For a couple decades, issues of class have been low on the list of priorities. Many of the ‘faux left’ parties have looked down their snobby, privately educated, liberal noses at the working class. In stark contrast, they never fail to grasp any opportunity to virtue signal for an array of gender and race issues. It appears unfashionable to fight for people who have suffered the most from neoliberalism. As a result of this abandonment and derision over the years, many now vote for the right. Despite the fact it is those very same capitalist policies they tick the box for, that are destroying them. So, rather than callously stating “oh it’s just turkey’s voting for Christmas”, maybe we should investigate why this has occurred.
It could be hypothesised that the middling, moderate, smart arse, pompous, plastic left are pushing people to the right, towards the Conservatives, National (NZ), Liberals (Australia), Conservatives (Canada) and the Republican’s. In some cases even further along the left/right continuum, to parties such as UKIP. Who until their recent capitulation, became popular within the working class. Throughout Europe we have also seen a rise of harder line nationalist parties mainly over eastern and central parts. Meanwhile, some traditionally left leaning parties are trying hard to realign back to their working class ideals. Most notably Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the UK and to some extent Jacinda Ardern in NZ. But mistrust still persists, partly because of a previous centrist hangover in the form of New Labour in the UK. While in New Zealand it was 33 years of neoliberalism first conceived by a Labour government in 1984, that didn’t help matters.
Across the pond despite a recent, small progressive revival, the corporate idiots in the Democrat party are still very much in control and have failed to learn anything from the Hillary Clinton disaster. What makes this a travesty, is the working class have been abandoned by the party that since Roosevelt was supposed to fight for them. This group have been the biggest losers regarding employment and have been told by their so called moral superiors that they voted Trump because they are uneducated, racist, sexist and ignorant. Well guess what, if you really want a truly left government, no matter where you may be from, these are the people we need to understand and reach, because supporting the working class is what the left is all about.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere, you will have noticed we’ve had a couple of important events on both sides of the Atlantic. This should have initiated a huge alarm call for the liberal elite; one being the Brexit result to leave Europe and the other Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. What arrogantly transpired, was not a period of deep reflection within the liberal world, but an outright condemnation of people who had the audacity to vote against their wishes. In the US, while Hillary Clinton sulked, the “not my president” brigade were out in force, because to them democracy suddenly wasn’t fair anymore. Following the result, noticeably there were a few very rich, connected individuals (Clinton and co), telling middle class people that it was the fault of those stupid fools from the working class for voting Trump.
We can witness these similar precocious, middle class types at college campus protests. A speaker who may be challenging in some ideological way can be no platformed in a heart beat, as it may rock their precious sensibilities. A similar vibe is also evident at events such as the ‘women’s march’ whereby millions of relatively privileged, educated, pussy hat wearing liberals, gather to protest……..I guess about something (usually Trump). All the while, taking selfies and brandishing brightly coloured banners, to presumably post on Instagram and Facebook. These occasions have more the appearance of a middle class day out complete with picnic hamper and a bottle of Prosecco, rather than a serious protest about something tangible. One concern that never gathers much traction within these groups is economic inequality, primarily because the majority of these fair weather protesters are pretty economically privileged.
In the UK, just like the US, there is a predominantly middle class core of people called ‘Remainers’ who think they know better and propose that people who voted to leave the EU must be racist, stupid and gullible. No internal system checks or reflection as to why this went so badly wrong for them, just instant projection. It would appear that the metropolitan elite apparently know what’s good for the proletariat. Indeed people did vote to leave on issues such as; sovereignty, xenophobia and racism, but millions cast their vote for a myriad of other reasons. For decades there has been an all out assault on the working class from the liberal left and the right, attacking their identities and their places of work. Many politicians see the working class as an embarrassing problem. In return a majority of this group have stopped listening to Westminster and have started trusting their own experiences.
One of the suggested indicators regarding who voted for Brexit was education, areas of average education tended to vote leave, while areas with residents with college degrees were more compelled to vote to stay in the EU (71%). I’ll make it clear now, a university degree doesn’t automatically grant you the intellectual and moral high ground. Contrary to the current orthodoxy, education does not begin and end in the lecture hall either. But, there is a well established link that proposes inadequate education often leads to poor employment opportunities and decreased social engagement, therefore, providing a differing set of experiences from those of the middle class. Recently, as if people haven’t had enough of being told what to do, 670,000 people descended on London for the very Orwellian sounding ‘People’s Vote’ march. Just for the record, I will declare that I have no particular axe to grind regarding Brexit, as I think while there’s a neoliberal system on both sides, it’s a lose-lose. This is why Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to win with supporters from either side, I suspect he just doesn’t have enough of a stake in the outcome.
A large portion of ‘Team Remainer’ I would hazard a guess were created, when most of the ‘anglosphere’ adopted a similar mix of policies from the 90’s onwards, which you could loosely label ‘third way’. This comprised of more deregulation for the banking sector, such as Bill Clinton’s abolishment of Glass Steagall, while governments became increasing corporate centric. Another trait was the transformation of citizens to consumers. We suddenly had an abundance of choice, but this was only restricted to our spending habits, not our political parties. Most ‘supposedly’ left leaning parties, particularly Blair with New Labour abandoned the working class as his core voter base, in favour of the middle classes. This was highlighted by his repeal of ‘clause four‘ which effectively linked the Labour Party with socialism. This move was a definitive break from Labour’s past, socialism and the working class.
In turn, this new core of labour supporters were offered an enticing lifestyle, through neoliberal economics, punctuated by socially liberal policies. This on the whole, distracted, enriched and anaesthetised the middle classes. With less to worry about, they now could pursue other political issues such as identity politics. Which in turn could be used as moral currency in the sacred land of the pious. Yet, behind the cosy, socially caring rhetoric, economic inequality in the UK and other western nations began to widen. On the other side of the tracks, the working class regularly saw jobs vanish and whole industries dismantled under New Labour’s watch. Blair enthusiastically continued with Thatcherism on many fronts, in particular believing that the maintenance of free markets was the most efficient way to implement economic policy. New Labour also kept most of Thatcher’s sell-offs intact; BP, British Steel, British Airways among others. Additionally Blair continued with the anti-trade Union policies set in the 80’s and 90’s.
In defence of Tony Blair, he was responsible for bringing in the minimum wage, which did help the poorly paid and the exploited to some degree. At the risk of appearing cynical, I always felt this was no more than ‘lip service’ to the poor. Even so, New Labour could boast some impressive achievements; a dramatic cut in NHS waiting times, an 8 fold capital investment increase in education and growth in GDP per head by 20%. So with this in mind, why did Labour lose over 5 million voters from 1997 to 2010? While, at the same time membership fell from 407,000 in 1997 to 109,000 in 2004. Possibly, because New Labour was dedicated to a steady diet of centrist policies, which unsurprisingly did not meet the needs of diverse communities across the UK, many of whom were estranged by globalisation.
Blair doggedly adhered to the free market and services to advance economic growth. While manufacturing and wages declined outside of London, leaving a whole slew of folk left to fend for themselves. Secure trades were often replaced with insecure jobs, such as call centre work and warehouse employment. Blair’s centrist narrative was that of a rights-based individualism, while working class communities talked about the erosion of communal practices and institutions such as; pubs, neighbours and community centres. New Labour had no interest in values that were important to the working class such as; collective self-help, reciprocity and fraternity. Nor did Blair have any inclination to use New Labour as a vehicle for collective empowerment, in contrast he was more invested in managerialism, statism and centralisation. This working class rejection from Blair and by the Labour Party in general, I would wager, had a lot to do with the overwhelming eventual support for Brexit later on.
A similar outright rejection of globalism and corporate liberalism was equally evident in the US, which helped give rise to Trump. In an area known as the ‘Rust Belt’, states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana among others had been caught up in massive deindustrialisation, economic decline and urban decay. Workers had observed their manufacturing jobs shipped overseas, an increase in automation and a diminishing of the coal and steel industries. There have been suggestions that Trump turned these voters from Democrat to Republican, but the most accurate explanation could be that Democrats lost these voters. Obama who was once a big hope, offered nothing in real terms to the people of these regions. His centrist doctrine of ‘free market’ economics and social justice crumbs delivered poor returns in the region. Jobs continued to haemorrhage out the area, while real wages decreased.
Trump during the campaign, in line with his modem operandi, offered nothing concrete. But he tapped into the desperation, emotion and nostalgia of working class people. He declared that he was going to restore manufacturing jobs to the area, while clamping down on immigration. Now, whether either of these things are possible or even true, is irrelevant, as the campaign had no relation to facts. This was about a narcissistic populist, telling an impoverished, dejected community precisely what they wanted to hear. What did the Democrats under Hillary Clinton do in response? In an act of extreme elitism, she brazenly stated that half of Trump supporters were a “basket of deplorables,” who were incidentally, racist, xenophobic or misogynistic. This comment was been vehemently rejected by Bernie Sanders, who rightly stated that the working class simply do not have a party to support them.
Countless middle class Hillary supporters and the liberal press suggested that Trump supporters were voting against their best interests. This conclusion is simplistic at best and views the problem entirely through a liberal lens. One aspect working class people voted for was dignity. As a group they have witnessed not only their jobs stripped away, but the heart of their community and their role within it. An ability to give, share and their capability as providers has been severely diminished. Although Trump’s campaign may have been disingenuous, it offered a possible return to dignity and when you have no hope, sometimes it’s worth taking a chance on the unknown.
So maybe we now have a bit of an idea why left leaning parties historically lost the working class. It could also be argued that many people don’t even identify as working class anymore. In the UK only 24% see themselves as working classed as opposed to 67% in the 1980’s. Many people who are struggling financially tend not to call themselves ‘working class’ as it is considered just another term for being poor. In contrast 71% state that they are middle class, which if you consider the UK has had 10 years of austerity with declining real wages, this is possibly not an accurate depiction of the truth. On the contrary, as a kid growing up in North Manchester, being working class was the norm and not something I or anybody else gave much thought to. I left school with 1 ‘O’ level in French and before I joined the navy I spent a year on a YTS (youth training scheme) fixing street lighting for the council. Going to the pub and playing footie on the weekend wasn’t just some romantic, wistful or even stereotypical reflection, it was part of life.
Now, no longer is it the working class who feel integral to the spirit of the community. The old working class solidarity has been savaged by neoliberalism’s destruction of industry and the ties that held communities together. Many working class people now feel lonely, unhappy and pessimistic, while in contrast it’s the middle class who feel emboldened and a part of the community. Many factories, steel works, paper mills, collieries and shipyards had clubs, sports teams and some sense of belonging for people. No doubt that a large proportion of this started to decline long ago. Although, even in the 80’s and to a certain extent the 90’s in my hometown, which was primarily centred around paper production, all had popular clubs connected to the mills and some of the best sports facilities in the town. This is not a sentimental view of days gone by, but a reasoned look at what materialises when the ties that bind people together are broken. Thatcher never believed in society and was therefore, determined to destroy it. Blair continued with this philosophy by substituting the importance of the community and people, with consumerism.
Hordes of people from these now depleted communities regularly did dangerous, dirty, manually taxing jobs, that most of us wouldn’t wish to do. These workers often got by due to a semblance of solidarity, which existed throughout the industrial world to varying degrees. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that people who live in communities that didn’t gain from neoliberalism feel cut adrift, angry, lost, confused and are looking for something other than what currently exists. So why talk about the working class? Why are they important? Predominantly it is this group that keeps the place ticking over; refuse collectors, sewage workers and the many poorly treated warehouse workers all over the globe. This section of society have been taken advantage of more than any other, they’ve lost jobs, seen their pay decreased and witnessed government supports stripped away through austerity or pure vindictiveness. Even the phrase ‘working class’ is now, maybe by design, considered a derogatory phrase.
It’s politically ‘en vogue’ now to only care about issues pertaining to melanin levels and genitalia. However, class warfare is constantly being waged and shit rolls down hill. The ruling elite uses propaganda and distraction aimed at the middle class; such as the mainstream media and welcome theatre such as Brexit. The middle class primarily blame the working class, for example, voting Brexit, among these accusations are suggestions of a lack of intelligence, racism and xenophobia. In turn the working class take their frustrations out on the ‘unworking class’ and immigrants. This all plays into the hands of governments and corporations, who thrive when people are divided. Quite simply, if a left leaning party has any serious intentions of gaining power, with a strong desire to dismantle neoliberalism, it needs to engage with the working class and regain that once common ground.