WCP: Labour and the Working Class in the UK

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Last week’s byelection in the UK brought a raft of losses to the Labour Party. Working-class voters used to be a rock-solid base for Labour, but no more. As Tim Strangleman explains in Working-Class Perspectives (new window), Labour long counted on working-class votes but did little to help working-class people, while the Conservatives have gained ground, in part by investing in economically-struggling areas. If Labour wants to win back these voters, Strangleman argues, it must invest in working-class aspiration for better jobs, housing, environment, and education. 

After decades of consistently supporting the Labour Party, voters in Hartlepool recently elected their first Tory MP, in a byelection caused by the previous MP standing down as a result of a scandal. Hartlepool sits on the North-east coast of England in what used to be known as Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ of constituencies straddling the industrial belt of northern England. Hartlepool has been solidly Labour since 1964. This is the first time since the 1970s that the incumbent party in Westminster has taken a seat from the main opposition party at a national parliamentary byelection. To add insult to injury, Hartlepool saw a devastating 16% swing to the Tories. This wasn’t Labour’s only loss in a raft of local council, mayoral, and devolved assembly elections in Scotland and Wales.

These elections tell us something important about working-class attachment — or more accurately detachment from left of centre politics. Some in the Labour Party under its new leader Keir Starmer blame the loss on the legacy of previous leader Jeremy Corbyn. But this Hartlepool moment has been a long time coming, and its causes are sedimented over generations of shifts and changes in place and people, work, and industry. Perhaps the most serious issue for Labour is the very fact that they have held power in places like Hartlepool for so long, places where people used to joke about weighing votes rather than counting them.  This led to complacency in a range of communities across Northern England.  Local politicians didn’t have to try, because the London-based leadership took for granted that working-class voters had nowhere else to go. 

They were wrong. Brexit represented a generational change as almost unconscious tribal loyalties were suddenly challenged and perhaps lost for good. This change itself reflected three decades or more of industrial loss that shifted workers away from collectivised employment to newer forms of precarious employment, or to unemployment. That didn’t lead to immediate political shifts. Places like Hartlepool helped Tony Blair win a landslide election in 1997 and keep Labour in power for the next thirteen years.  The irony was that Hartlepool’s Labour MP at the time was Peter Mandelson, chief architect of New Labour (the Blairite rebranding of the Party in the mid-1990s which accepted many of the policies of Thatcherism). Rather than using its power to address economic changes in Britain, New Labour seemed to be embarrassed by its old traditional base, looking upon it like an ageing relative in the attic. The party was content to count on working-class votes but reluctant to invest in the training and jobs that would improve working-class lives. When austerity hit in 2008, the marginal improvements felt since 1997 were quickly reversed. Things didn’t get better.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson have positioned themselves as the party of the working-class.  Again, this has a long history as reflected in more than a decade of debates about ‘Blue Labour’ and ‘Red Tory’, debates that Labour has not seriously addressed. In the 2019 election, the Conservatives were surprised at the scale of their victory in previously strong Labour constituencies dominated by working-class voters.  This has encouraged them to announce headline-catching investments in some of these seats, a move that simultaneously shores up that working-class base and sends a powerful message that if nearby Labour seats follow suit and join the Tory fold, they will also gain new resources. This type of ‘pork barrelling’ has generally not been an important feature of UK politics, but it appears to be on the rise. The government’s Future Towns Fund is a good example. Aimed at levelling up deprived constituencies generally, most of beneficiaries have been communities in Conservative held seats. 

What does this mean for the Labour Party and their relationship with the working-class now? In Scotland, progressive politics has for sometime now been dominated by the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). The SNP has effectively positioned itself as the progressive left-of-centre force north of the border, and those progressive voters increasingly see separation from the rest of the UK and the dominance of Conservative England as the logical next move. In his new book Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, historian Ewan Gibbs shows how the profound deindustrialisation enacted on the Scots by a remote Westminster government after World War II opened up a new progressive front rooted in independence. The simple logic is that progressive policies will only come about through independence.

The other threat to Labour now is likely to come from the Green Party, and this is where class politics may get interesting. Labour has been far too slow in seeing the advantage in aligning itself with environmental issues.  In the past, it was too willing to down play green industry while placating the highly polluting industrial sectors that employed its trade union base. A deeper, more serious reflection would have recognized a progressive, orderly transition to a green economy as a winning opportunity. Such a transition could have created many more good jobs in high tech industry with great training opportunities for Labour’s core working-class base. It is not too late for Labour to make this shift, but it needs to be genuine and profound move rather than a cynical rebadging.

Finally, the Labour party needs to win back working-class voters by being less timid.  The charge from the Conservatives is that Labour is out of touch, southern centric, and more concern with ‘woke politics’ than the politics of work. The Labour party’s base is now wrongly portrayed by critics as metropolitan graduates and professionals.  Somehow this caricature has positioned the party as anti-aspirational for its older working-class voters. The charge is that Labour now holds people back and looks after people on benefits. To regain power, Labour must stand for and invest in working-class aspiration for better jobs, housing, environment, and education. 

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent