Friday, December 17, 2010

Class, orthodoxy and psephology

This is by way of being an extended footnote to some previous arguments. I have argued that the Tory base is dramatically narrowing in the UK due to social polarisation under late capitalism. Actually, John Ross has long been on this case, detecting its effects back in the early 1980s. This is due largely to the loss of mass support among the 'skilled working class' and the professional middle class. Their present strategy is thus about reorganising British capitalism and their position within it, so that they can restore their role as a hegemonic party of capital. At the same time, I've said, the centre ground is contracting under the impact of the gravest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, such that - even if Clegg hadn't cuddled up to the Conservative leadership - the Liberals' nuptials with the electorate were always likely to be brief. Thirdly, I've argued that the crisis would present the possibility of an historic reversal of the split in the Labourist coalition. This of course depends upon the claim, widely rubbished in mainstream psephological literature, that class remains an important explanatory feature in voting behaviour.

The evidence that class motivates voting behaviour is actually very robust. Robert Anderson and Anthony Heath's study of class and voting in the UK between 1964 and 1997 looked in vain for real evidence of what psephologists call 'electoral dealignment'. Using their 7-grade 'social class' model (which is not unproblematic), they found the following correlation:


You can see the trend. The Tories' most ardent supporters are consistently among the petit-bourgeosie and the 'upper salariat' (which includes managers, professionals and administrators in large companies). Labour's core support is among manual workers, both skilled and unskilled. As I've pointed out before, this also holds for all general elections held since 1997. But this correlation would require further interrogation before it becomes an explanation.

For example, right-wing Labourites tend to insist that the working class core of Labour's vote is, though economically left-wing, socially conservative. This is their explanation for how voters in former Labour heartlands defect to the BNP - it's a socially conservative revolt of the 'white working class'. Thus, from their perspective, it is both necessary and true to the proletarian cause to spread racism and hatred toward immigrants and minorities. If this claim were accurate, the consistency with which the core working class vote has stayed with Labour through thick and thin, refusing the serenading of the Tories, and the fact that the BNP's inroads into working class communities are principally achieved by winning over former Tory voters, would present a real mystery. But it is not accurate. As other critical work has shown, social conservatism and liberalism have less to do with class than with cultural capital, ie education. Socially progressive attitudes are not an attribute of the rich, but of the educated; reactionary attitudes are not an attribute of the poor, but of the uneducated or poorly educated. This is why, for example, Cameron has had to adopt a more socially liberal facade. He can't win by wooing the know-nothing bigots of the petit-bourgeoisie. The Tories want to win back the sorts of professionals and skilled workers who have been to university and simply aren't up for deference and social authoritarianism.

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Arguments for the demise of the relevance of class are hardly new. Throughout the postwar era, we were continually told that class was, in different ways, increasingly obsolete. Anthony Crosland argued from the Labour Right that the division between the management and ownership of capital meant that a direct conflict between workers and owners no longer existed. Instead, a new managerial class had taken over, and society was going to become a lot more stable as a consequence. In fact, Crosland was regurgitating the conclusions of American rightist political economy (Daniel Bell, James Burnham) and sociology (Talcott Parsons).

Communist Party member Sam Aaronovitch's terse polemic, The Ruling Class, was one of the better ripostes to that argument. Unfortunately, the salient points of Aaronovitch's later career would include the Alternative Economic Strategy (failure), Eurocommunism (failure) and a son called David (erm...). Subsequent research on class, for example by John Scott, also helped demolished this ideologeme. Even so, and all throughout the height of class conflict in the 1970s and 1980s, the Tories consistently argued that class was no longer relevant in the new meritocratic order. Thatcher, as a good Hayekian, argued that 'class' was a communist concept, and that to even talk of 'classlessness' was to concede the terrain in advance. In the same period, the emergence of But the argument that class was over really took off between the defeat of the miners and the collapse of the USSR, when Labour, the trade unions and the right-wing of the Communist Party were united in cognisance of the 'new times' and the need for a 'new realism'. It was in this period of reaction that the arguments for 'electoral dealignment' first came to the fore.

The new orthodoxy had it that class was losing its ability to produce solidaristic communities united in political struggles, due to the prolonged experience of relative affluence. As a consequence, class was being replaced by other, structural but non-class factors such as private vs public sector employment, wage earners vs the unemployed, home ownership vs renting, car ownership vs public transport users, and other sources of sectional or individual interest. At the same time, even those structural interests were giving way to 'issues' - voters now preferred to act as consumers, choosing parties based on issue preferences.

Marshall et al's Social Class in Modern Britain (1989) was a riposte to such arguments by way of an extended study of 'class consciousness' and its effects on political behaviour. It concluded that class remained the single most important structural factor in determining ideological conflict in Britain. But although it was far from alone in its findings, such studies tended to be buried under an avalanche of vulgar, triumphalist declarations that all conceptions of class - marxist, weberian, pluralist, etc. - were superfluous historical detritus. At its most sophisticated, this theory was expressed by Terry Clark and Seymour Lipset (1991), whose conclusions precipitated a surfeit of literature expanding on, and generally approving, the idea that social class has declined in relevance since WWII. On the conventional Alford Index, it was assumed that working class voters would side with leftist parties and middle class voters rightist ones, and it was on the perceived decline of 'class voting' on that index that Lipset and Clark staked their case.

There have always been dissidents. In the UK, Geoffrey Evans has always maintained a sceptical defence of the relevance of 'social class', though not from a marxist perspective. His studies of voting, ideological conflict and class in the UK have been consistently inconvenient for those of the Blairite persuasion who would like to see class interred with the USSR. Psephologists like Anthony Heath have similarly argued that while the relative size of different 'social classes' may have altered, the relationship between social class and political attitudes remains firm. Others pointed out that the 'decline of class' thesis depended on crude measurements based on manual vs non-manual workers - the 'cultural/status' model of class which I've criticised elsewhere. And, as I've previously mentioned, the great unwashed generally seemed unconvinced by the decline of class, with supermajorities registering support for the view that there is a class war going on in this country.

But the pollsters whom the pundits listen to still want to cleave to orthodoxy, even when it manifestly fails to predict or explain real world political developments. This is one reason why the Miliband leadership has its occasional moments of interest. As much as he doesn't want to talk about the 'working class' in front of the capitalist media, instead restorting to euphemisms about the 'squeezed middle', his leadership pitch was explicitly based on asserting the centrality of reviving the working class base of Labour's coalition, and thus was a tacit recognition that the post-class ideology of the Third Way was moribund. And as the movement against the cuts springs into life, that opens up a space for all sorts of critical perspectives.