Why Does Britain Lack a Working-Class Political Party?

by Andrew Alexander
The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and may not be construed as in any way representative of the views or policies of Oxford Royale Summer Schools.

Image of the Downing Street sign.

“We are all middle class now,” declared John Prescott, the former boxer and cruise ship steward turned Deputy Prime Minister at the outset of Tony Blair’s premiership.

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Bizarrely, the thought was echoed by David Cameron at the beginning of his spell in Number 10 more than a decade later. The Eton and Oxford educated son of a stockbroker who left a £2.7m estate (via several tax haven investment trusts) confided to the audience at a PM Direct event that he was most definitely part of the “sharp-elbowed middle class” also. This meeting in the middle is perhaps less surprising than it seems – both men were on senior ministerial wages at the time, something which may have disappointed Mr Cameron as much as it delighted Mr Prescott. In either case, their analysis is wrong. It is not that the British working class has disappeared; it is that they have, for a long time, failed to count as a material factor in British politics. While policy from the first unemployment benefit introduced by the New Liberals has concerned itself with the working class, it has always been designed by and voted for by the wealthier middle class. The working class in British politics are people whom things are done to and things are done for; they are not a political force in their own right, and fundamental to this sad state of affairs is the failure of Britain to produce a genuine working-class political party.

Image shows John Major, wearing a Remembrance Day poppy and pointing his index finger.
John Major left school at 16 with only 3 O-levels and subsequently worked as a clerk, in contrast to the more privileged background of his successor, Tony Blair.

The failure of working-class political parties is not the same thing as the failure of working-class politicians – between Harold Wilson and John Major, every British Prime Minister came from a relatively humble background. The difference is that a working-class politician in a party sustained by the patronage of the middle class succeeds by emulating the rules of that particular club. The absence of a sectional party concentrated on representing the actual desires of the working class means that the policy set designed for them instead accounts for a belief in what they should want formed at an elite level and implemented as though it were fact. It also means that while a party may ostensibly orient itself towards class politics and diminishing the large gaps in economic and social capital between the classes, its lack of fixity in the class it claims to represent means that any such party is capable of switching allegiances to any cause it deems more worthy and dumping its putative constituents. In the case of British parties of the Left – from New Liberals to New Labour – this behaviour became something of a habit. No political affiliation based on sympathy rather than integration of belief, cause and base can hope to endure consistently in a world where other causes rend the heartstrings. While as recently as 1979 40% of Labour MPs had performed either manual or clerical work, this had declined to 9% by 2010, less than the percentage who had worked in marketing and public relations – in other words the working-class party is remarkable for the absence within its ranks of working-class people.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all Politics articles."The 60% of the British population who identify themselves as working-class have learnt the hard way that they count in policy making only when there aren’t other constituencies deemed worthier. Lord Mandelson’s admission that under the Blair government a political decision was made to “send out search parties” for immigrants was a classic of the genre.

Image shows a boarded-up pub in Birmingham.
There are currently 28 British pubs closing every week.

The arrival of a large number of low-skilled economic migrants was monumentally unpopular with the working class from inception. This was understandable given that the immigrants competed directly with the British working class for jobs, were prepared to work for low wages and endure miserable living conditions as they saw their migration as a prospect for savings, and also changed the character of the predominantly working-class areas where they live. I do not mean this last statement in the glib sense that these areas now contained different people and echoed to the sounds of foreign tongues, although I do not find it as ridiculous as many commentators do that people should find it upsetting to see social turmoil in the place where they live. Instead, I mean that it is natural that a population which sees itself as transient because it is comprised of economic and not lifestyle migrants will take less care of the environment which it inhabits and will participate less in local life – as indicated by the decline of the British public house, the decline in the number of players of traditional sports like rugby and cricket, the relative collapse of civic life as a pastime for anyone other than pensioner Rotarians and insincere, aspirant politicos. In this sense, the confusion over working-class concerns about immigration is a necessary consequence of the absence of a working-class political party, as was the decision to disregard them completely.

The failure of Marxism in Britain

Image shows a communist group marching through London, with red flags and a portrait of Stalin.
Marxism has never been successful in the UK; at its peak, the Communist Party of Great Britain, Britain’s largest such organisation, had only 56,000 members.

The question of how Britain came to be without a working-class political party is an intriguing one. Not only is the country one of the most divided by class issues, it was both an early adopter of industrial squalor and a late innovator in the realm of public welfare. In recent weeks I have written about how the lack of strategic direction in British industry in the last century, and the failure of the Attlee government to concentrate the nation’s Marshall Aid dividend in productive industries instead of housing, has distorted the contemporary economic history of the United Kingdom. In establishing a pattern in which the public sector at once resiled from a leadership role in private industry and at the same time set about enthusiastically diverting both public and private funds into bricks and mortar, the leaders of Britain in the first half of the last century arguably exerted a greater control over the contemporary political dynamic than any of their modern-day equivalents. In large part the failure of British industry has been a failure of scale – the post-war years left a legacy of hundreds of cottage operators in industrial fields where the Americans and Germans had consolidated. Addressing state socialism in Britain to housing and health rather than the processes which would provide the capital to pay for them was typical of the soft-hearted and timid approach of the post-war leaders. As a result, British industry withered and died in the second half of the twentieth century, crushed by competitors lying off both coasts which had been nourished by state industrial planning and tariff protection.

Image shows Euston Station in 1837.
Victorian industry was normally run on a small scale.

The lack of scale in British industry was not solely a post-war phenomenon; it dated from the late Victorian era. The British cult of the gentleman amateur, the national terror of being organised, the decentralisation of politics and industry which led to a pronounced localism in both – all of these conspired to produce a surprisingly parochial industrial culture in a country which regarded itself as the workshop of the world. In 1898-99, for instance, the average British workshop employed only 29.26 male workers (28.45 if textiles are excluded; statistics on female workers are hard to come by), according to Ross McKibbin’s outstanding analysis in the English Historical Review. At the same time only four employers in the country employed over 10,000 individuals. In this sense, the opportunities for collectivisation, and the impact of strikes beyond the immediate workplace affected were strictly limited as a result of Britain’s system of industrial organisation. The rise of the professional retail assistant compounded this fact – it became very easy for Britons to enjoy an entire working life in which they did not encounter professionally more than half a dozen other people of a similar rank. Another British disease – the cloying grip of middle management on both retail and industrial sectors – added another complicating factor for would-be revolutionaries – the employees with the wit and drive necessary to conceptualise, articulate and organise political movements could be co-opted into a management role very easily (this was in the fine British tradition of class mobility based on talent – a similar programme in Prussia, for instance, would have been impossible given that class there was always a question of blood over talent whereas in Britain this rule was not binding).

Image shows Brown Knowl Methodist Church, in Cheshire.
Methodism promotes equality between classes and acted as a powerful political force, but its focus on temperance was off-putting for many.

The British hostility towards collectivism had other sources too. The popularity of reformed religion, particularly in the industrial centres whose capture would be essential for any genuinely working-class political movement to occur, acted to emphasise the different cleavage factors amongst the working class themselves, rather than the similarities. Welsh Methodism, for instance, a powerful political influence in its own right, served only to underline the different patterns of thought between the teetotal valleys and the Hogarthian cities of Northern Britain. In that same sense, an awareness of national differences between the constituent parts of the Union (enmity between the working-class Irish and their English counterparts, for instance) again acted as a brake on collectivist feeling. In conjunction with the fact of industrial fragmentation, the cultural individualism and regionalism of British life at the turn of the last century was responsible for ensuring that it would be the upper and upper-middle class sympathisers in the Liberal Party who were left to carry the flame for working-class Britain.

Labouring onwards

Image shows central London with a bus going by, blurred in motion.
Living in central London on a junior journalist’s salary alone is nearly impossible.

The critic may argue that the historical record cannot adequately explain the contemporary political environment, particularly given that the modern working class is better educated, has access to excellent news coverage through the internet and has additional opportunities for self-advocacy through the same channels. There are two reasons why I believe that this is not the case. The first is that the mediation role of the media acts in such a way that it instinctively echoes the party system in which the better-off classes compete to offer solutions for the poorest without consulting them. The media acts to filter the political noise and distil Westminster debate into a series of manageable themes for easy digestion. In the same way, politicians take their lead from the media as this is the best way of bolstering their profile and making interventions which will win attention and approval both from party high command and from the wider country. Where these channels are still marked by high barriers to entry (educational and financial – both junior journalists and politicians must fund lives in Central London while earning close to minimum wages for their mid-twenties at least), they act to strip out the possibility of authentic working-class voices being heard, replacing them with an approximation of what these voices should be saying, as interpreted by a middle-class member of the Shadow Cabinet.
The second reason that Britain never developed a working-class party after the initial failure of the working classes to wrest control of the Labour movement from the sympathetic middle, is that the British party political system is still largely the frozen one put forward by Lipset and Rokkan. These academics argued that party systems in the West froze in the early Twentieth century fixing the pattern of national politics for generations after the original party alignment could be justified in terms of the social or political divisions which once called them into being.

Image shows Nigel Farage, UKIP party leader, with candidate Diane James, ahead of the Eastleigh by-election, surrounded by UKIP posters and signs.
UKIP is arguably Britain’s most working-class party, with manual workers heavily over-represented in its ranks.

This is a sensible analysis in that the advent of popular, mass-franchise politics formed powerful voting loyalties and, in conjunction with the selection bias of mass media news coverage in the twentieth century, brought into being a powerful barrier to entry for new parties. In turn, new parties were forced to base their platforms for entry into British public life on areas which the major catch-all parties had neglected – as has been the case with EU where the Referendum Party and then UKIP were concerned – this concentration, necessary to provide a reason for being, also proves an Achilles heel, allowing opponents to dismiss the suitability of these parties for public office thanks to their lack of a broad platform.
Is Britain a poorer nation for the lack of a working-class political party? Arguably the working classes are poorer – popular middle-class policies have been destroying large chunks of working-class life under the aegis of doing the right thing for them, showing that the missionary instinct is not entirely dead where the British character is concerned. It is hard to imagine that a working-class party would have shown New Labour’s enthusiasm for making life incrementally more difficult and less pleasant for working-class people by chipping away at their pleasures with sin taxes and smoking bans. It is hard to believe that a working-class party would have encouraged a form of migration to these shores which disproportionately benefits the wealthy but crowds out the poorest. It is ironic that perhaps what saved the social status of the old industrial and political families who impoverished Britain through their lack of industrial vision was their related inability to organise their capital, workers and plants efficiently – without mass industry, Britain was never in a position to produce a mass political party of her own.

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Image credits: banner; Major; pub; Marxism; station; Methodism; London; UKIP