Either Labour represents its core voters -- or others will
The budget suggests that Brown and Darling have failed to recognise the cost of ignoring working-class alienation
You'd never know it from the way these things are discussed by politicians and the media, but most people in Britain -- 53% at the last count -- regard themselves as working class. And however hard it may be to agree on definitions of class, that majority is reflected across a range of statistical breakdowns of modern British society. Getting on for 40% of the workforce are still manual workers, for instance; add in clerical workers and you're getting on for two thirds.
Yet despite the fact that class continues to dominate the country, it's treated almost as a taboo by the political elite. Even when working-class life does make it into medialand, it's typically in the form of contemptuous "chav" caricatures, as in the comedy show Little Britain. And when politicians do stray into class territory, they use euphemisms like "hardworking families" or proxies such as child poverty -- the object of Alistair Darling's best pitch to his own party in yesterday's budget.
So the BBC's decision to commission a series of programmes about the marginalisation of the working class in New Labour's Britain should have been a rare opportunity to shine a light on the heart of modern life. Instead, under the banner of "The White Season", the programmes have been focused entirely on the impact of immigration and race on the white working class, as if it were some sort of anthropological study of an endangered tribe.
The message was unmistakeably clear in the series trailer, where a shaven-headed man's face is blacked up with writing by brown hands over the words: "Is white working-class Britain becoming invisible?" White working people were being written out of the script, we were given to understand, and multiculturalism and migration were to blame. But in reality, it is the working class as a whole, white and non-white, that has been weakened and marginalised in the past two decades. By identifying the problems of the country's most disadvantaged communities as being about race rather than class, the BBC has reinforced stereotypes and played to the toxic agenda of the British National Party.
It's also wrong. Of course, mass immigration in the past few years -- overwhelmingly from eastern Europe -- has had a disproportionate impact on working-class communities: in housing, public services and pay. The government has deliberately used the unregulated European Union influx as a sort of 21st-century incomes policy, and employers have ruthlessly exploited migrant labour to hold down wages. No one should be surprised if demoralised and powerless people reach for the nearest scapegoat -- and it's no coincidence that some of the worst racism is found in the most economically deprived areas.
But it wasn't immigration that ripped the guts out of working-class Britain, white and non-white. It was the closure of whole industries, the rundown of manufacturing and council housing, the assault on trade unions, the huge transfer of resources to the wealthy, the deregulation of the labour market, and the unconstrained impact of neoliberal globalisation under both Tories and New Labour. Almost none of that has had a look-in so far in The White Season.
Hopes that Gordon Brown would take the government in a different direction look increasingly forlorn. Labour MPs who invested heavily in Brown are now concluding that Brownism is little more than Blairism without the glitz. Diehard Blairite ministers such as the new work and pensions secretary James Purnell, and business secretary John Hutton, have been given free rein to promote an aggressive pro-corporate and privatisation agenda. Hutton's declaration this week that Labour should celebrate "huge salaries" and individualism was almost a parody of the early days of high Blairism. But Brown himself went out of his way on Monday to commit the government to accelerated privatisation in health, education and welfare.
Meanwhile, Darling's budget confirmed his watering-down of the plan to tax the non-dom super-rich and his retreat on capital gains tax under corporate pressure, while Brown has resolutely resisted demands from trade unions and Labour MPs to give equal rights to agency and temporary workers as a way of relieving some of the worst abuse of migrant labour to undercut existing pay and conditions. The prime minister will only allow the issue to be considered by a commission with an employers' veto. Corporate lobbying has also seen off the threat of a windfall tax on the grotesque profits of the energy companies -- which could have given Darling some of the cash he would need to halve child poverty by 2010.
With a gathering economic crisis likely to deliver lower growth next year than Darling predicted and a continuing squeeze on public-sector pay, the political price of Labour's failure to deliver for its core voters can only grow. The New Labour outriders used to argue that working-class voters could be taken for granted because they had nowhere else to go. Since the 2005 general election, that can no longer wash. Of the four million votes Labour lost, the largest number were from the working class, north and south, white and non-white. As Jon Cruddas, who ran a powerful challenge for Labour's deputy leadership last year, points out: "Those voters didn't go to the Tories, they went to the nationalists, the BNP, the Liberals and Respect -- or they stayed at home".
Blairites who insist Labour must once again concentrate on swing voters in southern marginals and "run up the flag" to pacify the rest are, he argues, 15 years out of date and threaten the social coalition needed to win -- which can only be rebuilt by focusing far more on housing, insecurity at work, inequality in public services and public-led investment in deprived areas. This is the faultline that is now emerging in the parliamentary Labour party, with the revived centre-left around the pressure group Compass increasingly making the running and Brown tilting unmistakeably towards the Blairite right.
The next test of where this is leading will be the local elections in May, when the BNP, among others, is expected to make significant gains. Unless Labour is prepared to represent the interests of increasingly angry working-class voters, others will certainly fill the vacuum -- and the ever narrower three-party stitch-up risks blowing up in the faces of the whole political class.
This article appeared in the Guardian on March 13, 2008.
on March 13, 2008.