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This retreat from class has been driven by misperceived electoral advantage. Few people in the party have dissected or even discussed this process.Yet it represents a direct reversal of the party’s historic role as the political representative of the working class. It is also a significant factor in New Labour’s electoral demise.
There is a fundamental problem for New Labour’s preoccupation with a mythical middle England. Contrary to received opinion, there is no empirical evidence for the withering away of the working class. Manual workers still account for a close to 40 per cent of total employment. When you add in clerical and secretarial work the non-managerial, employed labour force stands at some 15 million – approaching two in three jobs. A small proportion of the growth areas in the economy have been accounted for by a rises in computer managers, software engineers and programmers. But the real growth has been in the service sector, which has witnessed a massive expansion in cleaning and support workers, and increased work among the caring occupations – for example, care assistants, welfare and community workers and nursery nurses.
Many of these traditional, often low paid jobs are carried out by women. It’s no coincidence that there has been a loss of female support for New Labour.
A decade ago, approximately 15 million people identified themselves with Labour in opinion polls and 14 million of those voted for New Labour in 1997. By 2005 fewer than ten million Labour identifiers voted for the party and another five million natural Labour supporters, people who said they were Labour, either stayed at home or voted for largely non-Tory political alternatives.The broad electoral coalition that swept Labour to power in 1997 has gradually shrunk and, by 2007, all but collapsed.
In the 2005 general election, those sectors of the electorate who had shown the greatest propensity to vote New Labour just eight years before were the ones most likely to abstain.
The only social grouping that stayed loyal to New Labour was the static professional, administrative and executive class. Every other social group recorded significant swings away from New Labour, including the manual working class in Labour heartland areas.
New Labour, as defined by the electoral coalition on which it is founded, is unlikely to win power again. An urgent change of direction is needed, based on a thorough understanding of Britain as it is now, to build a new basis and firmer foundation for broader electoral support. Central to this is a new policy agenda to deal with working people’s material concerns, based on an understanding of class and people’s insecurity in the workplace.
We can achieve this without sacrificing the support of crucial middle class votes.They are also concerned about their own job security and pensions, and worried about how their children will be able to afford to buy a house and pay off student debt.To those who have argued that the key to the next election is maintaining the support of the aspirational middle class, I would say that although it is true that their support is necessary, it is not a sufficient condition for victory. If we maintain their support but fail to motivate the rest of our core vote, then we will lose.
The objective now is to build a new Labour project grounded in the realities of the modern world and not some stylised construction of modernity – the new knowledge economy – that seeks to entrench class and income inequality. If we do this we can win again.
Jon Cruddas is candidate for deputy leadership of the Labour Party. For more information on his campaign, visit www.joncruddas.org.uk