Jeremy Corbyn, Flickr

‘Don’t talk about class’: Under Starmer, Labour Is Reverting Back to Its Old Ways

by Ben Tippet

@bentippet
20th April 2020
  • Estimated read time: 5 mins

How does the Labour party’s new leadership understand class? Under Jeremy Corbyn, key figures driving the economic programme (such as John McDonnell) were committed to the idea that the only way to improve the lives of working people is to take on the power and wealth of Britain’s capitalist classes. 

For Keir Starmer’s newly formed team, early signs can tell us that they stand for the opposite: that working class prosperity is best achieved without battling the elite.

This shift mirrors a long standing debate in sociology, between Karl Marx and Pierre Bordieu, which will ultimately take the future of the Labour party back to the strategy of the last 40 years: that the best way to tackle class is to not talk about it. 

On Monday 6 April, Jeremy Corbyn served his last day in office. Just days later, Bernie Sanders announced he was quitting the Democratic race. Both politicians and the movements behind them shared policies, tactics and friendships, and opened up the possibility that Anglo-Americanism could take a leftist, anti-imperialist turn.

With the ongoing debate about their legacy raging, what is clear is that both politicians and the movements behind them have brought the issue of class back into focus. 

Whether it was Sanders campaign slogan that “three Americans own more wealth than the bottom half of the population” or Corbyn’s “for the many, not the few”, a Marxist analysis of class was brought into the mainstream.

In the UK it would be easy to forget how far the discourse has come along. Less than five years ago, Labour leader Ed Miliband, who never actually mentioned class in any of his speeches, was being chastised as “Red Ed” for proposing a relatively modest energy price cap. 

The way that the party with Keir Starmer at the helm will define class will give a critical insight into the kind of politics they’ll be pushing for in the coming years. 

Embracing the individual. 

There has already been a marked shift in how class is understood. For Marx, class is about the power relations between capital and labour, or, in the words of the third-richest man in the world, Warren Buffett, between those who “make money while they sleep” and those who “work until they die”. 

Any analysis of class from a Marxist perspective looks at what both groups are doing and how they relate to each other.

If wages have not risen in 12 years and in-work poverty is at the highest it’s been in 20 years (as it was before the Covid-19 crisis hit), Marxists try to make sense of such things by thinking about the balance of class power between workers and bosses.

Like a see-saw, the theory of class is relational, with the power of one group intimately tied to the demise of the other: stagnating wages versus pumped up profits; food banks versus bank failures; capital versus labour.

Bourdieu, on the other hand, defines class as being about individuals rather than relations of power.

Individuals are said to belong to different classes based on how much economic capital (income, savings, house value), social capital (the people to know) and cultural capital (tastes and preferences) they accumulate.  

By far the most comprehensive Bordieusian analysis of class in the UK was conducted by researchers at the London School of Economics in their Great British Class Survey.

Collecting data from over 7m people, the researchers divided Britain into seven social classes: the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers and the precariat. 

Within this analysis, there is no clear system of power that relates the elite to the precariat. Rather than a seesaw, the world is seen like multiple boards of snakes and ladders – some people might have more ladders in life than snakes (i.e. more social, cultural and economic capital), but there is no theoretical reason why everyone’s boards can’t be improved with the right policies.

In other words, the government can help the working class by simply focusing on their boards and designing policies to increase the ladders so that everyone can make it successfully to the finish line. 

A departure from Corbynism. 

It is this analysis that is likely to be directing policy in Labour now, given the fact that Keir Starmer is, according to a leak two weeks ago, set to employ Claire Ainsley from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as director of policy in the Labour party.

Ainsley will take the position previously held by Andrew Fisher, the socialist author of the party’s 2017 manifesto. 

Ainsley’s 2017 book, The New Working Class, is firmly situated within the Bordieusian tradition. For instance, she uses the LSE class categories to define Britain’s new working class as those who fall into the bottom three of the survey’s groups: traditional working class, emergent service workers and the precariat. Together they make up 48% of the population. 

In some respects, Ainsley’s analysis of Britain’s working class does have some things in common with the Corbyn project. She shows how the new working class is, rightly, understood to be multi-ethnic, predominantly female and living across the country, from Hackney to Huddersfield.

This takes significant strides away from an old-school Labour analysis of class, which narrowly focuses on the so-called traditional industrial class, without including all those who work as cleaners, teachers assistants, secretaries, delivery drivers, cooks. Jobs, incidentally, that have been on the frontline of keeping the country running throughout this crisis.

Ainsley’s book however points to a significant departure from Corbynism.

Being based in Bordieu’s analysis, she argues that we should refrain from thinking about class in relational terms. In fact, she goes as far as to say that attempting to overtly challenge the class relation between labour and capital will only lead to electoral disaster. As she says, “class war does not mobilise the masses”.

Looking at both the defeat of Corbyn and Sanders, there will be many who are drawing a similar conclusion.

Working people don’t want to hear about class, they’ll say. It’s seen as stigmatising and associated with those at the bottom of a social hierarchy. And who wants to identify with coming last?

This is Ainsley’s thinking when she says, borrowing a phrase from the film Fight Club, which is itself set in a world of mundane hyper-capitalism, that “the first rule about the new working class is you do not talk about the new working class.”

Acknowledging class is how we fight against it.

But the pollution of Britain’s class identity has not happened in a vacuum. For the last 40 years, the working class has been relentlessly demonised. Whether it’s ‘chavs’, Jeremy Kyle or Benefits Street, to be seen as working class in the public eye has been to be seen as vulgar and pathological. 

This has not happened by accident. As Warren Buffett also succinctly put it, “there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”.

One of the ways the rich have won – and won big – is by making us think that such a war has never actually been fought. How can there be a class war if we don’t hear about class on the news or in parliament?

This was one of the most successful ideological achievements of the right: to get us to think about the world in terms of rampant individualism, and to see any public discussion of class as either taboo, outdated or viciously pernicious.

The Labour party always has a choice about whether it seeks to tackle this toxic ideological narrative or not. While Corbynism failed to win an electoral majority (in part due to those on the right of the party sabotaging the efforts of the 2017 campaign), it put forward a class narrative that shifted the public’s attitude towards austerity, public investment and in-work poverty.

Even before Covid-19, the Conservative party drastically shifted its perspective on these issues towards the left, and whatever happens, Starmer will also continue that tradition. 

In my book, I outline how many of the crises that we currently face in work, housing and the environment are perpetuated by the class relations that run through our society. 

Building on a Marxist theory of class, I argue that the divide between those that make money while they sleep and those that work until they die, has sharpened since the 1980s. 

One thing from my research is clear: just because we haven’t talked about class doesn’t mean it has disappeared. In fact, by not explicitly talking about it, the rich have continued to accumulate vast fortunes which are passed off as the natural rewards for individual hard work and talent. 

As the last 40 years show, trying to win an election by hiding from this fact will, in the long run, only make class inequality worse. 

Ben Tippet is currently doing a PhD at the University of Greenwich, researching the causes of wealth inequality in the UK. His first book Split: Class Divides Uncovered, provides an introduction to capital and labour in the 21st century. 

Published 20th April 2020

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