lecturer, nurse, social worker, dental hygienist and occupational therapist. They’re socially liberal and broadly in the middle on economic policy, unless it comes to funding the public sector when they’re quite left.

One future strategy would be to try to max out this vote out — for example to try to hoover up those of them found in the 12% of Lib Dem voters on Thursday. This has a certain logic to it and falls in line with the Conservatives doing much better with working class social conservatives.

But, this approach may not work. As noted above, Lewis Baston and others seriously question whether there are enough seats with these kinds of voters in to make this a route to government. More importantly, I’m not sure this route is possible without the Labour Party gradually abandoning being on the economic left.

If you start unifying people based on their social conservatism or liberalism you’ll be pulling in people with views across the left and right of the economic spectrum. As the Conservatives may well soon find out, for them that’ll mean they either have to deliver on some of their more economically left rhetoric or find their new voter coalition rapidly splinters. If you are what you eat, a Labour Party primarily focused on gaining more middle class social liberals would gradually cease to be a working class party of the left and more resemble the Lib Dems.

II. Posh Labour

The Labour Party has always been a cross-class coalition that has had leaders from well-off families (a personal hero, Clement Attlee, was even posher than Blair or Corbyn), but it has ultimately been rooted in a mass-membership working class union movement. Historically this has provided a talent pipeline of brilliant working class politicians and advisers.

It also meant Labour saw itself first and foremost as striving to provide representation for working class people, rather than being primarily driven by theoretical conceptions of class struggle. Jonathan Rose (part quoting fellow historian Ross McKibben) puts it better when analysing why a Marxist party never took off in Britain:

‘”The sort of men who were so prominent in European socialist parties — marginal bourgeois, journalists, ‘theoreticians’, professional orators — were comparatively rare in Britain.” The British working class had forged its own organisations and its own leaders, who did not care to accept middle class patronage, even under the name of socialism.

Trade unions continue to provide a great working class talent pipeline but haven’t been able to stop senior parts of the party being dominated by people not just from middle class backgrounds, but very posh ones.

Labour need not worry about choosing this path if ideological focus is what matters most. If instead Labour wants to be the parliamentary wing of the British working class then it needs to start looking and sounding like us. Right now, I can point to some corporates who take monitoring class diversity more seriously than the Labour Party.

III. ‘The Labour Party your grandad voted for’

This approach is summed up with ‘less identity politics, more class politics’ and the idea the party needs to appeal to the ‘traditional working class’. It doesn’t tally with the evidence (if you read only one piece linked here, I’d make it academic Cas Mudde’s account of why left leaning parties mimicking populist ones rarely prosper) and it crosses all sorts of moral lines that shouldn’t be open to people on the left.

When Labour has done so badly in many leave voting towns where it once weighed rather than counted its vote the appeal to forget the cities and focus on ‘the heartlands’ is getting a lot of traction but there are two things we have to guard against here.

Firstly, it can slip into suggesting that people in cities — especially London — are having a high old time of it while ignoring the reality that our cities are often home to the biggest numbers of people who are really hard up.

Much more dangerously it implies ‘identity’ issues like racism, sexism and homophobia aren’t issues that concern working class people, who are presumably all white, male and straight. Labour should be the party countering, not indulging, sweeping characterisations of working class people as some homogenous lump. Nobody whose values are rooted in social justice should be mounting an argument that echoes the language of the Brexit Party and before them the BNP with their slogan that they were ‘The Labour Party your grandad voted for’.

If your image of the ‘traditional working class’ doesn’t have space for black, Asian or LGBT working class people, it’s neither progressive nor accurate and has no place in left politics in 2019.

IV. Modern Working Class Labour

Instead, Labour’s future has to lie in building a multi-racial modern working class movement — one that keeps the voters it’s got but appeals to those it needs like older voters on the left who didn’t vote for Corbyn or Miliband.

This will require delicate balancing, but it’s perfectly possible for Labour to do things like respond to the rising concerns about anti-social behaviour in working class communities without embracing a criminal justice approach that criminalises young working class black men.

Likewise, it’s possible to design an immigration policy that has widespread buy-in but doesn’t demonise or dehumanise immigrants or indulge ideas that they are responsible for a low-wage economy.

This option requires more dexterity than the other three, but both strategically and ethically it’s Labour’s only option. Given that, the task for the months ahead is clear — candidates for Labour’s leadership must show how they’ll build a movement of diverse working class talent, top to bottom.

Building a truly modern working class movement

Here are the six places they could start.

1. Monitor and have a plan to fix class diversity in all of the Labour’s Party structures ­

Jeremy Corbyn called on the BBC to do this, but as far as I can see this doesn’t yet happen in Labour. In my day job we’re helping corporates and charities do this so there’s plenty of good examples to learn from.

2. Speak to people’s pride and dignity

People need meaning and sense of pride but the right are better at speaking to it, with messages along the lines of ‘you’re amazing and you’re being mugged off by these people over here’. That resonates — in many working class families people will tell you they’re proud and strong but also struggling, hard-up or feeling like they’re ignored and invisible. Labour hears that but for whatever reason communicates back using terms we never use about ourselves. Try talking to my single mum and others like her about being the ‘most vulnerable’ and see how far you get.

3. Don’t shy away from immigration and race — build working class unity across communities

Labour should act on the brilliant research coming out of the US on how to build a mutli-racial working class movement. Anat Shenker-Osorio, Celinda Lake and others have for a few years now been publishing research showing that it’s possible to build greater unity amongst working class people. To do that you have to explicitly say you want to deliver for working class people whether white, black or brown, a newcomer or someone whose family has been here for generations, so everyone feels included. You also need to make clear that some politicians have an active strategy of pitting communities against each other. Closer to home, Runnymede and Class have also been taking the lead with the race / class narrative work that deserves much more attention.

4. People with little actually have the most to lose — stop promising a ‘revolution’

I once heard an academic say ‘the history of labour studies is middle class academics trying to work out why the working classes didn’t do what they thought they would’.

Well off people on the far left have often assumed that the worse it gets the more people will embrace radical change. In reality, when you’ve got little you tend to hold on even more tightly what’s left. The Conservatives in 2019 promised a ‘safety first’ manifesto that will radically change the shape of the economy. They did much the same in 2010 — cautious language to sell a very radical agenda. By contrast Labour promised that ‘the revolution is coming’. They need to urgently consider which of being radical or sounding radical is most important, because Conservative success would suggest you can have one or the other but not both.

5. Make sure policy actually addresses working class priorities

One of the most astonishing things about Labour’s 2019 manifesto — for all the rhetoric about how revolutionary it was — was that its social security plans would only deliver a halt to the rise in child poverty, not reduce it. This felt symptomatic of a policy agenda that never seemed to be truly driven by the actual priorities of working class people.

One Labour-supporting film released just before the election promised ‘a mighty choice is coming’. It still is. Which of the four visions Labour members choose will determine whether the Labour party can once again work and win for working people, in all of our magnificent diversity.

Roger Harding

Written by

Chief Executive @RECLAIMProject: supporting an unstoppable new generation of working class leaders. Proud @VictimSupport Board member. Views personal.

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