How much does the narrative of a new, middle class Labour Party hold up? One must assess the claims often put forward by commentators.
Both before and after Britain’s snap election the Labour Party, headed by Jeremy Corbyn, has been accused of becoming a party for a middle class, liberal elite. I say ‘accused’ because commentators have argued that as a result, the party’s traditional working class voters have been abandoned. Results from election night have been grasped by such critics as tangible evidence of this class drift. While not seeing a significant loss of seats, there were large swings in vote share from Labour to Conservative across the North of the country; areas traditionally being Labour’s industrial heartlands. In contrast, significant swings from Conservatives to Labour were seen in the South. Shocking gains for the party were made in long-term Conservative safe seats such as Kensington and Canterbury. Christmas seemed to come early for narrators in the New Statesman and the Spectator when on Saturday, Mr Corbyn appeared to a cheering crowd of thousands at Glastonbury festival. This was proof, the commentators argued, that the Labour Party is now the party of middle class, kale-eating, festival goers. Consequently, one must see it as being far removed from ex steel workers in the north-east.
Yet just how much does this narrative of a new, middle-class Labour Party hold up? Is it fair to assume that if Labour has gained a new middle class voter base, that its traditional working class base must have therefore been tossed to one side? Is a north/south voter divide really a divide of the middle and working classes? Furthermore, is it fair to assume that there are no working class people at Glastonbury?
It’s time to make an assessment of these claims by looking at the evidence that is often used to support the narrative that Labour has become a “party of the middle class.”
Labour’s gain of safe Tory seats, such as Kensington and Canterbury
Kensington in South London is one of the richest constituencies in the country, being one of the few places in the UK to have an average household income in the hundreds of thousands. On face value therefore, Labour’s gain here, with a swing of over 11%, should conclude that richer people are now voting for the traditional worker’s party.
However, the average income figure does not give the full picture of daily life in the constituency. In addition to being one of the richest constituencies in the country, Kensington is also one of the most unequal. Child poverty in North Kensington is 34%, dropping significantly to 7% in wealthier areas of the constituency like Queen’s Gate. The Grenfell Fire disaster of just over a week ago was a clear demonstration of the living conditions a large proportion of the area face. To claim that Labour’s Kensington gain is a gain in a middle class seat, therefore, is far too narrow a claim to make.
Furthermore, the difference between the final result was just 20 votes; hardly an indication that Russian oligarchs and millionaires are now all voting for Labour. Perhaps it is the case that wealthier people chose to vote differently. Equally likely, however, is that poorer constituents felt more motivated to vote for Labour at this election, despite the Tories having a safe majority of 7000 in 2015.
The swing from Labour to Conservative in Northern constituencies, many of which voted Leave
Speculation prior to the election was that Labour would lose seats in constituencies which voted to leave the EU at last year’s EU Referendum. Overwhelmingly, these constituencies were poor, post-industrial areas. Data compiled after June 8th has indeed shown a correlation; areas which had a higher ‘leave’ vote had a larger decrease in Labour votes, and a bigger swing to Conservatives. This is despite the fact that Labour have backed Brexit, with Corbyn enforcing a three-line whip for the MP’s to vote for Theresa May’s Brexit bill.
Do large vote swings to the Conservatives, particularly in the north-east, show that Labour is fast loosing its position as the party of choice for the majority of working class voters? Have the seeds been sown for a dynamic demographic shift in Labour’s core voter base? Perhaps the results indicate that despite backing Brexit, Corbyn needs to go further in gaining the trust of those who voted Leave. Or perhaps the swing is not connected to the EU Referendum at all, and there are other reasons these constituencies moved towards Conservatives. An obvious contender is the collapse of the UKIP vote. Either way, the Labour to Conservative swing in the North should serve as a warning to the party that more needs to be done to retain these voters at the next election. Though one cannot declare that Labour is no longer the party of the working class, it seems that the gap is closing between Labour and Conservative being the choice for such voters.
Corbyn’s appearance at Glastonbury
Perhaps the most bizarre piece of evidence to be put forward by critics; Jeremy Corbyn’s appearance at the annual Somerset festival over the weekend was. at least for some, solid proof that the Labour Party no longer works for working-class voters. Instead, in the words of Christian Butler of Spiked, Corbyn is now the “hero of the leisured class.” This claim is built on an assumption that Glastonbury festival goers are overwhelmingly wealthy, and that the event does not at all appeal to those in lower wage brackets. Certainly, the price tag of £243 for a ticket means that the event is bound to appeal to certain brackets of the population more than others. In addition, the festival has faced criticism from cultural commentators before for being too comfortable – “the most bourgeoisie thing on the planet” – according to Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. However, does this amount to conclusive evidence that Corbyn has abandoned former miners in favour of vegan journalists?
Glastonbury is viewed by millions across the country through the medium of television. Last year 18.7 million of us tuned-in to watch Adele and Coldplay. Even though a ticket is not in everyone’s price range, it is difficult to argue that the festival isn’t accessible for many. The 18.7 million figure was likely made up of a good deal of working-class people, as the figure for this year will be. In addition, the assumption that working class people could not have saved up to engage in such “leisurely pursuits” is rather presumptuous. It sees such commentators taking on the same patronising attitude that they accuse Labour voters of having.
Corbyn’s appearance at the festival is more likely a testament to a change in how politics is now run. In addition, his popularity amongst young voters means his appearance at a music festival makes further sense. Yet, even if Labour is seeing greater support from Guardian reading eco-warriors, an appearance at Glastonbury in no way proves that Labour is no longer the worker’s party. The claim that Labour is now exclusively a party of middle class voters makes sense on face value. When evidence for the claim is broken down, however, the picture is not so clean-cut.
Commentators seem to be blind to the existence of a coalition of voters. Even if Labour has gained more middle class voting numbers, it does not mean that their working class support base has been abandoned. Certainly, Labour must do all it can to remain appealing to its traditional voter base. It would be naive to overlook the swing to the Conservatives in once presumed Labour safe seats, even if the party held on in these areas. Above all, however, it seems those who are dogmatic in this narrative are taking a binary approach to Britain’s class system – a binary that does not exist. Living in Kensington does not mean one is necessarily rich, just as it is entirely possible for a working class person to watch Glastonbury. We do not live in such a black and white world, and it is for this reason that politics has become so unpredictable in recent years.
Writer and editor for Conatus News, and contributor to various other publications. Student at University of Birmingham and recovering member of the Labour Party and student politics.