The plight of the British Labour party—which can be found today still licking its wounds from a devastating 2019 general election defeat, presenting as a shadow of its once proud self—should be a warning to any political organization tempted to believe it can neglect its core vote and remain an electoral force. Labour’s dismissal of—indeed, contempt for—the conservatism of millions of working-class voters contributed to its worst result at the national polls in more than eighty years and has given rise to the distinct possibility that it will be out of power for a generation.
Founded as the Labour Representation Committee in 1900—born, in the words of one former statesman, “out of the bowels of the trade union movement”—the party commanded the loyalty of broad swathes of the British working class for much of the twentieth century. That it did so was a large part of the reason why Britain, unlike a number of its continental neighbors, was seduced by neither fascism nor communism.
Throughout much of its history, Labour was, in leftist terms, a broad church: simultaneously radical and traditional, a home for socialist and social democrat, monarchist and republican, Atlanticist and Europhile, all united in their vision of a New Jerusalem in which power, wealth, and opportunity were diffused as widely as possible.
The party’s roots were not just in organized labor, but in Christianity, mutual societies, and the cooperative movement. The early Labour tradition was patriotic and communitarian. The movement (of which, I should say, I am a proud member) understood that a distinctly conservative thread ran through much of the working class, and for most of its history it reflected that sentiment. It saw relationships of trust and reciprocity as the pathway to the deepest form of social solidarity, and self-organization by the working class through its own institutions as the best method of resistance to the domination of capital.
Though consistently a target for revolutionary infiltrators who could never win popular support on their own tickets, the Labour party remained wedded to mainstream constitutional politics. Harold Wilson, one of its prime ministers, rightly said that its history owed “more to Methodism than to Marx.”
The party, though grounded in working-class politics, always attracted a layer of middle-class, liberal-leaning voters who liked its vision of a more egalitarian economy and society. And it was much the better for that. At its most successful, Labour was an electoral compromise between working class and middle class, blue collar and white collar, social conservative and social progressive. But its raison d’être was to speak for society’s less fortunate, for those with little in the way of wealth or influence, who were compelled to sell their labor power in order to subsist.
Then, around thirty years ago, the coalition began to splinter. The foot soldiers of the 1960s Western cultural revolution were coming of age and beginning to put their stamp on the British left and wider society. Inside the Labour party this meant a gradual shift away from the interests and priorities of the old industrial working class and toward those of the upwardly mobile metropolitan middle class. Individualism and autonomy were in; patriotism, borders, religion, self-sacrifice, and tradition were suddenly “reactionary.”
The British left’s language became dominated by soggy buzzwords such as “equality,” “diversity,” and “inclusivity,” none of which meant much to a working class that still wanted to talk about family, work, and community. The left began to immerse itself in identity politics, promoting separateness and difference, when the working class was worried about social atomization and fragmentation. In attaching itself to every progressive and identitarian crusade, the left was often perceived as prioritizing these causes over class-based socio-economic issues.
Paradoxically, the new cultural radicalism took hold just as the Labour party’s economic radicalism had started to wane. Battered and dispirited after a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s rule—during which the “Iron Lady” had managed somehow to convince much of the country that “there is no alternative” to the new monetarist orthodoxy—Labour leaders began to make their peace with market fundamentalism. The old belief that governments had a duty to take an active role in managing the economy was being abandoned for a philosophy that placed blind faith in market outcomes and gave primacy to monetary targets over employment and growth. More and more, the real economy, where goods were made and wealth produced—and millions among the working class toiled—was neglected, and finance capital was indulged. The “people’s party” had come to accept not just free-market ideology but the most severe strains of it.
These shifts meant that the party was becoming unremittingly socially and economically liberal, even as much of its traditional vote remained conservative. An insouciant leadership calculated, however, that these voters had nowhere else to go and would remain loyal. For some years at least, that proved to be the case. In 1997, a British working class that had become heartily sick of eighteen years of Tory government helped propel Tony Blair to Downing Street on the back of an astonishing 179-seat majority.
But in the first decade of the new century, the relationship between Labour and the working class reached a breaking point. The effects of the new global market were beginning to be felt in many working-class communities. Faithful Labour voters looked on bewildered as factories closed and thousands of blue-collar jobs were transferred abroad, often to be replaced by a new, insecure, and transient style of employment—epitomized by the gig economy—or nothing at all.
These economic upheavals were accompanied by swift and far-reaching changes in local populations, which deepened the unease. Many post-industrial and provincial British (especially English) towns began to experience inflows of labor from lower-wage economies, particularly those in Eastern Europe, which created downward pressure on wages and higher demand for local services. Neighborhoods were transformed economically and culturally with shocking speed, as deindustrialization and demographic change took hold.
The affected communities cried out to their political representatives to acknowledge their plight, to understand the impact of galloping globalization on their job security, social solidarity, and cohesion, and to provide them with relief. But these pleas were usually met with lectures about how this new way of living and working would benefit the entire country through improved Gross Domestic Product and cultural enrichment. Often, they were disregarded as the gripes of bigots and nativists.
This dismissive attitude was exemplified by Blair when, in an address to the Labour party conference in 2005, he told delegates:
I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. . . . The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.
This message to working-class voters—that the changes sweeping through their communities were for their own good, and if they didn’t agree, well, there was nothing they could do about it—met, unsurprisingly, with little enthusiasm.
Leaders of the left seemed oblivious to the swell of resentment they had generated in Britain’s working-class communities during these years. But no refuge was to be had in a Conservative party led by the fresh-faced David Cameron, who had described himself as the “heir to Blair” and expended much effort in recasting his own organization as one supportive of “progressive” ideals.
Thus, neither left nor right respected or reflected the conservatism of millions of Britons in this period. An uncompromising liberal consensus had taken hold in all matters social and economic, so that the views of a significant portion of the electorate went largely unrepresented. These voters often possessed a strong sense of place, rootedness, and cultural attachment. They valued stability and order. They loved their country and respected the armed forces. They had a moral sense of right and wrong. They were no more disposed to hyper-liberalism as a social creed than as an economic one. They were not opposed to change or “progress,” and they were, for the most part, certainly not racist. But if change was to be imposed on them, it needed to be at a pace and scale with which they were comfortable. These voters sensed that both major parties now treated them like an embarrassing elderly relative: They needed them at election time but had no desire to be seen in public with them.
I saw this attitude up close in the district where I grew up. The borough of Barking and Dagenham in east London was solid Labour territory. Centered around a vast public housing estate, and with a Ford factory a major source of local employment, the place was working-class in every sense.
Many locals were to the left on economic issues (favoring progressive taxation, a higher minimum wage, trade union rights, tackling regional inequalities and boardroom excesses, and so on) and to the right on social and cultural issues (placing a high value on social solidarity and often taking a hard line on issues such as law and order, immigration, and national security).
For generations, voters like these supported Labour in their millions. It was their party, and it made them feel needed. But as the party underwent its radical transformation, they found that less and less did it speak for them or reflect their priorities.
In Barking and Dagenham, the impact of the new global market was particularly severe, with both deindustrialization (the Ford plant became a shell of its former self as production shifted abroad) and rapid demographic change causing a profound disorientation among the residents. This led, in 2006, to the far-right British National party’s winning twelve seats and forming the official opposition on the borough council—that upstart party’s best achievement in local government anywhere in Britain.
Working-class voters in places similar to Barking and Dagenham were, in significant numbers, likewise attracted by smaller, populist parties, and usually for the same reasons. Millions of others simply abstained. What was clear was that the working class was turning away from a Labour party that no longer understood their lives.
When the global financial crisis struck and these voters saw that the “light touch” approach to the economy Labour had championed was responsible for the financial hardship they were being asked to bear—and when, after the Brexit vote, the party favored a second referendum, effectively telling millions of working-class voters they had got it wrong and must vote all over again—the rupture deepened. Labour’s annihilation at the 2019 general election, in which it lost vast chunks of its working-class heartlands to a Tory party that under Boris Johnson had promised to “Get Brexit Done,” was inevitable.
A political movement founded explicitly to advance the interests of a particular group within society ignores that group at its peril. The British Labour party did just that: It turned away from its working-class roots and became a vehicle for the demands of Twitter, student radicals, social activists, and the professional and managerial classes. It now risks electoral oblivion.
Buffeted by the storms of globalization, millions of working-class people feel cut adrift. Naturally, they seek increased prosperity and opportunity. But they also yearn for something that transcends money and individual rights.
The failure of mainstream politicians to grasp this truth gave us Trump, Brexit, the gilets jaunes, and other movements and protests that speak to the alienation felt by working-class communities. These politicians, of both left and right, convinced themselves that a benighted working class would be won over to the new liberal consensus. It didn’t happen. The politicians had made a fatal error. They forgot the politics of belonging.
Paul Embery is the author of Despised: Why the Modern Left Loathes the Working Class.