Thomas Plater explores traditional attitudes towards class, and how they must be reassessed by the party in order to achieve electoral success.
Class discourse, and especially working-class discourse, has always been incredibly important for the Labour Party. As a party created to represent the new urban working class in the early 1900s, Labours' support has always been rooted in working-class communities across Britain.
However, over the past 50 years, this conversation, and support from working-class communities' has been successfully eroded. As a direct result of this, multiple ‘safe’ Labour held constituencies across the country with large working-class majorities in 2019, elected Conservative MP’s for the first time. Although other factors, including Brexit, contributed to the loss of these seats, the groundwork that led to the defeat had been afoot since the early 1980s.
“There is no such thing as society.” Margaret Thatcher infamously uttered in 1987. Her forced deindustrialisation of Britain and the subsequent war on the trade unions was the catalyst that kick-started the process of breaking class ties and power. By going after both the workplaces that communities formed around and the Trade Unions, Thatcher kickstarted the process of decimating communities that had been tightly knit for a hundred years beforehand, unravelling the heart of Labour's support.
John Major became the next standard-bearer in breaking the power of the working class with his 1992 election offer of ‘a classless society’. This was followed by subsequent laws that allowed employers to directly discriminate against unionised employees and succeeded in reducing the power of a united working class.
The class discourse was further damaged by New Labour too. Blair was elected on a platform that was designed, much like Major’s, to transcend the class divide and distance the political leadership from the power of the Unions and that of working class people. In Blair's own words;
“[New Labour’s] values are Labour values...in the end, they all come down to fairness. What is new is the eradication of outdated ideology in the application of those values.”
Whilst the new application of Labour's ideology captured votes across the country, it heralded the end of the ‘unbreakable’ ties between Labour and its working-class support.
In hindsight, it is now somewhat obvious that Labour had lost the traditional class debate well before 2019. However, class definitions themselves have morphed over that time.
In 2013, analysis was published online from the ‘Great British Class Survey’, a joint undertaking from the University of Manchester, London School of Economics and the University of York. It found that there were now seven distinct classes. The ‘working class’ had split into four distinct classes and the ‘traditional working class’ now only makes up 14% of the population, and continues to decrease.
Since the publication of the survey, the ever-evolving start-up sector, coupled with zero-hour contracts and the advent of the gig economy has created a whole new class of people, just trying to make ends meet. When political parties paint a picture of a working person from the turn of the century, they miss a whole section of life in Britain today. As the technology sector continues to expand, we’re seeing a redefinition of jobs & job roles happen with increasing frequency. The class divide as we knew it is now a class spectrum.
This presents an issue for Labour. The new ‘working-class spectrum’ contains a mix of people who both do and don’t consider themselves ‘traditional working class’ and have varying reactions to Labour’s core message whilst being in similar financial and cultural situations. I know people working what is considered politically as a ‘working-class’ job, who consider themselves middle class due to their upbringing. The opposite viewpoint holds too. In modern times, support for Labour in these groups is mixed, but to win Labour needs broad support from them.
This Labour support is mixed in such a way that almost defies analysis. At the last set of local elections. Labour lost seats across Britain. But conversely, they gained seats in Borehamwood, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Witney, famously David Cameron's seat, with huge swings. Long gone are the days that you dread the long driveways and anticipate the estates. Voting intention can no longer be gleaned in this way, which presents both opportunities and challenges equally.
With traditional class ideology and the discourse surrounding it dead and buried, Labour has to find a new course through the class spectrum. Instead of fighting a battle it has already lost in 4 successive general elections, Labour must adapt to the current conditions and find shared lenses outside of traditional class-based discourse to bring the British people together.
In that respect, Keir Starmer’s New Year speech was a beacon of hope, promoting British values that transcend the class spectrum. However, Labour still needs to be careful of falling back into the trap of traditional class discourse that has been laid before them. If they manage that, whilst capturing the imaginations of the British people; anything can happen.
Thomas Plater is a Musician, Labour Activist and Chair of North East Hertfordshire CLP. He is also a Trustee of the Nevis Ensemble, a former Vice President of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama Students Union and is passionate about Arts & Culture and Education policy. He tweets at @ThomasPlater.