Labour and the ‘traditional working class’

There is much talk, when Labour discusses its approach to Brexit, of the “traditional heartlands” of northern England and their EU referendum vote. Richard Rawles says this focus risks alienating whole swathes of Labour’s real and potential voters, especially the young.

One of the features of Lexit (the left-wing case for Brexit) discourse has been the fetishising of a group that tends to be referred to as “Labour’s heartlands” or “the traditional working class.” People are more interested in talking about Labour voters or former Labour voters in northern English towns who voted Leave than about relatively well-off Tories in the rural south who had no particular cause for economic dismay but still expressed cultural dissatisfaction with modern Britain and dislike of the EU by voting for Brexit.

A lot of attention has been paid, and rightly so, to the racial element in this “traditional working class”; its meaning often doesn’t seem far from “white working class,” with an undertone suggesting that white northerners are somehow more authentic, more real, more legitimate in expressing Britishness or Englishness than the inhabitants of cosmopolitan cities. It seems that a white car plant worker from the north east is more “traditional” than a black hospital porter from Islington.

But it is also generational. Age correlated more strongly with the 2016 vote than anything else (something I personally find strange given that in my own little bubble my parents and others of their generation tend to treasure the European project enormously). Older people were much more likely to vote Leave than younger people. Those (rhetorically misjudged) memes that went about after the vote showing that people with higher levels of education tended to vote Remain, as if to cast leavers as ill-educated fools who shouldn’t get a vote anyway, mostly simply reflected that the young are in general likely to have spent more time in education.

This is potentially very important in terms of how Labour defines itself and its relationship to “the working class” because while these words tend to be used as a term of cultural identity, we need to relate them to real social and economic meaning.

The young tend to experience and to have experienced class relations in different ways from the old. They are less likely to have suffered extended periods of unemployment, as so many did in the 1980s, and more likely to experience work as a sequence of precarious jobs without enough guaranteed hours. They are likely to have spent longer in education, but also more likely to have acquired substantial debt while doing so.

The old are likely to have had very different experiences of housing from ‘generation rent’, whether as social tenants or as right-to-buy homeowners. Young people’s economic life is now dominated by relations with rentier landlords almost as much as by relations with employers, in a world where housing costs get bigger and bigger as a proportion of incomes.

The young do not remember an economy with high rates of trade union membership. Indeed many in the private sector may well have very little idea of what a trade union is.

In other words, whether we conceive of it in identitarian terms or economic terms, it is madness for Labour to decide that a restricted “traditional working class” is our “heartland vote”.

A vote, like love, must be taken where you can find it, and while I am certainly not proposing that Labour start being mean to pensioners, it is the job of Labour to stand up for people across society. If we start defining ourselves primarily in relation to this “traditional heartlands” demographic, implicitly excluding ethnic minorities, most Scots, and the younger working class, we are simply identifying Labour as a dying party.

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9 thoughts on “Labour and the ‘traditional working class’

    1. Somebody “from” Islington might be living elsewhere (or might, with extreme patience or luck, have got social housing) — but anyway I think the point holds.

  1. Richard, as a white working class, older voter, having voted Labour for most of my life, I find the endemic racism and misogyny within the Labour Party intolerable. One other factor is the inevitable factor is that the Scottish Labour Party does not relate to the problems of Scotland in any realistic way, following the London based party line. The Party no longer has my vote, nor is it likely to in the near future.

  2. What is often forgotten about Labour- held Leave-voting constituencies is that most Labour supporters there are Remainers. So if Labour courts Leave voters, they alienate their largest bloc of support – an extraordinary act of self-harm (just like Brexit!). Time for Corbyn to get real on the EU.

  3. Richard I take it you used the Islington scenario because Corbyn is MP .
    Kate I am a party member and I am sorry you do not vote for us anymore .
    I can assure you members in my area have been stunned by all this anti Semitism I had never heard of it until I saw it one night on ch4 news .
    We don’t have it in my area we would not tolerate it.
    The London line I am only an ordinary party member but I can assure you myself and others got that message a long time ago .
    With regard to Brexit I regret Richard brought race into his argument
    Kate I am sorry that we have let you down by making you feel no longer able to vote Labour .
    I was delighted that Richard Leonard broke with London and committed Scottish Labour to EU remain and EU2 ref a pity he waited until we got gubbed by the voters .
    On the morning of Richard Leonard doing that some of us met with an MSP who had invited us to have a coffee .
    Some very tough talking was done I think we will have raised some of your worries we were told all our worries would be passed on the following week to Richard .
    And being Labour we met in a tearoom with the other customers listening haha.
    We told our guy if UK Labour don’t waken up fast they will get the same wipeout Scotland got in 15 .
    Kate I would like you to come back in and maybe comment more on why you stopped voting Labour and what we need to do to get your vote and others back .
    My name is David and I will probably agree with you.

  4. Richard if as you say older people tended to vote leave how do you explain Scotland by a huge majority voted remain .
    Are you in favour of Brexit I see nothing good in it .I am sitting here on oxygen .
    The company who on behalf of the NHS service my equipment is based in Stirling the Engineers who visit me at home are worried sick that post Brexit American health care companies will come in and they will lose their jobs .
    They don’t feel Labour represents them because for them we are not electable at UK level and because we don’t know what we are doing on Brexit .
    I only know this because the tv news was on last visit .
    There is also look at them Polish guys over here doing our jobs usually at roadworks .
    I intervened 3 times on that and got turned on myself where are you on that .
    Also can you explain how in Scotland which voted remain how did Scottish Labour ever think we could tell the Scottish voters maybe aye maybe naw at the EU election .
    The SNP had a clear vote for us remain message .
    I campaigned for Labour at the EU election I could not get people who normally vote Labour to even vote .
    So what is your message to Kate and all the others no longer voting Labour and how do I as a loyal so far party member get them back .
    If we don’t change and quickly that 9 per cent for Scottish Labour will be the good old days .
    And Labour at UK level are for me sleepwalking into their own 2015 style wipeout and just like us they don’t see it coming .
    Anti Semitism who would have thought the Labour party would have that problem never mind tolerate it .
    Labour heart lands where an opinion poll put us behind the worst Tory crew ever in 4rth place .
    And I am sorry to say you used race ln your blog why .

    1. David, I suggested that where *others* use the formulation “traditional working class” this has a racial connotation. I agree with you that Labour in Scotland (and elsewhere) is in a bit of a ness, and that there is nothing good about Brexit.

      1. Thankyou for your comment Richard
        Problem is I don’t see any sign our UK leaders see the problem far less how to get out of it

  5. Also the SNP Lib Dems Greens have formed an alliance for voter reform but why have Brexit been allowed to join

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