The tightrope of Brexit and class appeal: can Corbyn make it?

If Labour seeks to mobilize its traditional working-class base, changes in MPs´ backgrounds may be far more relevant than any change in its policies.

Noam Titelman
5 November 2018


People take part in the People's Vote March in London, Britain, on Oct. 20, 2018. Ray Tang/Press Association. All rights reserved.

In 2015, when Corbyn was running for the leadership of Labour, he proposed a fund to enable working class members to become MPs. The leadership candidate explained the reasons for this fund in the following way: “If the party is to win back the five million predominantly working-class voters lost since 1997, then we must reflect those we seek to represent. It is not enough to be for working people – we have to be of working people as well”[i].

There has been a gathering conversation on the difficulties for Labour of appealing to the working class. These difficulties have been typically framed around the nature of the policies pushed by the party since the late eighties. Perhaps the clearest expression of these elements is: “the dropping of the traditional version of Clause IV of Labour’s constitution in 1995 and the simple fact that Labour’s manifestos have not contained the word ‘socialism’ since 1992”[ii]. A second less obvious element in this debate is the diminishing number of Labour MPs with a working-class background, who have been replaced by middle class “career politicians”[iii]. Behind these two perspectives on the way a party may reflect those whom it seeks to represent, lie two ways of understanding the behaviour of the electorate.

Social democracy and electoral behaviour theory

Traditional electoral behaviour theory is divided between those who see voting as an irrational action of identity politics and others who see it as a rational utility-maximizing decision. In the first view the population is socialized in specific collectives such as classes, and this socialization determines their behaviour in terms of party identification and vote. In the “rational choice” perspective on voting behaviour, politicians, rather than parties, compete for an electorate that is completely detached from loyalty to any collective. The voter chooses his or her vote in a market-like fashion, by comparing the available offer of policies and selecting the candidate whose policies are the closest to his or hers[iv].

Over the last couple of decades, most of the debate, has been framed solely around rational choice models, mainly focused on the policies of parties and how they match their constituencies’ preferences. However, there is growing evidence[v], in the case of the relationship between Labour and the British working class, that party identification might be equally, if not more, relevant and that these identity elements are more related to who the party representatives are and how they directly relate to the constituency they seek to reflect.

Both in party identification or rational choice perspectives, one of the traditional debates surrounding the emergence of social democratic parties has been the trade-off socialist parties face when deciding to engage in electoral disputes: the “dilemma of electoral socialism”[vi]. The dilemma comes from the fact that in capitalist societies the proletariat is not large enough to win elections, to surpass the 50 per cent threshold. Hence the dilemma, in which “socialists must choose between a party homogenous in its class appeal but sentenced to perpetual electoral defeats and a party that struggles for electoral success at the cost of diluting its class character”.

As social democratic parties have renounced being the “party of the working class”, instead becoming the party of “the masses, the people, the nation, the poor, or simply… citizens”[vii], they have also put behind them the salience of class struggle and class identity once at the centre of political debates. The trade-off comes from the fact that as social democratic parties seek to expand their class appeal beyond working class, to achieve electoral wins, they end up losing their capacity to mobilize workers. Esping-Anderse summarized this tension with the maxim that social democracy is defined by “the decision to subordinate class purity to the logic of majority politics”[viii]. Is this analysis of the dilemma of electoral socialism useful for understanding the development of the British Labour party, and specifically the dilemma of a trade-off between policies that appeal to the middle classes and those that appeal to the working class?

The electoral dilemma in the British Labour party

In terms of class appeal, there is some agreement that Labour´s electoral success in the 2017 general elections was owing to its ability to attract new younger educated voters[ix]. There is even more agreement on the fact that Conservatives increased their appeal to working class voters significantly more than Labour[x]. More importantly, Labour has not so far been able to reverse the long-lasting tendency of working-class citizens who have systematically stopped participating in elections. It seems as if a strategic decision must be taken by Corbyn’s leadership to increase Labour’s appeal to workers: finding a way to extend the appeal beyond educated liberal middle class, to the working class, without losing the capacity to mobilize that same middle classes which “continue to hold different policy preferences to the working class”[xi].

Some have suggested it should be possible to appeal to working-class voters who were attracted to UKIP´s positions and who have migrated towards the Conservatives. For example, Andrew Harrop[xii] proposes to face this challenge by incorporating some of the Conservatives´ discourse in terms of patriotism and anti-terrorist positions. A different way of trying to cater to both middle class and working class policy demands was offered in this article by Owen Jones. Summarizing the position taken by Labour´s leadership, he proposes that the party should “tread a careful Brexit tightrope… it needs to build a broad coalition of remain and leave voters”[xiii]. But the somewhat disappointing results for Labour in the by-elections may have shed some doubt on the potential for such a balancing act.

There seem to be two main weaknesses in these strategies: the first, as Harrop states it, is that “Labour today is the party of social-liberalism in Britain and any overt turn away from that would be hopelessly inauthentic and end up alienating more people than it attracted”[xiv]. The second is that, even if such a middle ground were possible and could win elections, there are real concerns about the viability of a government that attempts to walk such a tightrope, trying to please both remainers and leavers. After such a long and difficult road for the re-emergence of the left in Labour, it would be a real tragedy if such a government ended up unsuccessful because it disappointed the expectations of its constituency.

Labour Party identification

A possible solution to this challenge is to focus on the votes Labour has lost in the working class, not to UKIP or the Conservatives, but to reduced voter turnout. And if Labour seeks to mobilize its traditional working-class base, changes in MPs´ backgrounds may be far more relevant than any change in its policies. There is a limit to how much appeal any mere cold policy offer has in actually mobilizing the electorate. But there may be an important opportunity for Corbyn’s leadership to face its current dilemma by maintaining a programme that appeals to a liberal middle class, but to reinstate the salience of class and working-class identity through its descriptive representation.

New Labour deliberately changed the candidates’ selection strategies of Labour (the so called “modernization” of the party by Kinnock) in a bid to distance the party from the working-class radicalism associated with trade unions, replacing them with middle class candidates. The result was a sharp fall in working class MPs, which by 2010 amounted to less than 10 percent of Labour’s MPs[xv]. To increase the number of Labour MPs with a working class background may require relatively few changes. As the decline is due to recruitment decisions and not to voters’ preferences, reversing this change would only require ensuring more working-class candidates. Furthermore, there is relevant evidence that working-class candidates may be electorally successful, especially in working-class heartlands if given the chance to compete.

Carnes and Lupu, for example, find in their survey experiment, that the general population in Britain is not biased negatively towards working-class candidates and while “[w]hite-collar respondents were about as likely to vote for working-class candidates…working-class respondents were somewhat more likely to vote for them”[xvi]. Similarly, Campbell and Cowley find a negative relationship between voting preference for candidates and their wealth, with working-class voters especially sensitive to this characteristic: “This experiment appears to provide strong support for the identity politics claim that voters want a representative who is ‘like them’”[xvii]. This is particularly relevant when combined with Evans’s and Tilly’s findings in 2017 that “with only gentle prompting, 60 per cent of the population think of themselves as working class”[xviii].

Overcoming the Brexit tightrope

The avoidance of a clear and strong position on Brexit, even if electorally successful, seems doomed to ongoing problems if a Labour government is ever to emerge.

Focusing on being once again a party that not only stands for labour but is also the social and political expression of the British working-class, while taking a stronger stance on Brexit, for example by supporting and leading the campaign for a people’s vote, may be a more effective and ideologically coherent position in the long run. Furthermore, this may become a necessary and urgent example for other social-democratic parties in Europe, in the face of an emerging force of ethno-nationalism with a strong appeal to the working class.

The Labour party under Corbyn’s leadership, seems to be in a fruitful position to face Przeworski’s electoral dilemma, and overcome its inherent trade-off. However, the dilemma itself persists in as much as the necessity for supra-class alliance is still inevitable.

Nonetheless, the re-emergence of the salience of class, through a focus in promoting working-class candidates, can once again make the Labour party “the party of the working-class”, even if this is part of a supra-class alliance. That is, Labour could be the party where any worker who wishes to participate in party politics knows he or she may participate and be able to represent their fellow workers.


[i] Stone, J. (2015, August 24). Jeremy Corbyn will set up a fund to help people on low incomes become Labour MPs.

[ii] Tilley, J., & Evans, G. (2017). The New Politics of Class after the 2017 General Election. The Political Quarterly, 88(4), 710-715. (p.117)

[iii] For more on this see Cairney, P. (2007). The professionalisation of MPs: Refining the ‘politics-facilitating’ explanation. Parliamentary Affairs, 60(2), 212-233.

[iv] Dunleavy, P., & Husbands, C. T. (1985). British democracy at the crossroads: voting and party competition in the 1980s. Taylor & Francis.

[v] For example, see: Heath, O. (2015). Policy representation, social representation and class voting in Britain. British Journal of Political Science, 45(1), 173-193.; Heath, O. (2016). Policy alienation, social alienation and working-class abstention in Britain, 1964–2010. British Journal of Political Science, 1-21.

[vi] Przeworski, A. (1985). Capitalism and social democracy (Studies in Marxism and social theory). Cambridge : Paris: Cambridge University Press ; Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme.

[vii] Przeworski, A. (1985). Ibid. (pp.24-27)

[viii] Esping-Andersen, G. (1985). Politics against markets: The social democratic road to power. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. (p.8)

[ix] Harrop, A. (2017). Where Next for Labour? The Political Quarterly, 88(3), 395-399.

[x] See the following for a general overview on the 2017 general elections and this particular issue: Tilley, J., & Evans, G. (2017). The New Politics of Class after the 2017 General Election. The Political Quarterly, 88(4), 710-715 Heath, O., & Goodwin, M. (2017). The 2017 General Election, Brexit and the Return to Two‐Party Politics: An Aggregate‐Level Analysis of the Result. The Political Quarterly, 88(3), 345-358.

[xi] Tilley, J., & Evans, G. (2017). The new politics of class: the political exclusion of the British working class. Oxford University Press. (P.197)

[xii] Harrop, A. Ibid. (2017).

[xiii] Owen Jones (15 June, 2018). A LibDem bounce in Lewisham should not shift Labour’s Brexit stance. Retrieved from (19 October, 2018).

[xiv] Harrop, A. (2017). Ibid. (p.391)

[xv] Heath, O. (2015). Ibid

[xvi] Carnes, N., & Lupu, N. (2016). Do Voters Dislike Working-Class Candidates? Voter Biases and the Descriptive Underrepresentation of the Working Class. 110(4), 832-844. (p. 839)

[xvii] Campbell, R., & Cowley, P. (2014). Rich man, poor man, politician man: Wealth effects in a candidate biography survey experiment. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, 16(1), 56-74. (p.72)

[xviii] Evans and Tilly (2017). Ibid. (p.197)

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