Labour’s political strategy: age, assets and the politics of work

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The victory in the Batley and Spen by-election bought the Labour Party some welcome breathing space. But what can, or will, fill it? There are no easy answers. Labour’s problems of a disconnect with large parts of the electorate are deep, complex and long-standing. Whilst the charge that nobody knows what Labour and Keir Starmer stand for is somewhat exaggerated, it is true that the new leadership has not established a sense of direction and has often seemed to be casting around for a plausible narrative.

A sense of direction can only be supplied through strategic thinking, out of which values and policies should flow. Strategy geared towards building a viable electoral coalition needs to be constructed from an analysis of where political economy and society intersect, as well as an understanding of the changing nature of the electorate. We see two contrasting approaches active at the moment: the first based on a new political cleavage around assets and age; and the second epitomised in the party’s recently announced “new deal for working people” agenda.

Assets and age: the new dispossessed?

An increasingly popular option being canvassed by the post-Corbynist left assumes the emergence of a new political cleavage primarily based on asset ownership and age. There are two levels on which this perspective operates, with the first being more plausible than the second.

Firstly, modern capitalism has for at least the last quarter-century operated on a predominantly financialised basis. Capital markets and the activities of the financial sector have become central to economic activity. Even non-financial corporations increasingly make their money from developing and disposing of assets and accrual of ‘rent’ from monopolisation of access to assets rather than long-term investment in human and physical capital.

There are criticisms that can be levelled at some aspects of this thesis. For influential scholars like Brett Christophers, rentierism is seen as the cause of productive malaise rather than its outcome. But it might better be thought of as the result of capital seeking a return in the context of longstanding, deeper-lying productivity and innovation problems, to which this line of thinking provides no convincing answer.

Yet this emerging consensus on the left nonetheless credibly represents a reasonably accurate picture of short-termist business models and their focus on sweating low-wage labour. Importantly, from a Labour perspective, it exposes the limitations of the ‘knowledge economy’ optimism and supply-side socialism of the last Labour government.

At the same time as developing a more effective critique of financialisation, the post-Corbynist left has seized upon analyses of the ‘asset economy‘ that see personal wealth as increasingly based on ownership of assets, including housing, rather than income from work. We would argue that a significant problem arises when this analysis is used to shift attention away from the upper echelons of the economy towards other class forces looming in the electorate.

Specifically, a core argument of the post-Corbynist left is that a “new dispossessed” has emerged, consisting largely of younger, insecure, asset-poor, gig economy and service sector workers in the labour market and renters in the housing market. Locked out of access to assets, security and mobility, this becomes a ‘generation rent’.

Young people, Keir Milburn argues, are finding it “increasingly hard to attain the markers of successful adulthood” like a proper job and owning your own home. These disadvantages are seen as likely to be durable rather than temporary or contingent, hardening into a new asset-based class cleavage.

A generational divide requires the construction of an opposite category – a friend/enemy distinction foundational to populist politics. Whereas previously the Corbynite left focused on a remote elite, today older voters fit the frame. They are seen as asset-rich, comfortable and conservative, owing to homeownership, occupational pensions and other advantages they enjoy.

But it’s not just the old who are seen as having one foot in the investor class. Security in housing and jobs is now also considered characteristic of parts of the ‘traditional’’ working class. Indeed, according to recent research from the think-tank Autonomy, homeowners can no longer meaningfully be considered to belong to the working class as conventionally considered at all.

One inference drawn is that focusing on so-called ‘Red Wall’ voters won’t work as they are disproportionally beneficiaries of asset-based cleavages – notably homeownership, which render many immune to an electoral alternative to the Tories. There is also the prevailing subtext that older voters are nativist and unreachable culturally on issues such as race and diversity.

For post-Corbynist left, the new core of the potential Labour coalition is not just a generation characterised by certain economic conditions, but a political generation: generation left. As Andy Beckett describes, they are urban, cosmopolitan and degree-educated but locked in precarious, insecure, badly-paid jobs and low-quality, high-cost rented housing.

This generation is seen to have been forged economically from the 2008 financial crash and politically by the wave of protests that took place in UK and across the globe in 2011, which later turned to electoral politics under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.

For commentators such as Paul Mason, events have brought a new proletariat into being for whom the “primary focus of exploitation, injustice and thus identity” and “terrain of class struggle” do not revolve around work, but rather “human rights, equality, climate change, transgender issues, national self-determination, male violence or Black Lives Matter”.

All these rhetorical and analytical manoeuvres move the goalposts of class in order to justify a new political strategy. If the age and assets cleavage perspective is right, Labour has not so much lost the working class as discovered a new one.

Narrowing ‘us’, expanding ‘them’

The acceptance and implementation of such a segmented and polarising strategy would represent a remarkable political feat. Under Corbyn, a well-intentioned though largely illusory cleavage narrative was framed as between the 99% and the 1% – or the ‘many and the few’. Yet now, post-Corbyn, the left has decided on a political project that retains the division central to populist politics but puts it into reverse by narrowing the ‘us’ and expanding the ‘them’.

This consigns large chunks of voters to an economically and culturally unreachable exclusion zone. Writing off or politically marginalising most homeowners, older voters and large chunks of the so-called ‘traditional’ working class makes for very tricky electoral arithmetic.

Labour already dominates the big cities, where younger graduates are concentrated. In England, it can only succeed if it wins back at least a proportion of traditional or aspirational swing voters in other parts of the country, almost all in seats currently held by the Conservatives. Irrespective of its resonance among urban radicals, an electoral offer foregrounding identity politics, including those touching upon age, cannot meet that challenge.

For a party aiming to win power framing age as the new primary cleavage is deeply problematic. Youth is by definition a transient category, but more importantly sustains a diversity of opportunities, geographical location and electoral preferences.

The struggles waged by networks of radicalised younger activists in the post-crisis period were doubtlessly important, but it would be wrong to confuse or conflate that with the notion of a whole political generation. A full-blown generational analysis tends to infer greater stability of interests and behaviours than is likely over the life course.

Indeed, some quarters of the post-Corbynist left recognise this potential contingency and malleability, casting doubt on the demographic determinism that sees young voters inevitably backing left options at the ballot box. Sooner or later, some of the young graduates currently experiencing blocked mobility and constraints on entering the housing market will benefit from transfers of resources within family networks that are unavailable to their poorer, working-class counterparts. Indeed, this possibility is noted by Lisa Adkins and her co-authors in one of the cornerstone texts of the new thinking on the left around age and assets.

Moreover, asserting a polarised view of class cleavage and politics is unnecessary. Of course, access to assets produces inequalities that help to shape interests, identities and voting behaviours crisscrossed by age. But these are not set in stone and do not give the whole picture.

Insecurity, for instance, is a multi-dimensional phenomena and by no means confined to the kind of younger, male, city-dwelling and often highly educated platform workers that the left has tended to focus on. For example, in Deborah Mattison’s recent book, it was notable that labour market insecurity in Red Wall seats was found primarily amongst older females juggling two or three casual or part-time roles.

Additionally, such workers experience very different living, renting and owning arrangements. Insecurity comes in different forms and, arguably, the gig and platform economy touches fewer communities the further you get from the city, aside from delivery drivers and warehouse workers who fit a somewhat different profile than urban graduates.

We also have a great deal of evidence that financialisation – or what some on the contemporary left might call a ‘rentier’ economy – impacts negatively on older, skilled-manual workers in standard employment whose tendency towards asset ownership puts them on the wrong side of the new cleavages. Even setting aside issues such as household debt, shareholder value-driven business models lead to perpetual restructuring, role or status insecurity, job losses, pension erosion, surpassed pay and work intensification.

Rather than assigning different categories of workers to contending electoral blocs, then, this latter kind of evidence points to potential interconnections and unifying themes. The important lesson is that asset-based analyses, though part of the picture, tend towards an economic determinism that sees material conditions inevitably informing voting behaviour.

This leads to ‘bloc’ thinking that underestimates internal differentiation and mediating factors within different parts of the electorate, and the contingencies that allow political parties to craft narratives that can actively change preferences and allegiances.

Towards a new politics of work

It is our contention that a politics of work, such as that Labour appears to be in the process of developing, can play a vital role in winning back lost voters whilst retaining and energising existing supporters.

Over the past five years, a major theme of the Corbynist left was a ‘post-work’ politics based on the promise of new technology and measures like a universal basic income. Deprived of a political agent to realise this vision, post-Corbyn appeals to ‘luxury communism’ and the like have attained a much more peripheral status. But a residue of this positioning remains in the idea that work no longer has relevance as a locus of meaning or political identity, replaced by age and assets as the arbiter of new electoral coalitions.

Of course, we entirely accept Christine Berry’s observation that you can’t explain the dynamics of financialised capitalism solely with reference to the labour process and employment relations. And we recognise the importance of having expansive enough a definition of work to encompass the position of groups such as unpaid carers and disabled people.

More broadly, Labour needs to project economic credibility and cultural connection through a variety of values and policies offers that cannot reduce to work alone. But we support the recent announcement of a ‘new deal for working people’ agenda by the leadership, seemingly set in motion as a rearguard action in the days following the Hartlepool by-election loss.

Extending rights, strengthening trade unions, expanding collective bargaining, developing industrial strategy, bolstering manufacturing and investing in skills, apprenticeships and training are all worthwhile aims. These proposals establish a clear dividing line with the Tories, who have shown a marked reluctance to implement the kind of employment and labour market reforms signalled in the ultimately inadequate Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices commissioned under Theresa May.

Whilst there are some useful prescriptions being floated elsewhere, is important not to get bogged down in the weeds of detailed policy at this stage of the electoral cycle. The party should not sound as if it assumes it is already in power. Sidestepping this temptation, the new agenda on work that the party has outlined in recent days has the potential to cut across the different ways in which people are impacted in the workplace.

Using the proposals as a means of constructing an electoral coalition, there is also an opportunity to connect policy initiatives to public concerns about the treatment of essential work and workers that have arisen during the pandemic. Early signs suggest that the new deal agenda will rightly focus on fair work rather than simply fairness in work. The pursuit of fair work addresses key issues of how work is accessed that speak across divides to people in so-called ‘left-behind areas’, women and young people.

These centre on the availability and geographical and structural distribution of jobs, as well as pathways to skills and the support to facilitate this. Starmer’s announcement of the new agenda couched this in terms of the distribution and availability of new investment in green jobs.

Underemployment is also a key issue in many communities, with many workers wanting more and better regulated hours.
Policies focused on minimum hour guarantees and the abolition of zero-hour contracts would be a welcome outcome of the new deal agenda.

As concerns fairness in work, the new agenda emphasises quality jobs protected by enhanced employment rights, extended collective bargaining, opportunities to up-skill and higher wages. Specific focus points for these interventions that could cut across new cleavages to construct an electoral coalition around the politics of work might be social care and the gig economy.

One dimension missing from the admittedly brief details of the agenda so far is the issue of sustainability – in other words, what is needed to ensure the new agenda happens and is durable in the long run. Here, the politics of work intersect with some of the issues the contemporary left raises around financialisation.

Whilst the agenda sounds strong on industrial policy and state investment, there is little on how to compel change in a financialised age. At the business end, areas like performance management and aspects of private-sector pay often cannot be directly addressed by government, but broader structural reforms can set the context in ways that incentivise progressive change.

The most obvious route forward on this front would be legislation on corporate governance that strengthens worker and stakeholder voice and modifies reporting and other mechanisms so as to counter the influence of shareholder value.

So-called ‘rentierisation’, financialisation and the rule of shareholder value are not simply a cause of longstanding productive malaise, but rather a result of the lagging profitability that follows declining innovation and productivity in the non-financial economy. Policies supporting higher wages, greater skill and better conditions can help stimulate investment in productivity and innovation-raising measures, connecting the politics of work to a more fundamental transformation away from the so-called ‘asset economy’.

Finally, there is the potential to build a politics of fair work in devolved nations, cities and city regions. We don’t have to rely on persuading or compelling the Tories to enact policy or to wait for a Labour government. Policy themes can be much more credible to voters if we can link them to what Labour in power can do or is already doing.

This includes the ‘good work’ activities of Sadiq Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester, as well as the emerging agenda of Dan Jarvis in South Yorkshire. It can also be seen in both the rhetoric and policy decisions of metropolitan authorities such as Leeds’s support for a “compassionate city” in which to live and work. We can also learn from the progress, and limitations, of the fair work commissions in Wales and Scotland.

The question of strategy

Under critical fire, it seems that elements of the post-Corbynist left have shifted their focus from a post-work politics to a new analysis of age and assets. This is a mixed blessing. Some useful empirical or conceptual insights are undermined by the underlying flaws in the ways of thinking about politics this produces.

An economism underpins the left’s inability or unwillingness to consider why large numbers of working-class voters might think it worthwhile voting Conservative. Equally problematic is a vanguardism that repeatedly seeks to identify ‘leading’ class forces that are presented as the driving force of social change. This mantle has now fallen on younger, urban, networked individuals.

This is particularly dangerous when applied to electoral politics as it encourages binary bloc thinking oriented towards including and excluding different voter segments. Rather than an expansive and inclusive political vision that can construct alliances between young and old, urban and non-urban voters, the instincts of left populism remain, drawing fine distinctions that preserve an insider-outsider, friend-enemy mode of politics as club pursuit.

The key question is how electoral coalitions can be constructed across differentiated locations and experiences on the basis of the various ways in which contemporary British capitalism is not meeting their aspirations. It is not so much a case, then, of choosing the Red Wall or the ‘Blue Wall’. Rather, it is a question of developing a strategy that can find common ground wherever possible and accept inevitable trade-offs, compromises and priorities where it is not.

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