The General Election and the Elusive Working Class Vote

General Election 2019 was devastating for Labour, there is no doubt. Seeing traditional Labour seats turn Blue was a truly dreadful moment for the labour movement. How could places destroyed by Thatcherite policies ever vote Conservative, we all say? We know that across the country Jeremy Corbyn was not viewed positively by voters on the doorstep. We know Brexit definitely played a role. There also looks to be a correlation between areas that voted to Leave and the 2019 result, though there were exceptions to this. And yes the right wing media was a huge problem that is an ongoing challenge for Labour.

But what I want to focus on is working-classness. 

Who can forget Bigotgate during the 2010 election? There was middle class horror that someone could hold such opinions. But it also contributed to a context in which working-class voters felt that we couldn’t raise concerns about migration. These appear to have festered. Sometimes this has become outright racism (which was always a feature in the white working-class area where I grew up). But there are deeper issues that need to be understood.

Working-class communities have struggled in relation to English representation. Yes no one is really ‘English’ genetically. But nevertheless it is linked with people’s identities. Failure to address this head on has allowed Englishness and, yes, nationalism to be captured by the Conservative Party and by the Far Right. 

So how can Labour get back its traditional base?

Here are some suggestions:

Firstly, Labour must not assume the working-class are homogenous. It’s not just about traditional mining communities, or unionised workers. Defining class revolves around economics, yes. It’s about being in particular types of paid work, as well as about people who are not in work. Critically though it’s about identity and culture. I grew up poor and working-class in a working-class area but not in social housing. As an academic I’m now definitely middle-class but there’s a huge part of my identity that is still working-class. My father was a joiner and my mother was a cleaner and waitress. They both pieced together what we now call ‘precarious’ jobs for subsistence wages. But they were proud. My mum was always concerned what other people thought and would never let me claim free school meals for this reason. They hated the idea that we would outwardly appear poor though we definitely were. And my dad voted Tory. 

There are so many different types of working-classness; sometimes this label has salience for people, sometimes it doesn’t. If Labour doesn’t make an effort to understand the culture and identity of different types of working-classes it is on a road to nowhere. There is also a danger of associating working-classness with being white when the working-class includes BAME communities. 

Secondly, the working class are not always politicised and nor do we necessarily want to be. False consciousness I hear you say! Maybe. But my parents didn’t connect with protests at home, even during the 1980s. They didn’t connect with disasters in the Third World. This didn’t make them bad people. People have their own spheres of reference and for many these are very, very local. The word socialism is also not necessarily attractive to working-class voters. ‘Isms’ (capitalism, socialism) turn many working-class people off because it doesn’t resonate with them. It’s even viewed as pretty patronising. Labour needs to find better language that will connect with people and their everyday lives. We are all right to be angry about social problems in society but asking why voters who live in ‘deprived’ areas of ‘despair’ couldn’t see how much they needed a Labour government is beyond patronising.

Thirdly, working-class people are sick of being taken for granted by Labour. And this means more than just thinking that working-class voters have ‘nowhere else to go’. Working-class people are fed up of being patronised by the political middle class assuming what we need and want. We know from research evidence that working-class people do not always sympathise with others who are poorer than they are. This is because it’s like holding a mirror up to their own identify and exposing their vulnerability to poverty and risk. Not everyone is able, or wants, to hear this. 

So, what is the way forward? Exasperation about the idea of turkeys voting of Christmas is not a sufficient analysis.

Labour needs to decide whether it really wants to recapture the working class. If so, Labour needs to engage with a genuine cross-section of working-class voters and ask us what we need and want. And it needs to genuinely do this with no agenda. It may be that the answers are unexpected, or unpalatable. Perhaps the answers won’t align with any broader political ‘project’. And it may be that the genuine concerns (and values) of working-class people actually map onto the concerns of other demographics. But there is a danger is making any assumptions at the outset.

But if this election has shown anything, it is that having a radical agenda for government is not enough. You need to sell it to the electorate. But if they don’t want to buy what you’re selling, you are lost.

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