Dr Lisa McKenzie – that rare thing – a working class woman with a platform within academia and on the media, who uses it to resurrect, agitate and educate on social class, just posted about how we in Labour have the balance of concern all wrong. In our language, we would say it’s arse about face. Here’s why I agree with her and thank her for challenging us on it.
Within the Labour Party membership, we have so much more to say about Palestine and the Environment and the Trans debate than we do about the enforced political vagrancy of our own working class communities and voices.
Does this mean those other more dominant issues don’t matter or that we should not speak up or debate them? No, not at all. But do we make ourselves irrelevant and alienating to our traditional Labour-voting heartlands by obsessing over them in comparison with the lived realities, injustices and political invisibility of our own working class within the U.K.? Yes we do. There is no Equalities protection in law for the politically voiceless working class.
Who speaks for the working class
There is no earnest discussion or outrage about class discrimination or social cleansing, early death and prolonged morbidity of the working class within The World Transformed and when a rare workshop with Class in the subject heading has been held, the issue has been pontificated on mainly by middle class academics and high profile media names, with scant depth or sociological analysis applied and invariably been swiftly hijacked back onto the Equalities areas the middle class Left find more palatable and relatable – trans, race, gender, disability. Often in that order.
If we are looking at this purely from the point of view of proportional representation – working class invisibility within this party is by far the bigger issue, but the reality is, we aren’t interested and it doesn’t fire us up. We can’t relate. It threatens us.
The middle class majority on the Left seem to have much more of a comfortable familiarity with the issues of other minority or disempowered groups than with the working class. It seems they are far more willing to get on board and be vocal on those issues. Perhaps it’s tedious having to listen to inarticulate people suggesting your personal success is based on networks and privilege. You came here to be outraged about something – a pet, confined injustice or two, to which you know all the answers and with a vague idea of socialism being about becoming kinder to the poor, helping them be more like you and having more of the material things you have, but not really wanting to be told you are part of their problem, or that power within the party needs to be effectively turned on its head.
Some activists call for an end to all Identity Politics as if by waving that magic wand, the social structures formed of deep prejudice and hoarding of power through history and the social inequality it produces will suddenly be swept away if we stop talking about it. Actually, language is one of the few weapons we have to bring it repeatedly out into the open so that it can be challenged. Silence that and the power imbalances remain and further entrench. Besides, class can’t be included within the Identity Politics bracket. Every other strand you might want to look at has legal recognition, protection and a movement behind it. A legion of middle class activists, usually. The working class enjoy no such protection, recognition or vocal solidarity, hence their alienation and political vagrancy. That can’t be remedied by simply ignoring it further.
We have a problem. The election result has spooked our MPs into talking a little bit more about the ‘working class’ as opposed to the sociologically vacuous ‘working people’. I get it – the blander catch-all is meant to include ‘both wings’ of the party – the heartlands vote share and the Blair loyal, plus the newer middle class Corbyn influx, but the problem with that is one of those wings has been so neglected and disempowered within this party that it has detached itself. In addition, reintroduction of the terms ‘working class’ and ‘heartlands’ hasn’t yet led to any affirmation of the extent of our failings on this issue. We have had vague references to how the last 40 years have led us to the final crumbling of the Red Wall, but no firm commitments as to how we fix that within our party, structurally.
Any Leadership candidate with remote links to a working class heritage are now vocalising that stake, desperately brandished as fodder for the campaign canon in an effort to stand out from the crowd. In some cases this is genuine and in others, based on nothing more than a regional accent, whilst the poor souls at risk of appearing too Southern are taking a different tack – preferring to diminish the importance of socio-economic diversity of our membership and those with power as subordinate to ‘what you stand for’. Two candidates commented ‘Nobody’s ever asked me where I’m from’ as if to suggest that proves there is no issue, just because nobody brought it up. Imagine if similar statements were to be made about race, gender or any other Equalities oversight. Someone in HQ would be busily writing a new training course to send us all on.
Of all the positions taken by candidates so far, this last one is the one that rings the loudest alarm bells of class cluelessness to me and tells me that under their leadership, precisely nothing would change in terms of the balance of power within our party, or the socio-economic composition of the membership. I want to see a party that can connect with the working class genuinely, not through vague soundbites, because it’s easy to say these things to win votes and sound cool, then do nothing once elected and that is one of the main reasons working class trust began draining away from Labour under Blair and hasn’t returned – in all honesty, they just can’t be bothered with us and see us as all the same. Who can blame them? I want to see a party that is supportive of and trusted by the working class, because it values them and actually elevates their voice. Imagine the difference if those in positions of power within this party actually put themselves face to face with class-based prejudice, named it and took it on. Imagine the respect that would generate. The working class want to ‘come back home’ but no one wants to be where they just used and are not valued and accepted for who they are. That’s not a home, really. It’s this party that has got this wrong and that needs to change.
Its all relevant
Race is important. The working class is multi-ethnic and the class barriers apply across the board in a similar way in terms of basic access to routes to power and voice. Protections and measures put in place have resulted in a significant increase in BAME representation overall but with the combined barrier of social class in the mix, activists are going to struggle much more to be taken seriously and access support to become a candidate than if from a more privileged background. Especially if operating from your own class voice and identity. This is true across the board also. One key difference between working class broad ethnic groups occurred during this General Election in that the working class BAME vote went predominantly to Labour – very possibly because of the fear that a Hard Brexit might herald another racist backlash toward their communities, which is appalling.
The Daily Heil, Scum and other poisonous outlets winding up nationalistic sentiment in Boris’ favour won’t have had the same reach and ability to stoke feelings of injustice in the way it did within the white working class, but the point is, the white working class sense of loss does have some basis in reality. This party used to belong to the working class. The unions used to be a vehicle for the working class. These were the only political voice and element of power that they had.
If Labour had not moved so far away from the working class in general, parachuting Southern middle class MPs into Northern safe seats and then failing to address the snub under Corbynism, the political vagrancy of the white working class and their sense of betrayal would not have been so easy for the gutter media and Johnson to corral. In this regard, we left an open goal for them to exploit.
There are too many within our own membership all too ready to write off the working class as inherently ignorant and racist. Racism exists in all social classes but to understand why the resurgence within the heartlands, we need to pay attention to these dynamics and our part in it historically and now. It isn’t lost on Dominic Cummings, being the Tory’s man on the inside, who was able because of his class insight, helped by our class ignorance, to very easily give Johnson a steer on how to capitalise on our abject failure over decades on class, using the white working class as pawns in a game of chess.
We may have had one isolated working class voice within our leadership team, amongst the clamour of how many pressing for policies that would appeal to the middle class at the expense of the last remaining scraps of heartlands trust? We are responsible, through our long-term arrogance and neglect, for our own Check-Mate. The whole, multi-ethnic working class, loses, ultimately, as a result of our class-blinkered failure.
Internationalism is important
Internationalism is important. I studied sociology and social divisions of power not just within the U.K. or modern capitalist Western economies but also between First and Third World. How those power divisions came to exist and are maintained and expanded is endlessly relevant to our fight against social injustice here and overseas as the divisions intensify under relentless capitalism.
So we have a lot to gain at some point from a proper go at uniting the international working class. I would be the first to say it. We don’t want to see people paddling across the bloody English/French channel for 11 hours straight just to gain their right to asylum. We need a calm, respectful and productive conversation about many things – immigration, the implications of the Gender Recognition Act, global aid and the impacts of structural adjustment and trade blocks, how we value care work and parenting, the military industrial complex, the environmental crisis.
There are loads of things to sort out, if and when we win power – fine. But we need to embed working class voices within how we shape that discussion now and ensure our pitch to the nation reflects the society we live in next time. To be credible, we also need to enable our working class activists to shine and achieve within our ranks. There are so many barriers standing in the way. We can’t assume what they are, any more than we would assume what barriers bar the way to full participation and being taken seriously, for women, BAME or other under-represented members – we need to ask those working class activists who have shown willing, as a starting point ‘what have we got wrong?’ Class discrimination and invisibility in positions of power and in politics generally is a wider social problem which extends beyond our party but we should be leading the way and starting with our own systems and activists. It is amazing to me that this needs pointing out within a socialist party.
We need to recognise how irrelevant we sometimes come over to working class voters. Our pet issues may be laudable and justified but totally off the radar for most working class people against the backdrop of job insecurity and rising living costs, against no savings and a social safety net shot to pieces, against decades of being sidelined and ignored, looked down upon by the middle class political elite, busy concerning themselves with fixing, understanding and empathising with everything under the sun apart from what’s on their own doorstep.
We can improve by taking each of those pet issues and considering where they may figure on the list of working class priorities. That is not to say don’t include them, but the priority order might need revisiting. The language certainly needs revisiting. The framing needs revisiting – how do each of the issues we cover sound when we frame them in working class terms, taking account of the realities of working class life? If we are focus-grouping policies and manifestos and democracy reviews, have we gathered as many working class activists together as possible to help shape the messaging and ensure they are contextual and relevant? Could we consider a paid team to lead on this whole area, as the paid work seems to gravitate towards members that are not financially struggling to begin with? It might be interesting to break up the echo chamber effect and is one positive way of modelling as an organisation what kinds of knowledge and skills we truly value in helping to shape our work as a party going forward. Not just talking about ‘healing rifts’ with our heartlands, but investing in it and demonstrating we are serious.
A party of radical social action, which is what we could and should be, should not be relying on over-stretched middle class members to ‘go out into communities’ led usually by paid middle class ‘Community Organisers’ to show poor people that they care about food banks and strikes. This is great, but social action within our party could meaningfully extend to actually employing more working class people. Auditing how many people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are able to access things like paid positions, senior positions and political candidates courses, what mentoring we are setting in motion and then reporting back to the membership on this.
Getting back to our roots
We do need to win and we can’t do that without strengthening and healing our connection with our own working class. We don’t deserve to win if we continue to neglect that. The youth vote is on our side, but it is doubtful there will be sufficient numbers of woke students to enable us to achieve a win if we have yet again talked the talk on ‘taking power to all sections of society’ and democracy to the membership but then just left the working class yet again as bystanders to power, cast as the recipients of benevolent party goodwill, the Alt Right and the likes of Cummings and Johnson waiting in the wings, Heil at the ready. Who even knows if we will still have a BBC by the next General Election? We could launch our own podcast or news channel, reporting on the impacts of various news items on working class life. Hell, we could even recruit some working class activists to present it.
So, apologies for labouring the point! But Leadership and Deputy Leadership candidates please take note – we working class activists and voters generally know the difference between a sound bite and an actual plan.
To MPs trading on the catch-all terminology “Working People”, including our union chiefs – not only will your linguistic fudge do nothing to repair working class alienation from Labour and from Left politics, which has now effectively become a gigantic middle class echo chamber, it risks actively further alienating the very people we need to show respect to. We see you, when you do this, so please think about the words you use. “Working class” describes a proud history of collectively fighting bosses and management to get a fairer deal for those of us without the clout of social status to trade on for a decent wage and standard of living. “Working people” doesn’t. Boris Johnson is a “working person”. “Working Class means serially trashed by de-industrialisation and now by austerity and almost total political invisibility, to the point where forced to vote for actual class enemies in order to be heard”. “Working People” doesn’t.
The sleight of linguistic hand is a cheap trick which foolishly assumes a stupidity that has now been shown beyond doubt to not exist. Politically uneducated we may be, but stupid we are not. Linguistic tricks enable politicians to sidestep the issue, whilst appearing to care and whilst enabling middle class activists to claim we are all in the same boat, but in these key senses, that is just not the lived reality. If it was, the Red Wall would not have fallen in the dramatic way it did. Plus linguistically sidestepping an issue doesn’t make it go away. It’s an embarrassment to socialism. Just stop it.
We may have swapped cloth caps and whippets for call centre headsets and tracker devices, but social class division is as rife as ever. The patterns and nature of how those power divisions are maintained are fairly stubborn and academically well-documented. It should be unacceptable to minimise this or hijack this very real issue by shifting it onto other strands of inequality, because they have protection. Something is being done about them.
Its a fight we cannot relinquish
The middle class Left, through Corbyn’s Labour, have effectively bestowed a selective policies that would over time alleviate (not reverse) inequality and the worst effects of austerity, which fell on our communities primarily, without giving the working class their say and without shifting the balance of power in any significant way.
The manifesto didn’t reflect the absolute wholesale tarnishing and crushing of the working class in this country. Some of us are sick to death of these abuses and the tumbleweed of comment on them from within our party. With the cleansing of working class voices from Labour Party politics and of working class communities from our gentrifying cities, the cultural normalisation of demonising and denigration of working class people through vile TV shows, the absence of working class writers and actors from our screens and the middle class’ abject failure to recognise talent when it speaks to them in the wrong accent or with a bit too much fire, we are now the second worst nation behind only Russia for public lack of trust in politics and business.
Someone I persuaded to join the party, who had long since lost interest in Labour, after a few months of membership, recently described us as now being a ‘Middle Class Joke’. I have put my children and life on hold attending hundreds of meetings and sacrificed a functioning right hip canvassing, to retain Corbyn and try to get him into Number 10. I have nothing but admiration for him, but I have to admit, it’s been too fluffy, too distant from the hard realities of working class life and concerns here in this country and EU referendum divisions aside, we messed this up.
We have had a desert of socialism in British politics for so long that Corbynism provided the oasis, but for me it is just the start. We need to address working class absence and rejection as we would any other under-represented group subject to unconscious (and sometimes overt) discrimination. We need to own our prejudices and apologise properly. Once would be enough. Then we need to be seen to be finally taking this seriously and we need to do this without delay.
Those of us privileged enough to care and be able to speak out on Palestine and other issues should crack on but we need to be at least as vocal about issues of social injustice at home, because people – almost always working class people – are dying and living miserably here too. As activists and in conference we mention it, but no one spends hours debating why that is and why those power structures appear to be replicated and rife even within our own party.
There’s a whole raft of science telling us why that happens but we’re just not interested enough to even talk about it. We could change it if we did. As my armed forces veterans and families activist friend says “We are very limited in what we can actually do about Palestine right now. We need to get into government and most people aren’t endlessly debating the issues we are. We need to focus on what we can change and what’s relevant to the people we need to win back, here and now. Unite the Union set and missed their targets on class inclusion but at least they set some.
It’s been fun repeatedly chanting at rallies and kidding ourselves that the middle class army alone can swing this. To say that didn’t work would be an understatement. It’s time to emerge from the bubble and start being real socialists. If we want working class Labour voters to come home, we need to make sure we give them a decent one to come back to.
Mandy Clare became a member of the Labour Party after always voting Labour, on the same day Jeremy Corbyn was elected in 2015. Politics has consumed every single day since. Mandy is Women’s Officer in her CLP (Eddisbury) and is an active member of the CLPD and less active member of the Co-Operative Party, Unite Community and Momentum.