“We need to embed ourselves in the communities we seek to represent, but also deliver for them. The only way to do this is to win the argument for transformational change and build a movement through community organising”
“They have nowhere else to go”. So said Peter Mandelson about working class voters, especially those based in the North of England.
There was a conscious effort to reorientate the Party towards “aspirational” southern voters, starting with a Fabian Pamphlet published in 1992 called “Southern Discomfort”. It wasn’t necessary to abandon working class voters. What was needed was a unifying strategy which brought together blue collar and white collar workers.
Unsurprisingly, this political strategy summarised in Mandelson’s words has not stood the test of time: between 1997 and 2005 Labour lost 5 million voters in working class communities.
As I have written before in my pamphlet “Northern Discomfort”, large numbers of working people felt like the Labour Party was no longer their party. Nor was it a party which would deliver for their communities the transformational economic changes which were needed – and still are.
Brexit may have compounded certain aspects of the decline in working class support for Labour, but the trend was already underway far before the referendum. I have written extensively on how Labour needs to reorientate itself towards the communities our Party was founded in, but the case which I have made has often been ignored.
The Party is facing a moment of real danger. With working class support for Labour in the polls currently 19 points behind the Conservatives at the time of writing. This is important not just because of principle. Although the principle that we are for all working people on grounds of social justice remains as strong as ever.
But equally, if we are to gain a majority again, it is essential to win back working class support in order to win the next general election.
So it is refreshing to see that across the Atlantic, there is work being done to refocus progressive parties’ priorities on working class communities. A collaboration between Jacobin Magazine, YouGov and the newly formed Center for Working Class Politics has produced a rigorous study of the attitudes which 2000 working class voters in swing states have towards candidates standing for election.
Showing how radical policies and populist language can appeal to working class voters, the study found that there is a story left parties can tell that is both progressive and electorally successful.
Voters preferred candidates who used ‘progressive populist’ rhetoric and vocabulary that was universalist, focused on class exploitation, inequality and economic issues. However, they were turned off by those candidates who used what they’ve termed ‘Woke Progressive’ rhetoric.
Although these findings are embedded in the American political experience, there is much which is relevant to the British context. Whilst not as comprehensive, there are some pieces of research which paint a similar picture.
YouGov here in Britain polled so-called “Red Wall” constituencies in April 2021. They found that red wall voters are not at all more conservative than the rest of the country. For example, there is huge support for public services and taxing the wealthy more among working class voters. They didn’t trust bosses to treat them fairly and they didn’t trust most of the political class.
It is true that radical economic policies are popular here in the UK – in 2019 Yougov found that the policies in the 2019 Labour manifesto were appealing to voters. For example, the majority of working class voters supported policies such as bringing the railways back into public ownership. There was also more support for nationalising gas and energy companies than among middle class voters.
The central point to pick up from the new research in America is that radical economic policy platforms need to be couched in populist language in order to resonate. In 2017, the Labour slogan “For the Many Not the Few” did exactly this and the party received the highest share of the popular vote since 1997.
As National Campaign Coordinator, I commissioned private polling on such populist slogans. For example, strap lines like “the dice are loaded from the start against too many hard working people” were very popular in so-called red wall areas.
However, the message bearer is also crucial. According to the new study, American working class voters prefer working class candidates. When asked to choose between their preferred occupations for candidates, being a construction worker is more popular than being a CEO. Rural and small-town respondents viewed progressive populism more favorably than other candidate messaging.
The study mirrors some of the feedback compiled in a report I co-produced with No Holding Back called “The Challenge for Labour” last year. Many people we spoke to during the composition of this report felt that Labour had turned their backs on working people and that many “perceive Labour to be a middle class liberal Party not in touch with working class people.”
One of the reasons for this sentiment was the fact that Labour candidates have often not come from the community they seek to represent and have instead been “parachuted” into seats. One person in our report said “We can’t have people parachuted in; we need to build up communities. We need to be relevant in people’s lives.”
Polling suggests that over a third of working class voters believe that the Labour Party is too close to people from a prosperous and privileged background. Around two thirds of Labour Party members are from middle class backgrounds, concentrated in the South of England and London, so the perception is perhaps understandable.
To be clear, we do not begrudge middle class members at all. They are obviously a core part of Labour’s historic coalition along with working communities. However, there has been an asymmetry in focus for much too long which has been hugely detrimental to Labour electorally.
Here in the UK, we can learn from the trends seen in Rust Belt America. Essentially it is the same phenomenon which progressive parties in developed countries are experiencing across the globe. And to overcome it we need to embed ourselves in the communities we seek to represent, but also deliver for them. The only way to do this is to win the argument for transformational change and build a movement through community organising which is no longer removed and remote.