No holding back?

Labour’s road to recovery must bring together grassroots organising with a recognition of changing class composition, argues Christine Berry

December 22, 2020 · 8 min read
Laura Smith, MP for Crewe & Nantwich and co-author of the No Holding Back report. (Photo: @jeremycorbyn/twitter)

The three central claims of the No Holding Back report published last month, from Labour MPs Ian Lavery, Laura Smith and Jon Trickett, are both true and important. First, that Labour has been losing working class voters in (some) communities of northern England for a long time, going back to the years of New Labour and before. Second, that Brexit was the final straw for some of these voters, who saw talk of a second referendum as yet another sign that the political establishment wasn’t listening and wasn’t interested in them. Third, that the only road to recovery lies through the patient work of grassroots organising: rebuilding a presence in these communities, rooted in practical solidarity and nurturing local leadership.

Blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the 2019 election result is convenient for the Labour right because it provides a handy alibi to avoid reckoning with these deep-seated problems. It also avoids facing up to the share of responsibility borne by this faction themselves – who were among the loudest voices pushing Labour towards a more pro-Remain position, with the Reform dimension on which Corbyn insisted. On this view from Labour’s right, all Labour’s problems began in 2015, and all it must do to win again is to restore its ‘credibility’ with swing voters, which it can do by combining a more centrist economic agenda with socially conservative ‘patriotism’. The party’s crisis in northern English towns is essentially the result of an image problem for which Corbyn is responsible, and can be resolved via the conventional tools of Third Way politics circa 1997: more polished PR, cleverer triangulation, better relationships with the mainstream media.

The dangers of this strategy are enormous. Even if it can succeed electorally – a very big ‘if’ indeed – it does nothing to reverse the alarming decay of our democracy, let alone to address the urgent economic and environmental challenges of our time. It accepts that politics can continue to be conducted in a bubble that floats ever freer and further from the people it claims to represent, with the implication that Labour’s job is simply to game our broken political system rather than to disrupt or change it. In other words, the core message of this report is one that Labour badly needs to hear. It’s disappointing, then, that the report itself doesn’t make a stronger case for it.

Firstly, if we are going to talk about Labour’s relationship with ‘working class people’ then we need to talk about the changing nature of class. Like many of their opponents on the right, the authors of this report are too ready to dismiss Labour’s new base of young, educated urban workers as ‘middle class’, based on outdated social grade classifications. Conversely, they don’t interrogate the idea that the Tories have won over ‘working class voters’ in the towns of northern England, even as they acknowledge that the high Tory support among this group is partly driven by retired homeowners who are income-poor but asset-rich. Just like in the rest of the country, age appears to be a huge factor in voting trends in the Red Wall – yet, remarkably, it is not mentioned once in this report. As books like Generation Left and The Asset Economy show, we cannot understand either class or voting patterns in modern Britain unless we understand the growing generational divide between those who were ‘bought in’ to asset-ownership under Thatcher’s Right to Buy, and those who are now locked out of it.

If we are going to talk about Labour’s relationship with ‘working class people’ then we need to talk about the changing nature of class

This also matters because it erroneously feeds a narrative in which Brexit was a fundamentally working class project, driven by economic and political disenfranchisement, that was obstructed by a ‘metropolitan elite’. The implication is that if Labour had backed Brexit enthusiastically and combined this with a radical economic offer, it would have won. Opposition to Brexit within the party, the report’s authors suggest, was driven by the ‘middle class’ portion of its base, who should simply have been ignored. This narrative is beloved by Lexiteers, but it fails to engage with the politics of Brexit as it actually existed. Lexit was never successfully put on the table by those who advocated it. The Brexit vote was driven as much by anti-immigrant sentiment amongst wealthy people in the Home Counties as it was by anger at the political establishment among low-income people in the north. There can be no doubt that its success emboldened reactionary, racist-nationalist political forces. We know that people of colour were more likely to be physically and verbally attacked on the streets at key moments when Brexiteers ‘won’. This is why Labour members were so overwhelmingly pro-Remain: symbolically and politically, they knew what Brexit represented. It is not good enough simply to dismiss these concerns.

To be clear, I don’t wish to suggest that the authors of this report are anything less than committed anti-racists. I am sympathetic to the argument that Labour should have continued to respect the referendum result, and that not doing so fatally aligned it with an arrogant and out-of-touch political class. I have long been among those who argue, as the authors do, that tackling anti-immigrant politics requires us to tackle the underlying issues for which immigrants are being blamed: crumbling public services, fragmenting communities, a dearth of good jobs. But Brexit was not only about that. For me, one of the key lessons of the 2019 election was that a bold economic offer was not enough to neutralise these other meanings of Brexit. Promising to address people’s economic grievances does not absolve us from the need to confront issues of race and national identity head-on. In this context, it’s concerning that the authors choose to quote a Labour member repeating the trope that ‘we’ve gone too far down the identity politics route rather than class politics.’ This steers dangerously close to political narratives about the ‘white working class’ that erase the experience of working-class people of colour, and miss the real challenge: to build an intersectional politics based on solidarity across difference.

Finally, this stance creates a tension with the authors’ talk of ‘democracy’. One of their key arguments against Labour’s Brexit policy was that it did not respect democracy. They also call for a more member-led internal democracy and argue that members are too often being ignored. But in relation to those same members’ support for a second referendum, the report bemoans those who ‘wanted to placate (rather than lead) the membership’. What is this stance if not anti-democratic? Any serious Lexiteer must squarely confront the tension between their commitment to party democracy and the fact that it was party democracy which caused Labour to shift towards Remain. This report does not.

I make these points not because I think the authors’ voices should be ignored, but on the contrary, because I think they should be heard. They have important insights into Labour’s deep disconnection from its roots. They are right to highlight that Starmer’s improved polling appears to be largely driven by ‘middle-class’ professionals, and is not closing the gap with Labour’s traditional heartlands. Most importantly, their prescription of deep community organising has got to be right. But I fear it will be too easy for opponents to dismiss this report as just another Labour faction cherry-picking evidence to justify what they already believed.

Christine Berry is a freelance researcher and writer and was previously Director of Policy and Government for the New Economics Foundation

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