AUTHOR’S NOTE: This post was largely written before the announcement by Theresa May on 18th April 2017 of the 2017 General Election. As such this article, while it has received some editing, will largely not mention the impending election. The author, referring to himself in the third person, promises articles related to the election are forthcoming.
When I was first auditioning to be a writer for this fantastic website I was asked to write a short piece to prove I was coherent and could spell. Five hundred words on any topic I wanted. I know right, I wrote an article in five hundred words! Incredible! It was concise and made its point and everything. To this day I keep this promise of brevity by writing sprawling four thousand word articles about the nature of authoritarianism. Sometimes I wonder if CJ ever has buyer’s remorse.
I chose to write about Brexit and Donald Trump. At the time my own liberal bubble Twittersphere, Facebooksphere and Redditsphere (perhaps collectively known as Planet Exclamation-Mark) as well as more mainstream liberal media was abuzz with one thing: blame. Blame for the collapse of the liberal order Trump and Brexit represented. Overwhelmingly they chose to blame the public, in particular the white working class. They were a bunch of racists, sexists and homophobes. An irredeemable basket of deplorables. The unwoke masses.
I disagreed with this reading. Instead I argued that the working class delivered Trump and Brexit because the years of liberal rule had failed them. Despite the Clinton/Obama and Blair/Brown administrations providing leaders from parties that had once upon a time been the champions of ordinary people their time in office saw no material gains for the working class. In fact, quite the opposite. The working class was, of course, still expected to vote for these governments but when it came for these governments to fight their corner upon reaching office? Forget about it. Is it any wonder this class had abandoned the liberal establishment after it has used and abused them? I planned to make an expanded version of this article my first piece for the relaunched New Establishment.
But, evidently, it wasn’t. Instead I chose to write a piece about Labour’s decision making on Brexit using a Star Trek metaphor. Why was this? Because a funny thing happened between me writing that audition piece in December and the relaunch in February, people started to agree with me. I was reading articles, in liberal papers no less, arguing that to win again the left had to re-engage with the working class. Well, if everyone else is saying it why do I need to? I felt safe to scrap that article and write jokes about Klingon casting instead.
Now though liberal self awareness has died a quick death. It is once again a daily occurrence for me to look at the liberal press or my social media feed or one of the Remain campaigning groups I belong to and see the working class described as a mindless racist mob who shouldn’t be listened to at best and even denied the vote at worst.
So do the working class deserve to be thought of in this way or do they have legitimate grievances with the liberal establishment? It’s the second one. I wouldn’t be writing this article if it wasn’t. But I will now explain why.
Liberal Failure in Government
Liberals and the working class used to be natural allies. Labour governments of the past pursued socially progressive policies in tandem with redistributing wealth and standing up for workers. The Wilson government for example managed to decriminalise homosexuality, scrap the death penalty, end theatre censorship, legalise abortion and pass both the Equal Pay Act and Race Relations Act. I don’t think Liberals would find much to disagree about among that legacy. Back then the working class were not seen by liberals as a racist, sexist, homophobic basket of deplorables. The Wilson government and the Labour Party were only able to enter government and achieve all this thanks to strong working class support.
However, something happened in the 1980s to break this alliance that had done so much good. The left had suffered a series of bad defeats across the western world and the traditional social-democratic parties had to do something. This string of electoral failures was blamed on the middle class no longer being able to accept redistributive economics as an acceptable trade off for progressive social policies. To win back the support of the middle class the leadership of the Democrats in the US, the Labour Party in the UK and several similar parties throughout Europe would embrace right wing conservative economics. They’d keep the progressive social policies but they’d deregulate markets, lower taxes, break up welfare systems and smash unions with the best of them. And it worked. Of course this all devastated the working class and after thirteen years of liberal New Labour rule wealth inequality had only gone up. But who else was the working class going to vote for?
Such was the extent of New Labour’s attempts to marginalise poor, working class voters in the political process that they simply stopped talking about them. Before Blairism it wasn’t uncommon for Labour and even Conservative politicians to mention in speeches and manifesto documents the working class, trade unions and the poor. But after Blairism references to these groups steeply drop off. So utterly unimportant were the working class to our politics that they weren’t even worth mentioning. And we wonder why these people feel left behind.
Let’s also not forget the ‘faustian pact‘ made between the liberal governments and finance sector. Rather than the traditional social-democratic principle that there should be limits placed on the power of capital liberal governments pursued financial deregulation, which ultimately led to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008. The fallout of this crisis, which we are still feeling today, disproportionately hurt the working class.
For the Wrath of the Workers is Revealed
Well, after years of liberal disdain and abandonment, we know where the working class has gone. They have used their votes to strike down the bastions of the liberal establishment.
The EU referendum was first. The European Union is a central pillar of the post-cold war neo-liberal order of unrestrained capitalism and deregulated markets that has led to the staggering wealth gap we are feeling. The EU actively encourages its member states to adopt policies of extreme unregulated capitalism and harshly punishes states who try to push back against these policies, as we can see in the EU’s unforgivable treatment of Greece. This might seem like an overly academic breakdown of the EU referendum results, but there was a general sense during the referendum campaign among working class voters that ‘if you’ve got money you vote in. if you haven’t, vote out.’ Rich people like the EU, the rich have screwed me so I’ll screw them.
This is borne out when we look at a breakdown of how people voted in the referendum. Class, not age, was the strongest indicator of voting behaviour in the EU referendum, with working class voters largely backing Leave and only the top ‘AB’ class breaking for Remain. Nowhere in the UK with a median income above £30,000 voted leave. It may be comforting to think of the EU referendum as a generational divide with those dang old fogies with their backwards views voting to leave but there’s more evidence that it was a working class revolt against a liberal order that had failed them.
I voted Remain and I don’t regret my decision. I wish we’d voted to stay in the EU. Not because I think the EU is perfect but because I believe in a more connected world beyond national borders and I think the EU can be reformed from the inside. Also I’m privileged enough to be able to afford European holidays and I fear the non-EU queue at passport control. It’s just so long. But I also understand the good reasons some people chose to reject the EU and what it represented.
A funny thing happened in the US Presidential election too. Usually voters on lower incomes back Democrats and the wealthy back the business friendly Republicans. But in the 2016 Presidential election this switched with voters earning over $100,000 per year backing Clinton while working class areas with high levels of employment in manufacturing supported Donald Trump.
Here too the working class delivered a blow to the liberal order. Hillary Clinton was no progressive candidate but the continuity candidate of a failed political order. She was the candidate of austerity, privatisation, deregulation and corporate interests over working class jobs. The same strain of Third Way neo-liberalism that stopped even talking about the working class in the UK. At least Donald Trump was talking to the working class. His solutions were wrong but their issues weren’t being ignored anymore, as they had been so long by liberals.
Put yourself in the position of a struggling American voter worried about your future and where the next meal is coming from. You have a family to support and where their next meal is coming from is no more certain. One candidate is ignoring you and the other is a racist, misogynist monster, but he’s saying he’ll get your job back. What would you do? I would like to think I’d be strong enough to vote against Trump. But I’m a young single guy with no dependants and a strong personal safeyy net so I don’t know.
The Establishment Resurgent
You would think after these high-profile defeats and loss of working class support the liberals would think it would be time to do something. To bite the bullet and admit they can no longer assume working class support without fighting for them. And, briefly, yes they did. But that’s all stopped now. The liberal establishment is not only resurgent in our culture but in our politics.
Liberals may have lost some votes and some power but where they still wield authority is in the leaderships of the Democratic and Labour Parties.
Yes, Jeremy Corbyn, a politician offering a radical pro-working class program putting people before corporate interests, was elected leader of the Labour Party but he is only one man. The majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party belong to the labour right and they have made it their mission from day 0 to destroy Corbyn. Constant sabotage and attacks from the PLP have turned the Labour civil war into the story and made it impossible to disseminate a radical raft of policies that could have won back the working class if pitched by a united party. The PLP have left Jeremy Corbyn and Labour going into this general election in a state roughly analogous to Russel Crowe at the end of Gladiator. Even now, with the election underway, Labour MPs are trying to further cripple Labour’s chances.
In the last election for the chair of the Democratic National Committee, the governing body of the US Democratic Party, the Clinton/Liberal backed candidate Tom Perez triumphed with the support of the party establishment over his opponent Keith Ellison, who offered a more radical Bernie Sanders style program that addressed the concerns of the working class.
With Liberal establishments in both these parties actively working to block policy agendas that could win back working class support we will only see Trump and Brexit repeated over and over again.
A Need For Renewed Radicalism
But it’s not too late. The alliance can be rebuilt, so long as the left can become a working class movement again fighting for the working class.
Many people I know have written off the working class as a bunch of unwoke racists, but they were once at the forefront of radical tolerance and solidarity. It was, after all, not liberals but the working class who fought off British Nazis in the Battle of Cable Street. They have only been forced to turn towards a reactionary right because the ‘left’ has been taken over by wealthy liberals who have abandoned them to drown in an uncaring radical capitalism. If there is a radical, left wing, working class program on offer that appears to have a realistic chance of forming an effective government that spirit of solidarity can be reawoken.
We can see this right now in France where left wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon is winning over working class support and taking votes from Fascist LePen by breaking with the neo-liberal establishment ‘left’ to run a truly left wing campaign. Whether his late surge is enough to carry him to the Presidency is unclear but in the last few weeks the surge of his campaign, winning over working class support, should be seen as a model for the left across the world. A far more effective model than the disasterous milktoast Clinton.
It’s convenient for us to write off people who voted for Trump/Brexit as racists because it means we can dismiss their concerns. Why, after all, would we want to listen to a bunch of racists? We’re the progressives, we don’t need to think about the unfairness inherent in radical, unfettered capitalism. We can ignore inequality and the need for economic redistribution. Why should we give a penny of our money to a bunch of racists?
Until the left realises there is a need for economic radicalism as well as social radicalism, until it once again questions the assumptions of unregulated capitalism and looks to a fairer, more socialist economy run for the benefit of people rather than profit we only have more Brexits to look forward to. And yes, it will mean your Uber and your Deliveroo will cost a bit more. It will mean you have to pay a bit more in tax. But that’s worth it right? For all the progressive ideas you care about it’s worth it? Right? And if the answer is ‘no’, maybe the next time you’re at an anti-Trump or anti-Brexit rally ask yourself: how much do I really care?