What about the workers?

As the post election debate proceeds, the shock of traditional working class support voting Tory
has to be put into perspective.

This is not new, and for many years the ebbing of support in cities like Glasgow and Stoke on Trent and small depressed towns has been obvious. The challenge has been ignored.

In an article in Tribune on 1st November last year, Laura Pidcock urged us to “talk about class”, assuming that making class a rallying cry was a vote winner. It did not work for her on December 12th, when she lost her seat, and the widespread view of class in the Labour Party – common to both the Blairite right and Corbynite left – is that the workers have automatic class loyalty, and will march to the ballot box to order. Only the order needs to change.

This is blocking the development of a genuine New Left which can reach the millions of voters, north and south of the Scottish border, who have for now abandoned Labour for nationalistic prescriptions. To do this, one needs to understand what class is in the 21st century, and why outdated Victorian notions of what constitutes working class do not work.

Pidcock argued “there has been a renewed discussion of class, but the idea that it is an outdated concept…. still lingers”. The problem is that the concept of class that we have inherited from the Victorians is outdated – not the concept itself.

This is a large topic for a short post, and a way to focus could be to look again at one of the seminal
essays of the last half century, Eric Hobsbawm‘s The Forward March of Labour Halted? which was the Marx Memorial Lecture of 1978, published in Marxism Today.

The lectur (rather than the book which followed) remains a key document for understanding what happened to class in the 20th century, although its message to the Communist Party which was Hobsbawm’s target audience restricted its outreach. When Communism collapsed in the Soviet Union a decade later, the lecture became marginalised. In the wake of the 2019 election, it should come back into focus.

the twentieth century experience

The lecture is a sketch of the role of class in Britain since Victorian times, indirectly posing the question why Marx and Engels view – that a proletarian Britain would be socialist – failed.

The Victorian period is hardly examined directly at all – E P Thompson’s The Peculiarities of the English is more focussed on that century. But the key issues are clearly set out by Hobsbawm. By the Victorian period, the “great majority of the British people consisted of manual workers and their families” (p279) estimated at some 70% in 1867. In 1911 they were 75%, and in 1930 still around 70%. Then they declined to 64% in 1961 and in 1976 “a little over half”.

The decline has continued since then, though what the current figure is cannot so easily be classified or discovered. nevertheless the questions remain relevant; Hobsbawm is asking why and with what political effects this has happened.

Hobsbawm argues this decline does not mean class, ie the process of proletarianisation, is not still historically dominant. “People who earn their living by selling their labour power for wages, plus their dependants” by 1978 had “continued to increase”.

He offers a simple view of workers, ie “people who got their hands dirty”, and their failure to meet Marxist expectations of militancy and revolutionary potential are his prime concern. Hobsbawm sees this class, while not homogeneous, developing a common life style which “was formed in the 1880s and 1890s, and remained dominant until it began to be eroded in the 1950s” (p281). This is recognisably the image we see in the paintings of L S Lowry of Manchester and Salford, epitomised by the Andy Capp cartoons in the Daily Mirror.

The decline of traditional class politics

Hobsbawm is clearly right that this class formation began to decline in both numbers and effect in the 1950s. Hassan and Shaw in their new book The People’s Flag & the Union Jack indicate the peak of two party politics was after world war two, with the turnout in 1950 being the all time high of 83.9 – almost matched, with Labour losing, in 1951 with a turnout of 82.6% and the vote share of the two main parties an unparalleled 96.8%, apparently forming two great class blocs. Both Parties then declined, but the Conservative decline “is no consolation” (p285). While two party politics remains dominant at Westminster, it has eroded outside the Westminster Bubble.

For Labour the assumption that the ‘old working class’ will always vote Labour, a core strategic assumption of New Labour, collapsed under Brown and Miliband in Scotland and – with the rise of UKIP – in England and Wales. It is clear that nationalisms rather than class are increasingly determining voter behaviour, with age coming up on the rails as older and retired workers vote for the right England and Wales, rather than progressive alternatives.

Building a new left

If we are to have a New Left which can overcome Labour failures and the loss of support since 1997 – at
none of the six elections since then has Labour matched its 1997 vote – then we need to do more than simply talk about class.

Hobsbawm set out the problems as they were in 1978. Thatcherism then launched a deadly attack on that old Labour politics. Our discussion now has to confront the reality that for forty years or more, perhaps with brief interludes for the miners’ strike or the poll tax, working people have been showing an indifference to old style class politics which has to be understood and addressed. Voters in former Labour areas may be mistaken in listening to Farage, Sturgeon and Boris Johnson, but it makes no sense to ignore them, or to patronise them as having ‘false consciousness’ without any positive counterpart. Arguments have to be made and won for progressive positions. And at the heart of the new politics we now urgently need, the questions posed by Eric Hobsbawm in 1978 cannot be ignored.

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