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Don’t Believe the Hype About “Blue-Collar Conservatism”

Britain’s Conservative Party used Brexit to cut a swathe through Labour’s electoral heartlands. But don’t be fooled by their last-minute populist makeover: the Tories are the same as ever — they’re not the party of the working class.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street for Prime Minister's Questions on February 5, 2020 in London, England. Hollie Adams / Getty

The British Conservatives have been the unapologetic defender of capitalist interests in the United Kingdom for the last century. But as their party leads Britain into a new era after its departure from the European Union, its relationship with big business appears more strained than ever before. As the historian David Edgerton argued last October, “Brexit is the political project of the hard right within the Conservative Party, and not its capitalist backers,” most of whom wanted the softest Brexit deal available if the project couldn’t be stopped altogether. Boris Johnson has dragged them into a place few could have imagined occupying a few years ago, even after the Leave vote of June 2016.

The Tory Chancellor Sajid Javid had a blunt message last month for readers of the Financial Times, the mouthpiece of Britain’s Europhile bourgeoisie: “There will not be alignment, we will not be a rule-taker, we will not be in the single market and we will not be in the customs union — and we will do this by the end of the year.” British capital could like it or lump it as far as he was concerned: “There will be an impact on business one way or the other; some will benefit, some won’t.” Javid had no sympathy for any firms that found themselves in the latter category: “We’re also talking about companies that have known since 2016 that we are leaving the EU. Admittedly, they didn’t know the exact terms.”

That was quite an understatement: almost everything about the Brexit process seemed to be up for grabs until the general election of December 2019 gave a decisive majority to Boris Johnson’s hard-Brexit platform. The reaction from the Financial Times’s readership was incredulous, as the letters page made clear (“It is the government that has failed to prepare,” “What were companies supposed to be ‘preparing’ for?,” and the pithy “What’s Javid smoking?”).

Javid had stronger grounds for saying “we told you so” when it came to the politics of Brexit, rather than its economics. After the 2017 general election, big business had ample opportunity to throw its weight behind the party offering a much softer form of Brexit. However, that party was led by Jeremy Corbyn, and combined its soft-Brexit policy with a social-democratic reform program that would have overturned the economic consensus of the past generation.

David Edgerton suggested that British capital simply lacked the capacity to impose its will on the country’s traditional bourgeois party, because of long-term economic shifts: “Today there is no such thing as British national capitalism. London is a place where world capitalism does business — no longer one where British capitalism does the world’s business.” As a result, the Conservative Party was not “stabilized by a powerful organic connection to capital, either nationally or locally.” But the presence of a left-wing Labour opposition ready to take advantage of Conservative misfortune may have been enough to deter big business from breaking ranks, with or without the transformations described by Edgerton.

Blue-Collar Brexit?

If the hard-Brexit turn executed by Boris Johnson has raised hackles among his party’s elite supporters, it also paved the way for the Conservatives to make unprecedented inroads into Labour’s traditional base. It was Brexit that did the heavy lifting for the Tories and handed them their big parliamentary majority. Despite Labour’s best efforts, this was an election defined by the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, and Johnson used that issue as a wedge to prise open Labour’s so-called heartland seats. Tory pundits exulted in the claim that Johnson now led “Britain’s working-class party,” and hailed the emergence of “a whole new generation of working-class Tories.” The BBC’s North American correspondent Jon Sopel urged the US Democrats to heed the lesson and steer clear of left-wing ideology: “Labour in the UK lost the working class, but gained the woke.”

These assertions usually relied upon the NRS social grade schema, designed as a tool for marketing, not class analysis. As Sopel’s dismissive comments suggested, they also relied upon the tacit exclusion of ethnic minorities from the working class. Simon Heffer even claimed that “Labour has become the party of the metropolitan bourgeoisie. London, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham are now its strongholds” — as if those cities did not contain large, multiracial working-class communities who found Johnson’s nostalgic patriotism deeply unattractive. But there’s no question that a crucial segment of the British working class — older, whiter, clustered in towns rather than cities — shifted from Labour to the Conservatives. As with Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, the geographical concentration of these voters in swing constituencies gave right-wing nationalism a powerful boost.

There is a complex dynamic of decomposition and recomposition at play in British electoral politics. December 12 was the culmination of a long-term process of disintegration. In the 1980s, the Thatcher government accelerated the decline of British industry by liberalizing capital controls and allowing companies to export jobs — a policy turn made possible by Thatcher’s success in taking on and smashing the trade-union movement. The consequences were felt especially hard in the Midlands, northern England, and parts of Scotland and Wales: not merely pit and factory closures, and an economic depression as deep as that of the 1930s, but the slow break-up of entire communities.

The identity anchor of place is rather empty if the only unifying characteristic of a particular locale is a shuttered mine or a closed factory. Families moved out and strangers moved in, as landlords bought up property and increased residential turnover. People found themselves subdivided among hundreds of employers, instead of two or three big local industries and their associated supply chains. Private life became increasingly privatized and individualized, and community bonds frayed to the point of irrelevance.

Most “heartland” communities are communities in name only, a collection of houses clustered around an arrangement of roads — dormitories with inner-city, suburban, and estate place names attached. Although the Tory governments of the 1980s quite deliberately fostered the break-up of working-class communities so as to undermine the labor movement, they could never have dreamt that the ultimate result would be to gain them seats in places like Stoke, Wrexham, Bolsover, and Darlington.

This is partly thanks to the persistence of certain symbols as totems of collective identity in the face of social atomization, such as sporting loyalties and, above all, the nation. That helps explain why there was such a clear divergence between voting patterns in England and Wales on the one hand and Scotland on the other: the same kinds of people, living in the same kinds of places, opted for the Tories in the former but the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the latter. One party of the Right, one of the center-left; yet both, for many of these voters, embodiments of a potent sense of belonging, in the absence of other symbolic resources that might be available to them. Brexit appealed, despite all the disruption and damage that has come in its wake, because of its deep emotional resonance with the banal consciousness and unconsciousness of nation for millions of people.

A New Working Class

And yet Brexit did not have the same appeal for all classes — or, to be more precise, class cohorts defined by age. One of the most striking features of the 2016 referendum and the two subsequent general elections was a stark generational divide: support for Leave and the Conservative Party tended to come from older people, while Remain and Labour both had their bases among the young. I would argue that the key reason for this divide is the expression in mainstream politics of a new working class that is still in the process of political formation.

The Italian workerist school has described and theorized the features of this new working class. Variously referred to as the networked worker, the socialized worker, or the cognitive worker, it is characterized by immaterial labor: the extraction of value from its collective production of knowledge, services, care, relationships, and identities. It depends on our capacities and competencies as social beings — skills that capital can parasite from, but not possess directly — to perform this increasingly predominant form of labor.

Acknowledging the rise of immaterial labor does not require us to endorse the old “embourgeoisement” thesis of working-class people becoming progressively middle class. Nor does it mean glamorizing the new conditions of work. The typical socialized worker does not belong to relatively privileged groups like programmers or university lecturers: she is more likely to be a care home worker, call center employee, or retail assistant. You can find millions of these workers distributed throughout the constituencies where the Tories made their gains; however, for a variety of reasons, they are not as politically engaged as the big concentrations in the major cities.

In the postindustrial economy, the class conditions of one’s existence have a clear age profile. The younger a person is, the greater the chances that they form part of this ever-growing section of wage and salary earners. Because of the ways in which they work, they are much more likely to be socially liberal than older workers, which lends itself to a spontaneous liberal internationalism, reflected in attitudes to the European Union, and a greater propensity to tolerance.

Since the Tories have excluded millions of these workers from the housing ladder, condemned them to low-paid, precarious work, and closed off stable career trajectories, they also tend to be anti-Conservative. However, mass antipathy to the Conservative Party does not mean they are spontaneously pro-Labour. As a new working class in historical terms, their relationship to politics is not mediated through working-class institutions like trade unions and close-knit communities: their allegiance has to be earned.

Painful Choices

This class cohort is already the largest one in Britain, but its members tend not to vote in the same numbers as pensioners and older workers, reducing their political impact. In 2017, Labour still managed to bring out a greater part of this new working class than most opinion pollsters expected, enabling the party to strip the Conservatives of their majority. By 2019, however, the situation had changed.

Labour’s 2017 electoral coalition split two-to-one between Remain and Leave voters: taking up a clear position for or against Brexit was likely to alienate one section of its supporters, hence the party’s support for a soft-Brexit compromise. Two years of relentless focus on the Brexit debate, and the campaigning work of Continuity Remain, led to a revival of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats and Greens at Labour’s expense in the 2019 European elections, forcing Labour to make a very painful choice. The party leadership opted to embrace the call for a second referendum on Brexit, in a bid to shore up its support among the rising constituency of younger workers.

The Conservatives had also lost much of their electoral support to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which, like the Liberal Democrats, put forward a clear-cut line — in this case, “Leave come what may.” When Boris Johnson replaced Theresa May as Tory leader soon afterwards, he concentrated on establishing his credibility as the custodian of Brexit, to the point of splitting his parliamentary party and threatening to flout the rule of law. But the gamble paid off on December 12: most of the seats that Johnson’s party won from Labour across the Midlands, Wales, and northern England had a majority of Leave voters.

Taking up a hard-line position on Brexit also made it possible for Johnson to campaign as if he was the leader of an opposition party. On the face of it this seemed absurd, after nearly a decade of Tory governments in which Johnson had served as a minister. But there was a grain of truth in his posturing: Johnson’s hard-Brexit platform was a radical departure from the Conservative Party of David Cameron, or even his immediate predecessor Theresa May.

There was no easy route for Labour to take. If it had tried to contest the ownership of Brexit directly with the Tories, its proposed soft-Brexit deal would have fallen short of the “full fat” Brexit that Johnson was offering. In all likelihood, Labour would still have ended up losing support in strong Leave-voting areas, while the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party made serious inroads into the Labour vote elsewhere, to the advantage of the Tories in tight constituency battles. The need for Labour to align itself with the rising cohorts of immaterial workers — the forces of working-class recomposition — effectively compelled it to abandon older, “traditional” voters to the Conservatives.

The View From Mansfield

Boris Johnson now finds himself in a position similar to that occupied by Labour at the high point of Tony Blair’s leadership, with support that is miles wide but inches deep. The freshly recruited Tory voters have injected new tensions into Johnson’s voter coalition, and his future will depend on how he manages those tensions. But how well does the party understand its new supporters?

The Conservative MP Ben Bradley is a so-called “blue-collar Tory” who represents Mansfield, a seat won by the Conservatives in 2017, whose profile is fairly typical of the additional constituencies they scooped up in December. Bradley has argued that the key to his own success and that of dozens of other Tory candidates is the realization that most working-class people have no interest in socialism or radical change. They join unions and go on strike to advance their wage claims, not because their heads are filled with revolutionary dogma.

Bradley is right about the pragmatism, up to a point. It formed the basis for Labourist politics in the postwar period and, to a lesser extent, for the significant minority of workers who always voted Tory. Collective action was a way to defend and hopefully improve one’s living standards; beyond that, many workers simply wanted a quiet life.

However, the members of today’s actually existing working class have little experience of collective bargaining and the other benefits associated with union membership: they work shuffling boxes back and forth, in metal sheds that sit on top of the coalpits lionized by figures like Ben Bradley. The working class that Tories like Bradley and their “Blue Labour” analogues fixate upon is the working class of days gone by, now retired, claiming their pensions and casting their postal vote for the Tories through the local mailbox. Yet this layer of voters doesn’t live in a vacuum. Their children are the immaterial working class of today, so why are they prepared to reelect governments actively bent on making life harder for their offspring?

Naturally, they don’t see things that way. Some will explicitly justify their support for the Tories as a form of “tough love” for the younger generation, but as a group of voters, and a segment within the wider class structure, there are some objective factors conditioning their outlook. The first is property. After a lifetime of work under a comparatively benign economic and political settlement, they are more likely to own a home and receive a decent pension. A significant minority also hold small quantities of shares.

We also have to recognize the atomizing effects of retirement. From the discipline of the working day to a modest but real freedom, retirement opens up vistas of leisure time — conditioned by income, of course — that are not available to those in work. As such, it sets retirees apart from the social world and all the interests that clash within it. And whether a pensioner owns property or not — about a third of UK pensioners don’t possess their own home — the majority are on fixed but modest incomes. They lack the means to make up for shortfalls if something goes wrong.

This means that pensioners are especially prey to ontological anxieties: a suspicion of change, a fear-tinged bewilderment about the state of the world, which encourages them to lap up stories that reinforce such anxieties. The Daily Mail, with its lurid stories demonizing refugees, immigrants, and other minorities, is the perfect echo-chamber for this outlook. Corbyn’s Labour Party seemed dangerous to so many retirees because its leader cavorted with Britain’s enemies and symbolized everything that they considered to be wrong with the country, from multiculturalism to “wasteful” government spending. The votes they cast, whether for Brexit or Boris Johnson, were votes against a world they don’t understand, and don’t care to understand.

Prospects

In Ben Bradley’s Mansfield constituency, the proportion of over sixty-fives in the total population has risen to 30 percent over the last three decades. In nearby Bolsover, the equivalent figure is 35 percent; further north in Scunthorpe, it’s 40 percent. Younger people tend to move away from these declining regions to places where they can find work, producing massive Labour majorities in the big cities. Those left behind are usually stuck in precarious, low-wage employment, and are less likely to vote than their retired neighbors. Labour’s electoral collapse in these seats was a long time coming.

The Tories secured their victory by attracting older voters with a message of patriotism, attachment to the eternal solidity of Britain/England in a deeply uncertain world, and outrage directed at “remoaner” London elites who wanted to disregard their Leave vote. For these people, Brexit is not about creating a free-market utopia (“Singapore-on-Thames”): it is an assertion of independence, a way of putting the Great back into Great Britain and triggering a national revival.

Still, Johnson is not invulnerable, and his coalition can be undone. One obvious problem is that his government has little to offer its newly won communities in material terms, just a diet of thin gruel and hard Brexit. The culture-war discourse amplified by the right-wing press will unquestionably find ways to blame those who don’t “believe in Britain” for every failure. However, those voters who lent Johnson their support in the hope he would “get Brexit done” and then change the country for the better may not be bought off so easily. As Simon Heffer warned, in an otherwise triumphalist article:

If the people of Blyth, Bishop Auckland and Bolsover are not to take their votes back at the next election they will, for a start, need to feel genuinely better off in 2023 or 2024 as a result of this government’s policies . . . by then such voters will also want the proof of their own eyes that public services are working far better than they are now.

Heffer cited Thatcher’s sell-off of council housing as a precedent to follow, yet that example shows how limited the room for maneuver really is. Younger people are locked out of the housing market, but any determined effort to make home ownership more accessible will clash with the interests of the rentier class, big and small — a vital Tory constituency.

In his Financial Times interview, Sajid Javid spoke about the need to “spread opportunity” around the United Kingdom: “That doesn’t mean always that when you make the investment decision, it goes to the highest bang for the buck. We have to take a different approach.” Transforming Britain’s political economy will require more than a few grants or loans to the private sector, however: to really make it happen, patient, long-term public investment and planning, of the kind that hasn’t been seen for many years, is essential. There’s little evidence that Johnson’s administration has the stomach for the job.

The Conservatives won because Boris Johnson was in a better position to exploit the dynamics of working-class decomposition than Labour was to ride the wave of working-class recomposition. The scale of the Tory victory shouldn’t blind us to the fragility of the voter coalition they have assembled: it’s too early to suggest that their triumphs marks a reversal of the party’s long-term decline. However, this isn’t a counsel for sitting back and letting demographic change deliver an ultimate Labour victory. The Labour Party has a huge job to do in cohering its new base and winning back enough of the Tory “vote lenders.” Its success or failure in that task will depend on who becomes the next leader, whether or not they understand the party’s base of support, and — crucially — on the character of the Tory coalition itself. Otherwise we will be reading a fresh batch of articles in four or five years’ time lamenting another Labour defeat.