Have Labour really deserted the working class?

Traditionally, the Conservatives’ voting bloc is founded on more well-off voters. Every few years, though, they remember that they have to win over at least some of the working-class, so out come their claims of being the ‘party of workers’ or the ‘party of aspiration’. They’re paper-thin claims. This year, though, many traditional Labour voters feel distanced from Corbyn, and those who voted Leave are being seduced by the Tories’ tougher Brexit stance.

Theresa May, more than almost any other Tory leader, is on the assault, aiming to hoover up as many of these votes as possible. She has claimed that Labour have “deserted” the working-class, and that habitual Labour voters were “appalled” by Corbyn’s beliefs. She urged these people to leave tribal loyalties behind, presumably by putting faith in her - you guessed it - strong and stable leadership.

But have Labour really deserted the working class? On paper, no. The bulk of their policies centre on the interests of the majority. The party advocates rail nationalisation, higher corporation tax, a National Education Service – all things that would benefit the working-class. They’re presumably the people Corbyn has foremost in his mind when setting out policies.

Corbyn’s Labour increasingly feels like a protest movement, rather than a party aiming for power

You could even argue that, for all their public sector investment, New Labour gave a bigger cold shoulder to the working-class by continuing, even extending, Thatcher’s economic model: it’s one of the reasons so many communities feel ‘left behind’, or think that ‘all parties are the same’. Corbyn’s leadership is certainly a reaction against that.

And yet, under Corbyn, Labour’s popularity has declined among every sector of the population. High and low earners alike are more likely to trust Theresa May. Although policies like nationalisation and free school meals have high approval when polled by themselves, when voters look at  Labour’s programme under Corbyn, they turn cold.

Therein lies the problem: Labour’s ideas favour the working-class, yet it failed to package those ideas in a way that speaks to them. Corbyn’s Labour increasingly feels like a protest movement, rather than a party aiming for power. Things like opposition to nuclear arms (although Labour is reportedly retaining support for Trident in their manifesto) can seem too niche; criticising austerity is clearly positive, but during the 2015 leaders debate the most frequently searched question on Google was “what is austerity?” Despite all the rallies filled with die-hard supporters, the average voter simply doesn’t see much overlap between them and this bearded socialist. People aren’t so much appalled as they are apathetic.

Furthermore, Labour’s lack of a cohesive media strategy has allowed those on the right to define their message for them. Dubbing them “far-left” and a “danger to the economy” runs hand-in-hand with the Conservatives’ usual “Labour isn’t working” and “the mess Labour left us” soundbites, meaning that the actual substance of Labour’s ideas struggles to reach working voters past the hysteria and doom-mongering. And once voters become wary of Corbyn, it’s hard to win them back.

That’s not to mention the strain of populism lingering from the Brexit vote; obviously May is playing with fire by appeasing, even encouraging, right-wing nationalism, as well as by being so combative towards the EU before negotiations begin. This is likely to backfire, but for now it’s earning her votes. Corbyn, by contrast, has struggled to communicate with Leave voters or guide them towards his thinking. He’s only convincing when he’s preaching to the converted; it suggests that he’s interested in meeting voters where he wants them to be, rather than where they are.

May’s battle bus has rolled up in numerous Labour heartlands. She’s confident that few areas are beyond her reach; perhaps with good reason

This is where Labour have let working people down. Having the right ideas is all well and good, but those ideas become null if you can never implement them. Ideological purity means little to people who have their wages capped or disability allowance cancelled. Labour haven’t deserted the working-class in principle, but they may well do so in practice.

May’s battle bus has rolled up in numerous Labour heartlands. She’s confident that few areas are beyond her reach; perhaps with good reason. Plenty of voters will stand by Labour but, as I’ve written before, many who’ve never voted blue before will be tempted to this year.

It’s the Labour party’s job, then, to prove that they and not the Tories are truly the champions of the working-class. They’re unlikely to win outright, but they must at least retain as many MPs as possible and deny May a three-digit majority.

Any party that fails to do this has no business calling itself ‘Labour’.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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