Let’s stop mourning the old, white working class

This is a very important thread by Luke Pagarani on Twitter (also see below). If we are to understand how the right managed to attract so many voters from traditional Labour constituencies, we first need to acknowledge the huge appeal that racist, xenophobic and nationalist discourse has on white, older working class voters.

This is not a uniquely British problem. In all North/Western-European countries social democracy has lost this part of its traditional support base to the extreme right (to new parties, or to classical parties who have gradually articulated a more explicitly racist discourse).

The question is whether the Left should invest in regaining the support of this particular group. The only way to do this (or so it appears to me) is by either tacitly accepting or explicitly endorsing similar views on migration, diversity, gender equality, etc.

This strategy is pursued for instance by the Danish Social Democrats. And it appears to me that some Leftist centrists in the UK are already starting to advocate a similar approach. Let there be no mistake about it: it is both strategically flawed and morally unacceptable.

It is strategically flawed because it is not this traditional support base of the old Left where the potential for new mass mobilisation and political engagement can be found. Paul Mason put it really well in his recent analysis of the electoral catastrophe:

“A worldview that sees low-skilled, older manual workers in smashed ex-industrial towns like Leigh as somehow more influential in our politics than the impoverished multi-ethnic population of Coventry, is going to be severely disoriented amid 21st-century capitalism.”

Moreover, by either tacitly or explicitly endorsing a nationalist discourse the Left will effectively abandon those who need and deserve its support more than anyone else: a newly emerging, poor, precarious, super-diverse and transnational (sub)urban class.

One may refer to this group as a new “working class” in the sense that they have nothing but their labour to sell. But they do so in conditions that are not necessarily better or worse, but different from the ones that led to the emergence of the traditional, white working class.

These conditions are characterised by globalisation and migration, austerity and neoliberalism, climate change, digitisation, and the precarisation of everyday life and work. This group will not be interpellated by any traditional Leftist and/or nationalist discourse.

Rather than to curry favour to a dying-out generation of white, predominantly male, low-skilled workers – who (let’s face it) have always been susceptible to racist and traditionalist views, the Left should now try to rethink who it is THEY want to stand for in the 21st century.

So, dear comrades, let’s stop mourning the old, white working class. A new lower class is emerging, and they have nothing to lose but poverty, precarity, austerity, racism, nationalism, and patriarchy.

Mathijs van de Sande

(This article was originally a thread on Twitter.)

The thread by Luke Pagarani

I did around 120 hours of canvassing in London, Bedford and Milton Keynes. I didn’t expect this result but here’s how I can make sense of it from what I encountered on the doorstep.

The age differential was stark. Of course many of the older people I spoke to were polite and pleasant but 100% of the people who were rude and hostile were 50-80 years old. All of the oldest (>80) and younger (<40) voters were polite, whomever they were voting for.

There was a visceral hatred of Corbyn (sometimes combined with Diane Abbott) from a section of voters outside inner London, primarily older white voters, both middle and working class. So far, so obvious.

How did the demonization of Corbyn have such a strong effect in 2019 but not in 2017? Although on the face of it that demonization has been raw and relentless, actually it has only circled around the key charge, never making it explicit, so it has taken four years for low engagement voters to absorb it fully. The real charge against Corbyn is that he fundamentally believes that British/white lives are of equal value with the lives of others.

Our opponents wouldn’t put it so bluntly but that is what it has always been about. That prioritisation of British lives must always be assumed, never justified, taken for granted as the ground the state is built on, never officially avowed except through ritual.

The cenotaph. Gerry Adams. Prosecutions of historic crimes in Northern Ireland. Laying wreaths in foreign cemeteries. Poppies. Diane Abbott. Pushing the button. Watching the Queen at Christmas.

It is impossible to defend Corbyn against this unspoken charge because it is clearly true.

When these voters talk about having paid into the system all their lives, they’re not just talking about literal national insurance payments and the financial benefits they’re entitled to in recompense. They’re talking about a life of loyalty and deference to the state they expected to be their exclusive patron; and now they see a Labour leader who seems to invite the whole world to his allotment, to offer his homemade jam to anyone who needs it, no matter which flags their ancestors have spilt their blood for.

I think this is also how the anti-semitism scandal had such a big effect on people who don’t really care about anti-semitism itself. Leaving aside all the people who do care about anti-semitism for its own sake, for a lot of people Corbyn’s association with anti-semitism seems to represent his association with Islam, where Islam in turn comes to stand for the undifferentiated mass of humanity making a claim for equal eminence.

What is particularly strange about all this is how it has moved away from primarily a concern about immigration itself, to a broader set of questions of patriotism, fiscal constraint, Brexit for its own sake rather than to end free movement, and deference to authority.

With such voters, already retired or coming towards the end of their careers, talk of what we can build together leaves them sceptical and uncomprehending. It seems more zero sum to them.

We have salvaged a small horde from the imperial wreck and only those whose fealty is proven can claim their share. I have absolutely no idea how we can appeal to such people. The idea of taxing the rich didn’t seem persuasive as these people just think it is impossible. They want the patronage of the powerful, not to challenge their power.

I also canvassed a lot of young (18-35) working class people who had very little engagement with politics. Many had voted in the referendum (leave or remain but with much less conviction than the older voters) but only occasionally vote otherwise.

Many had never heard about class politics at all. The idea of working class people voting for a party to tax the rich to pay for redistribution and public services was completely novel, and generally immediately attractive. It was amazing to see how quickly and instinctively they grasped a left-wing agenda while saying they had never thought about it before. There seems like a huge opportunity there for the left to make inroads with younger non-graduates in towns but how do we reach them? Organising and social media I guess?

The political divide between generations is honestly staggering. (Source: ElectionsMapsUK 2017 Election)
Top Left: 18-24 – LAB 600, CON 0.
Top Right: 25-49 – LAB 407, CON 171.
Bottom Left: 50-64 – CON 354, LAB 215.
Bottom Right: 65+ – CON 575, LAB 32.