The Labour party has always understood and been uniquely informed by the class struggle and the struggling classes. This is not to say that we are solely a party of the working class – that has never been true. But our strength has been in the finding of common interests between the working and middle classes, and formatting policies that allowed both better lives for themselves and better dreams for their children.
This was considerably easier when the social strata of the UK was more clearly delineated. To paraphrase the Frost Report, the upper classes wore bowler hats and the working classes knew their place. But if class ever was that clear-cut, it certainly isn’t now. It’s a more elusive beast, shadowy and ill-defined by a combination of our jobs, education levels, property ownership and history.
Most people who would once have fit the bill as working class don’t define themselves as different from those who define as middle class. So with David Cameron claiming to be the “sharp elbowed middle class” (despite being related to the Queen), thus putting himself in the same category as an admin assistant living in a one bedroom flat, class consciousness is not the political incentive it once was. In some ways, John Major was right, the classless society has almost come about, with the middle class engulfing all but the underclass and royalty – the welfare classes at the top and bottom.
Labour only works as a party when we attract an alliance of working class and middle class voters and speak to their concerns. This is why I like the phrase “the squeezed middle” and agree with Ed’s attempts not to define this too restrictively. The squeezed middle as a group of voters instinctively recognises itself without needing that definition. Far more of us than live in the actual median of income self-define as middle, and boy do we feel squeezed.
Recently, much discussion of class has also been an examination of racial politics, and of the “white working class”. This has been greatly exposed in places like Oldham and Barking and in smaller ways in towns and cities around the country. Labour must not fall into the trap of pandering to racism or playing with the fire of race politics. It would be as destructive as it would be divisive and would ultimately cause real harm to the body politic and to Labour. But equally, we cannot simply write these voters off as racist bigots who deserve no audience from Labour. They have real and genuine concerns which Labour can address without making impossible and ungenuine promises on immigration.
The white working class is part of the totality of the working classes that Labour is there to represent. If we don’t represent all the working classes – and a chunk of the middle too – we will never have a democratic mandate to represent anyone.
They may not express the same ideas as some of us in Labour on race, but I don’t believe these voters are inherently racist. They are suffering from the lack of decent housing and a squeeze on services that come when shifting communities aren’t kept pace with by school, hospital and housing services as well as employment opportunities.
Labour should be the party championing great public services for all anyway. Targeting them at poorer areas which have really felt the squeeze is the right thing to do as well as being electorally beneficial. Planning strategies for public service supply from communities could give Labour a better idea how to run national services that don’t leave these communities behind. That is a far better strategy than either turning our backs and abandoning them or attempting to game their anger to our electoral advantage.
There is plenty negative to be said about our current government. The havoc they are wreaking in just about every area of public life is horrendous. But Labour can’t sit back and wait for voters to return just because the Tory-led government is so awful.
We need a positive offer to take forward to voters. Perhaps by listening to the concerns that lie beneath the divisive language, concerns that actually straddle those divides, we can start to see what it is we need to offer voters and start to work out how to do that.
This piece first appeared on Labour Uncut.