Why is the left failing the working class?
Despite economic hardship and political turbulence the left remains unpopular with the working class of this country. Why is this? And what can be done?
The left, although not acting as a unified whole, shares a common motivating principle. Engels once described communism as the “doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat”. Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist inspired election campaign for Labour ran the slogan “for the many not the few”. Left-wing politics is ideologically spearheaded by a deep commitment to re-organising society for the improvement in the conditions and lives of the working class - the many.
Despite this central importance of the conditions of the working class, it has become undeniable that left-wing politics is unable to garner support from this very section of society.
In February of this year the Labour party were shown to be the third most popular party among working class voters, coming behind both the Conservative Party and UKIP. In the 2017 general election, voting analysis showed that “the more working class voters there were in a constituency in 2017, the more it tended to swing to the Tories” (graph below). This, remember, is the moderate side of left-wing politics that is turning working class people away. Talk of more radical communism and socialism is more than likely to be met with derision and incredulity.
This unfortunate state of affairs has not sprung out of thin air, one historical trend it points to is class dealignment. Class dealignment is a process where members of a society stop organising themselves along class lines, and in the case in Britain, stop voting along class lines. Earlier in the 20th Century voting was clearly down class lines, in March 1966 voting records show 69% of manual workers voting Labour. Fast forward to June 2017 and only 40% of the working class (represented as C2DE) voted for Labour, and 44% for Conservatives. This change in voting from the traditional base of Labour suppourt is causing an extended existential crisis for the left, one that has mainly been ignored.
There are broad historical trends that, although hard with accuracy to detail their effects, have certainly shifted the public consensus away from left wing politics. The long ideological battle between the capitalism of the west and communism in the east during the Cold War created many myths surround communism and left ideologies. All the more entrenched after the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and thus the victory for capitalism. Alongside this, there was what is dubbed the Golden Age of capitalism (1945–1970s) followed by the Thatcher and Reagan reigns (1979–1990, 1981–1989 respectively), all of which cemented free market thinking and neoliberal thought — some saw this hegemony of western liberalism as the end of history.
These large historical movements towards right-wing thinking were also supplemented by concrete circumstances that decoupled working class voters from left wing politics. There was a weakening and decline of the trade union movements through the later half of the 20th Century. Membership has plummeted from 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.2 million in 2015–16. Since the 2008 financial crash union membership has fallen by half a million — the opposite of what you would imagine would happen. It is a complex trend that has it roots in “sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few”. This societal shift away from trade unions undeniably weakens weakens left politics. The diminished power of the unions weakens labour power in the work place and weakens opportunities for class solidarity. Moreover, the dwindling participation removes a key organisational force from which left wing ideas could be disseminated, discussed and put into practice.
Alongside the strangulation of class politics there has been an almost inversely proportional rise of identity politics, where exclusive smaller groups fight for individualised rights and recognition. Identity politics focusing on racism, sexism, LGBTQ+ issues and others has further enhanced class dealignment as politics becomes personal. We can see such a change playing out at the annual Pride festivals. What was once a hotbed of radical politics has become a celebration of gay identity, where corporate sponsors such as Tesco, Barclays and Starbucks, “see it as a PR opportunity to fete LGBT consumers”.
All the while the major political representation on the left, the Labour party has been shifting it policy focus away from their traditional working class base. This is most dramatically instantiated in the Tony Blair era. New Labour were comfortable with larges swathes of the Thatcherite neoliberal orthodoxy, failing to address the privatisation, deregulation and weakening of the labour movement that had been enacted by Thatcher. This led Thatcher to quip that her greatest achievement was in fact “Tony Blair and New Labour”. Ever since this consensus Labour has struggled to realign itself with the working class. This is while communist and socialist groups and parties suffer from infighting, splits and ideological disputes, leaving them largely ignored in the political mainstream.
Embedded in this complex history, we see emerging entwined political shifts: the abandonment of the working class from left-wing politics, while left-wing politics is abandoning the working class. This chicken/egg situation means the left has become inert and obfuscated, and is failing the working class.
Trudging through the historical reasons for this decline in working class support helps with understanding the current unpopularity, but for any progress we need to use it to prioritise the lefts focus going forward.
If the left is to rebuild popularity and reinstate its affiliation with the working class there is a need for a radical shift of focus. Currently, the left uses most of its energy trying to enact change from the top-down, trying to change the political institutions failings. But this completely ignores the fact that the working class, the real focus of left politics, have lost their faith in left politics. What is required is energy put into bottom-up strategies, focusing on this state of affairs.
The top-down approach involves the left campaigning on behalf of the working class, attempting to ‘change the debate’ at a national level, and getting socialist candidates elected in mainstream parties. It is driven primarily by well educated middle and upper class campaigners, and looks to advocate left wing ideas for the working class. This can be clearly seen both here and in the US where the left have looked to elect a ‘socialist’ candidate to gain power through the elected chambers — Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. These elections are hailed as a great success for the left. In reality, this is completely the wrong way to rebuild the left. These elections cover up the damning fact already pointed out, the working class have abandoned left-wing politics and these parties have abandoned the working class. Electing socialist figures on behalf of the working class has mostly inspired middle class. They are not inspiring to the working class who have seen these left-wing institutions desert them and are tired of being told what’s best for them. This top-down approach leads to moralising from the left, where the working class are told what is best for them, and if they vote differently — Brexit, Trump etc — they are considered stupid and manipulated.
The left must not forget “we lose when we don’t put workers into the struggle”. We must move away from a top-down approach and get back to bottom-up campaigning. This means a return to proper organising in the form of unions and working class movements. Ignoring the masses, vilifying them as unthinking manipulated dummies, advocating issues on their behalf — this springs from top-down methods. Reinvigorating bottom-up left politics will instead have to focus on deep-organising. Lessons on the power and structure of such organising is spelled out in Jane McAlveley’s dynamic No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. It means focusing energy away from grand virtue signalling events and advocacy campaigns, and returning to hard campaigning and battling for actual improvements. This kind of organising allows the left to flourish among the working class, it allows for education and left ideas to spread, and helps the working class organise itself, from the bottom-up, to instigate change.
This shift of focus is necessary to win back the working class to the left. Understanding the history highlights working class opinion moving away from the left, trying to reinvigorate the left from the top-down ignores this shift and will continue to be ineffective and condescending.