Roundtable: The politics of class, past and present.

AuthorLaite, Julia

Laura Schwartz: In the past five years, class has returned to the political mainstream, with a very particular interpellation of the 'white working class' mobilised as a political and historical truth. Theresa May's speech as prime minister to the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, made shortly after the referendum in which Britain voted to leave the European Union, referred to 'ordinary working-class people' and 'working-class families' eight times. (1) Rapidly repositioning herself and the leadership of the Conservative Party as supporters of Brexit, May adopted the language of class to reflect the widespread perception that the success of the Leave campaign could be attributed to a disaffected working-class vote.

Subsequent research has shown that this is, in fact, a flawed analysis of the referendum results: social classes D and E ('semi-skilled' and 'unskilled' manual occupations) made up only 24 per cent of the Leave vote, while 3 in 5 Brexit votes came from those in social classes A, B and C1 (managerial and/or professional occupations). (2) There nonetheless remains a widespread popular belief that in June 2016 the working class spoke, and this belief continues to shape contemporary politics. (3) The Conservative Party's electoral success in 2019, for example, was also widely attributed to its ability to appeal to 'ordinary' working-class people in former Labour heartlands. (4)

In the lead-up to the referendum UKIP worked hard to portray itself as representing the interests of 'ordinary British workers' over that of 'the establishment'. (5) The Leave.EU campaign, in which UKIP leader Nigel Farage played a prominent role, constructed migrant workers as an economic threat to the British working class, holding migrants rather than employers responsible for undercutting wages. (6) This rhetoric continued long after the referendum. When the Labour Party Conference voted in favour of free movement of people in September 2019, Leave.EU described this on Twitter as 'Flying in the face of 4 million Labour voters who backed Brexit good, honest working-class people who have legitimate concerns about unsustainable levels of immigration'. (7)

The 'working class' remained an important feature of Leave.EU's social media during the 2019 general election and following Britain's eventual withdrawal from the EU in 2020. In March 2020 one blog described Home Secretary Priti Patel's pledge to drastically reduce immigration as being 'on the side of the British working class'. (8) The Twitter account for the other anti-EU platform Vote to Leave (mainly backed by members of the Conservative Party) only made passing reference to the 'working class' in the run-up to the June 2016 vote. But once it had re-branded itself as Change Britain after the referendum, it began to deploy this trope more frequently, claiming in 2019, as the Labour Party moved towards support for a second referendum, that Labour's 'Brexit policy is an insult to the working class...'. (9)

This new interest in working-class people was not limited to pro-Leave platforms. A LexisNexis search of 11 UK-wide British newspapers and tabloids (see table below) reveals 59,329 mentions of the term 'working class' between 2015 and 2020, compared to only 11,385 mentions between 1999 and 2004. (10) The centre left and generally pro-EU newspaper The Guardian, for example, mentioned the 'working class' 7,380 times in the five years following the announcement of the EU referendum in 2015, as compared to only 1,598 times during Prime Minister Tony Blair's ascendancy.

Frequency of occurrence of the term 'working class' 1999 to 2020 Publication Number of times the term 'working class' appeared 1/1/1999-1/1/2004 Independent 2,559 Guardian 1,598 Daily Mail and Mail on 1,212 Sunday The Times 1,998 Sun 570 Financial Times 111 Daily Star 145 The Express 613 New Statesman 499 Sunday Times 820 Spectator 127 TOTAL 10,252 Publication Number of times the term 'working class' appeared 22/2/2015-19/7/2020 Independent 5,017 Guardian 7,380 Daily Mail and Mail on 1,378 Sunday The Times 4,304 Sun 1,966 Financial Times 2,717 Daily Star 324 The Express 659 New Statesman 640 Sunday Times 1,130 Spectator 337 TOTAL 25,852 Source: LexisNexis search This renewed interest in class is not neutral, but constructs 'the working class' in a very particular way: as homogenously white (and therefore anti-immigrant), heterosexual (and therefore pro-family values), and male (currently or formerly employed in manual/industrial occupations). (11) This definition of the working class has come to dominate despite, or perhaps because of, the last forty years of de-industrialisation, the rise of a feminised workforce in a service-sector economy, and a working class that is more ethnically diverse than ever before.

History and public memory play a crucial role in the new class politics. There is widespread nostalgia for a golden age of working-class affluence and a thriving manufacturing economy before the ravages of de-industrialisation took hold. More subtle are the temporal implications of the frequently-cited notion of 'left behind' places, which, in suggesting that the modern world has moved on too quickly, calls into question much of the social change that has occurred since the late 1960s, including the achievements of anti-racist, feminist and gay liberation movements.

'Red wall' seats, and working-class voters, are imagined as white, socially and culturally conservative, and as increasingly alienated from Labour (which is constructed as multicultural, metropolitan and progressive). The first question we need to ask about the contemporary politics of class is: how and why has the Tory version of the 'working class' come to be so culturally dominant?

George Stevenson: It's striking that in the same period that Laura is talking about, between 2015 and 2019, while the Conservatives have shifted back to talking about the working class, the Labour Party has been very reluctant to construct its own narrative about social class in Britain. Labour politicians often speak about 'working people' but rarely about a working class. Jeremy Corbyn and other prominent figures were comfortable in pushing back against economic hegemony around austerity, but far less so in linking their policy prescriptions to a deeper, repeatable construction of class interests and politics. And this is despite the fact that talking about class has been of no detriment to the Tories, and has apparently helped them win over some ex-Labour voters and Labour seats.

There have, of course, been voices on the left trying to contest the Tory narrative. In May 2019, an independent film-making group led by the late Simon Baker, Labour Voices, released a video on Facebook with the tagline, 'The working class is the working class, regardless of skin colour'. The video was presented by a Labour Party member and activist in Nottinghamshire, Guy Matthews, who identified himself in the video as precisely the kind of person who conservative narratives would classify as part of the 'white working class'. However, rather than leaning into this classification, the video directly challenged the ideological foundations of a specifically white working class: 'The UKIPer thinks that the white working class is very important, specifically the white part. I don't. I think that the working class is the working class, regardless of skin colour.' This approach was coupled with a focus on the economic concerns of working-class people - pay, bills, debt - that sought to construct a counter-formation of the working class around shared economic interests. The film offered a different version of class, more solidaristic, more concerned with class struggle than class identity, and with roots in British labour history. Within 24 hours, the video had been watched over half a million times on Facebook and shared widely across other social media, often uncredited. (12)

This was clearly a popular film, but it had no affiliation to Labour's official communications. Corbyn's Labour failed to tell its own story about the working class, or, often, even to try. The signals from Starmer's Labour are even worse. This fits into a long pattern within Labour politics: the party has long feared a too-great identification with the 'working class', imagined as powerful trade unions of manual workers supposedly 'holding the country to ransom'. This was visible in the 1970s, and it became even more pronounced in the late 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, under Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair. Labour was afraid that using the language of the 'working class' would make them seem old-fashioned, out of step with affluent, aspirational new class fragments. When New Labour wanted to talk about working-class neighbourhoods, they used the language of community, not of class - as with the 'New Deal for Communities', for example.

However, Labour's reluctance to use the language of class may owe as much to the dominance of moralistic strains of socialism in the party as to strategic analysis. As Jeremy Gilbert has identified, Corbynism was organised predominantly around moral critiques of Conservative cruelty, leading to a 'wouldn't it be nice...?' form of political contestation. (13) The 2017 election slogan, 'For the Many, not the Few', hinted at a more antagonistic form of class politics, but the party's leadership and spokes-people left it undeveloped.

Thus far, Keir Starmer's Labour has also avoided discussing class. This silence, however, may be preferable to any further elucidation of the a-political, a-historical, a-social view of the British working class proffered by his Director of Policy, Claire Ainsley, for whom, as Alan Finlayson has noted in this journal, class is not an expression of social and economic interests but a collection of moral sentiments that can be 'triggered' by the right symbolic framing. (14) Ainsley's suggestion of putting 'family, fairness, hard work and decency' at...

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