There is no class left in British politics
The revivalists of the Left summon a vision of working-class life as a peasant idyll.
  says Janet Daley, 12 September, 2009

In its despair, Labour is reverting to the Old Religion. Or, at least, some of its more serious thinkers are trying to stage an evangelical revival. Last week the Labour MP Jon Cruddas, who turned down a job in Gordon Brown's Government, made a speech which was awesome in its intellectual ambition: nothing less than an attempt to create a Marxism for our times. He called for a return to the fundamental moral mission of the Labour movement, for the restoration of what he sees as the working-class values of "fraternity" and "community". What he presented was a tour de force of sentimental longing.

I am not being sarcastic here. I understand and respect the grief which those on the Left feel about what Mr Cruddas calls the "loss of identity" of their party, and particularly the sense that what has been lost was grounded in shared fellowship. It is impossible not to be struck, too, by the force of his comment that Labour no longer knows what it stands for, and not to see a stunning similarity with criticisms of the current Conservative leadership, which is so often accused of being unclear about what it stands for. The latter, I suggest, is not unconnected to the former: they are both about the collapse of the idea of class at the centre of British political life and the confused vacuum which is left in its wake.
So I genuinely sympathise with the Labour revivalists – which does not stop me believing that they are utterly, and dangerously, wrong. But it does mean that I am not inclined to dismiss them as making a silly mistake: simply to snigger, as one might, and murmur "you sweet, old-fashioned thing". No, Mr Cruddas and his comrades are making a serious mistake and it is one which reverberates through all of our politics, infecting, in a quite direct way, the policies and arguments of the Conservatives as well as of Labour.
What is being summoned up by the Left revivalists is a vision of working-class life that, if it existed at all, was almost exclusively rural: a peasant idyll of co-operative, mutually supporting communities in which self-betterment was a collective rather than an individual goal. But this will not wash. Urban working-class life – which is what modern political reality must come to terms with – has been, for a long time now, an emotionally brutalising, self-defeating, oppressively conformist road to nowhere.
To some extent, this has been caused by the disappearance of the old industries around which the traditional working-class neighbourhoods grew up. But it has also been brought about by meritocracy: those who were more able and self-improving – who used to be called the "respectable working class" – got out. They bought their houses, encouraged their children to go on to higher education and effectively became middle-class. A considerable proportion of those who were left behind joined a non-working, benefit-dependent underclass.
The old, self-respecting working class, rooted in its local history and generations-old neighbourhood ties, no longer exists – not, at least, in numbers significant enough to constitute a basis for the political philosophy of a national party. But the hard facts seem scarcely to touch the compelling force of the dream. Having first encountered British working-class life at close quarters a generation ago, I have profound doubts about the idealised picture of it which many Left-wing romantics paint, but let's leave that to one side: it is real enough as a historical myth and it is not just the lodestone of wistful Left-wing sentiment. It is a model of society to which virtually all politicians in Britain feel obliged to make some obeisance.
When Mr Cruddas and his friends insist on contrasting a fantasy of the lost Arcadian bliss of life lived in shared fraternal co-operation with what they characterise as our present ruthless existence based on "selfish individualism", they create an argument which no one who does not accept their assumptions can possibly win. (Not only can one not win, but one makes oneself appear repugnant even by trying to present an opposing case).
Somebody at some point has to say that "shared" values are not always healthy: sometimes they are repressive, despotic and destructive of human potential. And that the word "individualism" does not have to be preceded by "selfish": individualistic values can be liberating, fruitful and productive of the highest personal achievement. That, in essence, is what the Conservatives were saying in the 1980s – which is why so many working-class people voted for them, to the utter bewilderment and dismay of those who ran the Labour movement at that time and who still maintained an unquestioning devotion to those "fraternal values" that the revivalists wish to resurrect. Given the choice between being held back in their stifling communities and being free to determine their own life chances, the working classes voted with their feet.
But even to say this – to put it in these terms, of moving "out" of one class and "into" another – is to fall back on what may now be an anachronistic view of social (and thus political) reality. Class distinctions – as opposed to disparities of wealth, which are a quite different thing – still exist in Britain, but they are far, far more nuanced and fluid than either the Labour revivalists with their noble savage myth, or the modern Tories with their bourgeois guilt problems, will recognise. (And they are almost nothing to do with "fraternal values" as opposed to "selfish individualism").
So the real question is, what is going to fill the void that class used to occupy in our political life? There are a couple of obvious candidates, neither of which is edifying. The first, and most obvious, is show business: politics becomes all about personality and broadcasting skills, with elections serving as no more than rather specialised, reality-television talent contests. Then there is the Harriet Harman school of special-pleading interest groups, in which electoral life becomes a competition between aggrieved minorities to gain ascendancy.
The least likely option is the only one that offers hope: that political leaders will come to the conclusion that they must now address voters as distinct people who are not going to fall back on ancestral loyalties or inherited guilt when they make their judgments. Ideas and arguments are going to have to stand or fall on their relevance to real life, without a shed-load of prejudice and sentiment to muddy them. Not such a bad prospect, really.
It is interesting to see that capitalism, or the bona fide machination of the middle classes, has been so responsible for the destruction of aspiration, and of the class system. Thank you to Janet Daley for her impartial understanding of the changes.
To quote from the article, the urban working-class life – which is what modern political reality must come to terms with – has been, for a long time now, an emotionally brutalising, self-defeating, oppressively conformist road to nowhere.
....and we're well on that road, aren't we?
The article is available at: