Editor’s Note: This piece from GMB Young London Chair, Ryan Maynes, is a Labour Vision long-read on a theme that goes to the heart of Labour’s revival – class politics. It is a seminal piece and I expect it to be the one of the most important building blocks of this project as it goes forward.

Since the Stoke and Copeland by-elections, many individuals have attempted to address Labour’s long term problems, of which there are many. While it is a now clichéd phrase, the problem is indeed far bigger than Jeremy Corbyn.

Chuka Umunna’s lauded piece for the New Statesman is, to date, the most far-reaching public analysis of Labour’s problems, both internally and externally, that has appeared since the crushing defeat in Copeland and the less-than-comfortable victory in Stoke. He has rightly outlined a new approach that Labour should consider, emphasising earnings, work, family, place and issues home and abroad. This approach may yet be the foundation on which the next successful Labour government build on.

For me, however, this was not the most important article to come out of the by-election post mortem. Ed West’s article for The Spectator directly addressed Labour’s most pressing issue – that Britain’s working class are deserting the Labour Party in droves, and we seem incapable of stopping them. This is an issue that cannot be contributed solely to Jeremy Corbyn, although the recent poll showing Labour on 16% of working class voters is about as terminal a diagnosis of the current Labour leader’s relationship with the working class as anything that has come out before or since. No, this issue goes back as far as the 1960s, and the introduction of the Alford Index analysis. It may be the fatal blow which kills the Labour Party if we do not act now.

It is worth noting, however, that Labour are not alone. By the end of the decade, Britain will be out of the European Union. We could be followed out of the door by Holland and, fatally for the EU project, France. Marine Le Pen and Alternative für Deutschland could be calling the shots in Europe, with Donald Trump on course for a second election victory in America. If these grim predictions come true, they will be the culmination of a swing in politics that started long before the EU referendum – that of the working classes of the Western world deciding that their natural parties no longer represent their needs.

Where Did it All Go Wrong?

“Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”  

Peter Pulzer, 1967.

Before the 1970s, the prevailing attitude was that electoral behaviour was predominantly the result of class voting. Indeed, much of the evidence suggested that this crude suggestion was correct. From 1945 to 1970 the main parties gained approximately 90 per cent of the votes, with these votes cast predominantly based social class, with the working and middle classes voting for Labour and Conservative respectively. Of course there were exceptions, notably as a result of social mobility or liberal empathy, but on the whole class was deemed king, culminating in the seminal work of Butler and Stokes. (1969)

The introduction of the Alford Index changed everyone’s perception on the importance of class voting. In simplest terms, the Alford index computed the difference in support for left-wing parties between manual and non-manual occupations. The Alford Index proved that voting patterns focussing on social class changed dramatically in the mid-1960s and continued until the mid-1980s, with a steady decline of people voting for Labour based on their class allegiances. Much research has been conducted to understand the reasons why Labour’s working class voters no longer vote as a unified bloc, but two stand out.

Firstly, class dealignment has been widespread throughout the country, with class structures being rapidly viewed as a thing of the past. Class differences are no longer as obvious, leading John Prescott to declare in 1997 that ‘we’re all middle class now.’ With rhetoric like this, coupled with the constant vilification of everything working class, that started with Thatcher and continues every time we flick on channel 5, it is no wonder individuals do not vote along class lines. Many are embarrassed to admit they are working class, whilst many do not even know which class they are in. With this decline in class identification, studies have shown that social class has been replaced at the top of the voting agenda.

Instead, valence politics is the order of the day. Valence politics is a theory that shows voters care more about the competence and reliability of leaders and their parties than what stance they take. A ‘safe pair of hands’ will always beat an ideologically driven leader, something Labour could do with understanding immediately. After this, ‘issue voting’ is crucial. Topics like immigration and the EU have dominated voting, with Labour incapable of offering a solution on either. We can also add geography to the growing list of voting reasons more important than social class, given the result in Scotland, and an argument has been made for other reasons, such as the open vs closed debate or the economy, showing social class as an electoral predictor is becoming a thing of the past.

Secondly, partisan dealignment, or ‘the decline of strong individual association with one party,’ has played a crucial role in Labour’s problem with working class voters. People are straying from their natural party, with Labour haemorrhaging voters to UKIP and, more worryingly, the Conservatives. Long gone are the days when Labour could rely on a solid bank of working class support, allowing it to make a grab for the centre ground safe in the knowledge that their core support have rarely strayed in 100 years. Partisan dealignment occurred before New Labour, but it reached its apex during these years, with working class voters no longer seeing Labour as their natural party. Combined with the rapidly changing demographics occurring in working class areas, and the fact that things did not get better for them under New Labour, we should not be surprised that the working class have turned their back on Labour. As Justin Gest put it, ‘The rise of immigrants coincided with the decline of white, working-class life and many could only assume that the two were correlated.’ Our only hope is that this rejection is not terminal, but with Jeremy Corbyn incapable of speaking with these voters, coupled with Theresa May’s grab for working class Northern England, it is conceivable that we may have lost the working class for many years to come, and that they never return to the formidable voting bloc they once were.

Whom do Labour Represent?

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Labour will never win an election unless the working class become a voting bloc again. The working class is shrinking, with only 45.8% of the country in the C2DEs bracket, compared with two thirds of households in 1968. Even so, this group is still the second largest social class and, crucially, our party’s natural voters. Not only are we in a battle with the Conservatives to govern, but we are in a battle of ideology and values, and if Labour do not represent the working class, whom do we represent?

It is time Labour take measures which put the party more in touch with those we seek to represent. Unlike the Democratic Party, who are likely to double down on the Hispanic and black vote, which is rising, Labour must reach out to the white working class. Whilst the white majority in America will be gone by 2043, the white majority of Britain still sits at around 87%. If just under half of these are working class voters, Labour’s traditional core voters, then we must keep them on board. Otherwise we face oblivion.

And why should they vote Labour? Say, for example, you are a loyal Labour voter who has lived in a town that Labour has held for 50 years and taken for granted, your opportunities in life have been restricted and your community is struggling. You are constantly bombarded by a right-wing press blaming immigrants and told Labour cannot be trusted with an economy that is on the brink of collapse. Your values have strayed so far away from the current party leadership that you don’t recognise the party anymore, and every five years a couple of university graduates knock on your door to tell you must vote Labour, and any hint of dissent is dismissed as racism or stupidity. How would you react? Would you vote Labour?

This is the existential crisis our party faces right now. Nothing else matters for the party if we cannot win back our core working class vote and remind them why it is they need to vote for the party of the working class. It is indeed possible to combine support from metropolitan liberals and those who feel left behind, although admittedly it is becoming harder. Yet our focus must be on the working class, even if it comes at the cost of losing some of our new metropolitan voters. As it stands, we have little chance of winning the 2030 election, never mind the 2020 election. Our core voters are leaving in droves, and are no longer the bloc we need them to be. The metropolitan voters in London, Manchester and a few other cities will not be enough to lead us to victory, and the north of England may well go the same way as Scotland. To save the Labour Party, we need the working class to vote along class lines again.

Reversing the Decline

The current political environment is not suited to a progressive, social democratic party, with the death of social democracy being pronounced across the western world. These pronouncements are premature, and whilst it is true we are unlikely to win power in 2020, we must be ready to fight and win in 2025 or at worst 2030. When the tide turns, with England’s working class angered at years of Tory austerity and misrepresentation, Labour must be the party they turn to. Labour must be ready to enter government with working-class values and progressive policy ideas, but to do this we must remind the working class voters that we are the party of these values, and that voting to represent your community is far more valuable than voting as an individual.

The first step we must take is ensuring we have a leader to whom the working class can relate. Regardless of who leads us into the 2020 election, they are unlikely to win, but 2025 should be our realistic target. We need someone who represents working class values, someone who is fiercely patriotic, a strong leader with a bulletproof backstory, and someone who is not another middle class metropolitan career politician. The only person who currently fits the mould is Dan Jarvis. Jarvis, of the talented 2010 intake, has none of the New Labour baggage, and is a former paratrooper of notable distinction – he still has the shrapnel in his skull to prove it. If Labour is serious about winning back its traditional heartlands, especially in the north, Nottingham born and Barnsley representing Dan must be that leader. Couple him with someone who personifies competence as Shadow Chancellor, like Lisa Nandy or Keir Starmer, and Labour enter the 2025 election as favourites based on a solid working class vote, valence politics and a growing metropolitan vote.

Labour also needs rebranded if it has any chance of winning back its traditional voters. Gone are the days of Cool Britannia and Labour being the patriotic party. Labour are now seen as anti-patriotic, and in an age where countries are looking inward and populism is the order of the day, the party are on the wrong side of the debate. This may infuriate many of our liberal members, but it doesn’t matter. The working class are our raison d’etre, and if we keep feeding them our brand of arrogant, patronising liberalism, it will be spat out.

In England, Labour must become the English Labour Party – nothing else will do. Jon Cruddas, the man tasked with analysing where Labour were going wrong then having his analysis dismissed, is absolutely on the money with this one. The Scottish connection is driving our working class voters away, just as the English connection is driving our Scottish voters away. Labour does not need to split to achieve this, but a symbolic shift would work wonders in both countries, and may well keep Welsh nationalism at bay when it begins to gather pace. Patriotism must be at the heart of everything Labour, and what better way to show this than becoming the patriotic party of the working class. The world is gripped by right-wing nationalism, and the best left-wing parties can do is stress their patriotic credentials and ride out the storm without losing credibility. Labour should then look into ideas that will bolster their position as the patriotic party, like answering the West Lothian question or offering a strong devolution package to regions across England that enhances local pride and fosters a sense of community.

Labour must also again become the party of community. Whilst too many people hark back to a time that never existed, or certainly was never as rose tinted as remembered, there is no denying that working-class areas feel a sense of loss in pride and identity. We cannot adopt the right-wing populism of UKIP to win these people over. This would go against everything we stand for as a party. What we can do is rebuild a new sense of community. We can present a new vision of what it means to be working class, with large-scale plans to place workers in boardrooms as well as include working class representatives in decisions made on local issues like housing and education.

To do this, we need to radically overhaul the structure of the local Labour parties. CLP and ward meetings must adapt to remain fit for purpose. Too many involve middle class liberals using meetings as an opportunity to nurse their own egos. CLP meetings should be interactive, with workshops and offering the chance for everyone to be involved in the creation of local party policy. We need weekly protests on a variety of issues, and party politics and internal bickering outlawed. No more talking shops – let our communities see us out campaigning on local issues for local people. Give back to the trade unions who have helped us for so long. Actively recruit our members and encourage them to unionise within their workplace. Without a strong trade union movement, the Labour Party is weakened. Make sure that the Labour Party is at the forefront of people’s thinking on a daily basis. Yes, it will be a lot of hard work, but we have over 500,000 members, for which we are deeply indebted to Jeremy Corbyn, and if we cannot engage them to become active members now, they will leave when Jeremy does. If we cannot get these activists fighting for our cause, then we do not have a cause worth fighting for.

For those of you opposed to the idea of adapting to suit a changing working class and evoking patriotism, remember that this does not compromise Labour values, nor does it change our desire to enact social democratic policies which will improve the lives of millions within the country. Few changes in actual policy will occur, and we will still be the party of equality as well as the opponents of racism, sexism and homophobia. We will still be the party of the NHS, of social mobility, of education. What we will also do is stem the flow of bigotry of some of society’s most vulnerable towards other vulnerable sections. We will halt the repatriation of our working class towards UKIP and the Tories, and when we win the argument, we can act as a shining light throughout the western world as the country who stopped hatred in its tracks. We can work again with our European and American neighbours for a brighter future. But to do this, we must first regain the trust of the working class.

Ryan Maynes

Ryan Maynes is the Chair of GMB Young London.