He doesn't care about female knowledge workers (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

June 22, 2022   7 mins

The Tories’ women problem is back. Polling suggests that Labour are on track to win over 17% of the women who voted Tory in 2019, but barely 3% of men. But it seems unlikely that this shift is a consequence of the two sex scandals that precipitated this week’s by-elections — after all, tutting at sexual indiscretion is more a feature among conservatives than today’s “sex-positive” progressives.

A report published last weekend sheds light: the female drift away from conservatism is  structural and is a worldwide trend. The authors offer some speculation as to why, such as the need for state-subsidised childcare since we entered the workplace. But this is to see things backwards. It’s not so much that women are becoming more progressive, as that progress is leaving men behind.

If the Unabomber declared in the manifesto he sent to the New York Times and Washington Post in 1995 that “the Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race”, we’re now some decades out of the industrial era and into the “information age” — a much more asymmetrical disaster, whose principal weight has been borne by working-class men. Meanwhile, the Left that once stood up for those men has been colonised by a female-heavy new class of knowledge worker, that wields progressivism as a means of legitimating its interests. And the implications of this change reach well beyond the Tories’ electoral prospects with female voters.

In the smoking rubble of the Second World War’s aftermath, a new dream took hold: cleaner, safer and more modern than the industrial one. Post-industrial “knowledge societies” would be governed by rules-based internationalism; manufacturing could happen anywhere, and what mattered was ideas and innovation. In 1963, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson told the country that a new Britain was rising, and would prosper in the “white heat” of scientific revolution. Wilson wrote later that his speech’s aim had been to “replace the cloth cap [with] the white laboratory coat as the symbol of British labour”.

This post-war push from an industrial to a knowledge base created new opportunities for women. For while men are, on average, considerably physically stronger than women, and as such more likely to be able to perform heavy industrial work, an economy that’s more geared toward desk-based work places no such constraints on the sex of employees.

And this, in turn, reshaped the Left. As a movement born out of 19th-century trade unionism, and premised on the power of working-class people to exact better pay and conditions from their bosses through collective action, the industrial Left’s relation to women was historically ambivalent. Speaking in 1875, for example, TUC secretary Henry Broadhurst declared that the aim of trade unionism was a situation “where wives and daughters would be in their proper sphere at home, instead of being dragged into competition for livelihood against the great and strong men of the world”. Even in 1906, many within the Labour Party argued that including women in the demand for universal suffrage would weaken their cause.

But de-industrialisation levelled the employment playing-field between men and women. From the mid-century onward, these changes combined with a flood of new consumer technologies that eased the previously arduous work of housekeeping, and medical ones that meant women could enjoy an active sex life with minimal risk of pregnancy. Thus liberated by technology, women demanded the right to seize those opportunities on the same terms as men — and second-wave feminism was born.

Between 1964 and 1970 women accounted for 70% of new trade union members; today, women make up a majority of trade unionists. This then accelerated with deliberate de-industrialisation under Thatcher, aimed at breaking the power of the unions. Wakefield, site of one of tomorrow’s by-elections, illustrates this shift: once the home of the physically arduous and thus male-dominated mining industry, the city’s biggest single field of employment is now health, which makes no such physical demands.

Women also flocked to the universities: the proportion of female undergraduates increased sharply over the same decade, and by 1979 women outstripped men in the US as a proportion of undergraduates. It took until 2010 for women to outnumber men at university in the UK, but similar trends hold in most developed-world economies.

And with women making up a growing proportion of academia, it’s hardly surprising that the political interests of an increasingly female-heavy class of knowledge worker should begin to make their presence felt there too. It was in the Sixties that the New Left began to shift the focus of progressive politics away from labour issues in the industrial sense, toward civil rights, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights. This, too, represented a turn away from the “cloth cap” as an emblem of the industrial worker. But the New Left’s direction of travel was less toward lab coats than mortarboards and black polo-necks: a colonisation of the academy and commanding heights of culture, characterised in the Sixties by the German activist Rudi Dutschke as “the long march through the institutions”.

So it’s not so much that women became more Left-wing. Rather, material conditions made sex less salient for participation in public life, and women responded accordingly — all the while framing these changes as “progress” in an absolute sense.

But so what? Why shouldn’t women participate in public life when technology opens those opportunities? Here I am, after all. Well, the other side of this picture is the concurrent relative decline in prospects for men. ONS data shows that the past 40 years have seen rising employment for women and falling employment for men: in 1971, 53% of women were in work, compared with 72% today, while the percentage for men has fallen from 92% to 76%.

And these downsides have not been evenly distributed. Men still dominate the highest-paid professions, giving elite knowledge-class women plenty to grumble about. It’s easy to get fixated on “gender pay gaps” and the paucity of female CEOs (just 8% in the FTSE100). But if we’re only looking at the top of the food chain, it’s easy to forget that the picture is more complicated further down.

House of Commons research shows that manufacturing’s share of the UK economy declined from 27% in 1970 to around 10% by 2018, and that the value of this share has stayed the same over that period. But the number of employees in the sector has fallen dramatically, thanks to greater automation and other increases in productivity. That is: in absolute terms the number of (physically arduous, traditionally male) manufacturing jobs has declined dramatically.

The same picture is replicated across UK employment: sectors such as agriculture, forestry, construction and logistics have declined or grown only slowly in the past 25 years. Meanwhile, other less physically demanding working-class employment sectors such as public administration, education and health grew significantly. The three biggest UK employers are now supermarkets (where some 800,000 women work as sales assistants, compared with 500,000 men), hospitals (where 77% of NHS staff are women), and charities (where 70% of employees are women). In other words, the high-tech dwindling of brute strength as a desirable characteristic in employees maps onto a concurrent rise in female economic and political power.

The impact of this shift in the balance of power is not evenly distributed — and where it lands, it can be severe. Working-class men are at 44% higher risk of suicide than other demographics, and talk of the “crisis in masculinity” is everywhere in journalism and academia.

So is this all women’s fault? No: the decline in opportunities for working-class men isn’t a malign feminist conspiracy, but rather an effect of technological developments. It makes little sense to blame women as a sex for structural material changes that have disadvantaged working-class men. But it makes a great deal of sense to point the finger at knowledge-workers as a class for their efforts to wave away externalities, via a self-righteous ideology that often flies under the banner of feminism.

In the UK, only seven current Labour Party MPs of either sex have working-class backgrounds. And despite its historic origins in the labour movement, there seem to be no overt Labour Party measures, such as candidate shortlists, seeking to address this — for example by prioritising working-class people, let alone working-class men. Labour does, however, have all-women shortlists.

And where there’s a conflict of interest between the two groups, progressive arguments often seem to end up legitimating the interests of women. Think about the progressive argument for remaining in the EU (heavily endorsed by almost all in the Labour Party). Then think about who benefited materially from EU free movement, and who lost out: knowledge-class women could employ au pairs, while skilled tradesmen (a sector that’s over 90% male) got cut-throat competition.

We may already be seeing a male-inflected backlash to this unhappy dynamic in the USA. In 2016, sex politics and class politics seemed to converge: men, people without degrees, and those for whom the modern economy wasn’t delivering skewed sharply for Trump. It’s possible that these demographics also skewed sharply against that quintessence of knowledge-class progressivism, Hillary Clinton.

A long way from its roots in the labour movement, progressivism has become a story knowledge-class women tell about why their material interests are good in an absolute moral sense. And once you believe that, you can say with perfect conviction that anyone opposing my class interests is an enemy of progress, and thus is by definition a fascist. And faced with this accusation, we may have difficulty persuading working-class men not to turn their ire, frustration and resentment on women — especially while economic shifts that feel like disastrous decline continue to be narrated by the progressive Left as feminist progress.

And having been so resoundingly abandoned by Labour, working-class men are sorely in need of political representation. So, too, are those women who don’t see their interests reflected in elite progressivism. It’s difficult to imagine the Tories filling this gap — but a party (any party) that worried less about how to court elite knowledge workers and set out to defend the interests of labourers, tradesmen and other dealers in matter rather than knowledge would be welcome news to many voters. This is the tack now being adopted by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley in the US, a vision of “levelling up” explicitly directed at defending working-class men against those who would class their priorities and perspectives as “deplorable”.

Hawley’s suggestions include re-shoring industries, financial support for marriage and families and cracking down on university-driven talk of “toxic masculinity”. Whether that would make enough (or any) meaningful difference is moot; I can only imagine the outrage it would occasion (as it did in America), particularly from progressive women. But I doubt I’m the only woman who would rather this than an escalating militant, macho, jack-booted backlash, powered by working-class rage and served with a side-order of embittered misogyny.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.