We need to keep our sense of class, while embracing them all

by Emma Burnell

The Labour party has always understood and been uniquely informed by the class struggle and the struggling classes. This is not to say that we are solely a party of the working class – that has never been true. But our strength has been in the finding of common interests between the working and middle classes, and formatting policies that allowed both better lives for themselves and better dreams for their children.

This was considerably easier when the social strata of the UK was more clearly delineated. To paraphrase the Frost Report, the upper class wore bowler hats and the working class knew their place. But if class ever was that clear-cut, it certainly isn’t now. It’s a more elusive beast, shadowy and ill-defined by a combination of our jobs, education levels, property ownership and history.

Most people who would once have fit the bill as working class don’t define themselves as different from those who define as middle class. So with David Cameron claiming to be the “sharp elbowed middle class” (despite being related to the Queen), thus putting himself in the same category as an admin assistant living in a one bedroom flat, class consciousness is not the political incentive it once was. In some ways, John Major was right, the classless society has almost come about, with the middle class engulfing all but the underclass and royalty – the welfare classes at the top and bottom.

Labour only works as a party when we attract an alliance of working class and middle class voters and speak to their concerns. This is why I like the phrase “the squeezed middle” and agree with Ed’s attempts not to define this too restrictively. The squeezed middle as a group of voters instinctively recognises itself without needing the definition. Far more of us than live in the actual median of income self-define as middle, and boy do we feel squeezed.

Recently, much discussion of class has also been an examination of racial politics, and of the “white working class”. This has been greatly exposed in places like Oldham and Barking and in smaller ways in towns and cities around the country. Labour must not fall into the trap of pandering to racism or playing with the fire of race politics. It would be as destructive as it would be divisive and would ultimately cause real harm to the body politic and to Labour. But equally, we cannot simply write these voters off as racist bigots who deserve no audience from Labour. They have real and genuine concerns which Labour can address without making impossible and ungenuine promises on immigration.

The white working class is part of the totality of the working classes that Labour is there to represent. If we don’t represent all the working classes – and a chunk of the middle too – we will never have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.

They may not express the same ideas as some of us on race, but I don’t believe these voters are inherently racist. They are suffering from the lack of decent housing and a squeeze on services that come when shifting communities aren’t kept pace with by school, hospital and housing services as well as employment opportunities.

Labour should be the party championing  great public services for all anyway. Targeting them at poorer areas which have really felt the squeeze is the right thing to do as well as being electorally beneficial. Planning strategies for public service supply from communities could give Labour a better idea how to run national services that don’t leave these communities behind. That is a far better strategy than either turning our backs and abandoning them or attempting to game their anger to our electoral advantage.

There is plenty negative to be said about our current government. The havoc they are wreaking in just about every area of public life is horrendous. But Labour can’t sit back and wait for voters to return just because the Tory-led government is so awful.

We need a positive offer to take forward to voters. Perhaps by listening to the concerns that lie beneath the divisive language, concerns that actually straddle those divides, we can start to see what it is we need to offer voters and start to work out how to do that.

Emma Burnell represents the socialist societies on Labour’s national policy forum and is author of the Scarlet Standard blog.

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5 Responses to “We need to keep our sense of class, while embracing them all”

  1. edward bond says:

    I agree that “they” are not inherently racist but I think it’s just part of being human. There are plenty of middle class racists as well. Social housing has nothing to do with it.

    Also I think it is odd yout have singled out white people in a post about racism. One of the greatest failures of multiculturalsim has been increased tensions between communities of different race. It is not just the “white vote” which harbours irrational racism!

  2. Robert says:

    Well yes labour has not always been the party of the working class, thats why we still have a working class. Otherwise we all be the middle class, I like Labour view that a shop worker working in retail for the min wage is now classed as Middle class, one way of getting out of being class as socialist.

    But in the end Brown the shit ran to much to the Tories to get his little gems put into practice like welfare.

    Labour at the moment is not the party of anything it’s again looking for those pesky swing voters. I think we or you will have to wait twenty years before those swing voters vote Labours way again, like normal then.

    I’m disabled so for me voting Tory labour same thing.

  3. oliver says:

    At last. Some acknowledgement that there’s more to the middle-class, the ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘me, me, me’ swing voters.

    I’ve made similar (and angrier) points about this elsewhere over recent years. Another poster on another thread here (Robert?) pointed this out yesterday in response to article on an Ed Balls speech from last year. It’s been pitiful watching (New) Labour increasingly focus on a particular voting demographic whilst practically ignoring a traditional voting bedrock.

    I’m not sure pandering to this demographic even makes sense strategically any more. How much of this has arisen from chasing the opportunistic swing voters sat on the middle of the political spectrum? Eventually – if it’s not the case already – the increasingly marginalised demographic are going to be far, far bigger than the demographic that politicians of every colour keep pandering to.

    If voting success is based on numbers of votes, it seems madness to me that politicians continue to play this game. Unless, of course, it’s as many already suspect: the middle-classes who make up most of political class of all parties, are now quite open with their derision for an under-class they’ve helped perpetuate, if not create.

    Or, maybe – and perhaps more charitably – due to the way that the division of wealth has got so extreme in this country, even those who consider themselves ‘working-class’ (in reality at the upper end of the spectrum) are that removed in terms of money, prospects, opportunities from the other end of that spectrum, that there’s a class hierarchy as well-defined as the traditional working class – middle class – upper class paradigms. The difference here being that despite these divisions being fairly obvious to many, those at the top end of the self-identifying ‘working class’ spectrum can’t see it or just won’t see it.

    Ironically, I’ve seen this a lot in debates about the Tory lie as how ‘we’re all in it together’: the working class on 24k a year are not in the same boat as the long term unemployed, disabled &c no matter how much they cry. Please, don’t get me wrong, I think unity against this Tory-led government is important, but it serves no one in long run – especially the under-classes – if the working-class and middle-class Left perpetuate their own ‘we’re all in this together’ lie.

    Regarding the issue of a racist ‘white working class’: I genuinely doubt that there’s any more than a small minority of these people that are genuinely racist or xenophobic. Yes, the target of their ire are people with different cultures, skin colours and religions, but this is no different than what really lay beneath the anti-Irish/anti-Catholic sentiment in the 19th Century. One the one hand, you’ve got government ramping-up the threat to national interests/safety from ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders’ and, on the other, having immigration policies that disproportionately impact the poorest members of society. Nothing has changed from the 19th Century in this respect: the people with already the most meagre pieces of the pie are forced to share them with more and more people – whatever colour or religion they are.

    All this is going to get worse and worse over the next view years as the resources and opportunities available to them shrink even further. However, if you provide jobs, opportunities, housing &c., then the bulk of this fear of the foreigner will diminish immensely.

  4. Ryan Thomas says:

    Excellent post, Emma. During the leadership election, Diane Abbott argued that immigration was used as a proxy for concerns about jobs, housing, and other “bread and butter” issues where Labour did very little for its working class base. I agree with her. I think it is foolish and plain wrong to paint the white working class as some kind of reactionary mob baying for Polish blood.

  5. rock chick says:

    Labour should remember the people who vote them in and stop sucking up to the rich it is like having 3 Tory party’s red blue or yellow Labour brought atos in now they are picking on disabled people i and my husband are both disabled after working all our lives we fear for the future we are not middle class we are working class the people labour seems to have forgotten about

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