Women Voting Labour: The Politics of Constructing the Unity of a Class or Rebuilding the Labour Movement for Social Reproduction

Women voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in greater numbers than men, according to research by YouGov conducted with 50,000 people after the election. To put this in context, with only the support of the 39 per cent of men who this research suggests voted Labour, a Conservative majority of 30 would have been delivered on 8th June; with a 43 per cent share of women’s vote, the Tories would have been 20 seats short of an overall majority and Labour could have formed a minority government.

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While women choose to vote Labour for a myriad of reasons in a diverse range of circumstances, they do so within the wider historical, social, economic and political context, and, as such, as Stuart Hall suggests when writing about labour movement support, it is important to “recognise the changes, the emergent patterns” (p. 19). By examining women’s recent voting behaviour in the UK, I want to suggest a theoretical framework, drawing on New Left theorists such as Hall, Hilary Wainwright and Doreen Massey, whose work often made use of certain observations in Raymond Williams, through which these choices can be interpreted.

Williams is key because he not only realised at the time of writing The Long Revolution in 1961 what many analysts fail to take account of today – the significance of gender as well as class, or, to modify Hall, gender as a modality in which class is lived, in grasping voting behaviour and political consciousness more generally, but also because of his tentative steps to understand what processes underlie this. Even where gender is mentioned, as for example by the Daily Telegraph‘s report predicting that women would vote for Corbyn in greater numbers than men, there is no effort to inquire why. When commenting on the well-known phenomenon of working class support for the Tories, Williams sees that gender differences illustrate the incompleteness of typical ways of understanding and analysing politics:

Millions of wage-earners and their wives still vote Conservative, as in previous elections. The significant questions are what kinds of people these are, and whether there are any new and permanent social patterns shaping them. It is difficult to answer these questions with any certainty, but one fact stands out. The division of voters by sex cuts right across the usual analysis by class, introducing questions which cannot be negotiated within our ordinary political categories.[1]

This is crucial because it disrupts some of the dominant narratives around class and voting behaviour which ignore gender and, in so doing, suggest short-termist electoral strategies that appeal to a cultural sense of class rather than addressing the popular needs of working class women and men today. This tendency stems from the importance of the organised working class (and this was the organisation of a particular section of the working class) in the inception of the labour movement; however, it fails to understand how this movement was built at a specific historical conjuncture in capitalist society and, consequently, reifies the link between this particular section of the working class and the party as a whole.

In contrast, as Wainwright examines in Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, the movement has never just been reducible to these ‘labourist’ tedencies, but has encompassed – and is still encompassing – a great variety of participation and activism, including from women. The efforts of the New Left in the 80s, particularly socialist feminists, did a great deal to extend the appeal of the party beyond male sectional interests, and extend the sites of politics beyond workplaces to address women’s social and economic, as well as political, needs. This was in stark contrast to Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda which, I will argue, drawing substantially on Lise Vogel and Nancy Fraser, initiated a redrawing of the boundaries between the spheres of production and reproduction that disinvested the social fabric and made substantial areas of provisioning the responsibility of women at a time when they were also being drawn into the labour force in increasing numbers. This is the backdrop against which New Labour won in 1997 on an agenda of modernisation and, after a decade of austerity, perhaps parallels can be drawn with Labour’s surprise success in 2017, with both having been made possible by their appeal to women. However, although breaking with the Party’s labourist tendencies was a prerequisite for both successes, the way in which both incarnations of the Party have made use of the socialist feminist influence as part of the 80s New Left, is starkly different, with only the promise of the Labour Party today having the will and, potentially, the capacity to honour its legacy.

Women’s Voting Behaviour

The way women voted in this election is part of a wider trend of women being more likely to vote Labour and less likely to vote Conservative than men since 2005, with the previous elections from 1987 (with the interesting exception of 1992) seeing women and men vote both Conservative and Labour in roughly the same proportions. This, however, is a significant recent change, reversing the trend that saw, before 1987, women voting Conservative in greater numbers than men and being less likely to vote Labour.

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Williams’ far-sighted analysis saw the reversal in men and women’s voting behaviour approaching as far back as the early 60s:

This male Labour majority has been normal since the war, though it is also significant that it narrowed during the fifties, and that the Conservative majority among women has also been narrowing. The reasons, in each case, are still speculative, but at least it is impossible to analyse the distribution of the wage-earning vote without serious allowances for this difference by sex.[2]

The reversal is even more significant when age is taken into consideration. With older voters more likely to vote for the Conservatives, and older women doing so more than older men, the differences between younger men and women’s voting behaviour is even more stark. In this election, there was a huge 18-point swing to Labour among younger women compared with a 3.5-point swing to Labour among younger men.

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The ‘Loss of Working Class’ Support and the Relation to Gender

Another trend in voting behaviour that has been identified by polling is that, while gaining women’s votes under Blair and Corbyn, Labour is losing ‘working class’ support. Pollster James Morris reported, “between 1997 and 2010, for every voter Labour lost from the professional classes it lost three unskilled or unemployed workers.” The explanation offered by Morris, and one that has emerged on a particular section of the anti-Corbyn Labour right, now accepts the argument made first by Ed Miliband, then with more clarity by Corbyn, that Labour lost significant working class voters under Blair due to taking them for granted, as it triangulated support among middle class swing voters. After losing the Copeland by-election, critiques of Corbyn also saw this trend continuing, blaming the loss of the seat on a catastrophic lack of working class support, with the Financial Times reporting that “Corbyn’s perceived hostility to the nuclear industry, the biggest employer locally, his pacifism and pro-immigration stance has alienated voters Labour could once take for granted”, a terrain seen as being taken over by the ‘Red Tory’ narrative aiming to attract those “just about managing”. Although May’s strategy did not succeed as she wished, as is evidenced by her being pushed to fire her Red Tory advisor after the election, this narrative has continued, with The Guardian reporting that “the working classes swung behind Theresa May’s Conservatives”.

However, this narrative ignores Williams’ realisation, that “it is impossible to analyse the distribution of the wage-earning vote without serious allowances for this difference by sex.” In other words, the fact that (young) working class women vote differently to working class men, yet, now, in the opposite direction to what Williams was observing in the 50s and 60s – that is, they are voting for Labour to a greater extent than men. The fact that this does not fit with the ‘loss of working class support’ narrative poses some serious questions for how class is operationalised in polling data. This is done through the use of the National Readership Survey ‘ABC1’ categorisations, developed over 50 years ago for marketing purposes, which assume class can be gauged through the proxy of occupational status, regardless of how these occupations relate to today’s wider capitalist economic structure as a whole.

In other words, while subordinate economic location and lower grade manual occupations may, and often do, overlap, those in C2DE jobs do not exhaust the types of lower-income households in today’s economy. As Kyle Gerhaghty explains, “the roots of this lies in the understanding of class as a hangover from post-war identities, in which there was a stark divide between professional middle class and working class occupations, and the consequences of this for average income.” Furthermore, the identification of job with economic location seems often not to be based on research evidence but, particularly among political commentators, more on cultural/ideological assumptions about the type of social and political consciousness produced by the hand/brain division of labour – which is thought to give rise to a class based on those with, what Hobsbawm describes as, a “common proletarian style”: “the rise of football as a mass proletarian sport, of Blackpool as we still know it today, of the fish-and-chip shop—all products of the 1880s and 1890s, or at the earliest the 1870s; the famous cap immortalised by the Andy Capp” (it is worth noting the male-centredness, and also the non-domesticity - the fish-and-chip shop, of these) (p. 232).

The assumption is then often made that these are the sort of people (men) who should vote Labour, so when they don’t, it is seen as unnatural. This gives rise to the narrative that Labour has a problem with the working class, and that Labour also has a long term existential problem, as these occupational communities disappear. Commenting on the social grading data that shows the UK is becoming more ‘middle class’ as C2DE occupations decrease, Neil Farrer, the head of media measurement for Ipsos Connect, said:

These long term trends collected through high quality research provide a real insight into how the make-up of the country has developed over the past fifty years. Since we started collecting social grade, manufacturing in Great Britain has decreased significantly whilst there has been real growth in service related jobs ultimately leading to a burgeoning middle class.

However, even in 1961 this argument was a target for criticism from Williams, who commented that “the point has been reached where the growing feeling that class is out of date...is being used to ratify a social system which in other terms than those now visibly breaking down is still essentially based on economic classes”[3].

Whatever the cultural caricatures, those in manual labour remain a declining part of a wider emerging low wealth/low income section of the population that does not map neatly onto occupational status. Research by Geraghty in New Socialist, has shown that, while occupational status (and education – which can be mapped quite closely to ABC1 status due to its relationship to skill and therefore occupation) is declining as a predictor of voting behaviour (although much less so when dissected by age – with C2DE voters under 55 still preferring Labour), income remains a strong predictor of voting behaviour, with low income voters preferring Labour. This is increasingly supported by tenure, with renters overwhelmingly moving towards Labour. As Geraghty’s analysis concludes, using these proxies “provides partial evidence that as culturally working-class voters are becoming less important to Labour, it is not necessarily losing the support of the actual working class defined by economic location.”

While the relation between economic location and political consciousness has never been straightforward, the fact that there is low income/low wealth support for Labour, which does not overlap completely with manual occupations, suggests that the ‘burgeoning middle classes’ of service sector workers, predominantly women, identified by Ipsos Connect, are a significant but unacknowledged part of working class support for Labour.

It is also worth noting that, serious problems with these measures notwithstanding, the way in which such measures are weighted in polling data also adds further gender bias. Polling companies make use of Census data and Labour Market Surveys to weight participants in terms of the ABC1 system. While a social grade is applied to all those in a household who stated that they were working in the week before the Census, those who were not working in this week are allocated the grade of the ‘Household Reference Person’ (previously ‘Head of the Household’). As women are more likely than men to be in the latter category, polling data is more likely to categorise women by their partner’s occupation and may consequently classify women to a higher social grade than they actually have.

The fact that the ABC1 system operationalises the occupational categories and assumptions of, essentially, a male breadwinner model, through categories based upon male occupational communities and often by aggregating household data, shows that it is inadequate to take into account how social class functions today, and particularly the role of gender within it. This is not to under-emphasise the link between occupational status and social class and, in particular, low skilled workers’ tendency to be poorer. However, it does not capture the complexity of the contemporary capitalist economy and, in particular, women’s place within it, both as workers and within households.

The Recomposition and Feminisation of the Working Class

The recomposition of the working class is a generic feature of capitalism and is, as Hall argues, accelerated in “periods of economic crisis or recession” (p. 16). The current organisation of the working class is largely the result of two crises and their resolutions, firstly the crisis analysed by Hall of the 1970s, secondly the crisis of 2007-8, which has its roots in those resolutions. As Fraser argues, a major feature of the neoliberal resolution of the crisis of the 1970s, what she describes as, the “historical shift in the character of capitalism, from the state-organized variant... to neoliberalism” was the bringing of women into the workforce,

Neoliberal capitalism has as much to do with Walmart, maquiladoras and microcredit as with Silicon Valley and Google. And its indispensable workers are disproportionately women, not only young single women, but also married women and women with children; not only racialized women, but women of virtually all nationalities and ethnicities. As such, women have poured into labour markets around the globe; the effect has been to undercut once and for all state-organized capitalism’s ideal of the family wage.

As Fraser implies, these women were often employed in subordinate, precarious and deeply exploited roles. Against the argument that the development of a service based economy, at least in the Global North under neoliberalism, meant the disappearance of the working class, it should be clear that what actually happened was the feminisation of the working class. A further aspect of this feminisation of the working class is the proletarianisation, particularly accelerated in the wake of 2007-8, of sections of previously “middle class” occupations as they became performed by women.

The occupational categories as an inadequate proxy for class, therefore, correspond broadly to a distinction between manual and mental work (where what is described as “affective” work fits in here, is unclear). This distinction as a class category is behind even Labour’s old Clause IV, which focuses on both “workers by hand and workers by brain”. With large parts of women’s employment concentrated in secretarial and administrative (C1) and lower professional (B), many women register as middle-class while, in terms of pay, control over work and security, being deeply disempowered. Moreover, occupational categories fail to account for whether work is full-time or part-time, permanent or temporary, so women, again, more likely to be in temporary and part-time work (42%) register in an occupational category “above” the reality of their class.

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Referring to the recomposition as a result of the 1970s crisis, and sceptical about the consequent ‘disappearance of the working class’, Hall nevertheless realises how this might affect not just the industrial and economic structure of labour, but its politics and culture: “such social mobility as occurred was largely the result of service and non-manual occupations replacing the manual skilled trades identified with the 'solid' working class. But shifts in the boundaries and imageries of class are not without their political and ideological consequences.” (p. 20) These changes did have an impact on the labour movement and the Labour Party and, in particular, women’s relation to it, as they were largely excluded from its inception and labourist form.

Labourism

Hall describes how a certain configuration of the organised working class were formative in establishing the labour movement, and, consequently, in instituting its political and cultural forms:

For this skilled and semi-skilled manual working class stratum defined the dominant patterns of industrial unionism at a formative stage of the labour movement. It is also where the traditions of militancy and struggle are nurtured in the popular memory of the movement. It also defined the culture of the working class movement. (p. 17)

Hall writes that because of their ‘vanguard’ role in its inception, this also gave the impression of a direct, uncomplicated and natural link between the organised working class standing in for the whole of the class and the Party creating the myth that “pure class position guarantees voting behaviour or political support” when “in between the two lies the indeterminate terrain of politics, where these connections can be won or lost, depending on how struggles are conducted and what the balance of political forces turns out to be.” (p. 16-7) The indeterminate terrain in which the class consciousness at stake here was produced were predominantly workplaces that led to a political and industrial organisation that, although secured meaningful victories for labour against capital, was economistic, patriarchal and hierarchical – precisely because it was subordinate to capitalist society.

Wainwright and Massey describe the mining communities that were emblematic of this type of politics as

Predominantly white; they are socially conservative; traditional sexual divisions of labour – woman as home-maker, man as bread-winner – have been deeply ingrained...Their politics have been workplace-based. They are the fiefdoms of one of the most important unions in labour movement history, symbolizing – at least for men – the old strengths of a solidarity born of mutual dependence at work, and the reliance of a whole community on a single industry...They are heartlands of labourism.[4]

It is precisely this traditional labourist politics that may be the reason why many working class women did not support Labour at this time. The ‘social conservatism’ of these communities perhaps underlies the fact that, as both Williams and, here, Hall acknowledge, “the working class vote has always, historically, contained a significant proportion of Tory voters, ever since the Conservatives resolved that they would have to forge the working class connection if the party were to survive the coming of mass democracy” (p. 17). However, without the counter-hegemony of workplace solidarity that working men experienced, Williams observes that, “in addition to wage-earning Conservative families, there were many Conservative wives of Labour husbands”[5].

It is not only that women were not subject to the politicisation of work place struggles; they did have a role that included them in the social whole of the wider world of labour through their, often strictly policed, separation. Hall states that “some of the older occupational communities maintain a particular sexual division of labour, a tight set of familiar roles and loyalties” (p. 19). As Vogel argues, the sexual division of labour under capitalism is unique in “forc[ing] a severe spatial, temporal, and institutional separation between domestic labour and the capitalist production-process”[6]. This has the advantage (for the capitalist) of splitting (and further obscuring) the necessary labour workers have to do to acquire and enjoy the means of subsistence, and so reproduce themselves (and others); forcing the worker to work for a wage, which they then need to ‘realise’ through a certain amount of supplementary labour (buying and cooking a meal for example). By requiring the worker, or, historically, a female member of their family, to do this in a separate space, capital devalues and naturalises it, so that it remains uncompensated. Vogel explains this further by a contrast with “class-societies based on agriculture – feudalism, for example – the labour-processes of necessary labour are frequently integrated with those of surplus-production.”[7]

The separation of domestic labour from wage labour means labourist struggles are strictly separated from and do nothing to improve the conditions of women in the spaces of reproductive labour (the domestic side of necessary labour) or, indeed, produce, for women, the political and social consciousness to inculcate the solidarity to struggle for them. Instead, the domestic is also separated culturally and, as such, women were subject to an attenuated code to men’s solidarity; indeed a code which proscribes a set of behaviours that create the conditions of possibility for that solidarity, while simultaneously, providing justification for it – and one that had more consanguinity with Conservative values than Labour ones, as Hall acknowledges, “working class unity and labour movement fraternity have often been underpinned by certain versions of masculinity, traditionalism and domestic respectability.” (p. 19)

Labourism in the Context of the Recomposition of the Working Class

As the working class was being recomposed in the final third of the twentieth century, the material basis for these ‘labourist’ political forms was being dismantled, with “one aspect” of this being “the general decline of those sectors of the economy where skilled workers of this type predominated, and with the decline of those geographical regions which constituted the industrial heartland of the early labour movement.” (p. 18) Of course, over time, “changes in the structure and composition of the working class are likely to affect the industrial structure and political culture of the labour movement” (p. 17). However, this process is not straightforward or immediate, with Hall’s shift from the past when talking about the decline in economic sectors to the speculative (“likely to affect”) suggesting there may be a significant lag between economic processes and the ways in which they are lived. Again we are dealing with the ‘indeterminate terrain of politics’.

Hall remarks on the failure of parts of the labour movement to adapt – and Wainwright and Massey were, in fact, writing about the mining communities in the time of their decline, as being seen as “‘old fashioned’, sectional and, by implication, bankrupt. Male manual workers, the old working class with a vengeance, fighting to save jobs in what is officially described as a declining industry, state-owned and located in isolated declining regions” [8]. For Hall:

It should be evident what risks we run if the movement continues to have real roots only in the declining sections of a class. It must reflect - in organisation and culture - the real diversity and complexity of class formation. Its historic commitments cannot prevent it from centrally engaging occupational patterns and cultures thrown up by the new capitalist division of labour...A labour movement which is not sufficiently open to allow the currents of modern life, which are influencing and shaping its members, to blow through its structures and procedures is living off its past at the expense of the future (p. 19).

In a situation where the waning industrial strength of labour to deliver even partial victories that supported working class household incomes, whether through industrial action or the state, had been worn down, labourism offered even less to working class women, with its institutions and cultures rooted in the exclusion or subordination of women and becoming increasingly irrelevant to everyday life. This breakdown of capacities run through the 1970s, and the miners’ strike can be read as the last major struggle of this sequence, but also, importantly, a struggle that opened up possibilities of new forms of post-labourist class politics.

As both Williams, regarding the 1959 election, and Hall on 1979, remark, it has also been a concerted political effort of the Conservatives (as in the 2017 election) to gain working class votes, which they perhaps did by speaking to the new experiences and social and cultural readjustments that emerged as a result of the recomposition of the class better than Labour. Of this new habitus, Williams writes how

I am not greatly surprised that contemporary Conservatism...makes sense as an interpretation of it to very many people. For at just this point, Labour seems to have very little to offer. A different version of community, a pattern of new consciousness, it has not been able to give. Its compromise policies combine the two irrelevant elements of appeal to old and fading habits and memories, and of cultural adjustment to the present social confusion.[9]

The Socialist Feminist Influence on Labour

However, in the crisis caused by this recomposition of class, and the failure of labourism to provide an adequate industrial structure and political culture to deal with it, opportunities arose to realign the labour movement to the needs and desires of a broader, more contemporary and diverse alliance of workers and non-workers; and here many women and others, including PoC, were crucial. As Hall writes at the time of this realignment:

What is at issue here is ultimately the politics of constructing the unity of a class - and in a recognisably present and modern, not simply historical, form. Heroic attachments to the past will serve for tall stories in the working men's club, but may not have much living connection to the real problems of class, party and movement today (p. 19)

Instead, he argues, the labour movement “must discover ways of reflecting, in its social values, both the tight solidarities of the old communities and the greater diversity and openness of the new.” (p. 19) It was such an alliance between the old communities and the urban New Left and women’s movement that Wainwright and Massey were writing about when discussing the coalition of activists coming together around the miner’s strike in just such traditional communities as outlined above. In many ways, the new movement was ahead of the party structure and the industrial leadership,

With trade union leadership at sixes and sevens, their creaking structures, and their lack of credibility, unable to lead any response, and with the party political leadership embarrassed by the whole affair – in spite of, maybe because of, all the heavy-footed inertia – there has sprung up a completely different way of organizing support, indeed an expansion of what the concept of support means. ‘The grass roots’, people of all sorts, previously politically active and not, have just got on with it.[10]

Wainwright discusses further, in Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, not only how women’s sections in the Labour Party were central to supporting the miner’s strike (often when the CLPs themselves were not), but how the influence of their activity and the politicisation that went with the experience of communal struggles over supporting livelihoods and communities, led to other women joining the Party. A long-running industrial strike, for all the arguments of those who presented the miners’ struggle as old-fashioned and purely labourist, is also a point at which the barriers that had previously separated labourist and reproductive struggles are broken. It reveals how domestic labour supports, and is a condition of possibility for, labour solidarity, as women, and the community as a whole, are required to use their resourcefulness to extend provisioning, at the point where men withdraw from earning the means of subsistence. This extension is achieved through socialising these tasks within the community, but with the subsequent result of politicising whole sections of it in ways beyond previously contained labourist and economistic struggles.

This politicisation can outrun the structures that gave rise to it, and as such, challenge their orthodoxy; as Wainwright observes how “the response of women’s sections and, by contrast, of some of their CLPs, to the 1984 miners’ strike also illustrates divergence of the two views of democracy”[11]. Women’s sections were largely reanimated by socialist feminists, as well as younger women, (re-)joining the Labour Party in the early 80s, and, with their experience of organising around women’s liberation and wider social movements, they turned their attention to democratising its structures and opening up its culture. As Wainwright observed,

When you look at the values and ideas of feminism’s participatory democracy it is obvious that there will be tensions, to say the least, between the women’s sections influenced by feminism and the more traditional forms of representative democracy in the Labour movement...the liberation of women is not a matter of political equality alone. Unless women also have economic independence, and control over their own bodies and sexuality, unless child care and other domestic work is reorganised, then women will still, whatever their formal rights, be subordinate. This approach frequently leads the new women’s sections to work with groups of women involved in social, community and economic issues which the rest of the party, left and right, does not consider ‘political’.[12]

Through this approach, although met with resistance, women were able to expand the sites of political struggle beyond work-places and production. Labourism saw the “factory, office or enterprise” as “a black box with the value of labour power going in one end, and surplus value coming out of the other”, and viewed politics as a “confrontation between sectional interests” [13] over the spoils. Both the kinds of processes of social reproduction required to produce ‘the value of labour power’ as well as what went on inside the ‘black box’, which was a site of struggle taken up by 1980s New Unionism and other parts of the Labour left, were politicised, addressing the concerns of women, both as the new workers of capitalism and within households as primary carers, and, often, now performing the ‘double shift’.

New Unionism in the 1980s

Women had some successes in changing party structures and culture, however, some of the strongest opposition came from some unions, which Wainwright describes as “the ‘dead souls’ of Labourism” because of how they automatically incorporated trade union members into the Party, meaning that “the organised working class is represented – indeed, in a dominant position – within the party, formally through their unions” [14]. However, female expansion of the labour force meant that unions were increasingly dependent on attracting women members, whose demands they needed to incorporate. As Hall explains:

The newer industrial strata are certain to...reflect the rising proportion of women in the workforce, and thus the growing place of part-time work and 'feminised' work roles. The labour movement must therefore prepare itself for a massive adaptation to new needs and demands - for example, the demand for greater flexibility in work organisation. The unions in general will have increasingly to take up new topics for negotiation and press for new requirements in conditions of employment. It also follows, I suspect, that the patriarchalism of leadership, hierarchy and authority which so strongly marks earlier styles of political and industrial organisation will not survive the impact (p. 19).

This new industrial structure is perhaps seen most in clearly in the unions for sectors that had the most women workers and therefore had increasing amount of women members, such as the public service union, NUPE. Not only did NUPE make economistic demands on behalf of its majority female workforce, it engaged in political education and campaigning in order to build “support for industrial action on political issues such as privatisation and the job losses and deterioration of conditions that goes with it”[15].

In both the CLPs and the unions, these changes, shaped by women’s involvement, were ensuring that the Labour Party was engaging beyond its labourist base and changing the party from below. It is also worth noting here who was involved in this grass roots movement and taking it into the parliamentary labour party itself, as Wainwright explains, “this persuasive, outward going kind of politics is particularly clear in the behaviour of the new breed of MP and parliamentary candidate: [such as] Jeremy Corbyn in Islington”[16], who was previously a NUPE organiser as well.

On the one hand, the movement was being rebuilt, and its relation to the party remade, to better reflect contemporary class composition, and, in particular, women – often against great resistance – were changing its sexist culture and practices so that it did not actively exclude women in the way that old labourist politics did, although even today, this endeavour is not complete. However, on the other hand, another major reason for women joining the party at this time, and perhaps voting Labour – for the first time on a par with men, was because of “Thatcher and attacks from the right” (Wainwright) which were undermining the social fabric with disproportionate effects on women’s lives in particular.

Thatcher to Blair – Wrecking and Resourcing the Social Fabric

Although a condition of capitalism’s possibility, as discussed above, social reproduction processes are obscured by the spatial, temporal, institutional and cultural separation between domestic labour and the capitalist production-process[17]. This means that even as women are increasingly entering employment, their public role is generally split from, and leaves substantially unchanged their ‘private role’, as Federici explains, “getting a second job does not change that role, as years and years of female work outside the home have demonstrated. The second job not only increases our exploitation, but simply reproduces our role in different forms.”[18] This reliance on women’s unpaid labour, while as far as possible requiring women to be direct producers too, means their capacity to maintain households is always under strain, and the domestic sphere is generically under-resourced and in crisis. Fraser explains:

In general, then, capitalist societies separate social reproduction from economic production, associating the first with women, and obscuring its importance and value. Paradoxically, however, they make their official economies dependent on the very same processes of social reproduction whose value they disavow. This peculiar relation of separation-cum-dependence-cum-disavowal is an inherent source of instability: on the one hand, capitalist economic production is not self- sustaining, but relies on social reproduction; on the other, its drive to unlimited accumulation threatens to destabilize the very reproductive processes and capacities that capital — and the rest of us — need

In this way, maintenance of the ‘social fabric’ through the state’s taking on of some aspects of social reproduction in public services such as schools, hospitals, care homes, childcare, as well as resourcing reproduction through welfare and direct transfers, can be seen to be disproportionately important to women. As the Women’s Budget Group argue, “women rely more heavily on public services and social security transfers, as gender norms operate to maintain women on low incomes and in a primary carer role.”

Although always in crisis, these contradictions are generally stabilised, if never permanently resolved. However, the economic crisis of the beginning in the late 60s that led to the recomposition of the class within capitalist production, also initiated a readjustment in the settlement between the sphere of production and that of social reproduction, what Fraser has called ‘boundary struggles’. The post-war settlement of these boundaries, which itself was a compromise in response to the depression, mass unemployment, pauperisation and radicalisation, was drawn comparatively on the side of social reproduction. State provision of social welfare coupled with an acceptance of unionisation and higher wages – in some cases (to a sub-group of privileged male workers, such as in the occupational communities outlined above), a family wage, re-resourced social reproduction, while giving workers a stake in the system, as Fraser argues,

Public investment in health care, schooling, childcare and old-age pensions, supplemented by corporate provision, was perceived as a necessity in an era in which capitalist relations had penetrated social life to such an extent that the working classes no longer possessed the means to reproduce themselves on their own.

This state-managed capitalism was dismantled in the context of the economic crisis of the 70s, which put significant pressure on social reproduction. The neoliberal regime, embodied by the project of Thatcherism, was itself a state project, but one aimed at accelerating the ‘liberalising’ effects of the crisis in order to resolve it in the ruling class’s favour. “Globalizing and neoliberal, this regime promotes state and corporate disinvestment from social welfare, while recruiting women into the paid workforce —externalizing carework onto families and communities while diminishing their capacity to perform it.” Undoubtedly, the consequent break down of stabilised family and community organisation that resulted from this was experienced by a number of men and women in a revanchist way:

There is a failure to recognise the role of economic restructuring in disabling the domestic sector and undermining its ability to make provision for both its needs and the needs of the other sectors. Instead, there is a tendency to postulate this disability as stemming from the break-up of patriarchal family structures. (p. 16)

For some – particularly for some women – Thatcher initially appeared to offer a solution to the social fallout of the economic crisis as she was able to articulate the consequent strain put on the domestic sphere in a right populist way through themes of social breakdown. As Hall argues, Thatcherism like all successful right populisms, “addresses real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions—and yet is able to represent them within a logic of discourse which pulls them systematically into line with policies and class strategies of the Right.” (p. 20) This is not least because of the way in which organised labour, on the defensive against the onslaught of free-market liberalisation, was not able to generalise the struggle, with the “Winter of Discontent” affecting family life without labour militancy achieving gains beyond male sectional interests. Thatcher was able to make a case for the restoration of stability through an appeal to national interests presented as in opposition to the partial, sectional interests of Trade Unionism that was essentially ideological, and by ignoring the underlying economic restructuring, quickly led to an oppositional response.

Women were in a privileged position to see through this right wing articulation for precisely the same reasons that this articulation appealed to them in 1979 – being those most affected by the disintegration of the social fabric, and had greater reason to be disillusioned with Thatcher. With “wages fall[ing] below the socially necessary costs of reproduction”, forcing the norm of the two-earner household, women’s ‘double shift’, while state investment in reproduction was being withdrawn, increased the drudgery and improvisation needed to knit together a reasonable work and family life. Federici writes in 1980, “women today work harder than in the past. This is particularly true for women heads of families and women with low wages, who are often forced to moonlight to make ends meet”[19]. They also had experience of those areas of public life most affected by neoliberal reforms, witnessing how the withdrawal of the state from social provisioning affected schools and hospitals.

As workers in the public sector, which mostly employed women, women were organising as part of New Unionism. Wainwright observes how “NUPE led strikes and other kinds of direct action against low pay, in defence of the NHS and against cuts in public spending”[20]. Some women were also politicised as a result of their involvement in support groups for the miner’s strike, as outlined above. Although this action was largely defensive, the forms of organisation it required challenged the status quo, as the involvement of women necessarily challenged some of the conservative aspects of the communities they were defending. The visibility of the feminist movement, as well as women’s increasing economic and social power from their entrance into the labour force, led many to reject the social conservatism and domestic ideals of feminity that naturalised their role, and the right wing resolution that blamed social disintegration on the breakup of the patriarchal family.

The Labour Party, evolving in less sexist and macho ways, was able to articulate some of this discontent, as this Party Political Broadcast from 1981 makes clear. Although this broadcast registers how women became active in Labour on the back of these experiences, it is symptomatic of how a far greater number of women, while they did not get involved in Labour or left politics in this period, stopped voting for the Conservatives and voted Labour, meaning women’s Labour vote was steadily increasing from the low base of 1983. This also dovetails with the declining political power of those sections of working class men for whom the failure of labourist politics to defend the social democratic settlement may have led to disillusionment with the Labour Party (and men’s votes for Labour tanked by 10 points from 1979 to 1983).

At the promise of New Labour, both men’s and women’s Labour vote jumped in 1997, and, in the context of two decades of under-resourcing the social fabric, the prospect of “better schools, better hospitals, better ways of tackling crime, of building a modern welfare state, of equipping ourselves for a new world economy” proved electorally appealing.

New Labour’s Modernisation Agenda

As well as investing in public services and easing the pressures on families and women in particular, like Jeremy Corbyn today, Tony Blair rejected a ‘labourist’ notion of the Party. Recognising the dangers of what Wainwright identifies as labourism’s assumption that “the Labour Party speaks for the whole of the working class”[21], New Labour understood that it must work to build coalitions beyond the traditional base to secure an electoral majority. However, New Labour’s critique of labourism, and coalition building on the basis of a recomposed class, did not go far enough. Blair did not so much take up Hall’s challenge of engaging in “the politics of constructing the unity of a class - and in a recognisably present and modern, not simply historical, form”, than discard class politics in favour of constructing politics in the image of the modern that “differs from the old left and the Conservative right.” The 1997 Manifesto continues, “this is why new Labour is new. New Labour is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works. The objectives are radical. The means will be modern.”

New Labour’s belief in a post-class society, was, paradoxically underpinned by a non-questioning of the link between class and party as forged by labourism, but believed labourism to be old-fashioned waning class politics that they could move beyond (while also taking for granted). While Blair understood the declining size and political power of this particular section of the class, he did not share in Williams’ insight that “the point has been reached where the growing feeling that class is out of date...is being used to ratify a social system which in other terms than those now visibly breaking down is still essentially based on economic classes” [22]. Moreover, the lack of faith in building the labour movement meant that the work of political persuasion was not so much based in political education and grass roots organising, but in media and parliamentary politics; and people’s needs where not so much meet by arousing their popular demands and capacities, but in top-down technocratic solutions – “what works”.

Despite accepting the shift in power from labour to capital, this modernising agenda did deliver real effects: investing in public services, and, while accepting the two-earner household as norm, tax credits and the minimum wage, which disproportionately benefited women in lower paid sectors, helped to resource social reproduction. In fact, in implementing the minimum wage, New Labour were acting on demands from women-centred unions such as NUPE against those representing male sectional interests. Wainwright observes how Eric Hammond, the General Secretary of the EETPU, “treated the debate about the statutory minimum wage as a kind of virility test, implying that the advocates of the statutory minimum wage were just covering up their own impotence”. While, rightly here, siding with “one of the several unions organising the growing underclass of the low-paid” rather than one of “workers whose wages have increased under Thatcherism”[23], the Labour Government were – by, at the same time, accepting the underlying economic logic of neoliberalism – creating the conditions through legislation restricting collective bargaining that ensured Hammond’s boasting could only be a show of masculine bravado. By effectively evacuating the sphere of industrial struggle, New Labour defined their role as ameliorative state intervention around the edges of capitalism, as well as adapting the unions to the consumerist values of the market.

Enclosing New Left Critique

Accepting the NUPE line on the minimum wage, against the more traditional trade unions, was one of the ways New Labour was ‘enclosing’, for its own purposes, the insights of the New Left critique of labourism from the 80s, and in so doing reconciling parts of the left into its basic capitulation to Thatcher’s neoliberal reforms. This is part of a wider thesis that understands capitalism, and its agents, as colonising and neutralising its anti-capitalist opposition. Fraser summarises the argument that Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello make in The New Spirit of Capitalism, that

Capitalism periodically remakes itself in moments of historical rupture, in part by recuperating strands of critique directed against it. In such moments, elements of anti-capitalist critique are resignified to legitimate an emergent new form of capitalism, which thereby becomes endowed with the higher, moral significance needed to motivate new generations to shoulder the inherently meaningless work of endless accumulation.

The emergence of New Left critiques of state paternalism coincided with attempts to settle the capitalist crisis in a neoliberal way. By taking over the socially liberalising thrust of social movements, struggles for personal political freedom became used not just as a justification to reform the state in its social functions but in its economic ones too.

Out of the collision of these two sets of struggles there emerged a surprising result: a ‘progressive’ neoliberalism, which celebrates ‘diversity’, meritocracy and ‘emancipation’ while dismantling social protections and re-externalizing social reproduction. The result is not only to abandon defenceless populations to capital’s predations, but also to redefine emancipation in market terms.

Largely in the UK these tendencies appeared in the ways in which New Labour incorporated sections of the left into neoliberalism but earlier tendencies where this critique pulled rightwards and in a notably anti-working class way are apparent, notably in Beatrix Campbell’s (who is, presumably, one of the targets of Wainwright and Massey’s critique of those who treated the strike as macho and old-fashioned) opposition to the miners’ strike.

Fraser argues that feminist strands of critique have been particularly susceptible to this redeployment because of their mistrust of traditional androcentric authority, so that “aspirations that had a clear emancipatory thrust in the context of state-organized capitalism assumed a far more ambiguous meaning in the neoliberal era.” Well-founded and perceptive criticism of what Hall has described as “the patriarchalism of leadership, hierarchy and authority which so strongly marks earlier styles of political and industrial organisation” (p. 19) became redeployed to legitimate acceptance of the depleted power of labour and the inability of government to intervene in the economy. For example, under New Labour, feminist criticisms of the welfare state as undemocratic, impersonal and alienating were metamorphosed into the personalisation, independent living and choice agendas. Encapsulating the "progressive neoliberalism" that Fraser expounds above, in the British Journal of Learning Disabilities, the personalisation agenda is described as being “underpinned by a range of ideologies, particularly a civil rights empowerment approach and neoliberal market discourses.” Under the justification that services needed to be tailored to the individual rather than delivered in a one-size-fits-all fashion, New Labour invited a diverse market of providers, including private sector providers beheld to the profit motif, to deliver state services. As Christopher Blewitt for New Socialist has argued, this has led to a policy direction that operates under the counterintuitive understanding that independence is promoted best through the removal of benefits to prevent state dependency.

Conversely, while using socially liberalising discourse as the face of free market reforms of the welfare state, leaving the basic economic structure and all the harm it did intact meant using authoritarian solutions for ‘social’ problems. Such revanchist interventions had more in common with Thatcherite right wing articulations of the breakdown of the social fabric and patriarchal family albeit in the modernised jargon of ‘hard to reach’ families. Elson, in her 1998 article, recognises the incompleteness of the diagnosis made by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment at that time, David Blunkett, that blames parents for why the UK lacks a skilled workforce. She quotes him as saying, “where there is a problem it is all too often because parents claim not to have the time, because they have disengaged from their children's education or because, quite simply, they lack even the basics of parenting skill.” For Elson, this explanation has

No recognition of the likely impact on parenting of the extremely long hours of paid work undertaken by many of those men and women in Britain who do have paid jobs; nor of the impact of insecurity, unemployment and loss of hope and self-respect as whole communities are crushed by the force of the global market. (p. 15-6)

Clearly there are criticisms to be made of New Labour’s politics, particularly for poor women, single mothers and those on welfare, and in many cases there was rapid disillusion for both men and women, whose combined Labour vote subsequently began diminishing in the New Labour elections after ’97. However, Blair was able to project a modernity that did seem to reflect the currents of people’s lives, with a socially liberal agenda that included civil partnerships and a focus on equal opportunities, which did not exclude women in the way ‘old left’ politics did. Also the ambiguous modernisation of failing public services did offer relief from decades of underinvestment that may have particularly affected women and, with men’s vote share falling at a faster pace, women overtook men in voting Labour in 2005, since when women have been more likely than men to vote Labour, especially in recent election with Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

Rebuilding the Labour Movement for Social Reproduction

It is notable that, although it is an increasing trend for women to vote for Labour more than men, they did so in particularly higher numbers in the recent election. It is also worth remembering that, although ‘enclosed’ by the most recent incarnation of Labour government, Corbyn hails from the New Left movement whose insights were an attempt to expand the old fashioned and sexist labourist notion of class in order to truly engage in “the politics of constructing the unity of a class - and in a recognisably present and modern, not simply historical, form”. While Blair took the labourist husk of this class for granted, and Corbyn is blamed for losing their support, we can, in fact, see in the Corbyn project a renewal of New Left attempts to build a movement based on a notion of class that is objectively rooted and, importantly, includes women, as well as PoC.

In this expanded notion based on economic location, those who were the male skilled manual workers largely in occupational communities have to be addressed as what they are now and understood as part of a wider coalition based on how class was recomposed in the 70s, and again, after the crisis in 2007-8. Sometimes referred to as the ‘left behind communities’, there is, in fact, evidence that they did indeed swing behind Corbyn in this election.[H] This is not surprising given that the loss of manufacturing after industrial restructuring from the 70s was largely replaced by the low paid service sector. The recent economic crisis has caused further precarity, with the predicted high rate of unemployment only avoided through greater casualisation, expansion of self-employment and underemployment. This means that, particularly for the women, but also increasingly the men in these communities and others across the UK, issues such as low pay, zero hours contracts, a meaningful welfare safety net as well as adequate services such as schools and hospitals were key. In this light, what were the labourist communities now look increasingly like a modern day working class, of both men and women, in insecure and low paid work, with a disintegrating infrastructure and social fabric exacerbated by a decade of imposed austerity. How the Coalition and Conservative governments have dealt with the crisis of 2007-8 has, however, had “significant, and disproportionate, negative impacts...on women and low-income households (in which women predominate)”, with research by the House of Commons Library finding that 86% of the burden of austerity since 2010 falling on them and projections by Landman Economics and the Women’s Budget Group showing that government plans to 2020 will mean that “women in single adult households face disproportionate cuts overall, with female lone parents, female single pensioners and single childless women having their living standards reduced by 21 per cent, 20 per cent and 17 per cent respectively."

austerity

By basing politics on the true working class of today, meaning the low-income households in which women predominate, rather than a nostalgic labourist notion of that class, Corbyn’s Labour Party is able to seek to address these issues from an expanded site of politics. No longer wedded to merely getting the best deal for this privileged male section of the class, Labour politics is able to go into the hidden abode of, not just production, but also reproduction. Wainwright explains how the New Left, which Corbyn was part of, was already attempting to “focus on the purposes of production” in the 1980s:

First, it has involved a concern with the nature of the commodities or services themselves and their technology, whether they are weapons, pollutants, unsafe deodorants, unhealthy food or unresponsive public services. Second, it has stimulated a greater emphasis on the quality of working conditions, on health and safety, the ues and design of technology and the control of labour’s time – time for education, for childcare, for recreation. Related to these concerns is a scrutiny of the division of labour, its sexual and racial roots as well as its basis in class power. And third, the influence of the new socialism has stressed the relationship between the workplace and its surrounding community.[24]

This has been adapted for today by some of the ideas in Labour’s Alternative Models of Ownership, which New Socialist argued have some of their roots in the socialist feminism of the New Left. Its electoral appeal to women is not merely in a promise to provide relief from a disintegrating social fabric, where the best that can be hoped for is a government that helps resource social reproduction for the sake of labour, with schools and hospitals provided for the sake of a skilled and healthy workforce, but where, with production purposed for people rather than the other way round, people can genuinely enjoy a fulfilling and expansive life with their family and community.

Nevertheless, what also needs to be acknowledged is that, while based on a modern notion of class, the relation between class and party is a project that Labour have now embarked upon, not a direct and natural transfer of allegiance that can be taken for granted. This means it may take time, and the work of political education and grass roots organising, to build solidarity based on shared interests and create the social and political consciousness within the entirety of the working class today that is adequate to rebuilding a new labour movement from below, and there are no short cuts by encouraging internal divisions within that class. It is a work in progress on the indeterminate terrain of politics that has only just begun.

Photo: Imperial War Museum


  1. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, Penguin Books: London, p. 357. ↩︎

  2. Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 357. ↩︎

  3. Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 362. ↩︎

  4. Hilary Wainwright and Doreen Massey, "Beyond the Coalfields: The Work of the Miners' Support Groups" in Digging Deeper: Issues in the Miners' Strike, London: Schoken, 1985, p. 149. ↩︎

  5. Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 357. ↩︎

  6. Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Towards a Unitary Theory, Chicago, Haymarket, 2013, p. 159. ↩︎

  7. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 152. ↩︎

  8. Wainwright and Massey, "Beyond the Coalfields", p. 149. ↩︎

  9. Williams, The Long Revolution, pp. 360-1. ↩︎

  10. Wainwright and Massey, "Beyond the Coalfields", pp. 150-1. ↩︎

  11. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 171. ↩︎

  12. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 166. ↩︎

  13. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 256. ↩︎

  14. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 206. ↩︎

  15. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 223. ↩︎

  16. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 163. ↩︎

  17. Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, p. 159. ↩︎

  18. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle, Oakland, PM Press, 2012, p. 20. ↩︎

  19. Federici, Revolution at Point Zero, p. 51. ↩︎

  20. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 220. ↩︎

  21. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 162. ↩︎

  22. Williams, The Long Revolution, p. 362. ↩︎

  23. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 227. ↩︎

  24. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, pp. 255-6. ↩︎


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