Class Politics After Corbyn

The failure of Corbynism was its inability to cut through in working-class communities. The risk of a Starmer-led Labour Party is that it abandons that effort altogether.

April saw Keir Starmer elected comfortably as Labour leader. As we face into an uncertain political and economic future in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, he confronts the same challenge as every Labour leader before him: namely, assembling a coalition of electoral support broad enough to take the party into government.

Starmer may — but probably won’t — look enviously at the 40 per cent of the vote won in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Of course, this was not enough. But in many general elections it would be. Better still would be Tony Blair’s 1997 44 per cent, when the ‘end of history’ tide lifted the boat of Labour’s first explicitly non-socialist leader. Blair and his successors saw that coalition incrementally disintegrate over the twenty years that followed, until the dramatic surge of June 2017.

The immediate matter in hand is examining what happened between 2017 and 2019, two-and-a-half years in which Labour’s vote tumbled from 40 per cent to 32 per cent, taking it back to a position just a little better than Ed Miliband had left it in 2015, albeit with an even more diminished parliamentary representation.

Understandably, post-mortems have scarcely dwelt on where Labour did well on December 2019. In London, for example, Labour retained 49 seats out of 73 (one gain, one loss), a historically strong performance. Likewise, in the dozen largest cities in England and Wales outside the metropolis — Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Bristol, Cardiff, Nottingham, Leicester, Hull, Brighton, Hove —  Labour won all but two seats, and one of those was the Brighton constituency retained by the Greens’ Caroline Lucas.

That might reflect the fact Labour’s second referendum Brexit policy appealed far more strongly in Remain-supporting areas. But it runs deeper than that. In London and other major urban areas, Labour has assembled a new coalition of young people (particularly students), public sector workers, immigrant and BAME communities, and middle-class professionals strong and numerous enough to secure electoral success. Charges of ‘extremism’ against Corbyn cut little ice in the cities, nor has the erosion of basic industry and unionised private sector jobs proved as damaging electorally as it has elsewhere.

The New Base?

Even in a bad electoral year, there was a robust underpinning for a new social democratic offer in the big cities and the university towns. The diverse coalition sustaining this has been a maturing factor in left politics in London, for example, since the 1970s. That, too, is the part of the necessary electoral coalition for which Starmer speaks most confidently, and certainly the relative over-representation of London and the south of England among Labour’s membership is one factor in the surprisingly strong margin of his leadership election victory. He is Labour’s third consecutive leader to be rooted in North London.

For some, this is the problem. The Blue Labour faction, for example, traces Labour’s decline to New Labour estranging the party from its core working-class support, with this then being compounded rather than challenged by ‘Corbynism’. Both, in this telling, were metropolitan, middle-class tendencies incapable of articulating the values assumed to be broadly held in the sort of midlands and northern constituencies Labour lost last year.

This analysis pushes sociology beyond its proper boundaries and deep into the territory of political choices. Whether the issue was foreign wars, the regulation of banks, public ownership of utilities, house building, funding higher education, law-and-order authoritarianism, or the marketisation of health, ‘New Labour’ and ‘Corbynism’ made diametrically opposed political offers. To assume that this went unnoticed by an electorate dwelling instead solely on cultural signifiers seems fanciful.

Blue Labour cleaves to a notoriously 1960s view of what the working class in Britain is: living in towns and neighbourhoods where work and community are closely entwined, jobs stable and often passed on from father to son, where the generations dwell in close proximity, and the class is, above all, white. Clearly, that is not the world of contemporary London for the most part, nor of the other large cities. It is not in reality the world of anywhere very much anymore, but nostalgia for it is more potent in areas Blue Labour seeks to speak to.

In the Don Valleys, Stoke Centrals, Leighs, and beyond, the entwining of work, community, trade union, and party no longer pertains, and hasn’t done for a generation or more. There are still trade unionists in these communities, but their collective social and political impact is no more than an echo of their former resonance. In such space, a class disintegrates from one year to another, at least as anything more than a sociological classification: a mass of wage labourers without collective institutions or an ideological project, the things Marx and Engels had in mind when they stated in the Communist Manifesto that the first task of socialists was the ‘formation of the proletariat as a class.’

Identity and Class

The space has been filled to some extent by what is now termed ‘identity politics’. Mention the term and right-wing columnists will start foaming about the demands of women and black people, above all, to have their identities as such recognised, and the specific and intensified oppressions which have shaped that identity addressed. The labour movement may have been ahead of the curve here, but not by very much.

In fact, identity politics has an ancient pedigree within class politics. For example, the Labour Party in the East End of London was bitterly divided in the 1930s between its large Jewish and Irish elements. The former were stalwart opponents of fascism at home and abroad, while the latter were not, due largely to the influence of Catholicism — indeed, priestly influence won much of the Irish element in Stepney Labour to a pro-rebel or at least neutral position in the Spanish Civil War. In more recent times, the sometime Labour MP Ian Wrigglesworth — who joined the breakaway Social Democratic Party in 1981 — addressed the loss of Labour votes in areas like the one he had once represented on Teeside, saying that many traditional Labour voters ‘often had extreme right-wing views, but voted Labour for longstanding class and cultural reasons.’ 

Indeed, it cannot be said too often that those ‘traditional Labour’ voters who would not vote for Corbyn’s party because it opposed imperialist wars, welcomed refugees, and saw benefits in immigration hold opinions which Labour cannot pander to. As in the USA, any approach to class politics has to be framed not just by the eternal verities of exploitation but also by an acknowledgement that the working class has been shaped by the experiences of imperialism and its concomitants of racism and relative privilege on a global scale. It is not by chance that the traditional Labour right lays such emphasis on the pillars of that order — the alliance with Washington, NATO, and strong defence — a politics that in fact capitulates to the underlying assumptions of resurgent national populism while seeking to head it off. 

Nevertheless, the Left is obliged to play the hand that history has dealt. ‘Winning back the North’ — the shorthand for overcoming the divide exposed so cruelly last December — means re-establishing the sort of hegemony Wrigglesworth identifies, a movement able to speak for all sections of the working class, recognising the diversity of actual views they hold while not adapting to the most backward of them.

Jeremy Corbyn gave that his best shot, endeavouring to frame the election as being about the common class concerns — no work, bad work, no housing, bad housing, unending austerity degrading the public sphere — rather than the insurgent politics of identity, crystallised around Brexit. It didn’t work, any more than Ed Miliband’s more muted progressive approach overcame the collapse of the original ‘red wall’ across central Scotland in 2015, under pressure from the triumphant unionist-nationalist binary.

The Answer to ‘Everything’

In the summer of 2019, I met a group of retired miners in the constituency of Hemsworth, once the heart of the Yorkshire coalfield. At the time it was one of a dozen always-Labour seats in the former coalfield. The number has shrunk to eight — nearby Wakefield and Don Valley have gone — and some of those now have precarious majorities, including Hemsworth.

The ex-miners were not the bigots of metropolitan ‘Remainer’ demonology. They described the post-coal labour market in their communities. A brand-name retailer had established a warehouse creating around a thousand jobs — but few if any were advertised in the local job centre. Instead, the work was subcontracted to a labour agency which recruited exclusively in Poland. The same agency then secured vacant properties in the surrounding villages to accommodate the Polish workers at maximum capacity (and, doubtless, maximum rent). Parallel to this the community has now as many foodbanks as it had pits forty years ago.

My interlocutors acknowledged Labour’s challenge. ‘It’s a national party, Jeremy has to balance London and the North. People up here want the same things, they like Labour’s policies.’ I asked: ‘When people around here voted for Brexit what problem did they think they were solving?’ The answer: ‘Everything.’

The answer ‘everything’ is not as daft as it may sound. The labour movement is, in principle at least, an answer to ‘everything’ in that it promoted a holistic vision of a transformed society touching most aspects of people’s lives. The desire for an alternative reality attainable through democratic endeavour remains alive, despite the marginalisation of the concept of political alternatives throughout the neoliberal era.

Leaving the EU was the issue that this desire came to hang its hat on in many areas. This was a democratic impulse which Labour, despite a radical leadership committed to popular initiative, got itself on the wrong side of. These are the people Labour left behind in the dash to support a second referendum.

Starmer has a difficult task ahead. He needs to navigate the difference between liberalism and democracy. Few institutions better represent the contradiction inherent here than the European Union, with its liberal commitments to the four freedoms (capital, labour, goods, and services) forming an effective constitutional bulwark against democratic choice in its member states on major economic questions.

The Brexit argument is abated for now, at least. But it will resurface within Labour’s putative coalition. The working-class movement has always taken its stand for democracy, and its socialist ideology was developed in rebellion against the limits liberalism imposed from above. Tony Blair hoped that he had resolved this tension of progressive politics decisively in liberalism’s favour, but the Corbyn era exposed the conflict once again.

A socialism which embraces the diversity of the actual working class and seeks to use democratic empowerment to guarantee the protections which many have sought from liberal fiat would be the best solution. It now falls to Keir Starmer to lead the long march from the security of North London to the battleground industrial hinterlands. It sounds improbable, but on the Nixon-goes-to-Beijing principle, who knows? If his will to win is as advertised, he will be saddling up.

About the Author

Andrew Murray is the Chief of Staff of Unite the union. He previously served as Chair of the Stop the War Coalition and is the author of numerous books including Off the Rails: The Crisis on Britain’s Railways, A New Labour Nightmare and Stop the War: The Story of Britain’s Biggest Mass Movement.