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

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.