As I enter my fortieth year working in or around Westminster, the political scene superficially resembles that which existed when I first arrived. But underneath , the tectonic plates have shifted. And for this there is one overwhelming reason. It is the decline of class as the central determinant of political parties,,party politics and electoral behavior.
This is not the place to analyse in depth why social class underwent such a profound change in the 40 years we are looking at. The essential drivers were economic: the decline in response to world economic forces of Fordist methods of production; the decline of manufacturing; the introduction even in such manufacturing industry has continued of what economists call “specific investments” which mean that the human factors in a firm have to work together to work at all;, the rise of the service industries and the continued expansion of the public sector, which is outside at any rate a Marxist definition which relates class to the ownership of the means of production.
On top of that, and particularly under Margaret Thatcher, government itself introduced policies designed deliberately to move class barriers. She sold council houses so a larger and larger proportion of the population owned their own homes, and she destroyed trade unions, powerful forces which tended to cement traditional class structures.
Finally, there is the impact on traditional class structures, and then on politics, of mass immigration, first of workers, then of the dependents of those workers. The consequence, for politics, was that we moved from one world to another world.
I can perhaps illustrate the world that was with two quotes. One is from Peter Pulzer, a leading British political academic, writing in the 1967. ‘Class in the basis of British politics” Pulzer said. “All else is embellishment and detail.”
Another is from JP Macintosh, perhaps the last British MP to combine his Westminster membership with a serious academic career. The first edition of his “The British Cabinet” appeared in 1970. This penetrating account of British governance as it was then includes the following sentence:”If all of Britain was composed of absolutely identical constituencies in terms of social composition…..then the party of candidate X who had one vote more than his nearest rival in this standard seat would win all 635 seats….it is social or class composition which has the closest correlation with voting patterns in the UK.”
The Labour Party – my party – was a class party in two senses. First it stood for the interests of something discernibly identified as the working class – for example it wanted that class to get higher real wages and better state welfare benefits. With that, a minority of the party embraced a quasi-Marxist theory of class war, in favour – in the words of the Party’s then constitution – of the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.”
However this was not and continued not to be a viable philosophy electorally. Anthony Crosland, the revisionist socialist philosopher for whom I first worked, pointed out in 1970 that the Labour Party was losing on trend 2 percentage points off its share of the vote at each general election.
This was for two reasons. Fewer people were working class and fewer working class people share this class approach to politics.
These trends have continued. So, according to Peter Kelner, a psephological expert, in 1970 (an election Labour lost) 56% of the C2DE manual working class voted Labour. In 2010 only 33% did.
In 1970 the C2DE manual working class comprised 66% of the population. In 2010 it comprised 43% of the population.
So, taking these figures today, in 1970 Labour polled 10m votes from people in social classes C2DE. In 2010 that had fallen to 4.2m votes – actually than the 4.4 million votes Labour polled from the middle class.
The Tories remained a largely middle class party throughout though one that also benefitted from a large vote from less liberal members of the working class. They could afford to. The middle class was growing. Labour however had to change its social base if it was to survive, and to change its social base it had radically to reform its politics. The change came to be known as New Labour. One of the few lasting marks I ever made in politics was to suggest that name in a Fabian pamphlet. Strangely Tony Blair never acknowledged the source!
The change was not simply one mapped by demographers and psephologists. It was palpable. In 1971, the journalist Anthony Sampson published a revise of his much-remarked sixties book on Britain, entitled “The New Anatomy of Britain.” Some things had changed since the original but more hadn’t. But if you reread “The New Anatomy of Britain”, it is still a description of a society dominated by class and class divides. Without claiming that class has disappeared in Britain – it hasn’t – the change since then is very remarkable.
I am describing the change as one in British politics.. But it is important to recognize that it is not confined to Britain. It is broadly true of all the main European countries. There are differences. Germany which has held to a model of export-led growth using manufacturing industry may have felt it least. Britain, with its emphasis on services and particularly financial services, may have seen it most dramatically. But the change in class structure is a universal consequence of economic development into the 21st century. It is one reason amongst many why the victory of Marxism is not only no longer inevitable; it is impossible. As Eric Hobsbaum, the Marxist historian famously put it, the forward march of labour has been halted.
It is also important to recognize that the decline of class politics has created a challenge for the political class everywhere. That challenge is perhaps more than that for social democracy. It is a crisis. Social democratic parties have always represented an alliance – between a liberal intellectual corps and a working-class corps. However, many are concerned that this alliance, never without its strains, is becoming untenable. To take an example, the liberal intellectuals want free movement of labour (and besides a Polish plumber to do a cheap job on your central heating is greatly to be desired). But those Poles arguably uncut the wages of the old working class, and live in houses that it would otherwise live in.
Where will all this lead. In the words of the Chinese sage asked about the impact of the French Revolution, it is too early to say. But the change is recent and dramatic. Its consequences will be here for many years to come.
This blog draws on the author’s “A very perculiar revolution: British Politics and Constitution 1970-2011” published in the latest edition of Political Quarterly