Class is back in fashion. Previously consigned to the dustbins of history in the nineties and most of 2000s, it seems that social class is now the dictating theme of discourse in the UK. The only issue being that it has been resurrected in a distorted manner by the political right.
The political academic and writer Matthew Goodwin recently published a book titled Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, that has caught fire on Twitter, thanks in no small part to liberal and left wing outlets taking him up on his challenge to debate (and promote) his book. It attempts to define the conservative-communitarian argument that institutions today have been captured by a new progressive elite who are promoting ‘woke’ agendas which are forcibly imposed on the masses. Left out of these conversations on oppression, inequality, and prejudice is class, and where it fits in modern-day Britain.
If I wanted to be generous to Goodwin, I would actually agree with this premise. Identity politics can often be counterproductive and a poor substitution for building coalitions and bridges compared to class-based politics. A study in America found that boosting trade union membership was actually more likely to increase racial solidarity, which makes sense as trade unionism is nothing more than the expression of shared interests for labourers. Class, meanwhile, had slowly retreated out of conversations in Britain, save for guardian op-eds occasionally declaring new types of behaviour middle-class. The very things that constituted a vibrant working-class culture – trade unions, pubs, football clubs, working men’s club, even the Labour Party – have slowly lost the influence they formerly wielded just as the influence of the global labour movement has receded.
The thing about class being spoken by right-wingers, be it Tory MP Lee Anderson or Matt Goodwin, is that it’s very often little to do with the material issues of what constitutes a working-class life. Seldom do you see these Tories, in their defence of blue-collar communities, speak on making work pay, on understanding that the cost of living crisis cripples the poorest communities. Class for right-wingers is merely just another avenue of the culture war, to be engaged with as superficially as possible, after all, you never see blacklisted trade unionists included in lists of those who have been ‘cancelled’. For right wingers, to speak for the importance of class is to present it as a resistance to an elitist imposition of progressive agendas. For people like Matt Goodwin, working class people are a shield to support his arguments from criticism – even if said working class people have views that fly in the face of Goodwin’s worldview.
It’s often written about how class died in the nineties. Centre-left parties vacated fundamental tenets of social democracy to eventually become liberal managers of capitalist economies. But the issues that always dogged the working-class never went away. Globalisation produced winners and losers, and in Britain, those who lost were those who watched their jobs pack up and restart on the other side of the world. What need is there for manufacturing when cheap overseas labour delivers it anyway? With trade unions crushed, there was no-one left to shout that class remains the overarching social conflict of our times.
Labour could win the next General Election and at the very least, looks to have won back the old working-class heartlands it lost. However there isn’t yet a palpable feeling that the historic relationship between Labour and the working-class has been renewed.
The consequence of Labour allowing the language of class to slip away from its tongue is that inevitably, it will stop appearing like a party that’s immersed in the lives of working-class people. It won’t be able to relate to the despair of watching communities rust away from years of socioeconomic neglect, underinvestment and young people relocating elsewhere. It won’t be able to resonate with those who still have lingering memories of what their blue-collar towns once looked like.
In the space where there should be discussions on how deindustrialisation and austerity have broken working-class communities, we are fed news that a progressive woke elite is running institutions and imposing their liberal agendas on working people. It speaks of an elite while the real elite continue witnessing their wealth move towards the sky while ordinary families are buried beneath an avalanche of bills and debts.
It was deindustrialisation, the weakening of unions and the extreme focus on London as an economic hub that sapped the working-class faith in Labour. It was not the woke elite who damaged Labour and the only way to escape these culture war arguments is by being more aggressive in who gets to speak for the working-class. It’s not pseudo-communitarians like Matt Goodwin or others at GB News. It has always been the Labour Party. And it must always be the Labour Party.