Labour Party

Labour’s class problem

19 November 2019

What is the working class in Britain? That is a pretty big topic to cover, fraught with all kinds of debate and controversies. Of course the Marxist left talks about the working class all the time because we see it as an agent of revolutionary change, a class with the potential to reshape the world along democratic and collective lines, away from capitalist exploitation and market based competition.

But the working class only ever gets a mention in mainstream debates these days when people are describing how backward and reactionary people are. In the USA everyone is considered ‘middle class’ until they vote Trump then they suddenly become ‘working class’.

In Britain the idea that the working class is socially conservative, instinctively racist and rejects the left as middle class has been around since the days of Thatcher and the “Forward March of Labour Halted” theory floated in the misnamed journal Marxism Today.

Today the well-worn trope is that leftists in Islington are all middle class idealists, hopelessly out of touch with reality, whilst English Northerners, possess a native common sense when it comes to practical politics.

All of these class descriptions are half-baked at best, if not downright wrong. And of course all this relates to serious political questions of our time – like Brexit.

Brexit mess

The view that the Brexit vote was driven by disaffected working class Labour voters in the north is a pernicious lie – one driven by political considerations. It is driven by right wing capitalist types like Nigel Farage and Arron Banks because it gives them cover and credibility for their far right Thatcherite project. It is a cynical ploy. Socialists who support Brexit repeat this view because it gives them justification for supporting a right wing movement that is directed at attacking migrants and appealing to dreams of long gone British imperial glory.

Analysis of votes has demonstrated that, far from it being a northern working class concern, in fact, in the words of Danny Dorling “Brexit was made in the Home Counties in the South of England.”[1] Dorling demonstrates that the bulk of leave votes came from the Home Counties and Essex; a whole swathe of northern working class areas like Allerdale, Barrow-in-Furness, Carlisle, Copeland, Knowsley and Redcar may have voted to leave but turnout was so low that the numbers of leave voters was quite small – compared to the more rabid middle class nationalists in Surrey that drove Brexit.

In fact only a minority of working class Labour supporters voted Brexit. Even if a number of working class people voted to leave in 2016, they were not Labour voters, and it was certainly not because they are more left wing.

And this is a perfect example of how a bad analysis can lead to a politically disastrous position. Fear of this chimera of disaffected working class northerners straining at the bit to leave the EU has driven a large part of Labour’s electoral strategy. It led to being crucified in the 2019 Euro elections.

But I don’t want to get into another debate about that. What is far more useful and important to consider is some of the deeper political issues.

Because the persistence of the ‘working class voted Brexit’ myth tells us something more about politics. This myth has been pushed by three groups of people in Labour.

The first are just political opportunists who jump on the bandwagon because they think it will boost Labour’s electoral changes. This is the least interesting group apart from what it tells us about the craven and disreputable nature of electoral fetishism.

The second, more notorious grouping, has been the Stalinists, ever-loyal to their programme of building Socialism in one Country, dreaming of a parliamentary road to socialism if only the evil Eurocrats would give us a moment’s peace. Clearly people like Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray are influenced by such politics. But it would be a mistake to imagine that it is only Stalinism which produces these ‘red nationalist’ views.

Because there is a third group of people stuck in 1970s Bennism who blissfully ignore some of the more dubious nationalist aspects of Benn’s politics. These included advocating import controls, pursuing a nationalist economic policy that would export unemployment and poverty abroad. Not exactly an internationalist position.[2]

Nationalism is imprinted in the DNA of any parliamentary party because parliaments operate only on a national basis. They pass laws covering a certain sovereign territory and therefore the tendency to assume that the borders of your country dictate the ambitions of your politics is very strong. This is why Labour despite trying to portray itself as an anti-racist and internationalist party has historically supported wars, the British Empire, increased immigration controls and embraced all manner of mainstream reactionary views.[3]

And this is the contradictory nature of Labour’s own politics, resting as it does on the contradictory nature of the working class itself. Marxists often point to the contradictory nature of Labour as a ‘bourgeois workers’ party’, in other words a party that has its social base in the working class and its trade union unions, but limits its politics to reforms tolerable, if not exactly welcome, to the capitalist class.

That is why Labour is the natural successor to the Liberal party in Britain; both seek piecemeal reforms – only Labour does it with an occasional dash of socialist rhetoric. But the bourgeois/workers contradiction isn’t the only one at play in Labour’s political physiognomy. Its belief that elections are the one and only means of winning power means it seeks to appeal to the broadest number of people – people of all classes. It has never adopted a clear programme embodying its principles, and what socialism means, let alone how to achieve it beyond elections.

This approach lends itself to chasing after votes from people with pretty backward views rather than trying to change those views. Hence its organic opportunism: sacrificing fundamental principles to short term gains. Why did the 2017 manifesto pledge not just to keep the racist No Recourse to Public Funds policy for migrants but to extend it? Why has Labour since 2016 consistently talked about ending free movement being a priority for them around Brexit (whilst Lexiteers like to pretend that migration wasn’t a key issue in the leave vote)? It is because the party feels – genetically – that it must appeal to conservative minded voters.

Top of the class

And this gets to a core difference between a Marxist approach to politics and a social democratic one. Social democracy seeks to reflect back the views of voters, including both their more progressive impulses and their reactionary, backward views. It is a party that refuses to shape and form the consciousness of working people beyond what they already know and believe. This leads to a problem, since we live in a bourgeois, thoroughly rotten capitalist society, the majority views in that society will reflect this. In Marx’s words “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

Labour refuses to educate, argue or intervene to decisively shift people’s views. This is why when everyone believed that the working class was hurtling rightwards at a rate of knots under Thatcher, Kinnock and Blair responded the only way they knew how, by moving the party decisively to the right.

Marxists start not from the working class as electoral fodder for politicians. Neither do they start from the notion of workers or working class culture as some pure and beautiful force in society which can do no wrong. The working class, divorced from the organisations, trade unions and parties which have historically formed it as a class fighting for its own interests, is simply raw material for exploitation – individuals whose labour power is commodified by the bosses. The bosses grow rich through the exploitation of workers’ labour.

Their existence as oppressed workers can lend itself to forms of consciousness such as trade unionism, but it can also foster a dog-eat-dog mentality. Working people can be reactionary or progressive, they can be left wing or right wing. This is why the crucial factor is not simply the working class as it is, but the existence of a working class movement in which the individual experiences of workers are generalised and politicised into a socialist consciousness. Only when the working class becomes a class for itself, aware of its antagonism to its exploiters and the urgency of the struggle to overthrow them, only then can we see the real power of working people to change the world.

And again this leads us back to the failures of Labourism and also trade unionism, which gave birth to it.

The British working class is dominated by its unions and Labour. This has been the case for almost a hundred years. It has some strengths but also a lot of weaknesses. Its unions are heavily bureaucratised and are shrinking as an industrial force. The Labour Party has taken serious strides to the left in recent years under Corbyn but still hasn’t escaped the basic problems of Labourism.

Whether Labour wins or loses the general election in December, we have to unpick this argument that the working class is nationalistic and socially conservative. Those who preach that the EU is the source of all of our problems rather than the legacy of Thatcherism or the tyranny of the British capitalist class are worshipping false idols. Where those ideas exist they must be challenged and fought. Internationalist and socialist politics have to be championed, people organised and movements fostered. Socialism isn’t about getting some MPs in parliament – it is about a radical, transformative movement of working people.

Simon Hannah is the author of A Party with Socialists in It: A History of the Labour Left  (Pluto, 2018) and Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay: The Fight to Stop the Poll Tax, due out in March 1920. He is an active trade unionist and a member of the Labour Party

[1] Brexit and Britain’s Radical Right

[2] Read more about that in That option no longer exists: Britain 1974-76 John Medhurst


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