'...class does matter, but it has changed'. Claire Ainsley.
Politics at the present time is no longer apparently about 'middleness,' which is a bit of a shift. Not so long ago, the political logic was that the middle ground had to be courted if one wanted to win an election and to stay in power. Politicians talked about the 'squeezed middle'. Tony Blair bet the house on his pursuit of 'Middle England'. Now all that has changed and we find ourselves in a new age of political realignment that we are still trying to catch up with. The most visible sign of the new politics have been Brexit and the 2019 election result. Working-class people are now more likely to vote Conservative: a stunning turn around from the politics of the twentieth century. They don't seem concerned about the centre ground any more. This transformation, we should note, has been a long time in coming: it was not simply produced by the seismic shock of the EU referendum. How should Labour respond?
Claire Ainsley is now Executive Director of Policy for Keir Starmer's Labour Party. The current complaint about Labour is that it is unclear what 'Starmerism' involves or what the party stands for in its post-Corbyn moment. The New Working Class, written when she was at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, gives us a glimpse of what the answer might be. Published in 2018 (which already feels like a different era), it appears to have been called into being by the victory of the Brexiteers in 2016 and then the complex election result in 2017. Early in her book, however, Ainsley emphasises that what happened to Labour in Scotland is equally significant. Avoid the temptation to see the rise of Scottish nationalism as a purely local matter, north of the border. The SNP persuaded supporters that Labour was too focussed on Westminster, was too remote from the lives that they actually led and instead offered an alternative politics of community, progressivism and well being that seemed more relevant to voters. Scotland was part of a jigsaw that, when completed, has given us a picture of Labour failure and irrelevance.
In the 1950s, when Labour faced similar problems (though not as bad as they are now), sociologists put this down to the decline of class feeling.1 There was much talk about social mobility and 'embourgeoisement': working people becoming more like the middle classes in aspiration and lifestyle. In a curious way, the reverse is true now. Ainsley argues, '...class does matter, but it has changed'. This is important. Some on the left are responding to the realignment by suggesting that Labour should simply focus on the cities and metropolitan areas that it holds now. This would quite simply be a disaster. Labour cannot win unless it finds a way to connect with working-class voters in the so-called Red Wall areas. The indications are (this is written in May 2020) that Starmer knows this and serious thought needs to be devoted to creating new kinds of political relationships with people whose second nature up till recently was to vote Labour. Anyone who thinks that these voters will soon flood back after a blip over Brexit needs to think again. A seismic shift has taken place not only in British politics but around the world. Just ask the large number of workers who have supported Donald Trump and Marine le Pen.
One way forward, according to Ainsley, is to think seriously about the lives that working-class people actually lead. It is interesting to compare Ainsley's book with Deborah Mattinson's Beyond the Red Wall, written after the 2019 defeat (previously reviewed by me). Both are key texts describing the political re-alignment and are attempts to capture the new social realities that Labour must confront if it is to return to power. Ainsley's approach is more scientific in its use of quantitative material whereas Mattinson explored the conversations with Red Wall voters in her focus groups. The Mattinson conversations revealed people who were aspirational and felt the Tories were the party that were there for everybody.
Both Ainsley and Mattinson argue that the traditional working class (defined by industrial labour) is no more. It is much more likely to be working in catering, social care and retail. It is characterised at least as much by female as male workers and is multi-ethnic. Whilst the cloth-capped worker may be a thing of the past, many of Ainsley's subjects are aware of the impact of deindustrialisation and deskilling which have transformed their areas, leaving behind a labour market characterised by the automation of many jobs, low pay, zero hours contracts and job insecurity. This is what Guy Standing terms the 'precariat'.2 People feel that life has changed for the worse over the past thirty years (42). Working-class incomes have flat-lined over the last decade (and this was before Covid). In-work poverty is a fact of life. Wages are also subject to remarkable regional disparity. In 2016, the average weekly pay of workers in Blackpool was £333. This was almost half the weekly pay of workers in Southwark, London, who got £639 (81). No wonder many Northerners feel the system is rigged in favour of the capital. Class is etched into life expectancy: the lowest class will on average live seven years less than those in the highest class (68). Another characteristic of the new working class is that they are not overly consumed with hatred of the rich and only 4% cite the reduction of inequality as a priority for them (84). This perhaps explains why Labour's slogan 'For the Many Not the Few' did not cut through in 2019. Clearly, the conventional politics of post-war social democracy will struggle in this landscape.
Ainsley argues that political parties have not caught up with this new working class. Labour has shied away from speaking up for these kind of people. Tony Blair assumed such voters had nowhere else to go. They had to support Labour and so it made sense to court other voters to create a winning coalition. Ed Miliband never once talked about class when he was Labour leader. Thus we are now at the point that lower income people often say that no party really represents them.
What is to be done? Ainsley argues that Labour needs to engage with people's 'moral foundations' and tune in to their values (31). Her book offers some practical solutions. Quite rightly, she argues that Labour needs some symbolic policies that can inspire. For many voters this starts with the family unit. Unstable or irregular employment hits family time and contributes to dysfunctional behaviour in some cases. The abolition of child poverty has to be a major cause for progressives. Ainsley argues for affordable pre-school care and education that can produce fulfilling employment. There is less here, I notice, of the Gordon Brown agenda (c. 1997): investing in skills that can create economic growth. Perhaps the problem now is that the fruits of that economic growth were felt by people other than the working class. However, Ainsley wants new education institutes that can teach skills to people across the life cycle in order to find fulfilling work. She wants to close the attainment gap between rich and poor in education by putting the best teachers into deprived areas (66). Most people will get behind the idea of fulfilling work but its nature is very lightly sketched here.
On the economy, there is praise for the Preston model where the council abandoned outsourcing and has invested in community-directed resources. She wants government contracts to be awarded to businesses that can show they are producing good, stable and secure jobs for their workers: this may prove to be the main legacy of Corbynism within Labour policy as this was something he promoted. There needs to be guaranteed sick pay for all and an end to the race to the bottom when it comes to wages. Labour needs to be ready to promote house building and re-purpose under-used housing. Appealing to white working-class voters does not mean opposing immigration. It does, however, mean supporting an immigration impact fund, to assist with the provision of health and education resources. Who has often argued for this? That's right - Jeremy Corbyn. People complaining about a rightward turn under Starmer are not going to find much evidence in this volume.
On health, she favours a hypothecated NHS tax and a guarantee of a GP appointment in a short time (Covid may have ironically made this more possible by shifting appointments onto the phone). She suggests that there is less support for state-funded social care. This does not deal with what is the looming demographic crisis of an ageing population. Sometimes progressives have to challenge the electorate. The same would be true on climate change which does not feature here, which implies that Ainsley thinks that this is not a priority for many voters.
When it comes to democracy, Ainsley wants MPs to be viewed essentially as representatives of their communities. There should be an end to second jobs and other perks. MPs should make pledges to their communities and report back regularly. I presume she would be against the parachuting in of candidates from outside a constituency. This will strike many as uncontroversial. However, it does not address all of what an MP is called up to do. An MP certainly has to represent a constituency (and many MPs would say they already do everything that Ainsley is calling for). However, under the British system, some MPs will be called upon to be ministers and shadow ministers. The skill set for running a government department is not necessarily the same as expressing the desires of one's constituents. The reality of government is that some are up to the task and some are not. What is clear from Ainsley's account is that Labour needs to be re-built from the bottom up: from communities as well as through local government.
I wondered which political figures could express the politics Ainsley calls for? I cast my eyes across the Labour front bench and don't see those kind of people--except perhaps Lisa Nandy who has argued correctly that Labour needs to connect with small towns like Wigan which she represents. Perhaps that is to look at it the wrong way. Once upon a time one could point to politicians such as John Prescott who seemed to embody the kind of people they represented. Prescott was, however, also shaped by the world of organised labour and its integral role within the post-war political settlement. It is accepted here that unions have little role to play. Yet unions have (at their best) offered forms of solidarity that people feel is missing in the modern world. A politics of rootedness and connection needs to be expressed in new ways.
In 2021, we hear some commentators note that Labour is incapable of moving right on cultural matters to meet a large section of the electorate, leaving voters feeling labour does not share their values. Ainsley is silent on this question, although her discussion of immigration policy is implicitly about these issues. Her book has nothing to say about national identity. Here she may have the better part of the argument as she is effectively arguing for a three dimensional approach which deals with the complexities of people's lives. Ainsley does not deal with foreign policy, which reflects the fact that, outside some flashpoints and moments of national crisis, this is not high up voter priorities. The book does not seem to countenance the major investment in infrastructure of the sort that we would now (in 2021) associate with Joe Biden's programme in the USA. In some ways, Ainsley is arguing that the left should settle for smaller victories. In the age of New Labour this seemed to me a good strategy but I don't think it will work as well now. Labour has to be prepared to counter Tory claims of 'levelling up' with a substantial economic offer (investing serious money in communities) whilst convincing voters it will govern effectively. In the pandemic we have seen how important Big Government can be. Labour needs to use this experience to deliver real transformation to working-class communities, preferably though a Green New Deal. At the same time, we should view Ainsley's book as an argument for the promotion of agency. The Brexit mantra of 'take back control' appealed because many poorer people felt they have little say over the way their lives were governed. There is a strong argument for a programme of devolution of government, power and resources.
The book has little to say about the Labour Party itself, no doubt as its remit is policy. There is, however, the subliminal message in it that the party needs to be focussed on the views of Labour voters and potential voters rather than the agenda of Labour activists. This remains the core of Labour's dilemma. What (and who) is this party for? And, to return to my opening theme, has the pursuit of the centre been abandoned? Boris Johnson runs a right wing government but takes care to employ the language of One Nation Conservatism (and has essentially employed socialist means to deal with the pandemic). One thing that we know about the political landscape of the 2020s is that the standard typology of left, right and centre is more complex than it used to be. Progressives need to catch up. The Conservatives enjoy a flexibility of outlook which often proves a real political asset.
Ainsley's emphasis on family, fairness and hard work is an important starting point for Labour in the Starmer era. Since she wrote this book, we recognise that politics will be shaped by the people who have the best answers to the post-Covid and Post-Brexit world. What I did like was that the book had no trace of metropolitan middle-class disdain for the lives of the poor. Labour has to talk about the things that workers actually care about. If it does not, it will not survive.
1 Mark Abrams and Richard Rose (with Rita Hinden), Must Labour Lose? (London: Penguin, 1960).
2 Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London: Bloomsbury , 2016).