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The Great British Class Debate
In England, the uberisation of work is causing misery. So why can't the Labour Party win?
If America’s national obsession is race, England’s is class. It’s not that racism isn’t a problem here—it certainly is—but anxieties around race relations don’t constitute the national psychodrama that class does. With a long feudal history, a monarchy that stretches back more than a thousand years and a still expansive aristocracy, class is very much Our Thing. Among the English, a background hum; always there, clearer when you turn the volume down.
Right now, we’re having another Great British Class Debate.
At last week’s local elections in the U.K., the left-of-centre Labour Party failed to gain the ground it needed to pose a credible threat to the Conservative Party. Out of power for 11 long years, the traditional party of workers now wearily commences one more existential crisis discourse. Meanwhile, the Conservatives laugh their way through a new legislation package peppered with illiberal curbs on protest and *wink wink* voter fraud prevention measures.
A strange realignment has been taking place in British politics, aided in no small part by Brexit. The Leave movement arose from the right of the Conservative Party. Leave’s clever “anti-elite” branding would later act as a gateway to the heretofore unthinkable for many former Labour supporters in post-industrial England—voting Tory.
The roots of Labour’s malaise run far deeper than Brexit, of course. As Jeremy Corbyn supporters were keen to point out after he led the party to its catastrophic 2019 defeat, enthusiasm for Labour had been waning for years in many of these former industrial heartlands. And of course, there’s the devastating loss of Scotland, which long preceded Corbyn or Brexit.
Nonetheless, now that Labour has performed disappointingly in another election, there commences one more debate in which Labour members and interested commentators try to determine who and what the party is for in a post-industrial, post-Brexit Britain. A landscape in which the historic home of inherited wealth and big business, the Conservative Party, can wail about “burning injustices” and “change” after 11 years in power—and it sticks.
Yes, the Conservatives have recently nudged leftwards economically, but only after their commencement of anti-elite cosplay, from those most elite by every conceivable metric: rich, privately educated friends of big business claiming to speak for the so-called common man. Meanwhile Labour’s leader, the son of a factory worker, is framed as out of step with people who in America might be termed “the folk.” The Labour Party—whose MPs are 70 percent more likely to have been educated at state comprehensive schools than Conservatives—is now being cast as the party of urban elites. It’s a bizarre state of affairs, but one that centre-left parties the Western world over can identify with.
The Conservative Party comms machine is doing an excellent job of “people’s voice” ventriloquism. In recent weeks and months, journalists and Labour MPs have had the temerity to ask the ruling party about what the Brits euphemistically term “sleaze”: enormous sums of taxpayer money in Covid-related contracts being awarded to friends or associates of government ministers who are woefully unqualified to fulfil them; allegations that Boris Johnson’s expensive home refurbishments were funded by a Tory donor; the Chancellor of the Exchequer “pushing” the Treasury team to consider giving financial support to former Prime Minister David Cameron’s firm. In response to these pesky corruption questions, the Tories have stayed on message: Real People™ don’t care about procedural nit-picking, only liberal elites like journos and Labour people do.
They weren’t entirely wrong. Amidst a global pandemic and all its associated worries, most people polled didn’t care. It’s hard to go up against a government that has paid the nation’s wages for a year and has its name over Number 10 while the National Health Service’s vaccination programme has been a roaring success (never mind how the government’s future plans might imperil the NHS). The burden lay on Labour to remind people what the point of these “sleaze” questions was: Whoever pays the piper is apt to call the tune. It was a burden the Labour Party failed to carry.
Labour has an identity crisis—particularly as the Conservative Party has moved leftward economically. As I wrote last year, it faces a similar conundrum that left-of-centre parties are confronting practically everywhere; how to collate a still-emerging set of groups with different priorities, in a landscape in which cultural politics is increasingly important. Massive expansion of higher education, ever more cultural and ethnic diversity after decades of immigration, ageing populations and generation gaps that appear to be yawning ever wider, not to mention “geographical cleavages” (liberal urban centres versus small-town heartlands), have been muddying traditional left/right distinctions.
Crucially too, revolutionary technological shifts are changing everything, fragmenting work. Add the proliferation of online misinformation and algorithm-driven campaigning and it’s a mess, driving the new politics of personal expression (which is as much a thing on the right as on the left). Yes, most voters don’t dwell in political Twitter. But studies show social capital decline, and many millions spend increasing time online. We all know the significance of targeted ads in recent right-wing victories.
Compared with generations before, the younger voters that now swell the ranks of Labour’s base are more likely to be university-educated but less likely to own property. And as precarious employment continues its onward march, the young are more likely to be financially at risk.
The pandemic has sharpened these edges; contracting economies and swelling the wallets of tech billionaires while millions have been plunged into poverty.
A Labour Party that could win needs to speak to the issues that concern anyone who might fear the pointy end of capitalism—which is most of us, frankly. But in many quarters, what we see is a kind of prolier-than-thou bunfight:
At one end, fundamentalist materialists arguing, as expensively-educated socialist Grace Blakeley recently did: “Class has nothing to do with: your accent, where you live, where you grew up, what your parents do, where you went to school.”
At the other, those who think the young who did as they were told and pursued education (some of whom were born working class by the way), but nonetheless found themselves financially squeezed by high rents, impossible house prices, stagnating wages, and the proliferation of “freelance gigs,” should shut up moaning about it—because after all, they’ve probably eaten at a café that serves eggs benedict.
The former position doesn’t ring true. The latter risks turning class into one more identity to be performed and protected—which pays nobody’s bills.
But there’s another problem too: almost nobody wants to think of themselves as poor. It is said that John Steinbeck made a remark to the effect that the reason socialism never took hold in America was that there was no self-recognising proletariat, only “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” To an extent, the same is true in England; many skint people don’t want to see themselves as “poor.” It’s depressing, for one. It’s hard to win popularity by projecting onto people an image of themselves they find demeaning; meek dispossessed, waiting to be saved. There are those who’d rather vote for uber-posh Boris Johnson, who at least appears to represent aspiration.
Progressive politics needs to harness the language of interests. It needs to find a way to talk about the seismic changes in work that are both here and still coming. Unabated, the uberisation of work is marching towards most everyone. Labour’s task is to find a way of speaking which subsumes the majority of working people. It won’t be done by the hardhat Olympics and it won’t be done by calling everyone who draws a wage “working class” either.
Which is not to say that cultural capital isn’t a thing—of course it is. Even if you’re skint, cultural capital might open doors and help you find your way around a room. But the rooms themselves, and the rewards therein, are changing. Many young knowledge economy workers, if they have friends in the skilled trades as I do, could attest that said friends earn far more than them. In any case, when everyone is on a zero hours contract, our little spats about vowel pronunciations or which type of tin opener is posh, just won’t amount to a hill of beans.