Brendan O’Neill

Face it, Labour: you are now a painfully middle-class party

Face it, Labour: you are now a painfully middle-class party
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Today’s Fabian Society paper on the state of the Labour Party — and what a state it is — has put Labourites and the leftish Twitterati into a spin. Aptly titled ‘Stuck’, the paper says just over half of the people who voted Labour in 2015 support the party today. And if an election were called right now Labour could expect to win a measly 200 seats: 40 fewer than in 2015 and 70 fewer than in 2010. Most strikingly, Labour has lost four times as many Leavers as Remainers. Clearly sensing their party’s hostility to the idea of leaving the EU, the inhabitants of those Labour heartlands in the north of England and Wales that gave a two-fingered salute to the EU are now turning their backs on Labour, which to them seems more devoted to the Brussels oligarchy than the British working class.

So is Labour finished? Not necessarily. There’s a pretty straightforward way it can revive itself: by embracing, rather than balking at, its new role as a party of the pissed-off middle class. For too long Labour has obsessed over its disconnect from the working classes. It drones on endlessly about how to ‘win back’ the poor. The Fabian Society report says Labour must work out how to ‘regain those who voted Leave’, which of course includes vast numbers of manual workers and other decent, democratically minded voters scandalously written off by haughty Labourite commentators as ‘racists’. Enough. Stop chasing the poor who have come to despise you, or at least doubt you, and instead cultivate the middle classes flocking to your door.

That Labour seems to be losing its more traditional, Leave-leaning voters at a faster rate than its Remain voters tells an important story: this is increasingly a party of the chattering class, of those ‘middle-class liberals’ who, according to a study released in December, were the only social group in Britain that ‘emphatically backed’ Remain (others backed it too, of course, but not emphatically). This is in keeping with a vast change in Labour’s fortunes in recent decades. The party is losing working-class voters like nobody’s business, while winning middle-class ones. Between 1997 and 2005, Labour lost four million voters, and a ‘substantial’ swathe of these were its ‘traditional working-class voters’. During the same period, its support among social classes AB and C1 — the middle classes, many of whom only moved over to Labour in the Blairite years of the 1990s — held steady.

The story of Labour over the past few decades has been one of losing workers and gaining professionals. In their book British Political Parties Today, Robert Garner and Richard Kelly argue that over the past five decades, ‘the most striking feature of voting behaviour was the working-class desertion of Labour’. In 1966, 69 per cent of manual workers voted Labour; by 1987 only 45 per cent did. Skilled manual workers’ support for Labour fell from 60 per cent in 1950 to 34 per cent by the mid-1980s. Yes, many of these voters returned to Labour during the Blairite blip, but millions left again after 2005 while, strikingly, the middle classes stayed. And now, Labour is losing its Leavers — many of whom are its more traditional voters — and keeping its Remainers.

Labour’s problem is that it cannot accept the fact that it has become a party of the middle class. It instinctively rages against reality, against the dramatic change in its make-up. It clings to the fantasy that it’s still the spokesperson of the common man, which isn’t true, and never will be again. This causes an additional problem for Labour: the Fabian paper suggests the party is not only losing vast numbers of Leave voters, to the Tories or Ukip, but is also ‘vulnerable’ to losing some of its Remain voters to the Lib Dems. This is because the Lib Dems at least have the virtue of being upfront about their new role as a party that is pro-EU, keen to keep in check the mad political passions of the masses, while Labour denies that it has become this thing too, and tortures itself, forlornly, over how to keep its traditional voters on board.

Give it up, Labour. Embrace what you have become: a fairly small party staffed largely by the middle classes, cheered most fulsomely by well-to-do newspaper commentators, and argued over by the trustafarians of Momentum on one side and the irritated anti-Corbynites of Hampstead on the other. A party more devoted to managing the health and habits of the poor than demanding they have well-paid jobs. A party more interested in standing by the pretty ruthless oligarchical machine that is the EU — with its austerity measures and all — than by the English and Welsh working classes who had the good sense to reject that machine.

I know it’s hard for you to accept this, but accept it you must: you’re no longer a party of the working man; you are searingly, immaculately middle class. Own it.