Can Boris Johnson hold on to the Working Class? Credit: Finnbarr Webster/Getty

July 24, 2020   4 mins

I am often asked, on social media and elsewhere, why I remain attached to the Labour party. The questioners are usually well-meaning, though many find it hard to disguise their incomprehension at the fact that anyone purporting to stand for the interests of the working-class would have anything to do with an organisation which has, in large measure, become openly hostile to it.

Often these interlocutors will reveal an inner residual fondness for what they believe Labour to have once been – a communitarian, patriotic party espousing economic justice and rooted in the principles of family, work, belonging, vocation and reciprocity – and declare that they would support the party today if it still stood for these things. “I’d vote for the Labour party my grandparents voted for,” is a common refrain.

I tell them that I am under no illusion about the extent of the chasm that has emerged between Labour and the working class. Labour has historically been the vehicle that has advanced the interests of the working-class through its willingness to challenge the domination of capital, confront vested interests and diffuse power and wealth more widely throughout society. And for all its current and deep-seated faults, it still has the capacity to play that particular role.

And notwithstanding its oversteer towards the urban middle-classes and the attendant self-destructive slide into hyper-liberalism and identity politics, there continues to exist within the party a few lingering threads on a fraying rope that are just about preventing it being wrenched irretrievably from its old ideological moorings. These can be seen in the work of a small number of groups and individuals who understand that, to win power again, Labour must begin lavishing love and attention on the very people – the traditional working-class – whom it has spent so long alienating.

So while it cannot be denied that much of today’s Labour party is wedded to the precepts of liberal wokedom and obsessed with fringe political causes, it also remains the party of the Durham Miners’ Gala, the co-operative movement, trade unionism and the singing of Jerusalem at the end of each annual conference. These sorts of things represent a vestigial working-class spirit within Labour that the Tories will always struggle to emulate.

Nonetheless, it is hard to pinpoint a time since the 1930s when Labour was so disconnected from its working-class base and far from power. Even in the calamitous general election of 1983, the party largely held on to its strongholds. But today, seven months on from the latest electoral catastrophe and on the anniversary of Boris Johnson’s first year in office, Labour arguably remains at its weakest in almost a century, its poll ratings flagging (in spite of the party being under new management) and many of its so-called Red Wall seats under Tory management. That this should be happening after a decade of grinding Tory austerity remains a mystery to some. But it really oughtn’t be.

After a year of Boris Johnson in No 10, the Tories are still dominant for a simple reason: they have captured the mood of the bulk of the working class. It is that simple. They understood that there existed in British politics a gap in the market that no party had for a long time seemed willing to fill. And they saw that by exploiting that gap they would attract the support of millions of working-class voters whose anger and resentment had been festering for years.

These were voters residing in the grittier, hard-pressed parts of the nation who had witnessed their communities altering before their eyes as a consequence of unrelenting globalisation, deindustrialisation and shifting demographics. They didn’t take kindly to the toxic mix of social and economic liberalism that had been foisted on them. They had suffered the effects of low wages and a lack of decent housing. They lived in the type of places – post-industrial, small-town and coastal Britain – which hadn’t exactly embraced all aspects of the cultural revolution and where traditional values were often still in common currency. They wanted not only economic security, but also a bit of cultural security. They had voted for Brexit in large numbers and were bitter at the establishment’s refusal to implement it.

The Tories saw that these millions felt unrepresented and, in the lead-up to December’s poll, got their messaging spot on. They would get Brexit done. They would end free movement. Austerity would be replaced by investment in housing, jobs, skills and infrastructure projects, bringing new opportunities and restoring a sense of pride to our industrial wastelands. This wasn’t so much the Tories parking their tanks on Labour’s lawn as barging through the front door, plonking themselves on the sofa and grabbing hold of the remote control.

Whether the reality will match the rhetoric is another thing. Boris Johnson is almost certainly no Keynesian interventionist by instinct – and neither are most of his MPs – so it’s hard to believe that the new direction adopted by the Tories is motivated by anything more than a cold electoral calculation about what it will take for them to hang on to their new supporters. They must surely know that any return to economic retrenchment in response to the Covid-19 fall-out will certainly do nothing to cement that support.

If, therefore, the Tories spend the coming years delivering on their promises, Labour has got a serious problem on its hands. Having taken the leap of voting Tory for the first time, many working-class voters will feel that the taboo of supporting their traditional enemy is for ever broken. It’s unlikely they will hesitate to vote the same way again if they feel their trust has been sufficiently repaid.

What, in these circumstances, would be Labour’s message to its old supporters? Would it cede the communitarian, patriotic, interventionist ground to the Tories and seek to outflank them on other issues? Trans equality? Freedom for Palestine? Defend migrants’ rights? All themes that are well-meaning, no doubt, but ultimately not the defining factor in whether the party will ever win back its old strongholds.

No, instead Labour must get back on to that territory usurped by the Tories. Start talking about the issues that matter most to working-class people. Demonstrate that it really means business by ditching the obsession with identity politics and wokedom. Show that it can again be the vehicle to advance the cause of the working class against the resistance of vested interests.

It will be a mammoth task. And it needs to start happening soon. Otherwise that fraying rope still tenuously linking the party to its traditional base will become severed for good, and no amount of appeals to history or sentiment will reattach it.

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker