Wednesday, 20 December 2017

Class still matters, but it is more complicated than that

Rachel Reeves

We asked a selection of authors to respond to ‘The New Politics of Class’ by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley

Writing in mid-2017, it is very hard for anyone to pretend that class is not a major factor in British politics. After a major financial crisis and the deepest recession since the 1930s, with household incomes stagnating and inequality growing between class, generation and region, we seem a world away from a time when anyone felt able to say ‘we are all middle class now’.

In many ways, this reinforces the arguments made by Geoffrey Evans and James Tilley in The New Politics of Class, which is a welcome, thorough and provocative examination of the enduring impact of class on British politics.

Labour's working class problem

Despite a remarkable increase in voter share at the 2017 general election, Labour's growing problems with working class voters remain. Labour made its biggest gains in seats with heavy concentrations of middle class professionals and the wealthiest voters, while losing ground to the Conservatives in the poorest seats in England and Wales.

However, we should be careful not to overstate or oversimply the importance of class in political preferences. Other factors matter too: a working class twenty-five year old today is likely to have much more in common with a middle class twenty-five year old than they are with a working class person forty years older.

The political fault lines in contemporary Britain are complex, as the academic David Runciman recently noted in the London Review of Books. New and old gulfs between sections of our society are widening, and two-party politics now has to accommodate many divisions of generation, educational background, geographic location and much more.

In analysing the problems facing the Labour party, we therefore need to understand the multifaceted aspects of identity: we struggle with older, generally white voters (especially men), outside cities, with relatively little formal education.

The authors are correct to identify the overlap between cultural and economic concerns, when it comes to globalisation. Labour became overly relaxed about the dislocating effects of globalised markets on ordinary people and communities, an attitude that was most evident in Tony Blair’s 2005 speech to the party conference, in which he spoke of a changing world “indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty… replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.”

This vision certainly did not conform to the feelings of working class communities, but nor do I think it conforms to how most people in Britain today experience or feel about the world. We all want a sense of belonging, community and stability in our lives, and we all hold on to some parts of tradition. In this election, younger, middle class voters in cities were often reacting to the vanishing possibility that they will be able to enjoy exactly those things and instead are looking ahead to less economic security than their parents enjoyed.

Labour's role

The fundamental task of the Labour party remains unchanged: to offer an appeal able to unite working people across social groups to reform capitalism in their interest. There is still space for consensus. Many of the major challenges we face cut across classes, such as the housing crisis and the need to support our embattled public services.

So a party that has put opposition to austerity front and centre of its electoral pitch should be deeply concerned that it is those who have experienced some of the worst austerity (certainly more than the middle classes) who are least moved by its appeal.

A left-wing government that ignored the poorest and those less able to adapt to globalisation and automation, offering them only a subsidy in the form of a universal basic income, sounds less to me like a bright new future, and more like a dystopian nightmare.

Labour's future must depend on persuading working class people that we can represent them and their interests, both for electoral purposes and because that is the point of Labour.

Rachel Reeves is the Labour Member of Parliament for Leeds West.

This article is adapted from a piece in The Political Quarterly journal. You can read the full article here.

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