Class politics

Lord Lipsey

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

19 comments for “Class politics

  1. Dave H
    20/09/2011 at 1:05 pm

    The new difference appears to be one between the belief that the state should look after everyone from cradle to grave, and check up that we do all conform, and the alternative where we can pretty well do what we like but with a minimal safety net if things go wrong. The latter approach has gained more traction as the general population has developed less respect towards those in authority, partly because we’re better educated and can communicate more easily. This allows us to find mutual support against bureaucracy whereas fifty years ago it would have been much harder to resist.

  2. Lord Blagger
    20/09/2011 at 1:06 pm

    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.

    Done without any mandate. As such, you’ve screwed the British working class, and because of the ‘entitlements’ culture that you’ve created, screwed the rest of us. A large part of the working class has become an underclass, and they are prevented because of that mass migration from getting work.

    However, like most of the Labour party you have your heads firmly stuck in the past, and in places where you won’t hear the truth, because the truth is that the UK is so far up the debt river that you won’t get what you want.

    For example, total government liabilities are well above the 1 trillion on Gilts. Because of accounting fraud politicians have hidden another 6 trillion of pensions debts. Given the income of 0.6 trillion, you’re more indebted that banks, and you have services to provide first.

    The legacy of this is that Labour’s client state is going to be hit. There is no money for their ‘entitlements’.

    The UK has a deficit the same as Greece. It has a worse Borrowing to GDP ratio.

    This is a direct result of Social democratic parties. Even the Tories are carrying on with this policy.

    So where is it going to lead? It’s quite clear.

    1. The Tories are currently increasing spending. They are soon going to have to cut. The money’s gone. You can’t spend 30% more than you earn as a government.

    2. Increasing taxes. I’ve made my decision. 3 of us were about to mortgage up to invest in a business. We were about the take the risk. However, its now clear. 50% taxation if it works, means that its not economical. We’re going to evaluate the off shore option, but even there its doubtful. So you’ve lost that. It’s not just me. I’ve asked friends who have all been entreprenuerial. Some have made a lot, and sold up. The question, will you start another one? Not now. Universal argument. You’re treating people as cash cows to fund your errors.

    Ask yourself this. When was the last time you heard a politician say thank you to taxpayers who pay more tax than they receive in payments? When was the last time you heard someone on benefits say the same? It’s clear the wealth creators aren’t welcome.

    So what is the government going to do? It’s going to try and tax wealth. Non-tradeable wealth. That is property and pensions.

    If Labour get in after this term, they will confiscate and tax all private pensions to keep the ball rolling. They will print billions.

    • 20/09/2011 at 4:24 pm

      I think you forgot something Lord Blagger?

      Everyone pays Taxes even those on benefit, VAT, Tax on Fuel etc, everyone pays tax?

      Yours and others attitude is why disabled and the sick are being victamised in this country, people on benefit are being targetted for the greed and fraud of others.

      When I was in work I paid NI, Income Tax, I also paid VAT and other indirect taxes, my mother and father paid taxes, now I’m disabled through no fault of my own I believe I am entitled to recieve Welfare Benefits as a RIGHT.

      Why should you or others treat me like a criminal, I have not committed any crime other than to be unfortunate to be disabled, is being disabled or sick a crime in your minds eye?

      I have no problem with people who get benefits fraudulently being prosecuted, none whatsoever, the problem is where all being tarnished with the same thing, you obviously have no empathy for the sick or disabled as you think there all Malingerer’s or scrounger’s?

      This country is going down the pan not because of the Welfare Bill but because of peoples lack of empathy for those less fortunate.

      Great Britain is creeping nearer and nearer to a Germany of the early 1930s, laugh If you like at that suggestion but many thousands of individuals think it’s true…

  3. Croft
    20/09/2011 at 1:12 pm

    Almost any analysis that Labour doesn’t still enjoy the red meat of class politics falls down over issues like the fox hunting ban, following Tories in top hats, charity changes for public schools and in some measure the sheer delight of the banker bashing/make the rich pay arguments of since before the last election.

  4. Frank W. Summers III
    20/09/2011 at 1:25 pm

    Lord Lipsey,
    Very interesting analysis. However, it is to be remembered that sometimes resurgences of ancient and forgotten mysteries (such as nationalism, race, foreign attachments and so on) will work on an established order and then give birth to something new that is not entirely new. Perhaps in a hundred years county or estate or religion will seem to have a large electoral prominence and yet close analysis will reveal many elements of class system embedded in the new order that were not in older versions from before the industrial revolution.

    I am guessing of course. Nonetheless, the change is well worth remarking upon…

  5. maude elwes
    20/09/2011 at 5:25 pm

    The Chinese Sage may like to answer this conundrum? ‘If the Chinese people are to have a comparable middle class standard of living akin to the West, across the board, three planets identical to this one would not have the resources required to fulfill their aspiration.’

  6. maude elwes
    21/09/2011 at 7:13 am

    This overview is a simplification of reality and of the underlying, I believe sinister, movement of politicians and their aims.

    When a country like ours, a Democracy, so we are told, is in dire straights financially, along with the rest of the civilized world, decide to inform us the only way forward is to remove our gender from passports and replace that information with an X, then you have to know we are being run by madmen. What other assumption can there be?

    You wonder why we have lost respect, well there you have it in a nutshell. Whitehall, and the entire Parliament, is in the hands of lunatics, there can be no other explanation. Except perhaps, that they have been brainwashed by an unknown force who intend to reduce the people to uneducated, cowardly, sniveling, cap doffers begging for a crust from the Gov’ner.

    The Labour Party has been taken over by crazed pseudo Marxists centering on minutia whilst ignoring the reality of life for the working poor as well as the incapable poor. Systematically they have dismantled every layer of basic assistance put in place to raise us ‘all’ from servitude. And yet, they expect those who relied on these policies to continue to vote for them after such a traitorous and callous betrayal.

    On the other hand, the Tories have lost all sense of ‘noblesse oblige’ appearing to be nothing but a band of revengeful old ‘Lairds’ out to make those who ‘got above their station’ pay for the audacity of the class they broke loose from.

    And the result? Devastation. A people fighting themselves whilst they commit cultural suicide. A lost civilization. Where they fiddle whilst Rome burns.

    And this is taking place right across Europe.

    Every one of us is a witness to it, yet no one has the courage to step forward and take the decisions required to save us from it. We have no leader.

    Instead, those who govern make infantile proclamations that remove our right to gender, to family, to national cohesion and to any issue that matters to mankind in his spirit. All in a pretense this will create equality. And what is it they are making us equal to? Do they have any idea?…. Eunuchs maybe?

  7. MilesJSD
    21/09/2011 at 9:54 am

    Consider the many conflations, ‘marriages’, “weldings”,
    between the Workplace and the Lifeplace;
    and you will find an almost endless confusion of unsustainworthy class-distinctions, in each and in both.

    (Current Local Instance:
    I asked Local Government for advice towards finding support and affordable leadership for a number of life-wellbeing building modern advances, such as “The New Rules of Posture” and “Six Thinking Hats”, and I was visited by two civil service officers the male one of which looked down and leaned forward at me “You can’t force people to participate in your personal ideas things”.
    “Everybody is different”.
    When I referred to the UN Declaration of Primary Health Care 1978 as being much more positive than has been implemented,this same officer later harked back to it as “You can’t impose some article from nowhere on people, nor therefore upon us”)

    That is not just Workplace snobbery it is also malfeasance towards the Lifeplace..

  8. Gareth Howell
    21/09/2011 at 10:07 am

    A controversial post.

    Class is an INTERnational definition today, and it is a capitalist one. The poorer you are the lower your class, or even caste, where ever you live in the world.

    ANTI-Globalism and ANTI-capitalism is the modern Marxism, and ANTI-consumerism.

    There is sometimes common cause with Islamic beliefs, it being a religion of a much poorer part of the world, and it being some times, currently, extremist, whereas Marxism is usually an atheist cause.

    Class is by no means dead, but those council house owners who bought (having owned for 30 years, and then sold after three, being the time limit)may well now be ensconced in middle class bliss in OZ, a mass emigration, not a mass immigration.

    Working class exploitation is to be found in all those parts of the world where multi national organizations exploit local raw materials and say no “by your leave or thank you” to anybody. That includes the rose growers(!) of Kenya who sell their flowers for a pittance on UK high streets. Why is that not going as food to the streets of Mombasa or Nairobi? The shanty town dwellers
    of the world living in dire poverty are today’s working class.

    A local UK analysis is not necessary. We know.

    • maude elwes
      21/09/2011 at 10:57 am


      And as we open our doors to all who come, more and more of the worlds caste system is brought to Western democracies, who collude in the degradation with gusto.

      Take this totally unacceptable situation which should have resulted in the entire company being closed and the proprietors returned to their country of origin. Legal firms setting themselves up in the UK, without the slightest idea of what this country and its ethos permits, and doing this is taking the p–s.’ And they know it.

      Time for a rethink at the top.

  9. Baronessmurphy
    21/09/2011 at 12:40 pm

    A fascinating post Lord Lipsey, I’ll read the full article. But do you think that in some ways class has been substituted by ‘inequalities’ as a measure of societal heirarchy? In some ways inequalities are more pernicious than class because of the feelings of personal unfairness that they generate, whereas ‘class’ could be accepted as a slot to which fate had allocated one to. No-one is proud of being ‘unequal’ whereas many people were proud to be to working class or middle class and rather despised the upper crusties. Few now despise those privileged to be the unequal winners of life’s bounties today.

  10. Gareth Howell
    21/09/2011 at 12:57 pm

    It is still here!

    Did the working class not exist in pre-capitalist days?

  11. Twm O'r Nant
    21/09/2011 at 4:25 pm

    Thank you Maude,

    It is the
    “better than you brigade! What have you got?”

    types who make class irrelevant in prefering instant appraisal of capital on a one armed bandit reel, which tells them they are Better, or not as good, as anybody they meet.

    Class is nothing compared with a dung heap of 60m people all of whom vie with each other
    for capitalist supremacy!

    How can class mean anything if everybody is
    “capitalized” to the last penny of their bank account and cash in pocket?

    State capitalism was different, and is now itself more sophisticated, the bottom of the council house estate dropping right out of reckoning to the travellers’ site, cocaine, drug abuse, and death by heroine.

  12. 24/09/2011 at 7:55 am

    The UKGB & EU need to review the History of their Political Structures with a fine tooth comb. It sounds as though renovation is not impossible, yet it is not entirely simple in an Constitutional Monarchy that is trying to express itself as an Democracy.

    Let’s hope for the unraveling of class tensions rather than an Commercial Class War.
    A test of a good Diplomat is not one of time, but one of careful & strategic action which provides an Win Win answer & offends nobody.

    Of interest:

    Democracy Work
    “Eradicating the At-Risk Profile Nationwide.”

  13. maude elwes
    27/09/2011 at 2:04 pm

    @Democracy Work:

    Any organization or individual who can come up with a win win answer, without offending anyone, is believing in the tooth fairy.

  14. MilesJSD
    27/09/2011 at 9:30 pm

    The above “Class” reforms are still neither correctly-targeted nor enough, to save both Britain and Planet Earth’s Lifesupports.

    “The Colonels Lady, and Judy O’Grady, are as alike as each other under the skin”:

    the way both Individual and Aggregate Human Developments are being driven continually triggers, in increasing numbers of human-minds, the debilitating thought or intuition, “this is all too little, and too late”.

    Global Governance is proving to be a failure; and for the same reason that Nation-state governances are failing, whether dictatorial or democratic:

    The Reason:
    human-civillisations are destroying both the non-renewable and the renewable resources of this Planet Earth, and doing so not only excessively for the survival and thrival of life on Earth, but long before there are any alternative 2nd, 3rd, and 4th “Earths” within sight and reach.

    Earth Governance very urgently needs to be peacefully-revolutionised, I suggest onto a Cooperatively-Constructive single base and ‘pyramid’, in a descending Order, from Earth’s Biomes as the Longterm Sine Qua Non.

    Governance by destructive class-distinction, overkill-consumerism, individually-capitalistic-competitivism, has long been failing, and needs to establish instead, the friendly Method III of Needs & Hows Recognition and win-win-win Cooperative Problem Solving.

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