Labour’s Identity Crisis or What to do with the English Working Class?
9 min read

Labour’s Identity Crisis or What to do with the English Working Class?

Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism” is volume edited by the MP Tristram Hunt and published by the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester. It collects together accounts by a variety of Labour candidates from the 2015 election, all of whom pinpoint their loss in Labour’s lack of concern for identity politics and in particular a lack of concern for the English identity and anxieties around topics such as migration and the loss of English culture.

They all in different ways point to a split both within the party and within its base. The party we are told is split between middle-class metropolitan elites who are socially liberal, integrated into globalization and politically technocratic and those activists who live in and are integrated into the communities that Labour dearly needs the support of. Similarly the base is increasingly fragmented between urban metropolitan voters who tend to be more socially liberal and multicultural in outlook and a suburban working class base which is often excluded from the benefits of globalization, subjected to precarity of the market place and increasingly feels under attack.

It is then the argument of these authors that Labour’s reliance on a politics of “abstract, classless, benign globalizing” which has ignored the concerns of its working class base and privileged a discourse of rights and technocracy has ensured that it has vacated its role in organizing and mobilizing working class voices. What we have seen in reality is Labour increasingly privileging its urban metropolitan base and increasingly defining itself on the basis of a liberal social policy because of both its unwillingness and its very inability to make meaningful interventions within the economic domain. What we have thus seen in the last decade is the definition of the Labour party as a progressive, liberal and modern party which focuses upon progressive social matters from discrimination and equality to LGBT and gender issues but which appears less at home discussing matters of class and those groups who appear left behind with changes in the underlying economy. The task these authors argue is to win back these voters.

In the way of preliminary remarks, it is worth highlighting a few things.

Firstly this split isn’t everywhere as evident. There are plenty of Labour communities where successful coalitions between metropolitan liberals and various working class groups. The problem has to be located not so much then in the division within both the base and the party but the inability to mediate between the different sides of such divisions and the inability to produce a common movement. It is likely that in fact that this division has always existed in different forms, the question that has to be asked then is why has it gotten worse and what can be done to resolve such a division.

Secondly it is worth highlighting the links between the British situation and the American situation. In America over the last four decades we saw a split in the Democratic base between the white and largely male working class and what is often termed a “rainbow coalition” made up of ethnic minorities, women and LGBT voters. With the decline of American industry in the 1970s the white working class increasingly turned away from a democratic party it saw as unrepresentative of their interests and towards the politics of Reaganism and later Clinton’s third way, who combined socially conservative policies with neoliberal economic reform allowing for the domination of neoliberal economics over American political life. Today in the aftermath of another economic crisis this base has abandoned the Republican party as such and turned to the Bonapartist figure of Donald Trump. American politics displays the danger then for left politics when such a base becomes alienated from progressive left politics.

Yet what is the solution put forward by these authors? Broadly to integrate themselves again with their working class voters. This takes two forms. On the one hand there is the very benign form which asks Labour to talk more to ordinary voters, to focus on genuinely local issues and to recognize the particularity of Englishness. There’s lots of quoting of Shakespeare and Orwell and Englishness appears as quaint, traditional, eccentric and broadly inoffensive. Yet on the other hand there is the more dangerous talk, Ben Bradshaw for example asks us to understand a window sticker of the St Georges Flag captioned with the phrase “if this flag offends you, why not consider moving to another country”. There is the sense that behind such socially conservative views, held by a significant part of the electorate, views which also include racism, homophobia etc. stands some kernel of authentic meaning that we have to understand in order to fully represent them. We perhaps don’t have to agree with it, but their view we are told is legitimate from their perspective and it therefore has to be understood and they have an equal right to have their views represented just as much as anyone else. This all builds in the end on a discourse of immigration that the party has for a long time been pedaling, that firstly it isn’t racist to talk about immigration, people have legitimate concerns and secondly that as voters they have a right to have these concerns represented in Westminster. The sense that it is the duty of the party here to confront its own voters is completely alien.

Yet if you can for a moment ignore the elements of pandering and generalizations about “English” identity (which is always so hard to place), the important question to ask would be how such a politics of identity meaningfully ensure the resurgence of the Labour party. Based upon the above, two alternatives appear likely, either the parties cultural turn will be too superficial or too immaterial to actually speak to the real needs of working class communities and thus fail to offer a real alternative vision of a post-neoliberal Britain. Or if Labour turns socially to the right and endorses aggressive patriotism and anti-immigrant sentiment it will find metropolitan liberals fleeing the party to parties which represent their views on issues of race, ecology, migration etc. (As has already begun with the rise of the Greens). It might in this case find itself split again. How would this contribute to the victory of the left in England?

Realities have then to be faced. It has to be realized that the complaints about a loss of culture, about assaults on the English identity and about England no longer looking English will never be satisfied. These complaints aren’t really grounded in concrete problems, though they always find concrete expressions (particularly in their focus on immigration). Rather, they are grounded in a powerlessness and a sense of hopelessness which makes this discourse circular and increasingly catastrophic. They are built upon a historical assault upon the working class, their power and their way of life which has left them to bemoan all that is around them. Put simply, the social policy of a Labour government isn’t going to make England feel more English to them, policy changes won’t make the streets whiter, nor remove foreign workers, nor resolve the fact that political correctness has gone mad. It can’t restore what was never there. These authors hope that identity politics is a weapon which Labour can use to its own advantage, yet once unleashed they could soon lose control of this weapon, and Labour could lose its own purpose.

Labour has to consider then in the face of such disaffection what can in fact be done. Labour has to conform to the demands both to build coalitions between its increasingly varied base and to confront the root causes which have now become fatal to its future as an electorally viable party.

Confronting both of these problems is something long overdue. As John Cruddas argues in the volume, in his constituency Labour was able to respond to the rising support for the BNP and restore a full labour council through modern campaign methods and an effective electoral machine, but it left untouched the actual problems which caused this rise. This hints in the end at a lack of engagement with the politics of actual working class people and communities.

There are of course many constituencies where successful coalitions between different communities have been produced and communal tensions managed, there are also those constituencies where electoral fragmentation has occurred and the party has in a short term sense managed to stem the flood of people away from the party. Yet the real test for Labour is what it is to do in those constituencies where disaffection is at its strongest and there has been a complete breakdown between the party and its base and between various communities which take often racist or communalist forms?

This isn’t of course a new problem, issues of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and aggressive nationalism have been a problem on the left before. Britain has had its race riots, more than it would care to remember, it has seen the emergence and decline of a hard-line far right and it has dealt with the loss of its sense of identity, in particular after the decline of Empire, for nearly a century now. We needn’t in this sense essentialise the problems and assume they are particular to our era.

Yet how were these problems dealt with in the past? One important tool was trade unionism which in the form of working class organization enabled working class struggle to resist processes of fragmentation along the lines of race and gender within the market place, it provided working class people with a sense of power and control and with a horizon of struggle within which it became possible to integrate other classes and ethnic and religious groups within a radical coalition. It also entailed actual working class leadership which enabled them to confront their own class on issues of racism and sexism within the movement. This legacy was by no means perfect but it did enable the construction of a working class cosmopolitan solidarity which was strong enough to resist the attempts of the far right and others to fracture the labour movement along ethnic or religious lines.

Labour was unfortunately just as complicit as others in the destruction of this tradition and in the name of the reign of market dynamics enabled the fragmentation and individualization of the labour movement and the destruction of labours power over business. It was Labour governments who pandering to a right wing middle class vote began to attack welfare and unemployment benefits and institute a disciplinary regime for claimants. It was under their watch the zero hour contracts and other forms of labour outsourcing increased the precarity of such groups. It was Labour who also focused development upon modern, urban and cosmopolitan areas and offered little to those excluded from such development who increasingly experienced provincialization.

This at the time appeared as an electoral necessity, and of course with changes in the organization of capital things couldn’t have gone on as they were. But New Labours attempt to build a progressive governing majority on the basis of a dependable English and Scottish working class is now firmly over. If in the late-1990s such groups could still dependably vote Labour inspite of the fact that labour was increasingly not governing in their class interest. But as fragmentation continued new parties of the far right, nationalist parties such as the SNP and political disaffection slowly picked away at the Labour vote. If 2010 showed disaffection with the then Labour government, 2015 evidenced a quite severe break with the party itself as the centre of left-politics in the UK.

For Labour then the Blairite strategy is no longer possible, Ed Milliband who ran a largely urban cosmopolitan campaign tried his best to make veiled appeals to this working class base but failed completely to attract their support. Is Corbynism any better? Corbyn is clearly a defeat of Blairism, yet it appears to possess its own limitations. Corbyn comes from a certain tradition of metropolitan socialism which has, within London, built sustainable coalitions between working class groups and other liberal groups to produce strong and continued electoral support. This is important, but Corbyns ability confront socially conservative and disaffected working class communities outside of London seems uncertain. For a start they tend not to think much of him when polled and insofar as he continues to talk in the abstract discourse of rights, the sense of alienation with the leadership in London continues. If Labour is to continue to survive in England it will then have to do something meaningful and transformative.

The authors of “Labour's Identity Crisis” are largely correct when they argue that Labour has to once again engage with its working class base in the North and South of England the problem is how this engagement is to occur and on what terms. Just pandering to such a base or patronizing them with dog whistle calls for a more English England leaves completely untouched the fundamental problems which have enabled the massive decline in organised labour and the Labour party. Yet the mistake that the authors in this volume make is to confuse the relationship between the feeling of patriotism and left politics. Left politics they argue will only now be successful on the basis that it taps into base patriotic feelings and if it hijacks these feelings of loyalty and belonging for its own end. But in truth it can only ever work the other way around, feelings of patriotism (as opposed to nationalism) as Orwell aren't the basis of Left politics but can emerge as the result of Left politics. A politics which creates an inclusive democratic movement which seeks to empower the majority of British people, especially those left behind by the transformations of post-Fordist capital, will find once again that people can take pride in their country, reimagine a sense of community and belonging and reinvent a popular culture which can once again provide people with something to be patriotic about and with something worth defending.

Put simply England will feel more like England again when the people who reside there can take charge of their own future and common life. For as Orwell himself argued, in the process of Revolution we become more ourselves not less.