If you listened to the mainstream newspapers, from the Times
to the Guardian
, and pundits from UKIP's own former Express star Patrick O'Flynn to the incomparable Dan Hodges, you would have thought the Oldham bye-election was going to be a bruising breakthrough for UKIP. The death of Michael Meacher had opened up a fatal chink in Labour's working class armour, through which the kippers would charge, by exploiting proper working class discontent with a "poncified" Labour that doesn't even believe in nukes, keeping out the foreigners, bombing Syria and extrajudicial executions of brown-skinned people any more. The workers were thought to be cheering for Hillary Benn, who in this day and age is thought to be both Prime Ministerial material and an earthy, horny-handed son of toil. The media class salivated, slavered, over the prospect of white, racist vengeance against Corbyn's loony left rabble
Labour actually won with 7.5% swing and a majority of over ten thousand. Now, without a trace of sarcasm, how could it be that a glut (for I believe that is the collective noun) of self-satisfied, upper-middle-class pundits, could have failed so badly to understand the working class of Oldham? And how does their evident sense of empathy with the workers square with the typical deference of these same pundits to Blairite and Tory yuppies and flunkies grovelling to the rich? These are not questions that most journalists and pundits are asking themselves. The Mirror seems to have deleted its lead predicting a dark day at the polls, The Times's political reporter simply glosses over the figures, the Telegraph blames Muslims
, and the Guardian's Helen Pidd repeats every single cliché of liberal metropolitan writing about the north (in sum, she attributes Labour's success to Asian families voting en bloc
, while white working class contempt for Islington elitists was overcome by popular local candidate, etc).
Now perhaps this is to be expected; for our media, wish fulfilment is as good as reporting. Yet the question remains and is more puzzling, the more one thinks about it. The working class Labour vote is a multiracial alliance that mostly cleaves to the left. The evidence suggests that the northern working class is politically as left-leaning as Scottish workers. Meanwhile, there is little evidence beyond anecdotes that workers are desperate for give glorious years of Hillary Benn. So, given that polls suggest most of the country opposes Trident, and doesn't support bombing Syria, why do journalists kid themselves that the proper working class northern Labour voter is going to find Corbyn's anti-war, anti-nuclear stance indigestible? Let me summarise what I think they got wrong.
First of all, they have all succumbed to an ideology of class which is condescending and chauvinistic. They assume that workers lean to the right, because they understand real workers to be fundamentally intolerant, racist, traditionalist, deferential, white, male, older and concerned only with the narrowest horizon of material goods (viz., they took ur jawbs). This way of thinking about class emerged in the 2000s, as part of a backlash against multiculturalism, wherein class could only be spoken of in connection with the term 'white', and in relation to certain ideas of respectability, family, culture and tradition. This melancholic discourse of decline, in which the authentic white working class had been abandoned by liberal metropolitan elites, could have come out of the pages of Spearhead, but it was mainstreamed in the last decade. And it informed the myth, never sustained by the data, that far right parties from the BNP to the English Democrats to UKIP are primarily parties of the 'left behind' working class. That is, the myth that white workers cheated by globalisation and multiculturalism were the primary substrate of British neo-nationalism. In this view, UKIP should be construed principally as a threat to Labour because of its ability to attract white workers with its no nonsense policy of brutalising brown workers.
Secondly, because of this racialised way of interpreting class, they are unable to understand the real psephological dynamics unfolding in core Labour seats. They don't understand that right-wing, white workers constitute a minority, and that they are not the most likely to vote Labour in the first place. They fail to understand what the data shows us (cf the British Election Study) which is that the far right parties, especially UKIP, are far more middle class than has generally been assumed, and that insofar as they do make gains in the working class vote this primarily arises from a realignment of existing right-wing voters, redistributing their votes from the Tories, the English Democrats, or whomever. UKIP's advances in northern towns and cities have come from it energising and hegemonising the right-wing vote. If the Labour-voting electorate are demoralised and passive and the turnout collapses, this could be sufficient for UKIP to win a northern seat one day. But that hasn't happened thus far, and it definitely didn't happen here.
None of this is to say that Corbyn is in a strong position. He isn't. He polls poorly, including among groups whom he should be popular with such as 18-24 year olds. Labour's nationwide polling puts it in the low thirties, while the Tories are in the high thirties. But this just means that Corbyn has failed to reverse Labour's already dismal situation. Labour isn't plummeting in the polls, despite the frenzied media heat, and there was never any good reason to suppose that it was about to fall apart in one of its core seats. Such a core vote meltdown was far a more plausible scenario when New Labour was in charge. There was no bye-election polling carried out and nothing more than anecdotes to sustain the hypothesis that Corbyn was facing such a disaster. The whole scenario was a bit of dreamwork, staging a bourgeois media desire for, as I say, the firm smack of white backlash. Tough shit this time.