The Labour Party: changing faces, shifting bases

As Jeremy Corbyn and the movement that supports him confront Owen Smith and most of the Parliamentary Labour Party in a battle over the direction of Labour, Jon Anderson charts the historic shifts in the demographics of the party, from the PLP to its activist and electoral bases, and the changing relationships between them.

Kilburn, NW London rally for Corbyn. Photo: Steve Eason

45 years ago, Duncan Hallas posed the question of whether the traditional Marxist model of a vanguard party was still viable – this by way of comparing the working class as he found it in 1971 to that which he remembered from the 1930s. His answer was “yes” but with the important caveat that a working-class “vanguard” in the old sense no longer existed, and would have to re-emerge through struggle. It’s important to note here that, while Hallas was writing as a time as distant from the 1926 General Strike as we are from his article, the sociology of Britain has changed much more in the meantime. Corbynism and the reaction against it throw this into relief; not just the viability of the radical left’s inherited organisational ideas, but even of Labourism as an electoral vehicle.

I will not be seeking here to provide a definitive answer. With the Labour crisis ongoing and its outcome uncertain, it wouldn’t make much sense to do so. But I do want to briefly flag up a number of long-term sociological, cultural and electoral trends that the left will need to address if it is to come closer to a workable perspective.

A declining class?

Hallas correctly points out the cultural shifts that were evident even in 1971 and have only accelerated since then. The old, more or less homogeneous working-class culture depicted by such artefacts as I’m All Right Jack, the Daily Mirror’s Andy Capp cartoons and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy has been pretty much definitively dissolved by television, the sexual revolution, the internet and so on. To young people today, the artefacts of that culture will seem completely alien. It’s not coming back.

In tandem with this is the material transformation in the structure of the working class wrought by the twin forces of automation and Thatcherism. Coal is virtually gone; steel is now a niche industry with a vastly smaller workforce; the big labour-intensive manual industries are gone. They’re not coming back either. The growth sectors of more recent years – notably the call-centre economy and New Labour’s decentralisation of government backroom functions to the de-industrialised North – form a very different landscape.

Obviously this has a huge effect on trade unions as the basic organisations of the working class. The rank-and-file strategy developed by Cliff, Hallas and others in the 1960s and 70s was predicated on manual labour and a reliance on piecework and overtime that made for strong shop-floor organisation. With fewer engineers or miners around today, the centre of gravity of the unions has become white-collar public sector workers. Teachers or local government workers on three-year pay deals require a very different type of organisation. And, short of major strides in organising the unorganised precariat, that is where the majority of union activity is going to be.

There’s also the factor that the expanding layers of white-collar workers, though they may be proletarians in the strict Marxian sense, are frankly culturally closer to the middle class. That isn’t to rule them out of trade unions, the Labour Party or the radical left – they’re arguably the strongest bastions of all those groups. But it is to demonstrate that 1970s models, let alone 1930s models, have very limited applicability today.

The shifting base

If we want to talk about the rise of Blairism in Labour, there are a number of key intellectual influences in addition to the decline of the traditional organised labour movement. Neil Kinnock’s New Realism, the Hawke-Keating Labor governments in Australia, the Clinton administration in the US and the “broad democratic alliance” project championed by the Marxism Today Eurocommunists – not a few of whom reinvented themselves as Blairite outriders – all played their part. But these were all, in their own way, attempts to deal with changes in the party’s base. Eric Hobsbawm’s “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” (1978) is an early and serious example, but this sort of thing abounded in the 1980s.

There are two points worth noting here. The first is the revolution in polling which took place in the 1960s. It seems strange now, but before this the concept of the swing voter did not really exist. The assumption was – and this wasn’t an unreasonable assumption given the landscape of the 1940s and 50s – that the two major parties based themselves on fairly static class-based blocs of more or less equal size, and whether Tories or Labour won an election came down to how effective they were at mobilising their base.

What became clear in the late 1960s was that, even if this had been true in the past, it was beginning to break down. (The events of the 1970s, with a Liberal revival, electoral breakthroughs for the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the threat of a breakthrough for the National Front, demonstrated that.) The thinking now was that at least a section of younger voters were much less tribally partisan and more volatile than had been assumed. Many of them were in the skilled working class (what was referred to as the C2 group), many were in newer industries and lived in the New Towns or suburbs rather than the established urban working-class areas.

This insight provided the initial basis for pollsters, marketers and the political class generally in the succeeding decades. Murdoch’s Sun took off by appealing ruthlessly to this sector of the population, as the Daily Mirror’s stereotypical “man in the cloth cap” went into decline. Mrs Thatcher would famously ask “What have we done for the C2s today?” and again, this is where her government’s populist policies – selling council houses or utility shares on the cheap – were targeted. More recently we’ve seen a micro-targeting of ever more esoteric social groups like “Basildon Man” or “Worcester Woman”.

A similar insight from a different angle came in Adam Przeworski’s Capitalism and Social Democracy (1985). This was a Marxist book that wasn’t very popular with Marxists, due to its embrace of rational choice theory and its conclusion that reformist strategies made more sense than revolutionary ones. But Przeworski also put forward a very useful thesis on the development of social democratic parties.

The thesis was this: traditionally, parties of labour have based themselves on manual workers, but have also included liberal or radical elements of the middle class. This was necessary, because manual workers by themselves couldn’t provide a basis for parliamentary majorities. But, as the traditional working class has gone into demographic decline, over the long term the middle-class element has come to be more and more critical, and eventually to predominate. Meanwhile, the party’s historically dominant element has come to be left behind. Even if you don’t accept Przeworski’s whole thesis, this maps quite well onto some key features of Labour’s history.

The Blair synthesis

It should be clear by now that, despite Tony Blair’s huge electoral success, his government was not a transformative one in the sense of the Attlee or Thatcher governments, setting the terms of politics for a generation or more. Actually, in policy terms, it’s arguable that Britain has had more or less the same government since John Major took office in 1990.

The real success of New Labour – aside from Blair’s personal charisma – was in marketing. It successfully marketed itself to elements of the middle class as unthreatening (having ditched socialism), competent (the Tories having had their reputation shredded on Black Wednesday) and in tune with a culture of material aspiration. Not that the Labour core vote was totally ignored – they did get some modest redistribution via tax credits, and renovation of crumbling school buildings through the Private Finance Initiative – but they were hardly the target of the exercise.

The arithmetic is key here. New Labour could win elections by appealing overwhelmingly to segments of the middle class, because the assumption was that the working class had nowhere else to go. And for a long time that held; but it holds no longer.

At the moment, Labour has sunk to third place in its traditional bastion of Scotland. The SNP, with a technocratic centre-left profile, has expanded from its middle-class base to gobble up large chunks of the traditional Labour vote. More recently, the Scottish Tories, under the very un-Tory leadership of Ruth Davidson, have become the hegemonic party of hardcore Scottish unionism. There is no obvious way back for Scottish Labour.

In Wales, for long a one-party Labour stronghold, the party is in serious long-term decline and has hit historic lows in the polls, losing support both to Plaid Cymru and UKIP. In England, there are a swathe of Northern and Midlands seats which were once rock solid for Labour, but are no longer – the party has been saved by the implosion of the Liberal Democrats, who once threatened some of these neglected heartlands, but many seats are now looking like UKIP targets. (True, UKIP has a formidable capacity to screw up a strong position, but one can’t rely on that forever.)

Outside of the big cities and university towns (and the Greens could well surge in the latter), there are few areas that Labour can take for granted any more. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Politicians shouldn’t be able to take the electorate for granted, and far too many of Labour’s problems stem from doing so.

This is not to say that Blairism is totally finished. Theresa May, having dispatched David Cameron’s neo-Brideshead government of public school chums, looks like she intends to run a fairly Blairite administration. With the Tories having lost much of their more plebeian support to UKIP, a strategy based on winning a supermajority of the middle class makes sense for her. But Blairism doesn’t look like a viable strategy for Labour any more.

The activist caste and the MP caste

There’s also the issue of the make up of the Labour Party and the PLP, which are rather distinct things. When MPs complain that activists are not representative of the broad mass of voters, they aren’t entirely wrong. But of course parliamentarians are even further removed from the voters.

The enormous membership surge preceding and following Corbyn’s election as leader changes things in important ways that aren’t yet clear – because we don’t as yet have detailed statistics on where and who the new members are – but it’s worth looking at the long-term trends, not least because these have formed the present parliamentary contingent. A major problem for Labour has been the party’s increasingly London-centric and gentrified profile; a party that’s more likely to put the CEO of a health trust into Parliament than a ward nurse. (The detailed stats from the 2010 leadership contest helpfully revealed, for instance, that Richmond Park had a bigger CLP than the Rhondda.)

Nor is this simply a matter of the membership having been more middle-class than the base, important as that is. An old tactic of the Labour Right was to keep membership low so it could be more easily controlled. This was the hallmark of the old Braddock machine in Liverpool, and more recently it explains how Scottish Labour collapsed so thoroughly. Across the country, supposed heartland constituencies had tiny, barely functional CLPs, while a couple of dozen hothouse constituencies in London – the ones where the Spads, lobbyists and assorted political class types live – had very large and very active memberships.

Let’s also consider the route taken by an increasing proportion of MPs as they rise up the political ladder. It was always a bit of a myth that the Labour benches in the commons were full of manual workers, and even those who were elected often weren’t all that good. Also, sponsorship by unions like the NUM or AUEW did result in a PLP that was much whiter and more male than the base; but, at its best, it was a powerful connection to the base. It meant there was at least a leavening of MPs who were familiar with the life experiences of their constituents.

One reason for the shift is, paradoxically enough, the drive to make Labour MPs look more like their constituents. Now, looking at the gender balance of Parliament before 1997, nobody can deny that some drastic action was needed to get more women in the House; but nobody who knows the Labour Party can deny that All Women Shortlists have been a very useful tool for party fixers. Whether a selection is assigned to be AWS or not seems to depend very much on whether there’s a need to parachute a favoured son or daughter into a safe seat, or conversely to stop a local favourite getting in. In quite a few selections, there are only three or four applicants. (There is also the well known but rarely mentioned fact that, these days, women very rarely win selections that aren’t AWS.) If the party ever introduces ethnic minority or LGBT quotas, the same fixing imperative will come into play.

In parallel with this ran the increasing ideological conformity demanded between the late 1980s and the 2010 election. (Ed Miliband’s loosening of discipline led to a somewhat more interesting 2015 intake.) This is why the Labour Left has been reduced to a smallish and often quite elderly rump in Parliament, thus weakening Corbyn’s position within the PLP. It’s also noticeable that the once formidable Eurosceptic wing of Labour – and over a third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit – is represented by only a handful of maverick MPs on the left and right fringes of the PLP.

What the party has been very efficient at was in developing a career path for aspiring members of the political class. We can see this already in the Kinnock era, where the Labour Right’s rising stars would cut their teeth in the National Organisation of Labour Students. (This, if nothing else, was a wonderful school in the dark arts of factional infighting, as evidenced by the many NOLS alumni in Westminster today.) Then the party apparatus would sort them out with a sinecure as a trade union “researcher”, which often meant research into safe seats rather than anything that might serve the members. Finally, they would pitch up in the Commons, never having had any paying job in the real world.

It’s been refined since then, of course. Unpaid internships became a thing. Union sinecures were supplemented by third-sector sinecures, think tanks, the increasing ranks of Spads and party apparatchiks, and the use of strategically placed comment pieces in the Guardian or New Statesman as a means to get one’s name known. The Blairite faction Progress has become something similar to a Masonic lodge, existing not so much to push policies as to help its members win selections. Otto Bismarck famously compared the passing of legislation to the making of sausages, in that it was a necessary process but you didn’t really want to see it in action; the recruiting of a political class is something of the same ilk.

Obviously this isn’t universal; there are plenty of MPs, on the Right as well as the Left, who are popular, hard working, often local. But to say this just highlights the imbalance that’s not only been allowed to develop, but has been created deliberately by a generation of party leaders.

The present impasse

What we see, therefore, in the current Labour crisis is essentially the MP caste
declaring war on the activist caste. It seems unlikely that the membership will fail to re-elect Corbyn; it seems even less likely that the PLP would accept his re-election. Its constant undermining of the malleable and inoffensive Ed Miliband during his leadership should demonstrate how the PLP Right operates. The majority of the PLP simply will not be reconciled to a leader who isn’t their choice.

But neither the MP caste nor the activist caste really represents a social movement. The activists are somewhat closer to it, and to the extent that Corbyn has a vision of the party, transforming it into a social movement seems like an option worth pursuing. It may be the only option, if Labour is to maintain any relevance to its base. It seems that Len McCluskey and other union figures understand this very well. They at least have noticed how the SNP managed to grow into a mass membership party on the back of the independence referendum, and gain a real presence in communities where its roots had been meagre. This might just work for Labour, though probably not for the moribund Scottish franchise.

Corbyn BAME rally. Photo: Steve Eason
Corbyn BAME rally. Photo: Steve Eason

The leadership crisis moving out of Parliament and into the membership makes for much better ground for Corbyn to fight on. Frustrated anti-Corbyn pundits have wondered aloud why Labour “moderates” don’t just change the selectorate by recruiting masses of anti-Corbyn members. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the most motivated and coherent section of anti-Corbyn MPs – the hardcore Blairites – are roughly Britain’s equivalent of the #NeverTrump Republicans in the US clustered around figures such as Bill Kristol and Grover Norquist; they just remind the activists of everything they didn’t like about the old regime. This is why their candidate, the articulate and personally likeable Liz Kendall, could only poll 4.5% in last year’s leadership election, and this year they didn’t even run a candidate. The premium now is on finding an anti-Corbyn candidate (this year’s model being Owen Smith) who can make some tenuous claim to be “soft Left”.

In fact, Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP, including leading members of the Progress faction, have been very keen in their public statements to stress their personal respect for the leader and how much they agree with him on basic principles; they don’t object to his policies, they say, but just want a figurehead with better media skills. This is not what they are telling their favoured Lobby journalists; but it does demonstrate they are beginning to realise how isolated their true position is amongst the party membership. Hence, while they brief that Corbyn is returning to the failures of the 1980s, Owen Smith is trying to convince the membership that he really stands for 1950s-style Bevanism.

The second, perhaps more important reason, is that the MP caste, as noted above, don’t like the idea of a mass membership. This was what was so incongruous about Gloria De Piero’s desperate appeal to Sun readers to join Labour and vote Corbyn out of the leadership. The PLP Right can barely tolerate the current activist base; they certainly don’t want hordes of white-van-driving Sun readers becoming Labour members and, presumably, expecting to have a say in the party’s priorities. The same attitude is shared by many aspirant MPs working their way through the Spadocracy. A bigger membership is less predictable and less amenable to the party’s fixing culture.

Make no mistake, either: the current Red Scare being promoted by Tom Watson, with its 1980s-style warnings about Trotskyist infiltration, is a giant distraction. Whatever criticisms can be made of Momentum, it is definitely not a return of the old Militant Tendency, as that group’s former scourge Peter Kilfoyle has pointed out. It’s a talking point that plays well with Lobby hacks, whose contacts are invariably on the Labour Right, but the idea that the 120 or so members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are about to take over Labour is ridiculous. More to the point is the party apparatus going to court to exclude 130,000 paid-up members from voting, no more than a tiny fraction of whom will be Trotskyists. But even that legal victory will only affect the margin of the election, not the outcome.

So, the immediate prospect is for Corbyn to be returned to the leadership. But then the battle moves back to Parliament and the media where he remains at a serious disadvantage. A formal split in the party can’t be ruled out, though for the moment, George Eaton’s prediction that the PLP will simply go on fighting a war of attrition to make his leadership untenable looks good for the medium term. Right-wing MPs, looking at the history of the SDP, will be reluctant to walk out and abandon any claim to the Labour brand, its property and structures, and most importantly the union funding which keeps the party afloat and which can’t easily be replaced by private donors like Tom Watson’s celebrity friends from Hacked Off.

And this is where the crisis has left us. The Corbyn project of turning the party into a social movement may well not work, and indeed the Corbyn leadership may well be a last throw of the dice for Labour. But, in a situation where the parliamentary party has become as distant from the party’s base as is now the case, an attempt to re-establish parliamentary supremacy in Labour – including a restoration of the politics the members voted so heavily against last year – that appears downright suicidal.


  1. A very interesting piece and in my view correct about the decline of the manual working class (I was active in the IS during the last wave of genuinely proletarian militancy in the late 1960s/early 1970s). One element missing from Jon’s piece is the “Precariat” hypothesis: namely that a new sublatern class may be arising (comprising zero hours workers, migrants, the downwardly socially mobile well educated young etc). I am agnostic as to whether these social forces may evolve into a “new working class” but they are a highly fissile component of the new political/social scene and are a striking component of the Corbyn movement.

  2. The main problem with Przeworski’s book is that he doesn’t recognize that some of the most radical socialists have come from white-collar and more affluent backgrounds. Rosa Luxemburg wasn’t exactly salt of the Earth when she was growing up; perhaps ironically, Eduard Bernstein’s background was far more blue-collar. I also remember reading that those who pushed the French Socialist Party as far to the left as it was during the 1970s were from the white-collar strata.

  3. Excellent and thought-provoking piece here, particularly the part providing a materialist overview of the current post-industrial stage of capitalism.

    The author is undoubtedly correct about the disappearance of mining jobs and the rise of the precariat, but just because the jobs disappeared doesn’t mean the people who held those jobs disappeared. I would assume these people are the aged 50 and above (white) down-and-out workers and pensioners helped propel Brexit to victory, no? I think this element of the working class is an important one that has largely abandoned Labour either by going over to other parties or by simply no longer voting if the turnout for Brexit vs. turnouts for the general and local elections of the past 1-2 decades are anything to judge by. How can those voters be won back? (Should they be won back?)

    The notion that a Corbyn-led Labour Party could become some kind of social movement a la the SNP in Scotland to me seems fanciful. The SNP became the political expression of a mass-based desire in Scotland for greater autonomy from Westminster but that process can’t be artificially replicated when there doesn’t seem to be some kind of broad-based popular sentiment across the U.K. that the existing parties are studiously ignoring. There is no obvious way back for Labour in Scotland but the inability to win any Scottish seats in parliament means that for Labour to govern again those numbers must be made up elsewhere, but where? England? Wales? And even more importantly, how? Neither Corbyn, Corbynism, nor their opponents have any even remotely plausible answers here and until that changes, comrades could be looking at another long period of Tory rule a la Thatcher and Major until Labour somehow gets its house in order (which is by no means guaranteed). If the Thatcher-Major period produced Blairism, what will the coming period produce in today’s and tomorrow’s Labour Party?


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here