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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.