How Corbyn Lost the Working Class: Robbing Peter to Pay Sebastian

One thing that has gone unnoticed in the braying triumphalism of the Corbynites’ post-election love-in is that Labour lost the working class vote: socioeconomic groups C2DE voted Conservative ahead of Labour by 12 points. Far from being on the cusp of electoral glory, Labour has suffered a historic estrangement from its core constituency which will likely preclude its gaining power for the foreseeable future. 

How could this have happened? How did Labour, who offered so much in the way of benefits, lose among this class? The key to understanding this is to realise that it is both a mistake and a myth to think that Labour offered benefits for everyone: their blandishments were of a distinctly middle class flavour – like an After Eight – and were only made possible by taking away what it could offer the working class. Labour’s politics often get depicted as robbing Peter to pay Paul, though a better way to characterise this would be robbing Peter to pay Sebastian. It is no coincidence that while it lost the working class vote it picked up the middle class vote, socioeconomic groups ABC1, by 12 points.

Consider free tuition. By making tuition free we are compelling someone who has not received the benefit of an education – someone who is more likely to be of humble station if social mobility is anywhere near as bad as we are led to believe (and it is) – subsidise the education of someone who is in most cases of higher social provenance. One could argue that access to higher education being tied to class is a function of increased tuition fees inhibiting participation and so lifting these will benefit poorer people. However, that assumes that the poor would wish to go into higher education – not everyone does – and would actually benefit from going to university. As poorer people are less likely to receive the grades to get into elite higher education institutions, the latter proposition is not at all self-evident. If we were able to make secondary education produce more egalitarian outcomes it would make more sense to make tuition free, but at the moment to do so would lead to a subsidisation of a middle class lifestyle.

The argument is often made that free tuition will benefit society as a whole because the recipient will pay higher taxes. However we know that higher education often does not lead to a higher wages and tax fields. In which case, what would the person who has not gone to university have benefitted from? Why should they pay for the middle class’ roll of the dice? As most of the benefit will accrue to the recipient it is only fair that some contribution be made. After all it is the working class in the form of taxes which will have to pay for the course if the prospective increase in tax yields does not cover it. In other words, the risk is socialised and the profits privatised which is hardly very equitable.

Labour’s opposition to the Dementia Tax was also more on behalf of the middle class than the working class. The mere suggestion that a property owner use their capital over £100,000 to pay for any care they receive – the same as someone with savings – was enough to cause Labour to clutch its collective pearls. Prithee, what other purpose would that money have for someone at such advanced age than to be transferred as unearned income to the next generation thereby solidifying class privilege? And as such does it not make more sense that this be used so that finite NHS resources go towards those who need it? What a strange world when a Conservative government makes a proposal which would have the effect of mitigating the transfer of class privilege – inheritance – and it is Labour who protest this. Instead it is somehow more fair for the tax payer to maintain the inheritance of the middle class.

Now the tone that I have taken could be seen as very stingy. Why begrudge the middle class their share of assistance. I can certainly see the political and strategic benefit in having the middle class as stakeholders in the welfare state. But while plenty of resources were found for the middle class, what was offered for the working class? Slim pickings it turns out. Of the £9 billion in welfare cuts announced in 2015 by then Chancellor George Osbourne, and which were so ardently inveighed against by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto undertook to reverse just £2 billion.

We also need to consider the cultural components of this great estrangement. Corbyn’s reflexive anti-patriotism while very right-on for segments of the middle class is simply a non-starter for much of the working class. It is not that he possesses a healthy scepticism of nationalism and does not sing the national anthem, but that he sides against British interests at every opportunity seeing them as imperialistic almost by definition. This is something that he shares in common with his director of communications, Seamus Milne. His stated desire to ultimately cede Northern Ireland is not unreasonable, until you place it alongside his also wanting to share the Falklands with Argentina despite their never having possessed it. Self-determination never enters into the calculation when there is an opportunity to give Britain a bloody nose. When he stated that he would endeavour to keep Gibraltar British, what would otherwise have been an unexceptional statement from virtually any other head of a political party became a legitimate news event: Corbyn standing up for British territorial integrity.

The people whom he puts into positions of authority also do little to endear Labour to the working class. Having politicians like Emily Thornberry in the Shadow Cabinet with multiple roles plays up to the perception that Labour holds them in contempt. Brexit was a cry by the working class for recognition of its culture and identity, the projected baleful economic consequences be damned. National identity may mean nothing more to mobile young professionals who define themselves by sophisticated hobbies and occupations than a dangerous detritus swept up from an arbitrary past, but to parts of the working class it is their touchstone. When Emily Thornberry tweets her disdain for the white van man who puts the St George’s flag up outside his house, she encapsulates why for many Labour no longer speaks for it.

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Labour, spendthrift but not socialist, won over the middle class by proposing that the working class, for which it has ostensibly shown little respect, effectively subsidise its lifestyle. As it turned out the working class had different ideas and decided to dissent.

What is the significance of this, though? After all, in the past parties have become unmoored from their base and shipped themselves to new constituencies. In the United States during the 1960s, for example, the Democrat Party alienated its southern strongholds by implementing civil rights for minorities who they would then rely on instead. The Republicans responded by moving into the old southern Democrat constituencies with their infamous Southern Strategy. Given that the Tories also lost their traditional middle class stronghold maybe what has occurred is a similar swapping of places – think a political Freaky Friday? Unfortunately Labour cannot count on this new base. The Conservative Party will not make the same mistake of allowing itself to be outgunned in its key constituency again. Consider the Dementia Tax an own goal – sure, this is wonderfully convenient but you cannot count on your opponents doing this each game. Also Labour will become a lot less appealing to vote for from a middle class perspective when they are seen as a realistic government in waiting rather than a way to stick it to the Tories. Corbyn to his credit seems aware of this, hence his enforcing the whip on triggering article 50 and leaving the single market to ingratiate himself with the working class in spite of any offence this might give to middle class remainers. This is a start, but not something he will be able to beat the Conservatives on who of course started the process and at least speak roughly the same language as the working class.

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3 thoughts on “How Corbyn Lost the Working Class: Robbing Peter to Pay Sebastian

  1. As an ex steelworker now working for the NHS I find this article to be no more than reactionary guff. Your argument applied applied to the NHS, “why should I pay for someone else’s care” would end a free health service for the working class. And if you see a flag of St George drapped off a house does the author of this blog really assume the householder will be a natural Labour voter and member of a Trade Union?

    The man with which I shared a train going to Rotherham who was shouting “I would kill all muslims” and “fucking Pakis” was probably working class but the sun definately did not shine out of his arse.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      This is not reactionary at all. On the contrary I am critiquing policies as being essentially regressive – that is transferring wealth away from the working class to the middle class.

      Your liking free health care to free Higher Education is a bit off. Free Higher Education is not a need in the same way as health care is. Also as I established in the article, middle class people are far more likely to draw on Higher Education than the working class; whereas the working class are more likely to use the NHS. It is better to fund something they use, no? Maybe if Corbyn actually made some hard choices he could have allocated more funds to it.

      • When I was ‘finished’ at British Steel I eventually ended up retraining to work as an ODP (Anaesthetic Technician) in NHS operating theatres. I was paid a wage whilst training albeit a small one. As of next year ODP’s and Nurses will have to find £9,000 a year for 3 years to fund their own training. Most of the current intake, who don’t pay, are from I would guess to be a working class background.

        Most ‘shop floor’ ODP and Nurse jobs fit neatly into the category of ‘skilled working class’, with at my hospital a high rate of union membership and a record of supporting strike action to defend pensions and pay.

        Your argument is indeed reactionary as it accepts that there is a limited amount of money, that the sons and daughters of workers neither need nor want access to higher education and ultimately is in favour of the ‘status quo’.

        Free education should be a right for all, not just those who can afford to pay.

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