Sunday, September 12, 2010
Firstly, Kellner uses figures relating the division of ABC1 and C2DE voters among the electorate to support his point that the number of 'working class' voters is declining precipitously. If he is right, then the proportion of 'working class' voters dropped from 51% to 43% between 1997 and 2010. That's a rapid rate of employment change, though - given the way New Labour allowed manufacturing industries to collapse and shed employment - not all that incredible. However, the conception of 'class' deployed by Kellner is the old, misleading 'social class' model preferred by market researchers. His 'classes' (ABC1 = middle class vs C2DE = working class) are based on the National Readership Survey classifications derived from official statistics. As he revealingly puts it, according to his conception the middle class are those who work primarily with their brains, the workers primarily with their hands.
This immediately raises the possibility that, far from class being a social reality that is being rapidly outlived, the NRS conceptions of "social class" are increasingly outmoded, inasmuch as their status and culture-based notions of class were ever relevant. The working class was never exclusively manual, though there was certainly a time when more workers were manual, and more of those worked in clerical jobs were middle class. But there was never any reason why that should remain the case. Indeed, accepting for the sake of argument that status and cultural indicators are what matter, then the rise of call centres a new working paradigm shows that non-manual labour can be just as menial, disempowering and poorly paid as manual labour. And for the record, call centre workers are traditionally classified as C1, or 'middle class', as are all junior or intermediate non-manual workers. What Kellner is talking about, without noticing it, is the recomposition of the working class. Another thing he doesn't notice is the absence of the ruling class in his statistics. They're just completely invisible, subsumed into the 'middle class majority'. And the third thing he doesn't notice is that most people don't appear to share his particular conception of class. The 2007 social attitudes survey found that 57% of people thought they belonged to the working class, whereas in 2005 the electorate supposedly comprised only 45% of people who were working class.
Secondly, even sticking with his definitions, there is a gap between his evidence and his assertions. For example, at the zenith of New Labour, the party won with the support of 8 million C2DE voters, and 5.5 million ABC1 voters. In 2010, Labour lost with the support of 4.4m ABC1 voters, and 4.2m C2DE voters. In other words, according to Kellner's definition, the support of the 'middle class' voters declined by some million voters, or about one fifth, while support among 'working class' voters declined by almost a half. If the numbers of votes from C2DE voters had even held at the historically low level of 6 million achieved in 2001, Labour would probably have defeated the Tories by a narrow margin. The collapse of support among 'working class' voters, most of whom did not defect to the Tories but either tried the Liberals, or a centre-left alternative, or (mostly) stopped voting, cost Labour victory in 2010. So, Kellner's conclusion that Labour should behave as if "class is dead" immediately confronts a problem: Labour has attempted to behave in exactly that way for more than a decade, and the result was a drastic contraction of its base, close to its all-time low in 1983 in terms of percentage, and well below 1983 in terms of the total vote.
Even with that in mind, granulating the 2010 results further, using some of Ipsos Mori's analysis (here and here), there is still a powerful 'social class' determinant in voting. Despite losing overall, Labour had the largest share of the vote among DE voters (approx. 40%), while its lowest share was among AB voters (approx. 26%). What happened between 1997 and 2010 was that Labour went from enjoying the support of 60% of DE voters to 40%, mainly because of a lower turnout among those voters, rather than because of shifting political loyalties. That points to another form of political behaviour, then, which is strongly determined by 'social class': non-voting. According to this review of non-voting in recent elections, the more 'middle class' the constituency the higher the turnout. Non-voting was once largely confined to the middle class in the UK, and did not represent political dissent. The same source linked above suggests that in recent elections, a growing number of people - in 2005 a clear majority - who did not vote had explicit political reasons for not voting. Working class Labour voters are increasingly boycotting the polls, and we can assume this is because they do not feel represented by Labour. Labour's relationship to 'working class' voters changed over the last decade or so, which caused it to lose in 2010. Even so, it still commanded a plurality among the poorest of voters.
Kellner says, as if to explain the allegedly declining relevance of 'class' to voting behaviour: "workers by hand (C2DE) and brain (ABC1) tend to visit the same shopping centres, use the same hospitals, grapple with the same mortgage-lenders, get stuck in the same traffic jams, subscribe to the same Sky packages and fret over the same taxes, crimes and insecurities". Thus is class declared "dead" as a political motivation. It is, of course, a fantasy - pseudo-sociology at its most glib. The one thing that is obvious from repeated sociological studies is that the majority at the bottom of the income and property scales have very different lives from those at the top - whether it is in terms of their health, education, experience of crime, consumption choices, need for benefits, access to credit, transport, exposure to taxation, etc.. Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett have assembled a mass of evidence on many of these indices, and Danny Dorling's research group has done some important work on the subject. You can watch him discuss social class in Britain today, here:
Kellner's rhetorical effects are achieved largely by blithely gliding over huge social divergences in the UK, such that in the end we're all a large unhappy family of voters with "jaundiced" perceptions. Labour's job, then, would to be avoid references to class, win over the expanding 'middle class' and pursue centrist policies. The trouble is that such a strategy, the New Labour strategy, is unpopular with voters. It would only farther advance the contraction of Labour's base that has already taken place over the course of some four general elections. Above all, with the economy in dire straits and the centre vote collapsing, it would miss a unique opportunity to (however briefly) revive the Labour base and potentially overcome the divisions in the left-of-centre voting bloc that have been in evidence since 1983, and which have been devastating for Labour.