Labour's lost tribe: winning back the working class.

AuthorBerry, Craig

Working-class disengagement is a significant electoral problem for Labour. It points to major gaps and deficiencies in the politics and policies of the Corbyn leadership.

Labour's working-class support rose at the 2017 election, but by far less than the increase in working-class support for the Conservatives. Amid some stunning victories in affluent areas like Canterbury, Reading, Leamington Spa and Sheffield Hallam, there were disheartening losses in predominantly working-class seats in Mansfield, Middleborough, Cleveland and North-East Derbyshire.

This is a rapid acceleration of a longer-run trend which Labour ignores at its peril. This article will focus on the deepening problem of working-class political disengagement, and what Labour can do to reverse the trend. The emerging Corbynite policy agenda has many worthwhile elements, but in terms of addressing class inequalities, and offering a route to working-class empowerment, it leaves much to be desired.

Labour must not forget working-class disengagement

IpsosMori voting data shows support for the Labour Party from social grade C2 steadily declining, from around 50 per cent in 1997 to 30 per cent in 2010; and support from DE voters declines from around 60 per cent to around 40 per cent over the same period (social grades C2 and DE are usually treated as synonymous with the working class). (1) After briefly appearing to further alienate working-class voters, working-class support for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour recovered just enough by the 2017 election to allow many Labour 'heartland' seats to be spared. (2)

At the same time, working-class support for the Conservative Party has risen steadily across recent elections, now almost matching its early 1980s peak. The Conservative Party now leads Labour among C2 voters by 4 percentage points; in 2015 it had an even share with Labour. And the Conservative Party has closed the gap among DE voters to 9 percentage points, having been 15 points behind in 2015.

Labour also picked up working-class vote share in 2017 (benefiting from a collapse of working-class support for the Scottish National Party and the Green Party), but its electoral surge was based mainly on a remarkable uptick in support among voters in social grades AB and C1--that is, managerial and professional workers. Incredibly, the spread of support by class is now fairly even for both main parties.

We must not forget, moreover, that electoral turnout among working-class voters remains very low. While rising slightly in 2017, as it did across the electorate in general, C2 turnout was only 60 per cent, and DE turnout was only 53 per cent. The overall turnout figure was 63 per cent, while AB and C1 voters each had a turnout rate that was close to 70 per cent.

While the verdict on Labour's performance among working-class voters was inconclusive, the party's vote share among young C2 and DE voters appears to have been particularly strong. Labour won 62 per cent of the vote share among C2 voters aged 18-34 (compared to 27 per cent for the Conservatives), and 70 per cent of the DE vote in the same age group (compared to 18 per cent for the Conservatives).

However, low turnout is relevant here too. Turnout among voters aged 18-34 in social grade C2 was only 49 per cent, and for DE this figure was only 35 per cent. In contrast, young Ci turnout was above the overall turnout rate for all ages. It is debateable whether Labour can win the dozens of seats required to secure a majority at the next election if only one in four of those in the poorest groups aged under 35 vote for the party. Of course, while aggregate turnout figures tell us an important story, Labour knows better than any party that many seats can be won on very low local turnouts under first-past-the-post. However, it must also be aware that C2 voters are over-represented in the marginal seats Labour must target to secure a majority. (3)

When confronted with unwelcome statistics on the class composition of Labour's electoral support, the Labour leadership, and its supporters in the media, have tended to respond in one of two ways. Firstly, they argue that there are limitations to the Market Research Society's occupation-based ABCDE social grade classification, particularly at the C1/C2 boundary. There is clearly a significant divide (racialised, in part) between people in working-class occupations in large cities, and those in the smaller cities and towns where Labour's support is more vulnerable. Secondly, deindustrialisation and the spread of labour market precariousness means that erstwhile middle-class groups are experiencing a degree of 'proletarianisation'. (4)

Both of these responses are inadequate. The ABCDE framework is obviously imperfect from a social scientist's perspective. But it is the best data available on actual voting: we should always beware political leaders exploiting niche epistemological debates to unpick the validity of evidence they do not like. Moreover, even if we acknowledge, as we must, the blurred lines between working-class and middle-class occupations, the C2 and DE categories actually map rather well onto area-based deprivation. (5)

Deindustrialisation might have changed what it means to be working class, but it has not made the working class richer. Precariousness is primarily a working-class affliction, and arguably a defining condition. Instead of excusing its strained relationship with the working class with reference to changes in the industries in which precariousness is manifest, Labour should instead be considering how it can keep pace with industrial change to renew its working-class base.

Corbynism is a strangely conservative creed

This is not intended as a clarion call for preference-accommodation. The Corbyn leadership is already too keen to crudely accommodate what it perceives to be working-class political preferences--primarily for Brexit--albeit to little avail. There is a curious absence within Corbynism of a radical economic policy programme focused on supporting and empowering the working class, through which the latter's preferences might be shaped.

What there is instead is a modest industrial strategy rather similar to the May government's policy, focused on investing in high-tech R&D and improving the country's physical, energy and digital infrastructures. (6) The Labour approach would involve higher levels of investment than May's, especially in disadvantaged regions, achieved via the establishment of new bodies such as a national investment bank (NIB). This is a good idea, worth pursuing. But we should be clear on the limitations of this strategy. Making more capital available to invest in high-tech industries--essentially, the Germanic variant of capitalism--might lead eventually to an uptick in UK productivity. Yet the benefits to the working class are not immediately obvious, beyond the tiny numbers who might secure good jobs in advanced manufacturing--even as the sector automates its production processes.

We should also take seriously the argument that it is already too late for the UK to join the 'fourth industrial revolution', especially if the UK ends up outside the European single market, which is of course...

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