The call for Labour politicians to reconnect with its working class base used to come from the left. It was shorthand for reconnect with socialism, the ‘historic mission’ of the working class. Now it is Labour’s right, starting with Tom Watson and followed by Gloria De Piero and Graham Jones in the Guardian (4th July), who demand that Labour ‘reach out to the party’s heartlands’ to win the next election. It is an appeal to working class conservatism and a renewal of the attack on Corbyn. They are not wrong about the need for Labour to win back support among workers. In 2017 Labour only regained the level of support among ‘workers’ it had in 2005, and is still way below the support it attracted in 2001. But they are wrong about everything else.
Jones thinks the concerns of their former core voters are being ignored by the elite: concerns about ‘counter-terrorism, nationalism, defence and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism’. Corbyn has a different story to tell about these things but ignored by the elite? Pressed on his argument Jones falls back on falling wages, hardly something that Corbyn and his supporters have ignored.
We should have said already that all descriptions of ‘class’ appear in inverted commas because the measurement of class, like the social structures it hopes to describe, are in disarray. If we continue to use them it is with a pinch of salt and because there is nothing better available. On any measure, what were Labour heartlands are in steep and irreversible decline as the ‘older working class’ has shrunk to around 30% of the population. When Piero describes former coalfield areas as ‘the beating heart of our movement’ we can only be grateful she isn’t working in accident and emergency.
As those areas have declined a mixture of resentment, democratic sentiment, and Brexit inspired nationalism have come to the fore, finding a home first in UKIP, and latterly in support for the Conservatives. It is important to understand that a significant part of this vote was always Conservative, attracted by the idea of a national community in which class divisions are submerged unless you happen to be engaged in a particularly bitter dispute affecting immediate economic interests.
Politics has too often been about playing to this or that demographic, finding policies that appeal to its pocket or its prejudices. Labour does have to reconnect with workers in its de-industrialised, one-time heartlands who have been ignored and taken for granted by politicians of all stripes. But the way to do it is to challenge its social conservatism not pander to it. Most importantly, build on those democratic sentiments and invite Labour’s alienated working class supporters to really take back control instead of chasing the hares set running by Theresa May and Boris Johnson.