I have a certain sympathy with this Labour MP Jon Trickett arguing in a Jacobin interview that the party must fight a class war than a culture war. He represents a northern community and I can see why he’d long for a return to the class-first politics of the 20th century. But there are also obvious problems you can’t handwave away. Here’s a key excerpt:
The nature of work for the middle class has changed quite dramatically for a whole series of reasons. On the one hand, these workers have middle-class lifestyles to some extent; on the other, they’re facing quite tough times. I think that, plus the experience of going to university — remember, many middle-class people never got to university traditionally, say in the 1950s — have led to a radicalization of a section of the middle class, particularly those who live in cities. You see this phenomenon throughout the whole of the postindustrial capitalist world. The radicalization of younger people in hitherto middle-class, privileged occupations, which no longer have the privileges they had, seems to me something which has happened quite quickly.
Now, if you think about the cultural values of those people — they’ve been to university and had a different experience of life, they’re connected into global networks and so on — generally speaking, they’ve got progressive values and quite a radical social agenda. Jeremy [Corbyn] was able to mobilize those young people, and so was Bernie Sanders. It’s interesting in Germany, if you look at Die Linke, they are also appealing to that group. But there’s a second demographic, which you have to have if you’re going to win a majority in a parliamentary system, and that is you have to get the people who created the Labour Party and who voted for it for the last century, and they probably have different cultural values and a different set of references.
If you decide that you’re going to get to power by means of a culture war, it’s going to be quite difficult for a progressive party to achieve, because the radicalized middle class doesn’t constitute a majority and neither do the postindustrial communities. You’ve got to somehow weave together a common story of the country, of the world, and of humanity, which binds together the various different parts into a majoritarian project. I think Bernie understood and was trying to do that, though he didn’t succeed for various reasons. The truth is that the Brexit vote exposed the cultural differences between these two groups (obviously, this is a somewhat simplified version of things).
Now, you could see that the people who were wanting to argue for Remain often represented seats where that group was in a majority in that particular constituency. On the other hand, I come from a certain background and represent a certain kind of seat, and I just said, “this is disastrous.” Not that I’m against metropolitan cultural values: we need to reject all forms of racism and hatred of all kinds. However, not to understand the anger of the poor and the people who will be held back is a serious mistake. I think that the Tories understood this. And they’ve been able to generate a narrative which feeds on the resentments — Trump did this too — and feeds on the many people who feel dislocated in their lives and are trying to make sense of what’s happening to their world.
If we mistakenly move from speaking to one cultural group to speaking to another one, in a crude way, there’s a serious danger. It may be that the assumption some made that actually, well, “they’ve got nowhere else to go but Labour” is wrong. They can go to the Greens. They can stay at home. They can vote for the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. I’m quite worried about that now.
How do you overcome these cultural differences? It’s clearly not easy; somebody would have resolved it. But rather than fight a cultural war — and I don’t want to be crude here — fight a class war. Because, whether it’s housing, access to proper employment, secure jobs, a future for our children and grandchildren, at the moment, similar challenges face all the different strata in our society. So somehow, we’ve got to weld together a story of national renewal in an international context which can explain to the British where the Left wants to take us, and we’re quite a long way from that. Because the truth is that we don’t fully understand yet where the cultural fractures are and precisely what the potential coalition that we need to build looks like.
The problem with this idea of fighting a class war instead of a culture war is that there is only one war to fight and it is the fight for justice. I certainly support finding ways to unite races and ethnicities around class means, but that turns out to be a lot harder to do than it is to talk about. What happens when those people in the Midlands are anti-Indian or anti-Pakistani or anti-Jamaican, etc? How do you unite around class if white English people do not want to unite around class with people who are not white? How do you tell the immigrant classes in the UK, which today make up a quite sizable percentage of the population, that their concerns around racial discrimination are not as important as the concerns that whites have?
These aren’t problems that can just be handwaved away through rhetoric. The Jacobin’s crew deep desire for a specifically class war means they are actually fighting a culture war against those who want to talk about cultural issues. But this ignores the actual lived experiences of enormous parts of the nation, people who feel deeply oppressed because they are deeply oppressed.
The mistake they make is that the fight against poverty and the fight against racism and the fight against homophobia…they are all the same fight. They are the fight for justice. Unfortunately, there’s not a clear and demarcated line between the good guys and bad guys that makes the war clear. The “class war” supposedly provides that demarcation but even there it’s not nearly as clear as its proponents claim. It may well be that we need class-based policies to help those in the Midlands and in Ohio and which would also help immigrants in Manchester and Houston. And it may well be that those groups wouldn’t support the policies benefiting the other. That’s reality instead of ideology. It’s easy to talk in ideological terms. It’s a lot harder to work in the real nations that we have in 2021, nations that have lots of immigrants from lots of different places. A lot of European politics right now is trying to reckon with American-style diversity. And their whites aren’t doing very well with it. In the nearly all-white England of 1935, a class war might make sense. In the very much not all-white England of 2021, it probably doesn’t.