Much of the current commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn focuses on his ability to appeal to the wider electorate. For decades politics has consisted of a battle for the middle ground in which partisan ideological conflicts have given way to a general acceptance of the Third Way. This approach makes sense in times of prosperity. But, Gordon Brown’s triumph over “boom and bust” having been revealed to be a myth, the temporarily hidden divisions in society have again come to light. In the context of declining living standards and austerity politics, it is no longer appropriate to fight for the middle ground. Labour now needs a clear and principled plan to improve the living standards of those in Britain’s working class and poorer communities. I believe that Corbyn, as somebody who has been fighting for a fairer deal for the working class for all of his political life, is in a much better place to offer this than Owen Smith, who doesn’t seem to have any convictions that he hasn’t stolen from Corbyn.
However, for now at least, I am less concerned with Corbyn’s appeal to the wider electorate and much more concerned about the Labour Party’s ability to reconnect with their traditional working class support base. Corbyn and his supporters have sought to draw attention to the huge increase in members since Corbyn became leader. This is taken as evidence that we are witnessing the rise of the Labour Party as a “social movement”. In response to this critics assert that political parties and not social movements win elections. This seems to ignore the fact that the history of the Labour Party is intimately bound with social movements.
In the late 19th century it became clear that parliamentary representation was necessary to secure the interests of the UK labour movement. The trade unions became increasingly involved in formal politics, playing a key role in the formation of the Labour Representation Committee, precursor to the British Labour Party. After various extensions to the franchise, parliamentary representation came to be a real possibility and so trade unionists began to stand for Parliament. Once an established political party, Labour’s ties with trade unions acted as the link between the parliamentary party and its working class support base. Of course the Labour party has always been a “broad church” with support from a variety of sections in society. From the middle-class Fabians who provided the intellectual foundations of the party to the more marxist groups like the Social Democratic Federation. However, the trade union links did the most to keep the party grounded in the labour movement.
A series of interrelated shifts in the organisation of society towards the end of the 20th century led to the breakdown of this political arrangement. The decline of manufacturing, industrial strife, and Thatcherite policies severely weakened the trade union movement. Membership fell from over 13 million in 1979 to 6.5 million in 2015. The destructive effect of this meant that the working class was no longer seen as a political force to be reckoned with. The historic links of the Labour Party with the working class all but vanished as the party moved towards slick public relations strategies and the triangulation of votes to appeal to the middle ground. Though a winning formula in times of prosperity, it proved to be a failure when the recession hit and the welfare safety net became increasingly porous.
Undoubtedly as a response to these issues, Corbyn and his supporters now speak of the need to recreate a social movement basis for labour parliamentary politics. In July, Corbyn told party activists in Salford that Labour would win the next election because they are a social movement. However, where the early Labour party can be seen as the evolution of a social movement into a political party, Corbyn and his supporters seem to want to transform the existing political party into a social movement. Given the factors just discussed regarding the decline of trade union membership and the working class as a political force, it is necessary to dissect this proclamation of a new social movement. In particular we need to ask who it involves and what it is trying to achieve.
ESRC-funded research from Tim Bale, Monica Poletti, and Paul Webb suggests that the demographics of the Labour Party membership are a far cry from its traditional working class base. Writing in the New Statesman in July they claim that
“…Labour’s leadership contest is going to be decided, for the most part, by less than 400,000 mainly middle-class university graduates. Nearly half of these members – unlike many of Labour’s voters – live in London and the South of England. Some 75 per cent of Labour members are ABC1 voters, and 57 per cent of them have a degree. Around 15 per cent live in London and 32 per cent live in other parts of the South of England. Only 28 per cent live in the party’s northern heartlands and 20 per cent in Wales and the Midlands, where (think, Nuneaton) any party wanting to win a general election desperately needs to win over voters.”
I do not want to suggest that there is anything inherently problematic about university-educated, middle-class professionals existing within the Labour Party. However, the figures certainly do not paint a picture of widespread representation within this new social movement. It is important to consider whether this is really how we want the Labour Party to look. Can we trust such an unrepresentative political grouping to encapsulate the interests of the working class on a national scale? What, in terms of political representation, is the difference between this social movement and New Labour? The information available suggests a similar level of alienation from Labour’s traditional support base.
The breakdown of the relationship between the Labour Party and the working class is not Corbyn’s fault – the damage was done well before he came onto the main stage. However, as Owen Jones pointed out in the Guardian last month, there does not seem to be any active strategy to reconnect with working class communities, especially those in the North. In these areas Corbyn is somewhat of a mythical figure, a problem exacerbated by his refusal to engage with the media and take part in key debates. Corbyn’s supporters justify this attitude by pointing out media hostility and in this they are not wrong. However, a public face is essential in gaining public support. It is not enough to simply speak at rallies and conferences where the attendees can be assumed to be faithful supporters.
Assuming Corbyn wins the Labour leadership election, he faces the unenviable task of reuniting the party with its traditional base. Not simply in order to win an election but to have any credibility as a party that calls itself Labour. It would be reasonable to suggest this an impossible task given the current state of trade union membership and the damage already done by Thatcherism and then New Labour. However, just as there was a need for working class representation in parliament when the Labour party was founded, so there is today. The unexpectedly high turnout for the referendum shows that those assumed to be permanently apathetic still retain some belief in politics as a means for change. There is potential for the working class to become engaged in politics once again. Whether this happens under through the medium of the Labour Party remains to be seen.
Filed under: Politics