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Labour Must Fight a Class War, Not a Culture War

Jon Trickett

If the Labour Party has a future, MP Jon Trickett argues in Jacobin, it needs to unite divided workers and win postindustrial regions with a clear economic program and the rhetoric of class, not culture, war.

British Labour MP Jon Trickett speaks to the media as he leaves Labour Party headquarters on September 20, 2016. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

Much has changed in the Labour Party since the devastating electoral defeat it experienced in December 2019. With almost a year at the helm, its new leader, Keir Starmer, has veered sharply to the right and distanced himself from many of the policies that helped secure Labour’s historic swing in 2017 — much to the disappointment of many rank-and-file members. This month, as the Tories table a budget that will include an increase in corporation tax, Labour’s leadership has put itself in the odd position of opposing the move despite its popularity across the country.

Having first entered the House of Commons in 1996 following a stint as leader of Leeds City Council, Jon Trickett became parliamentary secretary to Gordon Brown and would become the first MP to nominate Jeremy Corbyn in Labour’s 2015 leadership election. Representing the Northern constituency of Hemsworth, he has continued to make the case for an ambitious socialist alternative and has helped author several analyzes of Labour’s election defeat and what must come next for Britain’s left.

In the second part of a two-part conversation, Trickett spoke to Jacobin’s Luke Savage about the deep social cleavages exposed by Britain’s Brexit vote, the limitations of waving the Union Jack, and the need for democracy in the Labour movement. Read Part I here.


LS

In the 2019 general election, the majority of Labour’s losses came in the North and in the Midlands, with some seats that had been red for going on 100 years swinging to the Tories. Naturally, these losses have prompted quite a few discussions about what went wrong.

Before we get into how Keir Starmer’s team seems to be answering that question, I think it might be useful to lay out your view of the 2019 general election in the North. Because obviously a great deal about how Labour should move forward and rebuild hinges on what people think happened. It’s a big question, obviously, but as an MP who represents communities in the North, what’s your analysis of Labour’s recent losses there?

JT

Politicians should be able to offer simple answers, but the truth is there is nothing simple about anything in this world and to try to reduce it would be a mistake. The North of England and the Midlands, particularly, were the seat of probably the most important revolution in the history of humanity — perhaps that’s overstating it — but certainly the industrial revolution completely transformed the productive capacity of the whole planet, and it was pioneered to some extent in the North of England and the Midlands.

I don’t want to be too “little England” about this, but certainly there was a sense of a powerhouse on a truly global scale. For example, I think in Leeds (where I come from) there was a single factory where ten thousand people worked and one in every two men in the whole of our country were clothed by its output. Many people in what was then the British Empire, in India and elsewhere, also bought clothes from Britons. Half the fleets in the northern hemisphere were built on the shipyards and so on and so forth.

So, when we went for the process of deindustrialization — remember, it was brutal, and the British economy was transformed into one dependent on finance capital based in the city of London — there was really no further investment to transform the nature of our economy in the North or Midlands. Money chases money. So the money was being drawn into the magnet of the city and was not being invested in the areas which were more peripheral geographically. Now, not everybody reading Jacobin will understand exactly, but there’s a question of geographic peripherality here as well. The deindustrialization took place particularly in those areas which were more geographically distant from the city of London.

Whole communities — and when I say “whole communities” I don’t mean the odd village; I mean whole regions, vast regions involving millions of people — were left without economic purpose, the very reason for their existence gone. The villages I represent were built here because there was coal — there’s coal under my garden, you could dig down and find it. Coal was what helped to power the industrial revolution and the stream revolution which generated power, heat, and electricity. That purpose has gone, and the biggest employer we have now, apart from the public institutions like the schools and hospitals, is warehouses which are distributing clothes into the big cities, because we live quite near a motorway network. I don’t want to diminish any kind of job, but it’s not the same as having an economic purpose of the kind we had.

Anyhow, the British ruling class basically opted for an economic strategy which was far too dependent on services, plus the city of London for the financialization of the economy. And, as a result, millions of people were left behind, or rather held back — held back by a system which deliberately decided to exclude them. And the Labour Party was created by those communities, who voted for us for a century. Yet they weren’t able to defend those communities against the transformations I’ve just described.

You’ve got to think about this at a human level, because what happens when you lose your sense of purpose and direction is that a number of factors begin to emerge. I think I’ve described it as anomie: there’s loss of a sense of values which once bound a community together, a sense of alienation, and a sense of loss. When the future looks more dangerous than the past, because the changes which you’ve experienced have been damaging, then you’re in a very bad place, because hope depends on the idea that change can be positive and progressive. But if the change you have experienced was negative, then you’ll inevitably look to a past which has gone and can never be brought black.

That, I think, is the underlying malaise. It’s the same in the Rust Belt in America, and in Germany, France, and elsewhere. Let’s describe it as a sense of a loss of agency: the belief in the capacity of human beings to collectively act on their environment, to change it, and to impose their will on it. That sense of agency is more or less gone and then, suddenly out of the blue, people were offered the opportunity to exercise it by saying “the European Union has done nothing for us and we are going to send a signal to everybody that we’re not comfortable at all with the direction of our country and we want it to change.” That was tied up with all sorts of things. Some of it was anti-foreigner. There were lots of different aspects to the Brexit vote.

But then for the Labour Party to say we weren’t going to accept the vote — and sections the Labour Party did say that — there was a sense that Labour wasn’t looking after people. The question becomes “Why is Labour ignoring our majority decision that we want to change the direction of the country?” Some of us, and I was one of them, were saying to the party, “For God’s sake, you’ve got to listen to these people. Even just to reduce it down to simple mathematics, it’s not in the Labour Party’s interest to abandon these people.” But, in terms of our politics, the idea of an insurgent mood in working communities across the North and Midlands — insurgent about the nature of our country — was something which a progressive party ought to have understood, embraced, and used to bring about change. But it didn’t.

LS

Last month, a document leaked containing what appears to be the leadership’s strategy for winning back Northern seats lost in 2019: one that will see a renewed emphasis around patriotism and the flag. This strategy document was strongly criticized by a number of MPs, including Clive Lewis and Richard Burgeon. What did you make of it?

JT

I think we’ve got to be very careful not to caricature people or organize everything around a single image. If I can return to this question of agency, I believe I was very lucky as a young man to work in factories in Leeds, and then represent mining communities. At the end of the industrial age — and I’ve seen the whole process as a manual worker — there were large engineering plants in those working-class communities, which were organized around the factories, and there was a sense that, though the class was a subordinate class (because the bloke who owned a factory could decide to close it tomorrow), when you looked at the community we inhabited, it bore all the imprints of the class and of the common experiences of the people who lived there.

For example, on the first of August, every single person would go to the same place for holidays, get on the same trains, go to the same clubs and pubs on the weekends, which were full of people who knew each other from work or school. If there was social misbehavior, it was, to some extent, policed by the community, and so in the local area there was a sense of working-class hegemony within a capitalist system. I represent twenty-three mining villages, and this was even more so in their case: each bore the imprint of their union, everybody would pay, say a few pence a week into a social fund, it would form the brass band, the football team, the rugby team, the men’s choir, the women’s choir, and so on and so forth. And the union, meanwhile, would defend you if you got into trouble. So the communities were ultimately an expression of working life. We had agency.

You also relied on the state to deliver services to you — the school, the hospital, a vibrant economy, to defend you from conflict abroad and so on and so forth — so not only have you lost agency in your own life, but your community has lost agency because it’s been deindustrialized and the nation-state has lost the capacity, for ideological reasons and because of globalization, to act as the agent on your behalf.

It’s quite a complicated thing, but that’s what happened in my opinion. So people began to say that the problem isn’t the inherent structure of government. The problem is foreigners or that the European Union is making decisions which are against our interests. So you projected onto an external institution the problems into which your community had fallen. That’s what I believe happened, and because Britain has a particular imperial history, there is this residual view about the nation and the nation-state, and we have to accept that it is there and that it is strong.

Now to imagine you can reduce all of that down to the idea we’re going to celebrate the flag as a symbol of our patriotism is a completely reductionist kind of position: a decision that has been made by people who have little understanding about what it’s like to live in these communities. So, am I against patriotism? No. If you were to ask me about global capital and the interests of the community I represent, I’m in favor of restricting the capacity of global capital to continue to disrupt the lives of the communities that I represent. And I’m in favor of the nation-states standing up to defend our interests when global capital makes decisions which are not in the interests of our people.

There’s one final point I want to make though, because I’m not going to be a little Englander at the end of this conversation, and I’m going to use the example of COVID. In Britain, we’ve gotten a long way forward in terms of inoculating people, and I think we can be proud that [the vaccine] was partly developed in Oxford. But the thing is, if we’re vaccinating everybody in Britain, but only twenty-four rich people in Africa are inoculated, how safe are we really? Because new strains may well emerge, and this is ultimately a fight by the whole of humanity against the disease.

Of course the British government should be doing everything it can to inoculate Britain. But if it was an exclusive, nationalistic process where we say, “We’re British so we’re better than everybody else,” that is an absolutely disastrous mistake. Issues related to health are a stark reminder of how we elect a government and expect it to give us agency over our lives and protect us when something emerges that threatens our very humanity. But it can’t be done in isolation,because, in the end, we’re all coming from the same human family.

The same thing applies when it comes to economic life. Take the Barnoldswick strike which just happened. Barnoldswickis a factory built by Rolls-Royce, and it’s got some of the best English engineers. It was built there because it was out of the reach of the Messerschmitts and the Nazi bombers. After the war, those engineers pioneered the construction of the jet engine (nowadays, obviously, we’ve got reservations about jet engines because of the climate crisis). Then, out of the blue, Rolls-Royce, which was a British firm and is no longer one, suddenly decided to close Barnoldswick down. It’s part of the very fabric of our history, and I don’t think it was right for it to close and go somewhere else because the labor is cheaper. The workforce went on strike and they won. I raised it with the prime minister in Parliament.

What’s interesting is that, during the strike, there were lots of donations from all over the place. What the striking workers did was collect the money, give it to poor children, and put it into food banks. So they were reaching out to the community while running a quite militant strike. That’s the kind of progressive patriotism which I’m quite comfortable with. I’m not going to be painted as somebody who’s antipatriotic, but I want patriotism to be understood in its full context, and that I think provides a better explanation of where we need to be. If we’re going to win those people back, we can’t simply be saying, “Look at me, I’ve got a flag behind my shoulder and therefore I’m patriotic.” That seems to me to reduce everything down to an absolutely unconvincing and reductive level.

LS

The defining issue of the 2019 general election was arguably, or perhaps not even arguably, Brexit — an issue which split Labour’s 2017 coalition and helped gift the Tories a new bloc of voters. I’m curious to what extent you think the question and, more specifically, the cleavages it exposed, are going to play a role in the future of British politics. Does having the Brexit issue settled, at least for the foreseeable future, make things easier for Labour’s left?

JT

This is a very important question, and it raises a very important issue, which is the way in which the organic nature of capital has changed. It’s led to changes in sections of the working class — what Paul Mason calls the networked individual — which are now linked in quite strongly with the new global economy, but are still workers even though they have middle-class status.

The nature of work for the middle class has changed quite dramatically for a whole series of reasons. On the one hand, these workers have middle-class lifestyles to some extent; on the other, they’re facing quite tough times. I think that, plus the experience of going to university — remember, many middle-class people never got to university traditionally, say in the 1950s — have led to a radicalization of a section of the middle class, particularly those who live in cities. You see this phenomenon throughout the whole of the postindustrial capitalist world. The radicalization of younger people in hitherto middle-class, privileged occupations, which no longer have the privileges they had, seems to me something which has happened quite quickly.

Now, if you think about the cultural values of those people — they’ve been to university and had a different experience of life, they’re connected into global networks and so on — generally speaking, they’ve got progressive values and quite a radical social agenda. Jeremy [Corbyn] was able to mobilize those young people, and so was Bernie Sanders. It’s interesting in Germany, if you look at Die Linke, they are also appealing to that group. But there’s a second demographic, which you have to have if you’re going to win a majority in a parliamentary system, and that is you have to get the people who created the Labour Party and who voted for it for the last century, and they probably have different cultural values and a different set of references.

Then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn serves Jon Trickett tea in July 2019. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/PA Images via Getty Images)

If you decide that you’re going to get to power by means of a culture war, it’s going to be quite difficult for a progressive party to achieve, because the radicalized middle class doesn’t constitute a majority and neither do the postindustrial communities. You’ve got to somehow weave together a common story of the country, of the world, and of humanity, which binds together the various different parts into a majoritarian project. I think Bernie understood and was trying to do that, though he didn’t succeed for various reasons. The truth is that the Brexit vote exposed the cultural differences between these two groups (obviously, this is a somewhat simplified version of things).

Now, you could see that the people who were wanting to argue for Remain often represented seats where that group was in a majority in that particular constituency. On the other hand, I come from a certain background and represent a certain kind of seat, and I just said, “this is disastrous.” Not that I’m against metropolitan cultural values: we need to reject all forms of racism and hatred of all kinds. However, not to understand the anger of the poor and the people who will be held back is a serious mistake. I think that the Tories understood this. And they’ve been able to generate a narrative which feeds on the resentments — Trump did this too — and feeds on the many people who feel dislocated in their lives and are trying to make sense of what’s happening to their world.

If we mistakenly move from speaking to one cultural group to speaking to another one, in a crude way, there’s a serious danger. It may be that the assumption some made that actually, well, “they’ve got nowhere else to go but Labour” is wrong. They can go to the Greens. They can stay at home. They can vote for the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. I’m quite worried about that now.

How do you overcome these cultural differences? It’s clearly not easy; somebody would have resolved it. But rather than fight a cultural war — and I don’t want to be crude here — fight a class war. Because, whether it’s housing, access to proper employment, secure jobs, a future for our children and grandchildren, at the moment, similar challenges face all the different strata in our society. So somehow, we’ve got to weld together a story of national renewal in an international context which can explain to the British where the Left wants to take us, and we’re quite a long way from that. Because the truth is that we don’t fully understand yet where the cultural fractures are and precisely what the potential coalition that we need to build looks like.

LS

So it sounds like even though Brexit has happened, you don’t think that the cleavages that it exposed have gone anywhere, and that, in a sense, Brexit was merely a kind of catalyst for something that was happening already. Would that be fair to say?

JT

I think that’s true. You’ve got a section of people who are quite networked in a global kind of way — progressive, metropolitan — who still have it quite difficult. I mean, living in a room with the person you love rather than the house (which you might’ve done in a previous generation), it’s a common experience, as is having £40,000–90,000 for the debt from university around your neck, for the rest of your working life . . . all of these things are quite difficult. But it’s a different experience from the one of somebody trapped in a pit village that, at age 20, can’t leave mum and dad because there’s just nothing to do, and is not familiar with the big cities or particularly attracted to a metropolitan lifestyle that looks intimidating.

To ask a village lad or lass from one of our areas to go off to London or one of the big cities to live a different kind of life. . . these sorts of differential experiences are so profound, they’ve created this cultural gulf which remains. So, again, the question is: How can we weave a national story together? It can only be a story from the Left (the Right are incapable of doing it) which offers the prospect of people recovering a sense of agency in their own lives, over the communities they live in, and the nation and the world which is our common home. And I don’t know of anybody who’s doing that, but that’s what we’ve got to get ourselves to.

LS

In a recent op-ed for LabourList, you cited what some feel is “a determined effort to silence the voices of rank and file socialists in the labour movement.” One development which prompted this was the recent suspension of Labour’s mayoral candidate selection process in Liverpool, where senior party officials effectively scrapped the existing shortlist of candidates without offering any real explanation. You and your colleagues Ian Lavery and Laura Smith founded a group called No Holding Back, which has just launched what you’re calling the “activists’ assembly.” What is the activists’ assembly and what problems does it exist to address?

JT

I don’t really want to keep going back to the big picture every time, but Robert Michels wrote a book back in the early twentieth century, a very famous book [about] the iron law of oligarchy. What he suggests, and he’s talking about socialist and working-class movements, is that they’ll all be subject to the same iron law, which is that they will be created by the masses but quickly become professionalized and controlled by those at the top. He says the problem then is that the professionals and the people in command at the top, their lived experience is not the same as the masses. And therefore, there’ll be a separation between the life understanding of the leaders and the understanding of the masses and people.

I’ve always thought that that was true, and there’s an argument about representative democracy itself. Some left groups have said no left MP should receive a salary more than the average worker’s wage to try to overcome the problem. I don’t know whether that would actually overcome the problem, but you can see that over the years we’ve wrestled with it. The truth is that, when you look at the people who represent working-class communities in the center-left parties, they’ve tended to be people who came from fairly privileged backgrounds (not all of them, by any means — 40 percent of Labour MPs in the 1970s came from manual work backgrounds, but now there’s only five of us left). And so there’s this separation, and it seems to me it’s intrinsic in any organization to some extent. However, the problem then is if the leadership doesn’t understand the life of the people that it represents, naturally it’s going to make mistakes — and that’s happened historically right across the world.

Now, as it happens, the way that technology has changed, there is no reason anymore to have top-down command and control politics. With the internet, there’s been an end to the age of deference and the emergence of a new zeitgeist which is more horizontal and networked in character. I’m not a technological determinist at all, but I think technology has helped to create that cultural change and that organizational shift. But it’s also generational: younger people understand it intuitively, and the end of deference happened when people came to the conclusion that those running our country and running our world are not doing it in our interests.

Anyhow, the Labour Party has got democratic structures and democratic decision-making in a way, for example, the Democrats don’t really have in the United States. We decided that the Labour Party membership and the membership of the movement — which is still one of the largest parties in the West — did have a clear idea about what should happen to our country. If the leadership thinks we lost the election because we’re too left wing, and thinks that the membership is quite left wing, then they’re not necessarily going to want to listen to the members, because they think that the left doesn’t have support in the country. I don’t totally agree with that analysis. But in any case, you can’t build an electoral machine without the members.

I think leadership in the twenty-first century has got to have a different character than that ancient, hierarchical model. Some people have the idea that a charismatic figure should emerge. Well, I don’t believe in that model of leadership. I believe that leadership is a collective function. You work better together because there’s collective wisdom, and if the party members feel ownership because they were consulted about the ideas which the party embraces, it’s better and more motivating. It’s also got a bigger capacity to mobilize because, even when you’ve lost a vote on an issue, if you believe you were listened to and respect was paid to your point of view, that, it seems to me, is precious.

So we decided to use the technology, particularly while everybody’s locked down, to begin to build an alternative model of leadership. Last week, the assembly consulted with thousands of people on taxing the wealthy and the big corporations and found 90 percent in favor of investment paid for with taxes on the big corporations and the wealthiest in our society. So that’s what we’ve done, and it’s gonna be interesting to see how it develops. But there was huge enthusiasm for what we were doing, and it’s rippled out on social media, which is really quite exciting.