Labour Wants to Win Back the Working Class. The Problem Is It Has No Idea Who They Are

The Tories get class formation. Starmer’s Labour doesn’t.

by Joe Bilsborough

28 April 2021

Labour leader Keir Starmer having a pint of Guinness with Hartlepool by-election candidate Paul Williams
Keir Starmer/Twitter

In a 2016 interview with the Guardian, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg made a revealing recollection: the Conservatives, he recalled, refused to build social housing because it would “create Labour voters”. Clegg’s remarks certainly align with the evidence: in Osborne’s spending review of 2010, social housing funding was cut by 60%; between 2010 and 2017, the number of homes provided at social rent fell by a staggering 97%. They also highlight something important: the Conservatives have a keen sense of class formation.

Nothing better evidenced this than Thatcher’s privatisation drive. Privatisation did not just dismantle publicly-owned organisations, it also created a section of society whose interests were aligned to those of the market. Seeking to supplant public ownership in the common good with private ownership for individual gain, Thatcher offered workers free shares in their newly privatised firms; in the case of BT, 96% took up her offer. Right to buy did not just diminish the stock of social housing, it also formed a class of owner-occupiers and later rentiers – four in 10 right to buy properties are now owned by private landlords.

Clegg’s recollection is a useful starting point for critical engagement with a new Fabian Society report, Hearts and Minds: Winning the Working-Class Vote. The report, comprising fourteen essays by Labour MPs, was summarised by John Healey MP – the report’s editor and shadow secretary of state for defence – in an article for LabourList. In the article, Healey argues that the decline in working-class support for Labour is longstanding and that the party should focus its efforts on attracting the support of the 10 million individuals earning around the median UK salary (£24,908).

Healey’s analysis of his party surpasses some of the dross that has recently passed for it; “20 points ahead” became a meme precisely because it demonstrated an almost performative obtuseness about political-economic trends. Healey’s assertion – that focusing Labour’s electoral strategy on the Red Wall misses the fact that “a swathe of working-class and average income voters have been moving away from Labour for the last four or five elections” – suggests that this report will meaningfully engage with class, social democracy and the political economy of the UK, even if one disagrees with its conclusions. Sadly, that is not the case.

Hearts and Minds is more a retreat under the comfort blanket of technocracy than an attempt to grapple with political realities. The problem with some of Labour’s policy proposals, notes Jonathan Reynolds, is that they “have been too easily characterised as wanting to ride roughshod over intellectual property rights”; meanwhile, Yvette Cooper diagnoses Johnson’s “levelling up” agenda as “driven by political expediency not economic analysis”.

Labour will have a tough time ahead of it if it thinks it can oppose the Conservatives’ planned infrastructure spending in town centres with bone-dry cost-benefit analyses. Furthermore, as the party’s foolish decision to oppose Sunak’s corporation tax increases showed, attempting to win over voters by demonstrating business nous – this time, with a strange defence of “intellectual property rights” – is, in the current political landscape, a risky strategy.

Yet perhaps the most striking thing about this report is what is absent from it: asset ownership. In fact, housing is barely mentioned at all, except in the context of ”queue-jumping” for council housing. When even The Economist is highlighting the fact the 20% of people aged 35-64 live in the private rented sector, look unlikely to leave it before retirement, and will require a £445,000 pension pot to maintain their standard of living, this omission seems particularly glaring.

Instead, in keeping with the Starmer-Ainsleyism analysed in New Socialist, the report appeals to “fairness”. In chapter 10, Yvonne Fovargue characterises fairness as a “system where what we get in state benefits reflects what we put in”; in which “failed asylum seekers are sent back”; and where means-testing means “working people… do not want to reward those who have an adequate income”.

Embracing – rather than addressing – the belief that one of the richest countries on Earth is unable to provide a good life to those who live in it is a dead-end. The life chances of young people are increasingly dependent on inherited wealth. This is our emergent, grisly necropolitics which self-evidently benefits neither young nor old. Unravelling the rentierisation of the UK economy – freeing elderly people from years of worrying about how their children and grandchildren will fend for themselves – should be Labour’s focus, the progressive counterpart to the class formation the Conservatives are so adept at fomenting.

This is the tragedy of Labour’s malaise. The party, as we are all well aware, is under new management. Some aspects of Corbynism were always going to be dispensed with. There was no need, however, to dispense with the intellectual infrastructure that evolved within the party during the Corbyn years, the kind of thinking done by new left economists like Christine Berry. As Berry has noted:

‘Working class’ people are being exploited not just as workers, but as tenants, as debtors, as patients (e.g. through lack of access to patented medicines) and as consumers (e.g. through mis-selling of financial products or high energy prices). The common thread here is the exploitation of those who do not control assets by those who do.

It is this understanding of the working class that should underpin Labour’s strategy of reconnecting with it.

Exhibiting competence and attacking cronyism may well deliver Labour power. Yet if Starmer is serious about delivering fundamental changes to the British economy – even social democratic changes – his party needs a better analysis not just of contemporary class constellations but – crucially – of the strategic importance of class formation.

As Will Davies has written, our “weird model of capitalism, in which houses appreciate in value but people don’t … is a consequence of an ideology of homeownership that has been essential to the Conservative party’s policy agenda since Thatcher came to power.” From Thatcher onwards, the Conservatives have successfully employed a radicalism that has not just restructured our economy but decoupled sections of the populace from a belief in the institutions of collective provision, to a (figurative, though often literal) investment in our existing political-economic system. This process has been piecemeal and incoherent, but it has been enduring.

Without formulating their own analysis of what institutions create Conservative voters, as well as a strategy to dismantle and replace them with models of collective ownership, any changes Starmer’s Labour proposes will be as fragile as those achieved by Blair and Brown.

Joe Bilsborough is a research assistant in economic history at the University of Southern Denmark and a Tribune columnist.

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