Labour and the middle classes

In 1945, Labour won the general election as a political party that appealed to the whole nation - in

The New Statesman

12 June 1948

In 1945 the Labour Party went to the polls, not as a working-class party, sprinkled with a few middle-class members, but as a national party. "Let Us Face the Future", while including Labour's traditional economic and social policy, was a distillation of sympathies and theories which, during the war years, had made a wide and novel appeal to classes far beyond the Party's former area of interest among manual workers. Dislike of Fascism and of those who had played with it before the war diverted many from the Tory Party. But there were other, more positive reasons why a large number of thoughtful middle- class people turned towards the Labour Party.

During the war the conception of planning had stirred the minds of all, whether in the Forces or in industry. By 1944, the discussion on the need for planning in order to rebuild and re-site industry, to create new towns and demolish slums and to extend social services, was widespread. The middle classes, nodding their heads over their wireless sets, reading their Penguins or looking at Picture Post, were on the side of the planners. Many voted Labour.

To assess exactly what part of its victory Labour owed in 1945 to the middle-class vote is impossible. But there is a prima facie case for believing the middle-class vote meant the difference between a substantial majority and a small minority for the Labour Party. Though some hold the view in the Party today that Labour can win in 1950 by obtaining the solid vote of the town and rural workers, since numerically the working class is a majority of the voters, it is by no means certain Labour can make as effective an appeal to the most depressed part of the working class as it can to the middle classes. To the proletarian of the Tory tenements, the crumbs from rich tables are more real than abstractions about progress and planning. Labour's appeal to reason and to altruism falls best on the instructed mind.

But it would be idle to suggest that the middle classes have, since 1945, been as well informed by the Labour Party of their gains as the Tories have informed them of their grievances. The Conservative press has enlarged on the difficulties of the middle class, while the Labour Government has not sufficiently emphasised that there is no such thing as the middle class; that there are only middle classes; and that, while, as part of its programme, it has benefited those of them which are apt and willing to be economically useful, it has had to limit the laissez-faire activities of other middle classes.

A class is an aggregate of people with a joint social and economic interest. By that definition, what has the shopkeeper in common with the industrial chemist, the retired Civil Servant with the floor-walker, the managing director with the GP, or the motor salesman with the income tax collector? Their only claim to be members of the same class lies negatively in the fact that they belong neither to the working class nor to the class of independent wealth. The Labour Government has brought substantial fiscal benefits to those earning between £500 and £2,000 a year. Yet still the cry of the middle class rises from the leader pages of the Conservative press, and by sympathetic imitation is repeated even by those middle classes who have received direct advantages from the Labour Government.

Labour's present task must be to repudiate the idea that there is some collective middle class. Herbert Morrison has spoken of Labour's concern for the "useful" people. The description applies from the white-collar clerk to the working director; it covers those who are working, but also those, now receiving pensions, who have worked. The useful middle classes are integral to the Movement.

But there are others among the middle classes whose prosperity and advancement is tied up with a laissez-faire economy. Often they owe their careers, started in the working class or the lower middle class, to the competitive nature of business, which has given their commercial aptitude opportunity, and their aggressiveness scope. They include company secretaries, commercial travellers, sales managers and small business men. These are the irreconcilables. Labour's victory is, by definition, their defeat. And it is they and their wives principally who have spread the unfounded charge that the Labour Movement is opposed to the interests of the middle classes.

Yet the Labour Party deserves reproach for not having defined more emphatically its concern for the useful middle classes. At one time the social ambition of most workers was to rise into the property-owning middle classes; today their ambition is to become technicians. The shopkeeper is no longer the worker's ideal of the successful man. It is now the technician, the scientist, the engineer, the manager, who will promote the nation's prosperity.

The managerial society has come upon us, and its conduct may take two forms. Either it may be led by a bureaucracy, or it may draw its managers from the best, the most energetic and the most enterprising of those who work. In that way, it will form part of a Socialist and democratic State, continually renewing itself with the talents and energies of the people. To lead the way to that kind of society should be Labour's project for 1950.

Selected by Robert Taylor