Every now and then on Twitter, users will post about their distress at being diagnosed with a terrible illness. The replies to these posts are almost always full of people making “helpful” suggestions: to forego meals and subsist off fistfuls of turmeric; to subscribe to expensive and miraculous yoga courses; homeopathy.
The illnesses are very real; but the remedies often tell you a lot more about the people proposing them than about how to get well again.
It is the same with the Labour Party’s famous disconnection from the working class, or at least from a large portion of it. When advertising agency Republic Communications delivered a report (which has since been leaked) to Keir Starmer and other Labour bigwigs saying that Labour has trouble connecting with voters in its “foundation seats”, that it is perceived as being the voice of well-to-do, university-educated people living in cities, or that under Starmer it is hard to distinguish the party from the Conservatives, they were surely pointing at a very real problem.
But the solutions proposed by various professional politicians for reconnecting with the “real working class” (get Starmer a Union Jack tattoo; hire Rod Liddle and Julie Burchill to write Labour’s press releases; stigmatise trans people; criminalise more and more categories of foreigner; pretend to be the Tories) are not much more appealing than stopping your meds and staking your life on a diet of spinach smoothies.
A century ago, Lenin described the British Labour Party as a “bourgeois workers’ party”: a party of the working class but dominated by bourgeois ideas and no small number of bourgeois politicians. Over its history the balance of power within the party has shifted back and forth. When the workers’ movement has been strong and asserted itself, a strong working-class voice has been heard through the Labour Party. In periods of working-class defeat, the bourgeois voice has predominated.
After the workers’ movement suffered a succession of defeats under Thatcher, the right wing of the Labour Party, and in particular the Blairite New Labour “project”, came to call the shots. The Labour Party of council leaders, MPs, parliamentary researchers, mayors, police and crime commissioners, HQ staff, NGOs, think-tanks, and consultancy firms walled itself off from the Labour Party of socialist activists and community and workplace organisation. Trade union influence on the party was mediated through unelected union political department chiefs on management-size salaries.
The “professional politicians” at the head of Labour, and the cowed career bureaucrats leading the unions, accepted much of the heritage of the Thatcherites who had defeated them.
The Blairite “party-on-top-of-a-party” model didn’t need an activist party base. “Comms” could be done via a slick media operation; and in any case a living party grassroots might be a source of dissent.
Meanwhile, deindustrialisation and union setbacks meant that workplace organisation retreated from smalltown Britain into the big cities. Many retired people living in “red wall” seats may be former Labour voters. But of the people in those communities still in work, many have never been recruited into a living labour movement to begin with.
Ed Miliband encouraged an influx of new members, and loosened up Labour’s internal controls a bit, but changed nothing basic. The party was still run by the “Leader’s Office”, and all Miliband’s inner circle were people who had gone into political jobs straight out of university.
Under Corbyn, some things did change, but the “party on top of a party” remained (although now favouring more-leftish applicants), and policy formulation and communication was still mostly done by media “experts” (although now those “experts” were drawn from the Morning Star-Stalinist left).
An increase in the party membership to 500,000 has opened new possibilities; and Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome’s decision to take an average workers’ wage, donating the majority of her salary to strike funds and labour movement causes, shows a rare seriousness about remaining close to one’s working-class constituents. But the pattern has not yet fundamentally changed.
There is no shortage of people now “helpfully” offering solutions to fix Labour’s disconnection from the working class in areas of the north and Midlands. Most of their suggestions have to do with attempting to outbid the Tories on nationalism.
What can create a party that “connects” with the working class? To formulate the question like that is telling. We need not a bourgeois party, run by specialists, that creates policies that score well in working-class focus groups, but a party made and staffed by working-class activists and powered and controlled by big lively branches rooted in communities and workplaces. A party that’s concerned about winning campaigns and strikes as well as winning elections.
That can be built only by class struggle. Organise unorganised workers; turn Labour Parties outward into campaigning activity in working-class neighbourhoods; fight for pro-working-class policies and education in socialist ideas; and restore party democracy.