The new working class—and why the Labour party still has a chance

Labour's support, we are told, is gentrifying. But as the social and economic landscape changes, so must our notions of "the working class"

August 02, 2017
Manual labour is giving way to an insecure service economy. Photo: PA
Manual labour is giving way to an insecure service economy. Photo: PA

The gentrification of the Labour Party—both its membership and, more significantly, its core voter—has been a matter of debate since before the Corbyn phenomenon. It’s been brought to the forefront, however, by the 2017 election, and by new voting patterns showing what many have heralded as the end of class politics.

For the first time in British electoral history, the two main parties’ vote share of C2DE votersskilled, semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers—was level. In the 2015 election, Labour had a substantive advantage in this group, despite it being a year where the party fared badly across the board, and where the Conservatives took a large chunk out of the C1 vote share. In 2017, Labour’s share of the C2 vote particularly dwindled to achieve parity with the Conservatives.

Some might argue that Labour’s declining share of this vote has been in notable decline since 1997. This, also, is true.

But as new research by Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker shows, while seems inarguable that Labour’s grasp of the manual working class as we know them is indeed slipping, such measurements of social stratification are also dwindling in their relevance. Our understanding of what it means to be “working class” is being left in the dust by various factors of social capital, and a changing, global labour market that has seen a rapid erosion of manual jobs and a rise in the service economy. In this new world, entirely new classes have emerged.

Before these dramatic shifts, it was easy to rely on measurements such as NRS—using ABC12DE to code by occupation—to assess the status of class politics. These occupational measurements were most relevant in an era wherein ‘blue collar’ professions dominated Britain’s working classes. It is now difficult to argue that such a way of measuring can accurately capture the complexities of modern, and particularly millennial, British workers—who have moved en-masse to the office, but seen little wage growth.

Labour’s vote share among renters, the poorest citizens, and young people, including graduates—argued to be one of the key drivers of the gentrification of the party—is thus far more difficult to analyse in terms of class.

Young people for instance, both graduate and non-graduate, are caught in a perpetual adolescence, existing from one short rental to another, often on wages that leave much to be desired. Now degrees are the bare minimum for entry-level jobs, especially since the post-1992 expansion, university is not necessarily the esteemed tool of social mobility it once was. It provides far greater opportunity than those without a degree, of course, but is not a passport out of the fraught rental market, or to stability. Graduates may go on to join others in the rank of “emergent service workers.” Vulnerable to the pressures of the gig economy, those who do not have access to the bank of mum and dad have little prospect of home ownership.

The difference between the ‘traditional’ working class—often classified, also, by education—and the younger renters in this emergent service class enthused by Corbyn’s message, is not necessarily due to a disparity of income, but rather geography, age and values. Despite having little income, for instance, the latter are likely to have built up strong social capital, and have values borne from a diverse pool of friends either as a result of university life or living in a large city. They are thus “metropolitan elite”—but only as a euphemism for social liberalism. And in their urban lives, they join the precariat: the most vulnerable workers and the unemployed. They, too, struggle to get by in large cities. Both groups, according to Jennings and Stoker, had a strengthened resolve to vote Labour in 2017—attracted to the economic revolution that might hand them a stake in a society that affords them neither the affordable homes nor the free education of their parents.

This is not to say that Labour is saved, or that its message does not need work. While ‘manual workers’ or the traditional working class, are a shrinking demographic and not definitively the ‘working class’ in its entirety, it is clear that Labour has lost its grasp of post-industrial workers in particular. Under successive leaders, the party has also had a problem with working-class representation in its candidates and subsequently MPs, particularly of under-represented sectors, in favour of young professionals or professional politicians. It may also now be the party of the ‘new affluent worker’, where many other graduates will reside, every bit as much as the emergent service worker. This has an adverse effect on the party’s image. This image continues, and may be enunciated, under Jeremy Corbyn, who also has found it hard to fill high-profile positions around him with people from working class backgrounds.

If politicians want to fully capitalize on this shift, however, and if we want to understand the new class politics that decides their fates, they and we must recognize the changing nature of social class and capital, and to look beyond traditional models like NRS and occupation, which miss out on the complexity of social capital, implicated by the housing crisis, the gig economy, and even the post-1992 expansion of universities. There is a clear values divide, but split along geographical and generational, rather than merely, and crudely, class lines.

Yet, if Labour focuses both on policies like higher education reform and wage reform as part of a wider transformative platform that offers a stake in society to all of the ‘left behind’, they can forge a winning coalition between the proletariat, emergent service workers young and old, and the traditional working class. A coalition representing the true complexities of the new British working class.

The death of class politics is, as they say, greatly exaggerated. Class politics has changed. And Labour’s base is changing with it.