Monday, 7 September 2009

Changing Britain, changing politics?

I meant to post this a few days ago but I had a piece on the Demos Open Left website on the changing nature of modern Britain and what it means for politics. My conclusion was that we need a pluralistic approach to politics instead of pitching to the median voter- sorry Worcester Woman.

However, from the perspective of the left this does not mean that there are no parameters. We need to understand those parameters alongside a rethink about what the left will mean in the next decade or two.

The article concludes:
This can’t become some exercise in tracking the median voter and designing party programmes to simply appeal to the successors of Worcester Woman alone. The next left must be broad based and pluralistic. The traditional working-class is diminished and fragmented. It cannot be taken for granted anymore. Any programme with social justice by definition must embody an ethos of helping the least advantaged.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm has said: “The European left relied on a working class that no longer exists in its old form, and in order to recover it will need to find a new constituency.” Well, we can agree with that as long as the new constituency has a place for this metamorphosed working class.

The political debate and discussion has proceeded at a furious pace on the left over recent months. It must have context. That context is an understanding of a Britain that has changed considerably even since Labour came to power. In so doing, the future path of the left will not be in any way determined. However, at least it won’t be wandering unaided in the dark.
My stint on LabourList continues. Today I've put up great posts by Rowenna Davis on the gender pay gap, Will Straw on the need for Labour to put the environment at the centre of its politics, and Morys Ireland on whether movement politics is dead in the wake of reports that Conservative membership has fallen by 25% since David Cameron became leader.


  1. Hobshawm was wrong, sadly.

    There's still a working class. They're the people whose surplus labour is skimmed, whether or not they define themselves as worknig class. Most don't, either because of middle class aspiration, or because the've never worked.

    The challenge is not to adopt a more plural politics, but to redescribe what it is to be working class in a way the working class can identify with.

  2. I guess now I should make some reference to false consciousness.

    Your definition would apply to anyone who doesn't have ownership over their means of production- almost everyone.....

    The problem is in political terms, it doesn't work anymore to appeal to that large group as a homogenous whole. So what's needed is a degree of understanding modern Britain socio-demographically. If the left doesn't, then it will be irrelevant. But that is a very different thing from saying that the next Labour party must be a reincarnation of new Labour. That particular conclusion doesn't follow.

  3. Interesting debate emerging here, Anthony. I'm no suggesting for a second that we don't appreciate chaging socio-demographics, but I am suggesting that we appreciate those change by setting them in the context of objective material interests rather than relativising everything in sight. That was the mistake of the left in the 1980s.

    If you'll bear with me, I'll cover this in detail in a post to come shortly.



  4. I think there's been a big shift in the last 100 years from discussing the working classes to discussing the working class. Even on analytical level. And this is extremely unhelpful.

    Defining a working class as one which does not own the means of productions is very useful, and probably the most accurate way of doing so. However, it is not necessarily the most useful when discussing a subject, analysing a situation or planning a course of action.

    Different working classes may not have interesting which are aligned with one another. For example, in the early 19th century the hand loom weaving industry was flooded with new labour which suppressed wages. The weavers agitated for protection, ther best interest was not in the interest of the portion of the working classes which was currently out of work. However, if more sections of the working classes of the time had pulled together everyones lot may have been improved.

    When it comes to political strategy it has to be made clear to the working classes that although individually action may not be in their interests, collectively it is. This would even be true for the "middle" working classes.

  5. LO

    That's a useful feed in to debate, and I like the shorthand distinction between working class and working classes. Certainly i think this whole area of what it is to be working class, and according to whom (hegemonic discourse of what class is and all that) has been underdeveloped in last few years, so I look forward to engaging on it.

  6. Is the problem not that while class may be a significant determinant of life opportunities, it is not such a significant aspect of identity?

    Is this not one of the (foreseen) outcomes of twentieth century social democracy- that the consequence of class weakens as social conditions improve? (It is not eliminated, the consequences are just less severe.)

    So in terms of constructing a democratic- or even a revolutionary- political movement of justice, that shift and fragmentation of identity must be acknowledged. What do someone who is long-term unemployed, someone who is a worker in a factory/ call centre/ warehouse, a low pay public sector worker, a member of an ethnic minority in an inner city, or a self-employed plumber or van driver, have in common?

    Well, as Paul suggests rather more than they care to think. However, in political terms, they may well make- and do make- very different political decisions as they perceive their place in the world differently. Is it not the function of the left to find where there is common ground amongst them to advance justice further rather than try to construct a new over-arching class identity?

    And I too like the notion of working classes- which in fairness is where Hobsbawm was coming form.....

  7. Yes, that's where Hobshawm was coming from, but the conclusions he reaches are not the ones I get to from the same 'data'.