by Philip Cunliffe
Friday, 16
December 2022
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Which party will speak for Britain’s working class?

The great dealignment has made our workers a malleable voting bloc
by Philip Cunliffe
Thousands of striking Royal Mail workers in Westminster. Credit: Getty

Limited as it is in both historic and sectoral terms, the new wave of industrial militancy is nonetheless good news for Britain. Whether it will be good news for Britain’s workers remains to be seen, depending not only on how far the strikes succeed in boosting wages but also in how they might impact working conditions this century. 

After many years of austerity and neglect, and with the remaining Covid-19 restrictions only formally ending in March 2022, the quilted pattern of strikes across the legal, transport, health, education, civil service and postal sectors show a civil society stirring back into life. More than this, it is asserting its varied corporate interests against both a decaying, over-stretched state and a political elite whose record of corruption and mismanagement appears ever more brazen


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After two years in which so many of us were confined to our homes and reduced to working solely in the ether of cyberspace, the strikes are a salutary reminder that goods, services and people cannot simply be downloaded from the Internet — they need to be produced, maintained and transported, and it requires collective work to do so. As the nurses have pointedly told us, it takes more than clapping to maintain a public health service, or indeed any service. The strikes will benefit us all if they leave us with a more vibrant, contentious and vigorous civil society, as well as a more solidaristic and representative set of industrial relations in place of the atomised workplaces that underpin the stifling rule of Human Resources bureaucrats.   

There is also the question of how these new strikes might impact political life. Two points can be noted. First, by virtue of being large representative organisations that crystallise collective interests, unions tend to cut against populism, which is frequently hostile to institutionalised forms of representation, and which usually thrives in more fragmented societies. 

The second question is how a new wave of industrial militancy interacts with an era of party dealignment, in which the major parties no longer have stable voting blocs. One of the great gains of the Brexit era has been working-class independence of the Labour Party, as symbolised by the Tories’ capture of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ constituencies in the general election of 2019. Given that the strikes will help propel the Labour Party’s glide to power in the next election, it is all the more important that unions and strikers do not let themselves be folded back into the shadow of the Labour Party — not least given the party’s stated commitment to wage war on NHS unions, a witless, blow-hard substitute for a policy of actually reforming the health service. 

After decades in which protest politics has been dominated by carnivalesque middle-class demonstrations and public life by demands for collective self-sacrifice — whether the slogan of ‘we’re all in it together’ under George Osborne or the demand to ‘save the NHS’ under Chris Whitty — it is invigorating to see ordinary people publicly asserting their own self-interest instead of retreating before some putative greater good decided from above. 

Certainly, the Tory press and tabloids are doing Starmer’s work for him by striving to drive the strikers into Labour’s arms. In an era of party dealignment, Britain’s workers remain biddable. So the question remains open: who will speak for Britain’s working class?

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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 month ago

There is a strand of thought that runs through much of the senior Labour ranks that is, frankly, embarrassed of its working class members. Emily Thornberry’s sneering ‘Van & St George’s Flag’ tweet, and Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy, were just moments that publicly laid bare a view that has been prevalent within Labour HQ for years. 
John McTernan, Blair’s advisor, put it most succinctly when he urged the party to forget about working class supporters who he dismissed as the “lumpen mass with their half-formed thoughts and fully-formed prejudices”, and instead focus on ethnic minority voters, who could be attracted to Labour by stoking their sense of grievance.
The Labour front bench of recent years, whether NuLabour centrists or dyed in the wool trots, seems to have an agenda completely at odds with the hopes, fears and aspirations of their former heartlands. Many longtime supporters now only vote for Labour out of reflex, or they’re disengaged enough to imagine that Labour is still the party it used to be.
The honest Labour pitch would be something along the lines of: “We in the North London/Guardianista wing of the PLP think the ‘notion’ of the Working Class voter is quite appealing, with his grubby face, quaint and old fashioned ideas and his naïve charm – but actually, if you ever meet any of them you realise that they don’t get what our modern Labour party is all about at all. I mean, they’re fine when they’re in their place, but lately they’ve just refused to understand that most of their values are now horribly out-dated and un-woke. You only have to see them in their vans, with their bellies and tattoos and, Blair preserve us, ENGLAND FLAGS (Yuck!!) to guess how these ghastly people voted in the referendum.
We gave them a glorious, neo-liberal, multi-cultural, globalised world and they’re just so ungrateful. They simply don’t understand what is best for them. But we know what they need and if you make me your Prime Minister, flanked by political colossi like Abbott, Raynor, Lammy and Thornberry we’re looking forward to giving it to them good and hard.” 
The trouble with too many Islington metro-fauxialists is that they hear their own opinions reflected by everyone who lives and works in the same bubble and then they act surprised when it turns out that they REALLY don’t have their finger on the pulse of what they condescendingly think of as their own constituent group of Labour supporters. Hence the Red Wall crumbled and Scottish Labour is barely a memory.
Labour deserved to lose the last election heavily. Frankly it has long needed to split into three parties. One can retain the leftist ideological purity beloved of Corbynites – and have so few MPs they can hold meetings in Jeremy’s allotment shed. The second can dance in the streets and celebrate winning seats like Putney, whilst looking down their noses at the “Red Wall” voters. …. And then there can be a third party, who can ditch the identity-politics driven, metro-left fauxialism and maybe try to champion the needs of traditional supporters. Perhaps they could be called,…. oh I don’t know, The Labour Party?  
Even if Starmer wins the election it will be more because the Tories lost it, than because Labour beat them.
 

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Take that John McTernan quote and think about it for a moment. It’s not just that they don’t like this group of people. It’s that they’ve totally given up on them and consider them beyond help or hope. No effort or thought is to be expended trying to help or educate them now.
It’s the same patronising attitude that Mathew Paris famously showed on the centre right when he wrote off places like Clacton as left-behind regions of Britain where we said should just give up and hope that anyone able would leave. And fhose left behind – well, there’s nothing we can do.
This has been going on everywhere for over 20 years. Whole regions of the UK. Entire countries in Eastern Europe stripped of young, able people. Now expanded to include Albania. An NHS business model built on importing foreign labour (without paying for the training or a second thought for the countries who lose much needed skills). It’s a sort of human asset stripping. It’s fundamentally dishonest and wrong. And giving up on opur own people ! I despise it.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Your McTernan quote reminds me of Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment or Obama’s similar “cling to guns and religion”. For that matter, it’s reminiscent of ‘let them eat cake’. When denied respect, dignity, and self-determination, people turned to simpler methods, like fear and violence. How quickly mankind forgets the lessons of history.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Jolly
Ian Price
Ian Price
1 month ago

Reform! The party’s economic policy includes lifting the income tax threshold to £20k. All the other parties regard working people with disdain.

Mike Doyle
Mike Doyle
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Price

A policy that should command support across the board.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Price

I just checked out the Reform party’s website. Gosh darn their slogan sounds familiar. Make Britain Great. Seems like I’ve heard something similar somewhere before. *wink wink* Thanks to our institutionalized two party system, it took an orange haired buffoon to flip the table on three decades of neoliberal establishment control in America. I rather envy the ease with which even smaller political parties can have an impact in your system. You folks can hopefully get the populist policy without the clown show. Leave it to the British to show America how things should be done properly.

Last edited 1 month ago by Steve Jolly
Anthony L
Anthony L
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Price

Reform has some decent, common sense policies typical of a populist party, but I’m amazed on how thin some of it is. Their growth is almost entirely accountable to their outspoken stance on immigration and Farage’s big personality. I’d be surprised if most reform supporters could name 3 of their non-immigration policies.
Not to mention, they spout some very, very questionable stats about climate change and seem to be blinkered on getting back into coal and gas.

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
1 month ago

Working Class?? Well, in my view a title of who will speak for the poorly paid would have been better.
My answer to this is no one. I am very unhappy with the way those on the lower end of pay scales have been treated for, oh, probably 30 years. The gap between high and low pay has widened hugely, probably as much due to across the board percentage salary increases as anything much.
From the tail end of Thatcher through John Major money was flying around and there were a lot of new types of jobs attracting quite high salaries. Tony Blair really wasn’t a friend of the “Working Class” preferring to bribe higher incomes with no tax rises to cover his high spending and then increase benefits (Tax credits for example) for poorer salaried workers (while opening the doors to high numbers of immigrants happy with low pay).
So, no one speaks for the poorly paid members of society. After all, they have little clout when it comes to spending. Far better to have a significant number of baristas, Van Drivers, warehouse pickers and food factory operators on minimum wage so that the rest of us (and I include myself) can benefit from lots of disposable income to give to high tech businesses and holiday companies.
At least the Conservatives have tried to up the minimum wage somewhat but, in my view, no one with a job should be paid so little that they require Working Tax Credits. I have no sympathy for those who bleat on about “having” to re-open doors to large numbers from Europe to fill some job vacancies either, pay a living, not minimum, wage!
While trickle down economics may work, the distance it needs to go down is way too far to have much benefit for those on, or near, a minimum wage.
So; politically who will speak for the Working Class? No one I can see, certainly not the present Labour, Lib Dem or Conservatives.

Peter B
Peter B
1 month ago

Strikes are not good for Britain. What utter nonsense.
The author is not even convinced himself – somehow persuading himself that the strikes are “good for Britain” whilst not necessarily good for British workers – while at the same time applauding workers for standing up for their own interests. These can’t all be true …
The assumption that all or most of the striking workers are “working class” (whatever that actually means today – I don’t use the term) is highly questionable.
The strikes are as ever about pay (reasonable) and a desire to be completely “protected from change” (unreasonable). Unions are rarely, if ever, interested in innovation and improvement – they are, in general, fundamentally conservative here.
The implication (repeated here) that the main problem in the NHS is a lack of funding is nonsense. Funding continues to increase sharply in real terms … while outcomes (results) deteriorate. The public need to wise up and stop cutting the NHS so much slack.
Nurses strikes are about pay. Not about NHS funding or reform. No more than rail strikes are about “safety”. They should at least be honest. And stick to a valid and credible case.
I see little indication that the NHS unions have any motivation or interest in reforming the health service. They’ve had decades to show intent and not done so. If the NHS could reform from within, it would have done so.

James 0
James 0
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter B

The fact that labour (small ‘l’) is beginning to reassert itself is surely a good thing for our economy, which has been lopsided in favour big business and has had little to no structural investment for decades now, so say nothing of stagnant wages which have never recovered since the financial crisis.
Any strikers will try to win public support by generalising their cause, but fundamentally it is about pay and working conditions. And unlike the 1970s, many members of the public now look to people striking in their sectoral interest and think “yeah, good for you, stick it to this ludicrous government”.
Some will argue that workers in the de-unionised private sector put up with far worse, and the public sector have it easy by comparison. My response is simply: why do you put up with it? There’s nothing inevitable about this. Join a union, withhold your labour and make your voice heard. It’s the only way those in charge will ever really listen.
(Of course, this is the main reason why many large businesses prefer immigrant labour: they’re willing to work for less, undercut domestic workers, and there’s often a language barrier so forming and joining labour unions is more difficult. Divide and conquer.)

Last edited 1 month ago by James
Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
1 month ago

An odd article – parts of which I think are so badly written they are not understandable.

There are fragments I think I might agree with, the question ‘who will speak for Britain’s working class?’ is valid – but as another unheard article this week discussed we are no longer sure who or what the British working class are any more (also discussion of ‘physical workers’ and ‘virtual workers’ as separate ‘classes’).

I see a lot of vested interests on all sides in the current wave of strikes and I suspect the poor employees in any of the striking organisations are not going to benefit in the long run whatever the outcome.

Last edited 1 month ago by Andrew Wise
Emre S
Emre S
1 month ago

Perhaps this is beginning to show the folly of these terms “working class” and “middle class” as they no longer neatly describe layers of society.
Personally, I’m beginning to see a three-way split. Those who retain a traditional view of morality (think 10 commandments) and a generally religious outlook, those who’ve adapted various forms of secular descriptions of morality including but not limited to various forms of Marxist piety such as equity/equality, diversity, concern for climate (aka the Woke), and Enlightenment advocates alongside libertarians.
Some of those who used to be called middle class (Tory) and working class (blue Labour) in the first group, seem to be merging into a single conservative group. It’ll be interesting to see if Muslims will eventually merge with this group as it seems to be sometimes happening in US.
Red Labour and left-wing professional classes unite in a left-wing alliance. I suspect there’s an overlap of decline of Christianity amongst white people in large cities and the rise of this group in the same geography. Would be interesting to see this confirmed somehow.
Finally a likely smaller group of baby boomers, disgruntled scientists, some billionaires (Musk?), members of the former elite who have refused to convert to the new Woke religion.

Last edited 1 month ago by Emre Emre
Jonas Moze
Jonas Moze
1 month ago

I almost cannot understand this guy’s writing. He just tries to cram too many different things into every sentence, each with some qualifier, till it is a jumble of word salad.

Please writer – simplify……shorten….one thought or item per sentence, do not qualify it and build on it twice per thought.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 month ago

After the red-wall seats get disillusioned with the next Labour government, you can expect to see a reconstituted Conservative Party start to swing towards representing the (small c) conservative wishes more common in the lower paid groups.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ian Barton