For most of the last century –specifically between the Representation of the People Act 1918 and the 2019 election – socio-economic class was the main definer of political behaviour in the UK, outside Northern Ireland. This was the case even when Labour did badly – as at the 1931 and 1935 General elections, or 1950-51, 1979 and 2015 when the Party’s endless factional battles dominated the headlines. Only Labour – relying on a working class mass vote – and the Conservatives – relying on a middle class mass vote (and a large working class vote) could provide the Prime Minister.

The pattern seemed to be broken between 1997 and 2015, the New Labour era, when appeals across class barriers seemed to be working and the appeal to a non class based electorate grew – decisively in Scotland which fell to the nationalists, with the different nationalists of UKIP also gaining support across Wales and England. However class politics is not dead and is still seen as decisive to a Labour revival. If this is to prove successful, than a much sharper debate on the history of class politics is required and the current interest in the Red Wall seats has to involve a scrutiny of class greater than anything currently seen.

When Beatle John Lennon wrote Working Class Hero (1), he was echoing the importance of class in the 1960s when he made his name. His protest song built on the the pressures that boosted trade union membership, fuelled kitchen sink dramas, and created the golden age of Marxist historians. Half a century later, the appeal of writing about blue collar (traditional) workers has declined. Indeed, as Claire Ainsley writes in her 2018 study The New Working Class (2), for nearly 30 years after Labour’s 1997 landslide, political leaders were dismissive. Tony Blair said “the Class War is over”, John Major had called for a “classless society”, and Ed Miliband made no reference to class in any of his speeches (3).

Ainsley’s book, written before the so called ‘Red Wall seats’ deserted Labour at the 2019 General Election but responding to the votes in these working class areas to the 2016 referendum, secured Ainsley the post of Policy Director for new Labour Leader Keir Starmer.. The editor of political website Unherd, Freddie Sayer, said a friend had described her politics as “more E P Thompson than R H Tawney”, and Ainsley herself cited Thompson (but not Tawney) in the text, calling The Making of the English Working Class (1963) “a classic” (4). She also cited the Marx of the 1867 edition of Das Kapital, but there the engagement with history largely ceased.

History is essential in discussing class. If there is a New Working Class there must be an old working class, and a meaningful debate on the Red Wall seats which deserted Labour in the 2019 election for the Tories suggests that the old working class has moved off in unexpected ways. What are the issues which stem from this? The debate needs to go beyond Thompson’s classic, and rather than focus on just this book – which deals only with the period before the Chartists, and thus an early stage of class consciousness – it would be sensible to look at Thompson’s later essay The Peculiarities of the English. (5) In dealing with an argument amongst Marxist historians Thompson discusses the role of class consciousness in the most proletarianised country in the world in the nineteenth century, studied by Marx and Engels from personal experience during the first era in which writing on class was a poor guide to the actual development of class politics.

It is the twentieth century which provides the most immediate issues, for the Labour Party was formed to represent the industrial workers. Before its foundation in 1900 up to 1918 when the vote was granted to the unskilled working class and women Labour gained little support. What happened then suggested a new era of class politics had developed. Maurice Cowling’s The Impact of Labour 1920-24 (6)*accepted the arrival of a working class party as an electoral challenge to the Liberal and Conservative parties was a decisive factor. But his thesis is not strong as he chose to make the decisive moment of breakthrough – the Spen Valley by election of 1919 – when this was not a decisive Labour gain. Not till 1945 would the constituency (now the Batley and Spen seat – where Jo Cox was murdered in 2016) become a solid Labour seat.

In his book, Cowling assumed Labour could be taken for granted after 1919 and did not assess the role of the 1918 constitution and development of constituency organization to winning elections. He wrote the book assessing elite politics taking Labour and the industrial working class for granted. Cowling was typical in assuming class loyalties pointed only to Labour. For the next half century this was the common assumption, but by the 1970s was not something that could be taken for granted.

Many of the shifts now seen to be surprising were already evident in that decade, and Eric Hobsbawm, the other great British Marxist historian of the era which saw working class figures come into prominence in the arts – including the Beatles of course – wrote a seminal essay in 1978 – The Forward March of Labour Halted? (7) – which is essential reading. The novelty of what is happening now is overstated. There is a long history of misplaced assumptions which needs examining.

In his article on Claire Ainsley, Freddie Sayers “she openly talks about how people don’t always act in economically self interested ways”. True, and not a new discovery. In 1914 Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was published, an autobiographical if fictional account of how poor working class labourers rejected the new socialist and Labour ideas that could challenge their employers and embraced the capitalist politics which made them poor. Though fictional, it was part of the prewar challenge to Victorian laissez faire which fuelled Labour’s growth after the first World War.

Somehow the message has been lost in recent years. Labour has lost its sense of itself as a working class party, and it has declined in consequence. Is class now irrelevant? That is a key contemporary issue. It is an issue which cannot be resolved unless the history of class as a social factor is brought clearly into focus – as a historical reality which has been the object of some of the best historical writing of the last century or more. But as Marx and Engels realized while Queen Victoria occupied the throne, a working class dominance of the economy did not mean working class dominance of politics. It is a lesson that the progressive movement will have to learn again.

Trevor Fisher was a student of E P Thompson as an undergraduate at Warwick University,

  • The recording of Working Class Hero was released in 1970
  • The New Working Class, Policy Press 2018
  • Ainsley op cit p11
  • Op cit p20
  • Socialist Register 1965
  • Cambridge University Press 1971
  • Marx Memorial Lecture 1978 – still in print.