Sound familiar? (DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

August 31, 2023   4 mins

Has Keir Starmer traded in his barrister’s wig for a hammer and sickle? He certainly seems keen for voters to think so, with his repeated pledges to smash “the class ceiling”. The “project” of Labour, Comrade Starmer believes, is to return the party “to the service of working people and working-class communities”, seemingly blind to the fact that Labour has travelled so far from its working-class roots that there is no going back.

We have good reason to be sceptical of Starmer’s attempts to wave the red flag. The thinness of his commitment to working-class interests is demonstrated by his record. It was Starmer, after all, who played a key role in Labour’s disastrous attempt to please everyone and no one by courting supporters of a People’s Vote, ignoring the Red Wall’s steadfast desire to leave the European Union. It didn’t matter that, as an institution, one of the EU’s key purposes was to prevent member states from upturning their economies — precisely what Corbyn’s nationalisation plans, which Starmer signed up to, needed to do. Nor did it matter that the EU boasts a proud history of enforcing anti-union legislation.

Since then, like a good lawyer rather than a good working-class boy, Starmer has revelled in playing both sides — assuring businesses of his “economic competence” while also talking uncomfortably about the needs of the working class. This past weekend, his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, promised that a Labour government would rule out increases in taxes on capital gains and top rates of income. The week before, Labour’s national policy forum attempted to win the hearts of corporate leaders by diluting pledges to strengthen workers’ rights.

This is the essence of Starmerism: a commitment to fiscal discipline that doesn’t scratch, let alone smash, his “class ceiling”. As Steve Hall and Simon Winlow argue in The Death of the Left, “Labour seems even more liberal and metrocentric than it was under Corbyn.” Just wave the flag, tell some anecdotes about your working-class father, and surely no one will notice.

Except that, when they look a bit closer, voters surely will. Consider Starmer’s much-vaunted “Five Missions”, the last of which — “break down the barriers to opportunity at every stage” — is little more than a rehashing of Blair’s behavioural managerialism. Teach people “resilience”, “emotional intelligence” and… “oracy”? That’ll do it. New Labour also demonstrated a strong commitment to reforming working-class behaviours. Regulate daily life, interfere with what people say, do and think, and, somehow, some way, that “class ceiling” will just melt away.

There used to be so much more to it than this. At the turn of the 20th century, the Labour Party emerged out of workers’ attempts to organise as a formidable political force. They weren’t constrained by condescending talk of a “class ceiling”, but saw an entire world for the taking. As Martin Hagglund puts it in This Life, in 1912, a 33-year-old German miner with eight children could describe his involvement in the labour movement thus: “[It] enriches me and all my friends through the glowing light of recognition. We understand that we are no longer the anvil but rather the hammer that forms the future of our children, and that feeling is worth more than gold.” It was this realisation that pushed workers’ parties across Europe towards political power — the recognition that their work built countries and made them run. Contained in this is the core of a working class constituted as a political subject. It is about more than money and “getting ahead”. It is about being a political subject capable of directing everything from the shipyard to the seeming arcane throws of the economy.

At the same time, however, the British labour movement has always been characterised by a tension between a philanthropic faction, which grew out of Methodism and saw social reform as a moralising mission, and a second, grittier faction that grew out of the working class itself. As Hall and Winlow relate, this was a conflict between middle-class socialists motivated by charitable desires to help the poorest and those who thought “philanthropy should play no part in the movement”. It wasn’t about feeding the hungry and giving beds to the homeless, but rather “creating a new economy and society in which charity wasn’t needed”.

This tension is perhaps best exemplified by the role of the temperance movement in the early Labour Party. A product of the more religious elements of the progressive middle class, they saw ridding poorer communities of the scourge of alcohol as a key step in improving their lot. This mission clashed with those who wished to be more pragmatic, recognising the role of the pub in social life and the importance of alcohol for relaxation after exhausting working days. These positions also matched an existing split within the working class itself, between the more “respectable” elements who valued public morality and the bawdier factions who enjoyed drink, sport and straight-talk. Yet, for the most part, it was recognised that foregrounding temperance and associated moral reforms was a losing political battle.

This division, of course, has always been about more than alcohol. It is between those who wish to oversee the working class and its problems and those who wish to represent the working class and move beyond its problems. It is a tension between the working class as objects and as subjects. And, in the therapeutic language that adorns his Five Missions, Starmer has shown that he’s uneasy with moving fully from the former to the latter. For him, the real barrier to working class advancement is their own behaviour and outlook. Like the temperance advocate, we must “protect them from themselves”. Here, it is not a collective project to better society that matters, but rather a shoring-up of each individual’s will and resilience to confront the world as it is — unchangeable and fixed. There is no alternative. Sound familiar?

But in clumsily trying to walk Labour back to its working-class roots, Starmer has wound up lost in their labyrinth. He has learned nothing from the failures of 2019, wherein trying to please everyone — now including business technocrats — meant that everyone was thoroughly disgruntled. Comrade Starmer has figured out that the material reality of working people is important, but mistakenly thinks that’s all that counts. Yes, material comfort is important, but the working class always jostles between hardship and comfort. And it can endure a great deal of hardship if it is doing so for a project whose pathway it is directing.

Ashley Frawleyis a sociologist, a columnist at Compact and COO of Sublation Media.