It was a straightforward political point. “Labour comes out in favour of keeping free movement – an utter betrayal of traditional working-class people, the majority of whom oppose it and voted to end it in the referendum. The party will pay a heavy, but deserved, price for this at the ballot box.” This was my tweet after Labour had declared its support for the Common Market 2.0 proposal earlier this week.
Cue hordes of offendotrons, utterly certain that my use of the term “traditional” was really a euphemism for “white”.
Leading the charge was ‘literal communist’ Ash Sarkar, who fulminated:
“‘Traditional working-class’ jesus fucking christ Paul, just say ‘white’ with ya whole chest.”
Others from the woke Left quickly joined the fray.
My critics were, of course, unwittingly betraying their own deep prejudice. Did they really believe that the term ‘traditional working class’ by definition excluded all those without white skin – such as, say, the thousands of Commonwealth immigrants who arrived here over half a century ago and found work in manual industries or our public services? Apparently they did.
It’s true that the term is not especially tightly defined. Nonetheless, so extensively has it been used over the years in political discourse and throughout the media – including by Left-wingers such as the Guardian’s Owen Jones – as well as wider society, it is fair to argue that it is broadly understood to refer to that social group which is older; often politically tribal; either currently or at least once employed in blue-collar labour; and usually located in the post-industrial areas of Britain, though prevalent in rural and coastal communities too.
This group is rooted, patriotic, communitarian in outlook, often holding small ‘c’ conservative views on social and cultural issues. As with all social classes in the UK, it is mainly white, but certainly not exclusively so.
The results of a BBC class survey in 2013 showed that 9% of this group came from an ethnic minority background, only slightly lower than the total percentage of the UK’s ethnic minority population at the time.
So what level of audacity does it take to suggest that these individuals do not in fact qualify for membership of this social group by dint of their colour? Consider the inspiring Asian women of the 1970s Grunwick dispute, or the black activists who organised the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, or the other historical struggles in which ethnic minority campaigners have played a key role. What are these workers and activists if not part of our traditional working class?
It is certainly true that these struggles were shunned by some sections of the working-class at the time. In the case of the Bristol bus boycott, the Transport and General Workers’ Union was shamefully complicit in discriminating against black drivers – but that doesn’t make those engaged in the struggle any less a part of the traditional working class, nor does it mean that we should join the efforts to exclude them from it.
I dare my opponents to speak to my own in-laws, who landed in Britain on a plane from Calcutta back in the 1960s. My late father-in-law, a deckhand in the Indian Merchant Navy as a young man, spent the rest of his working life in the UK as a sheet metal worker and raised his family in a council home in pre-gentrification Hackney. Tell any of them that they do not meet the criteria for membership of Britain’s traditional working-class, and you’d get short shrift.
When some on the Left argue that the term ‘traditional working-class’ is obscure or divisive or racist and should therefore be ditched, what they are really demonstrating, unintentionally, is their own hidden contempt for this group. They would rather it didn’t exist at all in the form it does.
They think its members are ‘nativist’ and reactionary and – God forbid – voted to leave the European Union. Because, you see, the group-thinkers and virtue-signallers and woke liberals and quasi-Marxists and echo-chamber-dwellers who comprise so much of the modern Left believe themselves to be Inherently Better People than those of us from the more traditional Left. We are Gillian Duffy and White Van Man of Rochester – ripe for votes, but not fit to be seen in public with.
It is this patronising mindset that compels them to assume that ethnic minority voters cannot possibly be in favour of Brexit or opposed to free movement. Yet research shows that around a third of ethnic minority voters supported Leave, and that many of these, particularly the older generation, were hostile to free movement, not least because they considered it unfair that prospective migrants from outside the EU – in many cases, people like themselves – faced bigger hurdles in coming to the UK than did those from inside it.
Sure, the working class is forever altering, and it is fair to argue that the traditional working class isn’t necessarily representative of the working-class generally. Indeed, a consequence of our rapidly-changing economy and society over recent years – and the subject of an insightful book by Claire Ainsley – has been the emergence of a new working class.
This group is younger, heavily represented in the service sector, often in precarious employment and on a low income, less politically tribal and more culturally diverse. It is unquestionably an integral part of today’s working class and should command the attention of those of us in the labour movement.
But, in electoral terms, Labour already has much of this vote in the bag. It is also true to say that this new working class is not as marginalised or ostracised politically, socially or culturally to the same degree as is the traditional working class, and it is thus the latter whom Labour should be moving heaven and Earth to reconnect with.
Labour has haemorrhaged support among the traditional working class in recent years. In the 2017 general election, there was a swing to the Tories in some of its post-industrial heartlands of the north and Midlands, and the party lost working-class strongholds such as Stoke-on-Trent South, Mansfield and Walsall North. Post-election polling even saw the Tories take a lead among the working-class C2DEs. Sixty-one per cent of Labour constituencies voted Leave, as did 35 of the 45 seats in England and Wales which Labour must take if it is to win an election.
At a time when the traditional working class has never felt so disillusioned with Labour, the party’s support for policies such as free movement, which did so much to alienate this group in the first place, will do nothing to win them back. Whatever their skin colour.