Labour’s inability to defend its ‘red wall’ – working class constituencies in the North of England and parts of the Midlands has led to excruciating post-election media attention, concentrating mainly on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
But declining support among the traditional working class has been an issue for many years. In response to Labour’s 1979 defeat and the rise of Thatcherism, Eric Hobsbawm’s Forward March of Labour Halted ? pointed to growing affluence, the decline of manual employment and how ‘sectionalism’ was replacing ‘class based’ trade unionism. Tony Blair’s New Labour was a response to this – an attempt to engineer a more ‘classless’ and ‘aspirational’, rather than a collective proletarian culture. In a relatively prosperous economic climate, Blairism may have had some success with those who were able to be socially mobile, but did little for those who couldn’t be.
Now, after a financial crash and a decade of austerity, we are told that traditional working class communities increasingly feel ‘left behind’ – experiencing a ‘crisis of identity’, where culturally conservative, if not openly reactionary politics have replaced those based on economic (class) interests. Rather than the bosses, hostility is being directed towards immigrants and an increasingly distant, undemocratic and dishonest London based ‘metropolitan elite’ . Rather than globalisation creating a more cosmopolitan culture, making people feel less insular, they now feel more divided.
Yet these divisions are the result of the re composition not the decreasing importance of class – a process which has been going on for years, before Corbyn & John McDonnell had even become MPs. Deindustrialisation, outsourcing and increased automation, the collapse of the trade union organisations, that despite their limitation, kept the Labourist tradition alive, has meant the post-war ‘pyramid’ class structure being replaced with more of a ‘pear shaped’ structure, where more people are poor, but even more nearly poor and where the only social mobility is downwards.
While Labour has always depended on a degree of middle class support to get elected and as a result has always been a ‘coalition’, Thomas Piketty, esteemed author of best-selling Capital – a major study of inequality, now argues that voting behaviour has significantly changed. While there’s still a correlation between being wealthy and voting for the Right, social democratic parties increasingly represent the interests of the educated classes and a new Brahmin Left . Rather than reflecting a growing ‘Champagne Socialism’, it’s probably more accurate to see much of Labour’s extra support coming from those who make up a new ‘working middle’ – particularly younger, urban based professionals in education and health and those in more creative, expressive and charitable roles – rather than commercial and financial occupations.
To say that this group and Labour’s traditional supporters have collided over Brexit is an understatement, resulting in Jeremy Corbyn (hung out to dry by the media as a ‘ditherer’) copying Harold Wilson in 1974 and trying to stay ‘neutral’. (Though in very different conditions and in contrast to other Shadow Cabinet members.) To make things more complicated, divisions over Brexit among MPs and union leaders also cut across the Left-Right divisions in the Party.
Labour’s problems were also intensified by the nature of the electoral system. Piling up the votes among its new converts in Metropolitan areas wasn’t able to compensate for the slippage in its traditional constituencies. Examining the total number of votes cast shows that pacts or a ‘progressive alliance’ – with the Greens, Nationalists, but also the Liberal Democrats would have, at least, produced a far narrower outcome. Yet for this to have been possible, Labour leaders would have needed a stronger anti-Brexit stance.
Likewise, discussions and postmortems among Labour’s armies of activists might conclude that a new ‘centrist’ platform and with the growth of media driven politics, a ‘stronger’ leader is needed to unite the Party and bring the different groups of voters together. This however, will not provide a permanent solution, neither is it likely to generate policies necessary to confront current inequalities, let alone address the post-Brexit difficulties Britain’s economy is likely to experience.
But neither will continuing to push 1980s Bennite industrial socialism (belatedly dressed in ‘green’ overalls but without the critiques offered by the Greens and Extinction Rebellion) at a time when the class basis for mass action has collapsed. In Scotland a new demographic may have come together in a progressive nationalism, that may have eradicated the Labour vote for ever, but in England, Johnson’s ‘one-nation(alism) has implanted itself, at least temporarily.
It’s understandable that Labour, because of its very nature will want to elect a new leader ASAP and ‘move on’ before the next round of council elections. For the time being though, its march as a major reforming party has (once again) been halted. Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a period of ‘reflection’ has to be just that.