Skip to main content

Labour's fables: Sir Keir visits the proles

Labour centrists seek to represent workers in a sort of cultural theatre of identity politics devoid of substance or any relevance to their lives and struggles

KEIR STARMER’S recent visit to a Burnley plastics factory shows how Labour’s “moderates” approach politics like a kind of amateurish performance, where something called “back story” is meant to substitute for policy.

Starmer was touring the What More UK factory: they are a mid-sized firm making plastic homewares. If you own a “Wham” brand bucket, jug or other useful plastic household item it was made by their 270 or so staff.

A Guardian report tries to be positive but makes the event sound very sad. According to the paper, instead of a rousing canteen meeting with the workers, with Starmer saying what Labour could do for them, “he told his family history at length to any worker who would listen as he roamed the factory.”

It makes Starmer sound like some kind of drifting, obsessive nostalgic. There is a Twitter site called News or Fall Song that picks out newspaper headlines which sound like songs from The Fall, the cult band whose lyricist Mark E Smith had an eye for the weird behaviour of lost characters on the fringes of society, of Pinteresque behaviour in the provinces.

They thought this description of Starmer wandering a factory and buttonholing reluctant workers with his life story could easily be a Fall lyric.

The family history that Starmer wanted to press on the plastics workers was that his father was a toolmaker. 59-year-old Starmer left home 40 years ago and has been a barrister, the director of public prosecutions and now leader of the Labour Party. Yet his great urge, when facing hundreds of Lancashire plastics workers, wasn’t to say what he and his party could do, but to reminisce about what is own father did decades before.

The Labour Party was formed out of the Labour Representation Committee. It sought to represent “labour” – meaning the working class as a whole.

The party wanted to raise labour’s demands within the system, so it is always a party of compromise. But the test of that compromise was — what did it deliver for “labour”? The key question raised about policies was “what about the workers?” 

Members and voters might argue that some delivered more, some delivered less, and some totally sold out. But the questions focused on concrete policies for the working people — houses built, welfare delivered, workplace safety regulated and so on.

Representing working-class interests always included  some representation by people from the working class — although arguably not enough. But the key Labour people were not just from the working class, they were from the trade union movement, the key  founding bloc of the Labour Party.

They were significant people not just because they personally had “blue collar” backgrounds, but because they knew how to lead their fellow workers and win demands from the bosses. These MPs from union backgrounds always worked alongside Labour MPs from middle class radical (or more disappointingly liberal) backgrounds.

But the modern Labour centrists seek to represent workers in a sort of cultural theatre. At the same time as Labour offers less concrete policies, the centrists and their supporting media pundits go on about “back story,” trying to emphasise the blue collar background of their bland technocrats.

It’s an unconvincing attempt to turn class politics into identity politics. Instead of representing “Labour” by pushing policies that help the working class, the party claims to represent a cultural caricature of the working class, based on some vague idea about blue collar workers in the provinces.

It is particularly unconvincing because it relies on weird contortions and stretches.

First, it means suggesting class is an inheritable characteristic, about what your parents did or maybe how you grew up, not what you do as an adult.

Go back in most middle-class people’s families and you will find a farm or factory labourer in a few generations, so this is meaningless stuff.

Second, it means making class about “culture” – about growing up with your only spices being white pepper, salt and vinegar. Which excludes the black and Asian people at the core of the working class, and all the young and not-so-young workers buying a “frothy coffee” on the way to the warehouse or office.

Often it means absurdly stretching the truth. Starmer’s dad actually ran the Oxted Tool Co, his own toolmaking business until the 1990s. As far as we can tell he was a skilled self-employed tradesman, with no boss, no foreman and his own rented workshop on an industrial estate rather than a factory.

It shouldn’t really matter what Starmer’s dad did, if Labour was more interested in policy than pantomime performances of “the worker,” but here we are.

Labour’s leadership was not traditionally prone to this play acting. Harold Wilson was sometimes seen as a bit of a “professional northerner,” emphasising his down-to-earth Yorkshire roots, but nobody pretended he was “working class” because he had a Yorkshire accent.

Going on about “humble origins” was a bigger deal for the Tories. The party pressed Thatcher’s personal class identity, to contrast her “hard working middle-class shopkeeper’s daughter” history against the posher Tory “wets.”

They also promoted John Major’s humble Brixton roots. In the US the idea of possible humble roots of leaders — of a president rising from “log cabin to White House” — is also strong. But the point of all these rags-to-riches fables is that they are a substitute for social reform. A “hard-working individual” can get on, so there is no need for more redistribution or a better safety net.

Labour started spinning these fables for two reasons. First, during the Blair years, the party and their favoured pundits overtly made a play for middle-class voters and actively mocked “old fashioned” trade union politics. John Prescott, an eloquent rabble rouser schooled by union activism, was actively mocked for his accent and diction, even as he helped deliver support for the Blairite project.

New Labour’s rightward turn inevitably disenchanted millions of working-class voters. They expressed  discontent in fragmented ways – voting SNP, or not voting, or tending towards Brexit parties.

But as our centrists are very firmly showing, they do not want to win them back by any genuine “redistribution” policies. Instead — taking a cue from “Blue Labour” — they think they can turn to no-cost “cultural” and “identity” issues.

Even if that means unconvincing play-acting that pretends Keir Starmer is somehow Mr Blue Collar.



We're a reader-owned co-operative, which means you can become part of the paper too by buying shares in the People’s Press Printing Society.



Become a supporter

Fighting fund

You've Raised:£ 6,227
We need:£ 11,773
19 Days remaining
Donate today