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11 May 2021

Class isn’t dead – and Labour needs to relearn how to talk about it

Social class has morphed into a new form of identity politics and must be relinked to a radical economic agenda.

By James Bloodworth

For many years, politicians have proclaimed the death of class. John Major entered Downing Street in 1990 promising to create a “classless society”. Shortly before the 1997 general election, Labour’s deputy leader John Prescott announced “we are all middle class now”. Two years later, Tony Blair declared “class war is over”.

In turn, class politics has morphed into another form of identity politics. At one time, class denoted a person’s place in the economic system; today it is treated as a set of habits or affectations. Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner may be a perfectly good politician, but the fact her possession of a “northern accent” is seen as a way for Labour to win back working-class votes is typical of the superficiality that abounds.

Marx predicted class consciousness would intensify among the working class. That has been inverted in recent times. As the sociologist Mike Savage noted in his 2015 book Social Class in the 21st Century, “those at the bottom of the pile are the least likely to think of themselves as belonging to a class, whilst those with the most advantages are considerably more likely to do so”.

While this presents a dilemma for the left, the right has thrived as class has become an identity marker. Conservative pundits, often themselves the products of elite schools and universities, have donned figurative cloth caps and rallied against left-wing “elites”. As American conservatives have been doing successfully for decades, British right-wingers have adopted the language of “the people” versus an out of touch “liberal establishment”. 

The idea that class is no longer a meaningful economic descriptor – and the corresponding adoption of working-class affectations by conservatives – serves a political purpose, alluded to by a recent study. It found that many professional, middle-class Britons publicly identify as working class to “deflect from the substantial privileges” associated with their own upbringings. Cosplaying as ordinary, unvarnished and “blokey” has become an effective strategy to hide one’s true class position.  

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[see also: Blaming the voters is a moral and political dead end for Labour]

It is thus wise to remain sceptical of sweeping claims that class and economics no longer matter. Britain remains a class-ridden society. The bottom fifth of the population are 40 per cent less likely to go to university than those from the top fifth. Children of the wealthy are nearly 80 per cent more likely to land professional jobs than those from working-class backgrounds. Take-home pay for workers is lower than it was in 2008. 

It is true that Labour’s electoral base is more middle class than in the past. The party is also losing socially conservative voters in its former industrial heartlands. As such, it has become a cliché to dismiss Labour as a party for the middle classes. “Labour now is rich people telling poor people that other rich people are their problem,” as the Social Democratic Party candidate in the Hartlepool by-election put it

However these shifting political alignments are about the changing dynamics of class as much as any “culture war”. While home ownership among retired “Red Wall voters (the demographic moving toward the Conservatives) is high, Labour is attracting the support of middle-class professionals whose economic position in some ways resembles the conditions that historically drove working-class voters towards socialism. 

Indeed, the traditional middle class is a diminishing force. Britons in their mid-thirties to mid-forties are three times more likely to rent than they were 20 years ago. The number of “good jobs” proportionally decreased as employment rose between 2011 and 2014. Moreover, middle-class life in the Western world is far more expensive than it used to be. As Alex Maguire has written, “the traditional middle class, on a material level, is no longer secure and shielded from the worst of capitalism’s vicissitudes”.

This is feeding into a wider sense that the current economic system does not work, which helps explain why the Conservatives, against their natural instincts, are tinkering with the free-market settlement of the past 40 years: Boris Johnson has pledged to regenerate benighted towns, revitalise the apprenticeship system and pump money back into public services. 

To be sure, Tory governments are unlikely to turn the tide on the precarious economy as it sucks in more middle-class professionals. Nor, as the Times columnist Matthew Parris has argued, is any Conservative government going to “level up” Red Wall England. Instead, as Parris writes, “the Tories will turn back towards the class interest with which the party has been historically associated”.

There is therefore an opportunity for the Labour Party to rediscover its own “class interest”. This does not mean nostalgically pining for a lost world of industrial jobs. Those are never coming back. But having a radical agenda around work and low pay, income insecurity and the broken housing market would be a good start. This means shedding the economic fatalism of the New Labour era when it was believed that governments could only tinker around the edges. It also means revitalising the trade union movement and confronting an influential but flatulent “post-work” utopianism, as the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham Jon Cruddas argues in his new book The Dignity of Labour

Then there is the question of “wokeism”. I am loath to use that term but it seems clear that many people outside of Britain’s cities believe their way of life and code of conduct is menaced by an intolerant cultural radicalism. The left has been defeated in this manner before. In his 2010 book, Ill Fares the Land, the academic and essayist Tony Judt noted that a renascent right was aided in overthrowing the postwar social democratic settlement by the “narcissism of student movements, new left ideologues and the popular culture of the Sixties generation [which] invited a conservative backlash”. 

Class isn’t dead. But today, once again, parts of the radical left seem intent on provoking a cultural backlash. This is making it correspondingly more difficult for the left to win a hearing on issues of work, class and economic precarity beyond the liberal middle classes.

Keir Starmer needn’t drape himself in the Union Jack and sing “Rule Britannia” to move the conversation to more hospitable territory. However he should spell it out to those who want to abolish the police, open the borders and side with Britain’s ideological enemies that they are probably in the wrong political party. As George Orwell wrote 80 years ago, when it was middle-class voters who were being frightened away from voting Labour by self-indulgent activism: “The stupidity of progressive propaganda has a lot to answer for.”

[see also: Labour and the Conservatives have a shared disease: sentimentality]