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.