Three charts perhaps sum up more than anything else the fundamental difference between Labour’s defeat in 1983, and that which has just taken place in 2019.
The first shows voting share by place type, comparing the Conservative and Labour votes. Showing Labour dominant in the cities, but losing out to the Conservatives in large, medium and small towns, as well as smaller communities.
The second shows Conservative support increasing in the most deprived communities in England and Wales.
Whilst the final graph shows that the Conservative vote grew predominantly in constituencies with fewer graduates, whilst conversely Labour suffered heavy losses in constituencies with fewer than 25% of graduates.
When talking about 1983, the point is obviously that those voters who deserted Labour were not from the most deprived communities, nor those communities with the lowest educational levels. Large parts of the old industrial Labour heartland stood firm, but aspirational, more upwardly mobile working-class voters moved towards Thatcherism. Central here was the transition from a declining industrial economy, to a new more modern technological service-based economy, in which parts of working class hoped, at the very least, their children could participate in.
But that isn’t the reality of 2019. In 2019 the heart of the modern technological sector of the economy, the cities, have remained with Labour, whilst the traditional parts of the economy, the deindustrial towns of the North, have moved towards the Conservatives. This was already evident in 2017, where Labour was gaining across ABC1 voters, and the Conservatives were gaining amongst working-class voters, whilst the gains made by Labour were largely in urban constituencies. Aside then from discussions around the restructuring of social class, there is also the point that the roles of the two parties have changed. Increasingly the Conservative party has been representing voters from the traditional sector of the economy, the small towns in which industrial factories have been replaced by low-skill service work, whilst the Labour party has increasingly come to represent the more modern technological sector of the economy, based on higher levels of education, skill and connectivity.
Why is this? I think firstly that, unlike in the 1980s, this swing amongst working-class voters to the Tories, doesn’t lie in the idea of upward-mobility or aspiration, the vote for the now far-Right Tory party (far-Right in the sense that it is now neither conservative nor moderate) is more a vote to rip up the rule book and for a round of creative destruction which they hope, with enough destruction, might improve their lives, though in a manner far more intangible than under Thatcherism.
Secondly when looking at the changing nature of the urban vote the answer is more likely to lie in the changing nature of work than in the idea of urban populations as bleeding heart liberals. The modern technological sector of the economy in the era of big data and big corporations, is I think increasingly comfortable with a notion of big government as a manager of public resources and a provider of key public services, services on which many urban populations rely, from housing to healthcare to transport. At the same time they are aware of the importance of education to social mobility and success in the job market, as well as the need for investment in technology and a green industrial revolution. Whilst they are also against the kind of austerity which strips away the ‘public’ and leaves parts of the country and inner-cities to decay. And in the post-Financial Crisis era, they are aware of the fragility of markets. They support then something like the ‘socialism’ found in Singapore, emphasizing the role of the state, public services and promoting the modern sector of the economy for economic growth.
Yet the question now for Labour is how to promote a vision of socialism outside of the modern technological sector of the economy, and it is here that they have obviously failed. One the one hand it can be argued that they haven’t been able to bridge the gap between the cities and towns, designing policies which speak more to urban needs, than to the needs of communities where large parts of the state have already been stripped out by austerity, and in which communities themselves have started to take over public services. On the other hand because they haven’t been able to craft a feasible vision of economic progress which can mean something to workers in deprived areas, beyond less tangible promises around investment and development, both of which are now outside the lived-experience of most of these workers for the past three decades.
There are major issues here with the complete death of labour organisation, the atomisation of labour, as well as the growth of the algorithmic management of labour, all of which displace the typical antagonism between labour and capital. But more importantly there is also the question of how you can build a socialism around state intervention in areas where the state, apart from its penal arm, has been increasingly destroyed, and in which the destructive politics of the far-Right has more meaning than state socialism.
This isn’t then, as Gary Younge has pointed out, a question of returning to a liberal centre ground, because it can address neither points. It would rather require thinking a socialism that addresses both the modern sector as well as the, de-developing, low-skill sector, as well as the meaning of a politics focused upon the state in relation to communities which have been excluded from it.