25 April 2016
It’s been a British labour movement staple for decades, if not centuries, for moderate figures to emphasise their rootedness in working class communities, and to dismiss critics as outside radicals and dangerous, middle-class infiltrators. Yet, in the ‘post-industrial’ context, the strength of both work-based occupational identities and the endurance of the classic reformist social democratic politics they helped sustain have been severely fractured. Increasingly, the hollowed out Labour right has instead resorted to mobilising a form of cultural politics which claims to represent the true kernel of working class opinion. This has become a key factor in rallying against the supposed metropolitan, latte drinking, Guardian reading trots who have invaded the party and consigned it to permanent electoral oblivion.
This development represents an abandonment of the confidence of the march towards a middle class or even classless society that Blairism articulated. Instead, the Labour right is sounding the retreat into an increasingly reactionary position based on mobilising residual feeling rather than announcing a forward march for the 21st century labour movement. The working class as a politically active force is largely relegated to the historical past. In this there is an overlap with a wide variety of populist political forces who have sought to lay claim to the labourist political tradition in a totalising and conservative manner. As the examples of the SNP and BNP leaflets above demonstrate, characteristically this involves claiming to represent the true roots of a tradition Labour has abandoned. Historical images and cultural motifs relating to manual (male) working class occupational identities are at the core of this message. This is accompanied by an inferred national or nationalist character.
Thus, although these motifs serve heterogeneous political agendas, they have a parallel in consigning meaningful workplace-based class identities and politics to the past. Instead, class becomes a purely cultural identity; in the modern context, increasingly defined by consumption patterns. Against this backdrop Wes Streeting was only exacerbating a developing pattern when he responded to the Labour NEC’s decision to debar tax dodging and generally suspect employer, McDonalds, from party conference with the following comment:
“It smacks of a snobby attitude towards fast-food restaurants and people who work or eat at them …
“McDonald’s may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at but it’s enjoyed by families across the country.”
According to this perspective, it’s not about workers’ rights, or the responsibilities and role of multinational enterprises in the British economy. The real class issue at stake in the Labour Party’s engagement with McDonalds is of course the message it sends out about culinary taste. This has been a particularly important symbol in the Labour right’s rediscovery of class politics, with Lord Watts infamously branding Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters “croissant-eating London-centric mansion owners.” Of central importance, and utility, in the cultural class identity politics phenomena, is its totalising nature. Rather than a fluid relationship, class is cast as once and for all. Downward social mobility and the realities of life for graduates in the insecure labour and property markets which drove many to support Corbyn are irrelevant if those folk happen to enjoy humus or a paratha with their curry.
This crude wedding of residual cultural identity class politics to national identities is confirmation of the lack of direction, and increasingly conservative nature, of what used to pass for mainstream social democracy. The pretence of defending McDonalds because working class people eat there is about as patronising as the ‘beer and bingo’ ‘things that they like’ Tory budget gaffe of a couple of years ago. Both put across an image of the working class right out of the Jam’s ‘Saturday’s Kids’. Paul Weller has been taken a bit too literally: increasingly we need to be all about tabs, lager, junk food, package holidays, football violence, and Union Jacks. The labour movement was built by convincing people of their common interests centring on workplace and community experiences. Shared cultures and identities were important in binding this, but were also formed and consolidated through mobilisation and the labour movement, which conditioned working class culture. The abandonment of viewing class as a dynamic force, or the possibility of grouping common material interests ideologically and politically, would only lead us to repeating Jim Murphy’s Scottish Labour ‘patriot clause’ disaster across the UK ad nauseam.
– Ewan Gibbs is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Glasgow in Economic and Social History
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