Working class voters and the 'progressive' left: a widening chasm

The triumph of identity politics means too many progressives appear willing to dismiss the white working class as socially backwards and not worth listening to.

During a speech on welfare a few months ago, Ed Miliband repeatedly referred to Labour as the "party of work". "The clue is in the name", Miliband told the cameras, hoping, presumably, that voters would see Labour as the champions of working people, rather than idle ones.

The idea that Labour remains the party of the proletariat is partly the basis of Miliband’s so-called '35 per cent' strategy - the idea that a coalition of Labour’s core voters and disaffected Liberal Democrats can sweep Miliband to power in 2015 with just over a third of the vote (with no need to servilely seek the support of 'middle England'). Swathes of blue-collar working class voters, mainly in the north of England, will turn out to vote Labour in any election come what may, so the logic goes. It is the Labour Party, after all, and the "clue is in the name" - it is the party of labour, the working classes.

The problem is that increasingly it isn’t. Or at least it isn’t representative of working class opinion in the sense it once was. On many economic questions the left may represent the interests of the working class more effectively than the right, but, socially, the values of the traditional working class are increasingly at odds with those of the liberal or 'progressive' left.

The main divisions one finds are over immigration and welfare. The middle classes tend to associate immigration to the UK with things like fancy restaurants, new music and a Polish cleaning lady who makes a better (not to mention cheaper) fist of cleaning the office than her British counterpart. For the working classes, however, migration is all too often interpreted as meaning stiffer competition for wages and the loss of the sense of community in the places where one grew up. As the authors of the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey put it: "[In recent years] economically comfortable and culturally more cosmopolitan groups show little change in their assessments of economic impacts [of immigration], but economically and socially insecure groups have become dramatically more hostile."

Differences in perception are also stark when it comes to welfare. The metropolitan left readily accuse Miliband of betrayal if he so much as hints that he won’t reverse coalition policies on social security once in office, yet Labour’s core voters are the most enthusiastic proponents of welfare reform - almost half believe that if benefits are cut it will help people stand on their own two feet. Attacking the coalition for embarking on welfare reform (as opposed to criticising the way reform has been carried out) is ironically more likely to repel working class voters than persuade them to vote Labour.

A similar chasm between working class voters and the middle class left is already well established in the US, with the result that the Democrats are today viewed predominantly as the party of wealthy white liberals and ethnic minorities. What we might call the traditional working class - whites without college degrees - backed John McCain by 58 per cent to 40 per cent in the 2008 election and George W Bush in 2004 and 2000 by a similar margin. In 2012, middle-class white voters who said they were struggling to maintain their financial position chose Mitt Romney by 58 per cent to Barack Obama’s 32 per cent.

Back in Britain, the chasm in attitudes between the middle class left and the more socially conservative working class has always existed but has been exacerbated in recent times by the popularisation of identity politics – white working class men, however much they are struggling financially, absurdly register as 'privileged' on the identity politics totem due to their whiteness and what is between their legs. Meanwhile, positive discrimination and quotas provide a much needed (and justifiable) leg-up for most disadvantaged groups in society, yet by excluding any recognition of class from the process, the same policies leave the white working class falling even further behind – despite the fact that class remains a much greater determinate of a person’s life chances than skin colour or gender.

This is not to say the left should crudely pander to ultra-regressive views on migration and welfare. But nor should it completely ignore the concerns of its so-called core vote. Unfortunately, thanks to identity politics, many progressives appear willing to dismiss the white working class as socially backwards and not worth listening to (notice how those attending English Defence League rallies get almost as much abuse heaped on them for their football shirts and beer bellies as for their racism).

Unless the left is comfortable becoming a movement of upper middle class liberals and ethnic minorities (no shame in that of course), it ought to start listening a bit more to the concerns of its electoral base while it still has one. For, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, it isn’t possible to dismiss the working class and elect another.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-union link at the St Bride Foundation on 9 July 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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How will Labour handle the Trident vote?

Shadow cabinet ministers have been promised a free vote and dismiss suggestions that the party should abstain. 

At some point this year MPs will vote on whether Trident should be renewed. It is politics, rather than policy, that will likely determine the timing. With Labour more divided on the nuclear question than any other, the Tories aim to inflict maximum damage on fhe opposition. Some want an early vote in order to wreak havoc ahead of the May elections, while others suggest waiting until autumn in the hope that the unilateralist Jeremy Corbyn may have changed party policy by then.  

Urged at PMQs by Conservative defence select committee chair Julian Lewis to "do the statesmanlike thing" and hold the vote "as soon as possible", Cameron replied: "We should have the vote when we need to have the vote and that is exactly what we will do" - a reply that does little to settle the matter. 

As I've reported before, frontbenchers have been privately assured by Corbyn that they and other Labour MPs will have a free vote on the issue. Just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members support unilateral disarmament, with Tom Watson, Andy Burnham, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle among those committed to Trident renewal. But interviewed on the Today programme yesterday, after her gruelling PLP appearance, Emily Thornberry suggested that Labour may advise MPs to abstain. Noting that there was no legal requirement for the Commons to vote on the decision (and that MPs did so in 2007), she denounced the Tories for "playing games". But the possibility that Labour could ignore the vote was described to me by one shadow cabinet member as "madness". He warned that Labour would appear entirely unfit to govern if it abstained on a matter of national security. 

But with Trident renewal a fait accompli, owing to the Conservatives' majority, the real battle is to determine Labour's stance at the next election. Sources on both sides are doubtful that Corbyn will have the support required to change policy at the party conference, with the trade unions, including the pro-Trident Unite and GMB, holding 50 per cent of the vote. And Trident supporters also speak of their success against the left in constituency delegate elections. One described the Corbyn-aligned Momentum as a "clickocracy" that ultimately failed to turn out when required. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.