ourEconomy: Opinion

What does class mean in 21st century Britain?

After Labour's election defeat, many have accused the party of losing touch with the working class. But in many places, the class divide isn't as clear as it once was.

Paddy Bettington
8 January 2020
Bolsover colliery cart
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Image: Ben Sutherland, CC BY 2.0

In the heavy shadow of this election result, the word ‘class’ is being thrown about by all sorts of people; but is it still relevant to the analysis of UK politics?

For a long time, the Labour Party has been viewed as a coalition of the working class and the liberal middle class. The essential purpose of the sudden outpouring of class analysis is to submit or deny that this coalition has finally been cleaved in two.

Pollsters refer to ‘Social Grade’ metrics designed and maintained for market research companies. Pundits refer to a ‘traditional working class’ of white, middle-aged men outside the M25; simultaneously homogenising whole sections of the country and invalidating BME, young and non-male workers. The Left fall back to a Marxian division between those who rely on labour and those invested in capital; a line that was only ever intended to define roles within the system, not people. Remarkably, some people – MPs even – belligerently continue to assert that choice of hot drink is the true arbiter of class.

Growing up – and recently canvassing – in the Midlands, it is clear that elements of each of these stories hold some relevance when asking what separates the voting behaviour of major cities from the rest of the country. But none of them show the complete picture, and they often speak at cross purposes.

The rhetoric around ‘the Red Wall’, the ‘Labour heartlands’ and the ‘traditional working class’ claims that there exists a characteristic which determines these places as working-class, that they remain working-class no matter what and, that the Labour Party has morphed in such ways that it no longer represents the needs of the people it should.

Videos of sullen MPs listening to white people in their 60s, admitting that their perception of Corbyn or Labour’s Brexit policy was enough to overpower their tribal hatred of Thatcher, should not be dismissed lightly. The inability to persuade a cross-section of the country that its agenda would benefit them all, particularly in areas that hold an established resistance to the Tories, has to be seen as a failing of the Corbyn project. That said, it is also worth investigating the demographic changes in this set of constituencies.

We can easily compare the characteristic profiles of the recent Conservative-Labour gains to those seats held by Labour, and to those that had Conservative MPs before the election. When looking at the Social Grade composition or the Social Deprivation Index, the Tory gains may appear similar to the Labour holds, loosely supporting the narrative that Labour has deserted them. However, comparing other metrics; age distribution, levels of homeownership, distribution between cities, towns and villages; they are often far closer aligned to long-held Tory seats. The oft-cited Warrington South, for example, has the 66th highest percentage of homeownership of any constituency in the UK at over 75%, Barrow and Furness the 88th at over 74%, while the Metropolitan Elite of Hackney South & Shoreditch rank in bottom place, at 650th, with only 20%.

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In the context of Thatcher’s explicit ambition of wielding economics as a method to change the soul, is it fair to attack the current Labour Party for losing touch with the working class, rather than previous iterations for failing to halt the basic mechanics of Thatcherism?

Hailing from the Midlands, it is easy to construct a narrative of constituencies once naturally incentivised to vote Labour, transitioning to Conservative seats. Many constituencies were initially made up of small working towns composed of neatly raked lines of Victorian terraced houses orbited far away by tiny picturesque villages and farmlands. Come the ’70s, the lure of open spaces brought the reproduction of cul-de-sacs in sporadic waves, each bringing with them residents who sought property ownership and presumably held it as a priority if not a virtue. Enabled by the complete ubiquity of cars, these housing estates service nearby cities as much as the towns themselves and have often continued to expand until they butt up against the next town. What once appeared as a constellation of towns and villages now seems like a tangled net of housing, motorways and supermarkets. Even the town planning, no doubt designed to increase the amount of space per household, effectively optimises atomisation.

Analysis of ward-level voting shows that in places like Bolsover, Warrington and Nuneaton, there are still wards with a majority Labour vote. Predictably, they are the nuclei of terraced houses no longer able to offset the sprawl that surrounds them.

It is reasonable to assert that successive governments have neglected the UK’s suburban and rural communities, but that is not to say that they are wallowing in destitution. In fact, abject poverty is often less visible than it is in London. It is plausible that, in comparison to large cities, in the absence of a supportive government, these areas are structurally biased towards individualistic, rather than collective solutions to problems. But, left without a system that works for them, there breeds an instinct to beat the system. In place of labourers, there are a wealth of people finding unique ways to make good. In this environment, the entwined fates of property ownership, small businesses and tradespeople result in a populace that has a crucially different balance of economic drivers to a big city. While Nuneaton might have higher percentages of C2 and DE Social Grade groups than Nunhead, and it is feasible that residents are statistically less inclined to drink fruit tea, objectively they are far more dependent on capital.

Beyond economics, for many people, work takes on a different sense of meaning than much of the Left would like to accept. It is not all ruthlessly exploitative labour for multi-national companies, but nor is it self-actualisation. Working for a small local business, or even for yourself, becomes an expression of agency, an aspect of identity and a way to prove yourself to a neglectful society.

If my hometown is anything to go by, in places where the population has not grown organically, but by the specific design of property developers, historic bases of culture or community are often absent. As the role of the everyday and the familiar subsumes the grander philosophical or artistic aspects of life, it is almost inevitable that a certain tipping point is reached by which many who grow up to have an instinct for the latter qualities decide to leave. It becomes a perfect self-selecting system where those who enter adulthood with a particular value system move to the nearest big city, or more likely, London.

Furthermore, the impact this has on age distribution reinforces the divergent economic drivers. In Bethnal Green, 62% of the population is below the age of 35; in Bolsover, that figure is 40%. It is of little surprise that a Labour Party aiming to serve the most precarious of society polls over twice as well in London as the East Midlands.

The reckoning that any left-leaning Labour Party must face up to is that in modern, neoliberal Britain, investments in capital – owning property or running a small business – are not sins and that they are no longer the preserve of the elite. They are the forms of security and autonomy that our current economic and political system is designed to incentivise. The long-term aim of the Left should be to disincentivise individual forms of wealth and security and replace them with collective forms, but this cannot be achieved without short and medium-term offers to people whose lives have been built around the economic drivers currently in place. Labour must not only offer to support but build a narrative that speaks to these people.

No small part of this problem is understanding who ‘these’ people are. There is an urgent question to answer within the Labour Party, in a message that rings true and authentic on daytime TV and on the doorstep: who are the many, and who are the few?

Any open-minded assessment of how to engage with Labour’s diverse voter base must find a way to do so without crudely conflating culture and value systems with financial situation. As statisticians will gleefully tell you at any opportunity, ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful’. The dividing line of class has never had an absolute, objective truth; Labour must now ask if it still has a use.

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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In conversation:

Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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