British politics is in a funny place right now when it comes to the question of class, indeed sometimes one can feel like Alice in a looking glass world where nothing is quite what it seems. For thirteen years, from the election in 1997 through to their defeat in 2010, the British Labour Party spent a good deal of its time denying the salience of social class, or at least the continued existence of the working class. Reflecting their adopted prefix of ‘New Labour,’ the Party associated the language of class with an ‘old Britain’ of manual labour, dirt, and grime – manufacturing out, financial alchemists in. Rather like politicians in the US, the Labour Party was obsessed with the middle class or what was often described as “Middle England” — pollster shorthand for middle-, middle-class, centre-ground voters with little sustained commitment to any political cause or class identity. Even a Labour politician like former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a man with a serious working-class pedigree, conceded that even he was “middle-class now.”
As the left has sought to airbrush out its working-class heritage, recently something very strange has happened in the Conservative Party: some of its members have begun to talk in the language of class. A couple of weeks ago a new interest group was launched from within the Tory Party calling itself Blue Collar Conservatism, its website replete with images of row housing and looming smokestack. Its aim is to try and marshal the working-class vote for the Conservatives while at the same time denying that rhetorical space to the more progressive parties, most notably the Labour Party.
Blue Collar Conservatism treads an interesting socio-political line. It is obviously anti-Labour, but its existence owes a large debt to the contemporary image of the mainstream Tory party itself. We are now over two and a half years into the Coalition Government’s five year term. The Government is made up the Conservatives, who form the largest single party in Parliament but lack an overall majority, and their junior partners the Liberal Democrats, who came third in terms of seats after Labour. The make-up of the Coalition cabinet makes for interesting reading, with roughly two thirds of its members being millionaires. Further analysis reveals that this group comes from a very narrow band of educational background; more than half its members were educated at fee paying schools and only five of the twenty-nine members coming from state schooling system. More interesting still is the incredibly narrow range of University education amongst this political elite, with two thirds having gone to either Oxford or Cambridge.
So what does Blue Collar Conservatism stand for? Well, while it doesn’t exactly attack the Cabinet for its elite background, it does sound an alarm that the Party is successfully being portrayed as elitist and out of touch. I highlighted this last year in a blog about a series of policy misjudgements which saw taxes being raised on working-class consumables. More recently, the Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell (multi-millionaire, Independent school educated and alumnae of Jesus College Cambridge) had to resign after being accused of calling police officers “F***ing Plebs” after they asked him to dismount from his bicycle while exiting Downing Street, an accusation he vehemently denies.
Blue Collar Conservatism by contrast seeks to highlight the ordinariness of many party members, including their MPs. Their website includes back stories of struggle and hardship that seek to redress the image of bacchanalian excess of their more privileged high-profile colleagues. Beyond this vaguely amusing image that harks back to Kathy Newman’s piece on the world conjured up by the TV series Downton Abbey last week, the Conservatives have more prosaically been branded as being out of touch with what concerns core ordinary/ working-class voters. As David Skelton from the think tank Policy Exchange says:
One of the absolute major issues for blue collar voters at the moment is the cost of living. Last year was the biggest fall in real incomes for about 30 years. And one of the Tories’ Achilles heels is that they are associated with unemployment and associated with de-industrialisation. This is why the Conservatives in particular have to address job creation and tackle unemployment in a lot of northern and Midlands towns.
Blue Collar Conservatism’s answer is to speak to and for that section of the working class that sees itself as striving aspirational manual workers.
On the face of it, this could be a clever tactic, as suggested by a much-discussed recent poll from the think tank British Future, which reported that almost 60% of Britons described themselves as working-class. Blue Collar Conservatism has already managed to enlist a third of the Parliamentary Conservative party, so its approach clearly has traction and potentially challenges the Labour Party’s ability to assume that it has the working-class vote in the electoral bag.
By using the language of ‘striving’ and ‘aspiration,’ Blue Collar Conservatism is potentially shifting the class vernacular in the UK. This is an on-going process whereby the ‘respectable,’ ‘hard working’ members of lower socio-economic groups are split from those on welfare, whom the Chancellor recently described as ‘shirkers’ rather than as ‘strivers.’ Of course, labelling the poor as either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ is a rhetorical practice with a two-century pedigree.
The flaw in the Blue Collar Conservatism strategy might be its inability to go beyond thinking of the striving and aspiring working-class as anything other than being made up of isolated individuals. The Labour Party needs to rediscover a collective language of class that celebrates working-class achievement around mutual improvement and self-help, community activism and local citizenry. Much of what was and is good about working-class culture in Britain can be described as ‘striving’ and ‘aspiration,’ but the difference was that people realised that this was linked to a collective sense of endeavour and responsibility. Successfully shifting the vernacular back to highlight these qualities would help frame a different debate and create a new range of progressive possibilities for the idea of class.