The Unmaking of the British Working Class: A Highly Provisional Thesis

With the push for Scottish independence only likely to gather in strength, Scottish Labour cannot afford to find itself on the anti-democratic side of the divide.

History is not waiting in the wings to catch up your mistakes into another ‘inevitable success’. You lose because you lose because you lose.
Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci and Us’1

Labour’s fate at the 2019 general election was to be sacrificed on the altar of constitutional politics. Divisions over Brexit as well as Scottish independence made major contributions to the loss of seats. Yet Labour’s defeat was long in the making. The party’s capacity for resurrection in a fragmented Britain depends on its capacity to break with the burden of a stubborn commitment to the unitary state which has powerfully moulded its politics for around a century.

A defining moment of the election came early after polls closed. Before midnight on Thursday 12th December 2019, Ian Levy was announced as the Conservative member for Blyth, defeating the Labour candidate in the race to replace the former incumbent Ronnie Campbell. Campbell is an ex-miner as well as a convinced Eurosceptic and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group. His successor was elected in the former coalfield on the back of Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘get Brexit done’. Later, in the early hours of Friday, Laura Pidcock, another prominent left-winger, lost the nearby seat of North West Durham. It was reported as though an impromptu Christmas sequel to Billy Elliot had been arranged in which the now-grown up Billy, his brother and their elderly father buried the miners’ strike hatchet with their former Tory enemies in order to punish Labour. But these setbacks have much deeper historical and cultural roots.

Ian Lavery, the Chair of the Labour Party and a former striking miner who was arrested several times during the dispute, scraped through in Wansbeck, Northumberland. In an interview shortly after his victory speech, Lavery simply remarked “It’s Brexit”, before saying that Labour had “ignored democracy and it came back to bite us”. Brexit does appear to be a powerful explanation of the broad pattern of results in England where Labour lost most heavily in Leave-voting areas, especially in the North and Midlands, as well as Wales. By comparison, Labour held up in Remain-voting areas of the South of England. But Lavery’s remarks don’t match the democratic contention in Scotland, a nation that voted 62% to Remain. The now openly pro-Brexit Scottish Conservatives lost 7 of their 13 seats and saw their vote share fall from around 30% to 25% compared with their 2017 result under the leadership of the prominent Europhile, Ruth Davidson.

The major commonality North and South of the Border, despite their significant divergences, is that the old politics of ‘Labourism’ have atrophied. This ‘unmaking’ of the British working class was not sudden. E.P. Thompson persuasively explained the ‘making’ of the English working class through the collective response of craft workers and their communities to the brutality of industrialisation. Thompson also underlined the distinctive experiences in Scotland and Wales. His magnum opus first appeared in 1963, within the context of labour history’s flourishing after the Second World War.

But these years were also characterised by the halting of labour’s ‘forward march’ through the emergence of major challenges to the institutions and culture which had sustained its advancement since the closing decades of the nineteenth century. This principally centred on the efficacy of mass trade unions for unskilled workers and their attachment of the Labour Party. The Scottish and Welsh labour movements maintained significant national distinctiveness, but nevertheless were increasingly drawn towards supporting a centralised state as UK Labour governments became a realisable possibility. Conventionally, the successes of Plaid Cymru and the SNP at by-elections in 1966 and 1967 respectively have been the key historiographical signifiers for the emergence of significant centrifugal tendencies in UK politics. Britain’s break-up is located on its ‘Celtic’ periphery.

Yet the break-up of Britain and the disruption of Labourism have origins in England. Enoch Powell’s brand of nationalist race-fuelled politics were first fully expressed when he made his now infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham during 1968. Four years earlier, Peter Griffiths, the Conservative candidate in nearby Smethwick, bucked the national trend by winning the constituency with a racist campaign against immigrants in an area blighted by factory closures. Griffiths was supported by local fascists who made posters bearing the slogan ‘if you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Labour’. Powell’s dismissal from the shadow cabinet, which followed his speech, wasn’t just supported by the London dockers and market porters whose industrial action became emblematic of white ‘backlash’ politics. Protest stoppages took place at Rugeley power station in Staffordshire and engineer workers struck and rallied in Wolverhampton. Two of Wolverhampton’s constituencies were lost by Labour to the Tories at the most recent general election, whilst Rugeley’s Cannock constituency went Tory nine years earlier.

Powell was a patrician Conservative grandee. He appealed as a statesman who was willing to voice nativist racism in a direct manner. Powell reassured his plebeian supporters that there were members of the traditional British establishment who thought as they did. This commitment blended support for hierarchies of race and class, incorporating working-class followers into a vision of nationhood that celebrates their subservience. The patterns of Powell’s support and his blurring of Britishness and Englishness anticipated the development of far-right politics in the fifty-one years that have passed since his infamous speech. Within the activist left, predominant anti-fascist memories often come to focus on war stories of battling the National Front, which is understandable given the prolonged nature of those confrontations and the casualties taken.

However, Powellism is a stronger explanation of the current context than neo-Nazism, whatever their interrelationship. The strikes that supported Powell are also something of a misnomer in explaining electoral realignment. This represented a coincidence with the culture of Labourism, but the longer trajectory has been labour movement retreat and replacement in the context of demobilisation and passivity. The long-term effects of deindustrialisation, suburbanisation, and the demise of collective action have dimmed optimism and conditioned electoral support for the right. It was within this demoralised context that Labour’s bold manifesto promises seemed fantastical and Corbyn especially un-Prime Ministerial. Put simply, politics was never going to be about the delivery of ‘nice things’. On the other hand, Johnson’s universal basic racism accorded with everyday life experiences. Curbing immigration and ringfencing public service spending increases for natives makes a lot of sense in an environment where rationing meagre finite resources seems like sound logic.

A huge divergence in Labour’s electoral fortune was visible between metropolitan areas and former industrial towns. In Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, the cities voted Labour, but the former coalfields are increasingly coloured blue. The growth of England’s rustbelt didn’t happen overnight. During the election campaign, Dean Kirby appeared to fluff his lines somewhat in a report for the i from Bolsover. Kirby’s article was themed around the imminent defeat of the iconoclastic Dennis Skinner in ‘natural’ Labour territory. His piece included interviews with at least two critics of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. A local window cleaner blamed Arthur Scargill and not Margaret Thatcher for pit closures, whilst a former strikebreaker condemned Yorkshire ‘bully boys’. Skinner was not therefore simply defeated by Corbyn’s unpopularity or Brexit alone. His constituency was at best highly divided by the strike which he supported steadfastly. In the midst of the intensifying deindustrialization that followed, Skinner’s share of the vote entered more or less continuous decline at successive general elections, from 74% in 1997 to 47% in 2019.

As the case of Cannock demonstrates, this was not an isolated case. Across constituencies that Labour lost at the general election there is an audit trail in the form of the BNP, then UKIP and finally the Brexit party as well as rising support for the Conservatives themselves. Johnson cashed in the chips of an English nativist nationalist plurality, perhaps approaching majority, that has been created over several decades. It was anticipated by the long-term fracturing of attachment to the labour movement and more specifically the Labour Party. Even the logic of the ‘it’ll go higher’ jubilation and desperation during the 2017 and 2019 election was in fact a response to the sheer plummet in core support.

Labour’s success in larger urban areas shouldn’t be sniffed at or written off. It represents significant gains made over a long time period. There were dimensions of a territorially-limited ‘forward march’ here. Labour has succeeded among the young, private tenants and the precarious and asset poor more broadly. A section of the working class responded to its shared conditions and expectations and communicated them in class terms. The deliberations over the party’s Brexit policy had a basis in complex trade-offs. There was no easy way in which to square that circle. In drawing up a balance sheet of 2019 we should also be susceptible of any snake oil salesmen with fantasy football solutions. There isn’t a simplistic answer to an ingrained structural contradiction. Labour struggled to appeal to quite different structures of feeling embedded in differing geographical contexts that have emerged from Britain’s uneven political and economic development.

The second referendum position wasn’t just a concession to the alignment of voters in English cities. In Scotland, deindustrialised former coal mining, steelmaking and shipbuilding settlements voted Remain in 2016, along with the rest of the country. At the general election, Labour lost six of the seven MPs it had regained in 2017 following the post-independence referendum collapse in 2015. Of the six seats Scottish Labour lost, five were in areas characterised by small or medium-sized former industrial settlements: Fife, Lanarkshire and the Lothians. These are precisely the sort of places that voted for Brexit in 2016 and then Conservative during the most recent general election in England and Wales. There was an increased turnout from SNP voters who were motivated by opposition to Johnson and the imposition of Brexit, as well as the Nationalists’ demand for a second independence referendum. Labour’s campaign in Scotland seemed to begin on a familiar failed Unionist footing. But by midway, it had changed tune: the party presented a platform based on uniting former Yes and No voters around a radical economic offering. That change reflected the tone of campaigning on the ground. Scottish Labour had large turnouts of young activists in its canvassing teams, and in some constituencies, they lead campaigns. Veterans of the ‘Yes’ movement from 2014 were among them.

It’s hard to see another way for Labour in Scotland. There is a core truth to the argument that Richard Leonard and some of his supporters will put forward. Labour was trapped between two ‘competing nationalisms’. But the crass implication is that these nationalisms are equivalent and divorced from the ‘real’ class interests of workers who share the same conditions. The favoured example is usually between the Clyde and the Mersey. However, the most pressing question for Scottish Labour’s survival is how it approaches self-determination, rather than its stance on independence as such.

This year’s election result was reminiscent of the 1992 ‘doomsday’ scenario when an anti-Tory majority in Scotland was outnumbered by results in England. Unlike in 1992, when the vast majority of Scottish MPs were Labour, this time they are almost all SNP (48 of 59). In Scotland, nationalism displaced Labourism, which retreated in broadly similar socioeconomic circumstances to much of the rest of the UK. But significant cultural and political distinctions, and institution building, differentiate the unmaking of the working class in Scotland. The accelerated deindustrialisation of the 1980s and 1990s, which was closely associated with Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies, and the effects of mass unemployment, were reviled on national as well as class terms. This crystallised an agenda for ‘home rule’, later known as devolution, which originated in mid-century experiences of closures in heavy industries and the growing external control of Scotland’s economy.

The Scottish election results turn Ian Lavery’s conundrum from the North East of England on its head. The Johnson government’s pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ jars with the election result in a country where anti-Brexit parties won around 75% of the vote and where over 80% of seats were won by a party that supports ‘independence in Europe’. This result is likely to increase support for independence across and outside political parties, or at least backing for another referendum. There are already some indications of these developments taking place. Alison Evison, a Labour councillor in Aberdeenshire who is the chair of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) has come out in support of a second referendum, stating that: “Democracy must be at the core of all we do. Recently it has become fragile and we must strengthen it again. We can strengthen it by enabling the voice of Scotland to be heard through its formal processes and that must mean a referendum on independence.”

COSLA once stood alongside the STUC at the heart of ‘civic Scotland’ when it was pushing for devolution. Today, the Scottish Government carries much more weight, but Evison’s emphasis on democracy is telling. The general election had a definite post-democratic atmosphere to it which qualitatively differentiated it from previous contests. A very definite inversion in the direction of scrutiny in government and media relations was the most dramatic element, but Johnson’s continual demagogic insistence there would be no second independence referendum was another. That is now part of his agenda for government. With worrying echoes of Catalonia, Scottish Labour cannot afford to find itself on the wrong side of the divide. There are some promising signs. Neil Findlay, the Lothian list MSP who stood for leader as the left candidate in 2014, and Monica Lennon, the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport, have both stated that although they are personally opposed to independence, they think Scottish Labour should support a second referendum.

Labour’s legitimacy test comes down to being prepared to defend Scotland’s right to self-determination by recognising the right to a second independence referendum. That is the only credible stance following a decade of Tory governments without a Scottish mandate and following an emphatic election victory by a party committed to another referendum. But it also has important ramifications across the UK. The break-up of Britain can also disrupt Tory rule across the UK. In Scotland (and perhaps Wales) the British government can be held up as illegitimate wherever it acts punitively. The Scottish Government should be subject to pressure to defy the UK government as much as possible. Any action it takes is likely to be accompanied by a civil disobedience movement. Scottish Labour’s younger Yes-voting members and voters will be drawn into the orbit of this activism, but given the precedent set by Findlay, Lennon and Evison, there’s no reason to assume older trade unionists and senior party members won’t be either.

In Ian Lavery’s terms, Labour can’t afford to find itself against democracy again. Taking this position may be uncomfortable for some members and elected representatives but it is utterly necessary. It cannot be left to Scotland alone either; support must be given from England and Wales too. There’s an opportunity here to reclaim democracy, as Johnson’s disaster Brexit unfolds, and to mould it in distinctly more favourable terms for the left.

  1. Stuart Hall, ‘Gramsci and Us’, Marxism Today, June 1987. 

  2. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Pelican 1968. 

  3. Paul Jackson, Colin Jordan and Britain’s Neo-Nazi Movement: Hitler’s Echo, Bloomsbury 2016. 

  4. Shirin Hirsch, In the Shadow of Powellism: Locality, Race and Resistance, Manchester University Press 2018. 

  5. Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s, Manchester University Press 2008.