Why have both left and right abandoned the working class? Simple – they don’t need them any more

In a Quillette article about universal basic income and the risk of tyranny, Shai Shapira makes a highly plausible case that political participation develops in direct proportion to the need a state has for its citizens:

We don’t have to go back to ancient history to see this trend – these days we have many countries in the world whose incomes are based on extracting resources from the ground, requiring little to no participation from the common people. Which countries are functioning democracies, and which are autocracies? The World Bank gives us a list of countries ordered by what percentage of their merchandise exports comes from fuels. At 50% or more we find, in this order: Iraq, Angola, Algeria, Brunei, Kuwait, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Oman, Norway, Colombia, Bolivia and Bahrain. Can we notice a trend? How many of these countries provide a good set of political rights for their citizens?

This should not be surprising. This pattern is not often discussed, as it conflicts the image we like to have of political rights as being the result of enlightenment and struggle, of the heroes of our past who overthrew despotic regimes and created a better world for everyone. But reality, unfortunately, seems more cynical than that. We do not get our rights because we deserve them, or even because we fight for them – we get our rights because the government needs us. It is a common hope that countries that escape poverty will move on to adopt democracy, and this indeed happened in some notable cases, like South Korea or Taiwan. But South Korea and Taiwan became rich from industry, which means their wealth came from the work of their citizens; meanwhile, Qatar or Angola became rich from natural resources, and their political situation became no better. A country that generates its wealth from its citizens has no choice but to keep those citizens happy, at least to some degree; a country that generates its wealth from oil wells, only needs to keep a handful of mercenaries happy as they guard the access to those wells.

The article is well worth a read. But for me it sparked off a connection with the strange phenomenon we live with nowadays, that of a Labour Party that gives voice to pretty much anyone except the labouring classes. Put simply, the working classes no longer have a major party giving them political representation because the state no longer needs them, and arguably has been working for some decades to ensure that continues to be the case.

Applying Shapira’s insights to the development of mass political participation in the UK, the hypothesis remains plausible. Despite some decades of suffragette agitation, it was not until 1918, when women began to be needed as participants in civic life to replace the men being shipped off to die en masse in the trenches of Europe, that the first women were enfranchised. What is less often remembered is that the same Act also enfranchised some 5 million non-property-owning men. The state needed these men and women – hey presto, improved political participation was the sweetener demanded by the masses in exchange.

Throughout the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, the United Kingdom derived much of its wealth from manufacturing; the workers who staffed the factories were needed. The same period traces a trajectory of ever-growing mass political participation, and is often narrated as a moral development, a steady march towards enlightenment in the form of the universal franchise. But was it as much about the need to acknowledge reciprocity between the working masses and the political class? The extent to which workers were increasingly able to use the leverage their labour in industry collectively gave them, to demand political concessions from a previously patrician governing class, forms the history of the trade union movement and, from 1900 onwards, the Labour Party.

What followed from the end of World War II until the Winter of Discontent and subsequent election of Margaret Thatcher is, arguably, a tale of this leverage developing first into its strength, then beyond strength to complacency, hubris and stagnation. We all know the denouement, as rolling blackouts left swathes of the country reading by candlelight, rubbish lay uncollected in the streets and the Iron Lady declared ‘There is no alternative’ and deployed all the resources at her disposal to smash the unions. In her grim determination to rein in the unfettered power of trade unionism to bring the country to a standstill, she shuttered entire industries and impoverished vast swathes of the United Kingdom, changes still palpable (and, in parts of the country, unforgiven) today.

Thatcher moved deliberately to tilt the UK’s economy away from manufacturing and towards knowledge and services – notably financial services, the behemoth that now sits astride London, sucking in all cultural capital from the surrounding 300 miles as well as much of the world. That is, she restructured the entire British economy so that the state no longer needed the working classes as it had in the 19th and 20th centuries. Who knows whether she did this intentionally to reduce the workers’ leverage over the state, but that was the effect of the changes she wrought.

The consequence, nearly 40 years on from her first election victory, is that as the political classes’ dependence on a mass industrial workforce has waned, political parties on both left and right are increasingly indifferent to their needs.

Indeed, Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to open the UK borders to Eastern European EU accession countries meant that the working classes were needed even less than before. Where, a century previously, the supply of labour was relatively static and if the state wanted to ask something significant of the working masses then political sweeteners were needed in exchange, now in the days of free movement it didn’t even matter if the indigenous working classes withheld their labour, as employers would just import replacements from the EU!

Thus was the bond of reciprocity broken between the state and the working classes. Commentators on both right and left now agree – as do the statistics and Labour’s own data – that Labour is now firmly a party of the middle class. Indeed, there is a distinct whiff around much of the left these days of disgust at the working class, as Brendan O’Neill never tires of pointing out.

It is no wonder that Labour ceased to see its role as representing the interests of those workers: they had nowhere else to go and would probably continue to vote Labour, so could be taken for granted. The result has been a hollowed-out Labour Party, reduced from a grand coalition of middle-class socialists and working-class firebrands to a kind of well-off clerisy, shy of talking about class but ever so keen to tell you what to think. Ultimately, it has led us to Jeremy Corbyn, a man who speaks entirely to and for the middle classes (free university tuition fees is the sort of outrageous middle-class bung that the Tories would be pilloried for) but does so in a strange, stylised parody of the 1970s, the last days of the trade union Raj.

The only difference between left and right on this front, today, is the consensus on how large the welfare-state bung should be to buy off now politically-irrelevant class. Stereotypically, the Conservatives believe the working masses should be handed free money, buck up, get jobs, pay taxes and become needed by the state so they can participate politically; this view is indifferent to any barriers to doing so. In contrast, Labour believes this class should be treated with patrician generosity, and handed as much free money as necessary to keep them quiescent. In practice, both sides operate the same welfare system, with minor tweaks at the edges blown up by the Westminster bubble into giant ideological differences.

So what is to become of the working masses now? What chance of reclaiming representation? Movements come and go that seek to represent working-class interests: Britain First, the EDL, the Football Lads’ Alliance. Such movements are generally demonised as ‘far-right’ by the chattering classes; and (with the exception of the mass working-class vote to leave the European Union) these movements are largely cultural rather than political, pushing back less against contemporary politics than incursions by foreigners, or political correctness, or other manifestations of the elite’s vision of the good life. If Shapira’s formulation holds good, the masses will have little success in reclaiming political representation until they are actually needed again by the state that governs them. And in a world of increasing robotisation which, instead, proposes to make an ever-greater proportion of the population unnecessary to a state’s prosperity, that seems a prospect both distant and, in its profound implications for the health of our democracy, deeply worrying.

Author: The Sparrow

I’m UK-based. I’m interested in the political and cultural side-effects of globalisation, the replacement of class politics by identity politics, and the emerging backlash against the regressive left. I was a radical lefty once upon a time, though these days I'm just interested in following arguments wherever they go. I voted Leave, in the interests of positive, engaged globalisation within a democratic framework, though I'm a bit exasperated at how it's going so far. I’m a fan of liberty, free speech, home winemaking and practical feminism.

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