Labour and 'Traditional Voters'

Lynsey Hanley

Eight weeks after gaining 40 per cent of the national vote on an unapologetically forward-looking social democratic platform, Labour MPs who still perceive their majorities to be under threat are again saying that the party is failing to appeal to its ‘traditional voters’. Whether the term deployed is ‘traditional’, ‘heartlands’ or ‘white working class’, the dog-whistle is back.

Jeremy Corbyn initially held firm against the insistence from the party’s right wing that ‘white working-class’ voters needed reassurance that any government led by him would listen to their ‘legitimate concerns’. In a BBC interview last month, however, he appeared to cave in, using language on immigration policy that sounded at once slippery and nakedly populist. He referred to the ‘wholesale importation’ of workers from other parts of the EU, suggesting – whether intentionally or otherwise – that it was a cynical ploy to lower the wages and living standards of British people.

On election night, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, noted with enthusiasm that voters in his Black Country constituency raised a wider range of issues than he’d ever heard in a single campaign, showing familiarity with Labour’s manifesto and a desire for government to reflect and to respond to the complexities of their lives. Days later, however, he said that Labour could only win with ‘traditional voters’ by sounding tougher on national security, policing and immigration.

The Labour MPs Graham Jones and Gloria De Piero have also entered, or re-entered, the argument, claiming that Labour can only win a general election if it adopts conservative positions on, again, national security, immigration and Trident. Jones, who unlike De Piero has refused to serve on the shadow front bench under Corbyn but was elected last month to the party’s Parliamentary Committee, asked ‘how thick does this party have to be?’ not to embrace nuclear weapons, nationalism and forceful counter-terrorism measures to avoid losing votes to the right.

When Watson, Jones, De Piero and the former leadership candidate Liz Kendall, among others, talk about ‘traditional Labour voters’, they mean white, working-class men who don’t live in large cities. Afro-Caribbean and Asian voters, who have overwhelmingly voted Labour for half a century, aren’t ‘traditional’ enough to count. Nor are urban working-class voters of any ethnicity.

On this view, 'traditional Labour voters' are obsessed with, in Jones’s words, ‘counter-terrorism, nationalism, defence and community, the nuclear deterrent and patriotism’. They are, it is patronisingly assumed, not concerned with social justice beyond their immediate patch. They think about ‘fairness’ in blunt terms of ‘what about me and mine?’

The Labour peer Maurice Glasman claimed before the election that the Tories were about to win, and win big, because they had an ‘enchanted story’ of Britain’s glorious past and Labour did not. The enchanted story, in his mind, revolved around an idea that working-class people, as one, thought the empire was great and the NHS was created for whites only. The Tories are wedded to this idea, though they believe that working-class people somehow ‘buy’ these values – like a dinner service – because they aspire to be middle class.

Glasman told Ed Miliband in 2011 that a Labour government should stop all immigration to the UK because it would show that Labour was truly on the side of ‘the white working class’. To him, ‘traditional voters’ are simple folk who react to the prospect of change by retreating into nostalgia.

Yet the sort of voters by whom Glasman is precoccupied – if they form a like-minded voting bloc at all – deserted the BNP and then Ukip when they realised neither party had the slightest interest in doing the donkey work of real political representation. At a local level, the Greens have made inroads in working-class areas that had Labour councillors for decades, winning council seats on estates in the north-west and West Midlands.

June’s election result showed that millions of people are quite capable of loving their families, their homes, their neighbourhoods and their country without wishing to travel back in time. The idea that Labour’s increased vote share came exclusively from middle-class support is nonsense.

Knocking on doors on a Wirral council estate on election day, I met a few voters who admitted to being less than keen on Corbyn, but who still felt that Labour’s manifesto directly addressed their needs and hopes. Many said they felt enthusiastic about voting Labour for the first time in years. The party’s election campaign showed respect and gratitude for the disproportionate social burden borne by working-class people without fetishising or condescending to them. For Labour MPs to hark back to a time when the party relied on – or appeared to rely on – a socially and ethnically homogeneous voting group is essentially to wish for the death of the party.


  • 4 August 2017 at 9:39am
    Phil Edwards says:
    I think Hanley has misread Corbyn's comments, which (it seems to me) weren't about EU immigration in general, but about the specific practice of employers recruiting an entire skilled workforce and paying them the British minimum wage. This practice doesn't involve very many people in the scheme of things, but it does go on, it is abusive and it is entirely legal under EU law; it's not at all out of order for Corbyn to say that it should stop. (Reference points here are the Posted Workers Directive and the Viking case.) There's a transcript of the interview here for anyone who wants to check.

    Otherwise I agree with Hanley entirely. As she says, it can't possibly be the case that Labour's increased vote share in 2017 came from middle-class voters - if only because Labour's share of the vote increased in 611 of the 631 seats in which they stood. Thirteen of the remaining 20 were in Scotland, the other 7 in England - and most of those seven were Tory/Lib Dem battlegrounds. The five seats that Labour lost to the Tories saw an increase in Labour's share of the vote; the problem was that, as the UKIP vote collapsed, the Tory vote share increased by more.

    This is a problem for Labour but it's also an opportunity; with the disappearance of the phantasmal second front represented by UKIP, politics in England resolves into the familiar shape of a Labour/Conservative contest - and we know how to fight those. ("Real fight starts now," as somebody said.) Certainly this is no time for anyone who purports to stand on the Left to call for nationalism, racism and militarism - those things have always been part of the lexicon of conservatism, and the lesson of Corbyn's 40% is that (pace Tony Blair) Labour doesn't need to borrow them in order to have wide popular appeal.

  • 4 August 2017 at 1:26pm
    kadinsky says:
    "He referred to the ‘wholesale importation’ of workers from other parts of the EU, suggesting – whether intentionally or otherwise – that it was a cynical ploy to lower the wages and living standards of British people"

    What is the official rationale for a permanently open door to workers from low-wage economies?

  • 7 August 2017 at 7:10am
    FoolCount says:
    "He referred to the ‘wholesale importation’ of workers from other parts of the EU, suggesting – whether intentionally or otherwise – that it was a cynical ploy to lower the wages and living standards of British people".

    Well, that is a cynical ploy to lower the wages and living standards of British people. And it should be referred to as such. Good on Corbyn for telling it like it is. How could anyone suggest otherwise? And what might that "different suggestion" be? That they import foreign workers to improve diversity of UK population? Or maybe selfless desire of British elites to improve lives of people in foreign countries is the real reason? What else?

    • 8 August 2017 at 5:23pm
      Robert says: @ FoolCount
      Except that we know, from detailed analysis, that such immigration has had hardly any effect in lowering wages, either in this country or Germany, in the last 10 years. Since these facts are available how come JC chooses to ignore them?

    • 8 August 2017 at 8:35pm
      Stu Bry says: @ Robert
      There is one well known study which finds no link between wages and levels of immigration by UK region. That however does not answer the question as to whether A10 and non EU immigration has suppressed wages and/or eroded terms and conditions.

      Where is this analysis to be found? When exactly do you think labour supply ceased to have any effect on wages>

    • 9 August 2017 at 5:48am
      robert higgo says: @ Stu Bry
      I understand your point of view. And of course people approach the subject of Brexit with great passion. To take us away from Brexit and its attendant fears, why not look at migration levels, and what has happened to wages in Germany?
      Significant rises in migrants, plus increases in wages. How can that be? i note you've slipped non-EU migration in too.

    • 9 August 2017 at 9:53am
      Stu Bry says: @ robert higgo
      Wages rising in Germany alongside immigration does not necessarily mean that immigration has not had a suppressing effect. It is more likely that the upward force of the Eurozone is simply more powerful than the downward force of immigration. While Germany obviously has a better balanced economy than the UK and a superior system of labour relations it is worth remembering that is still an extremely unequal society and that poverty has increased since unification.

      Marx explained the relationship between wages and the number of workers in the labour force over 150 years ago. No one has yet proved him wrong.

    • 9 August 2017 at 10:36am
      robert higgo says: @ Stu Bry
      So it's possible to have an economy with high migration and better labour relations and improved wages without pandering to fears about migration. Never mind Marx, although I will forever value my Marxist study group back in the 70s, what Philip Roth says at the end of Portnoy's complaint is, so what's the problem? Let's hope Labour develops a raft of policies to address the more pressing causes of low wages, job insecurity and inequality.

    • 9 August 2017 at 12:40pm
      Stu Bry says: @ robert higgo
      Well I forgot to check the population of Germany and it hasn't increased at all in 20 years so that argument seems flawed.

    • 9 August 2017 at 3:28pm
      robert higgo says: @ Stu Bry
      Well I'm more impressed by an engagement with empiricism than with hypotheses. The figures I have seen indicate a 2.5 million increase in the past 5 years ( one set of data) and the official German Office of Statistics data which show a rise of just short of 2 million between 2011 and 2015. Probably Freud will have explained my neurotic attachment to evidence in The Interpretation of Dreams.

    • 9 August 2017 at 3:42pm
      robert higgo says: @ robert higgo
      Moreover, between 2007 and 2012, the net migration per 1000 in Germany was 15.54 and it was 14.13 for the UK.

    • 9 August 2017 at 4:29pm
      Stu Bry says: @ robert higgo
      The population of Germany was 82m in 1997 and is 82m today. You are correct that it has increased slightly over the past few years but that is because it had also declined due to low birth rate.

      Over the same period the population of the UK has increased from 58m to 65m. It is clearly a much more significant increase which will have a much larger effect on wages.

      It's also worthwhile remembering that wages are not only effected by workers resident in the country but by the entire potential pool of labour. The supply of labour has been at a level that guarantees saturation which has the effect that unskilled and semi skilled wages are only increasing at all due to government regulation - when you see a Tory Chancellor raise the minimum wage it is a clear sign the market has been destroyed - and also that terms and conditions are getting worse eg Zero hours, gig economy, agency work.

  • 8 August 2017 at 7:18pm
    robert higgo says:
    Here is the NIESR on the topic:
    "The idea that immigration is the main or even a moderately important driver of low pay is simply not supported by the available evidence. Politicians who claim the contrary are either so obsessed with immigration that they are blind to more important issues - or they are merely trying to divert attention from their failure to propose policy measures that would actually make a meaningful difference to the low paid."

    • 9 August 2017 at 10:18am
      Dectora says: @ robert higgo
      Yes, the Polish team who renovated my house some years ago, all were familiar with the minimum wage. In fact one ambitious younger worker told me that he avoided Polish employers in London, because if you said 'Minimum wage' he would say 'Go back to Warsaw'. My contractor was a neighbour, of Polish-Roumanian descent, but born in East Anglia.

  • 9 August 2017 at 3:16pm
    XopherO says:
    The problem is that pay generally in the UK is low in comparison to other wealthy nations. This keeps productivity low and investment low, and vice versa, a vicious circle - if you can produce competitively without investing in more efficient, less labour-intensive production methods. So competitiveness is maintained, not by investment, but by gradual devaluation of the currency - the main reason we could not and probably never could join the Euro. France is far more productive and so has a higher level of unemployment for the moment, and needs better training and investment opportunities (not a much freer labour market, pace Macron, which will take it in the direction of the UK). The problem is not immigrant labour, but structural problems in the economy - it's the Production Function, stupid! Anyway a lot of EU migrants will return when their native countries get better developed - one of the most important functions of the EU. Immigrants from outside the EU are more likely to stay, bring over relations, and continue working for low pay, or taking benefits (the two go together these days, especially for families!) We behave rather like a third world country, as exemplified by the massive disparity in wealth and incomes. Africa can't teach us anything when it comes to peculation by the rich and the salting away of ill-gotten gains. Corbyn is wrong - he should not be blaming EU immigrants, nor should the low paid. The rich are the problem, and the policies of previous governments - stand up and be counted (very rich) Blair. Why hasn't he slunk away into a hole somewhere?

    • 9 August 2017 at 4:37pm
      Stu Bry says: @ XopherO
      You are correct that individual migrants should not be blamed but that does not mean that the principle of free movement between nations at different stages of economic development should not be challenged.

      "Anyway a lot of EU migrants will return when their native countries get better developed – one of the most important functions of the EU."

      This is true however what won't leave the UK is the capital created derived from the increased rate of profit that freedom of movement delivers. That capital will continue to act in the economy, enable rentierism and ever increasing inequality.

    • 9 August 2017 at 5:40pm
      robert higgo says: @ Stu Bry
      I can understand why you want to look at the German population over 20 years, but your argument that increased migration leads to lower wages is looking increasingly threadbare, not least as the rate of increase in Germany in recent times is greater than the rate for the UK. I get that you don't like migration, and that of course is your right. Wriggling around with the figures is all well and good. Maybe you give up on me and set the NIESR straight rather.

    • 9 August 2017 at 6:44pm
      Stu Bry says: @ robert higgo
      The NIESR report doesn't deal with the possibility that overall immigration suppresses wages. It only compares wages by sector across differing regions of the UK based on levels of immigration. It also found that increased immigration does reduce wages in the unskilled/semi skilled sector.

      I'm not against immigration. I am against the labour force being expanded to drive down the unit cost of labour. I am against workers from lower cost economies being expolited to increase the rate profit. I am against the phenomenon of a huge number of jobs in the UK being impossible to hold unless you intend to eventually return or migrate to a low cost country.

      I would also like to see tariffs imposed to reduce exploitation of workers in foreign countries. Companies who abuse sweat shop labour should not be allowed to sell their products in the UK.

    • 15 August 2017 at 8:57pm
      aikmania says: @ robert higgo
      One thing that should be pointed out is that Germany's wage rates are still relatively low; Eurostat figures from 2015 show them to be below those of most other Western European countries (including the UK), albeit not by a great deal. German wage growth has been reasonably steady in recent years, and higher than that of the UK - but that's largely been due to a comparable increase in GDP minus the sizeable population increases the latter has experienced. At root, the country still experiences considerable pay restraint, which becomes clear when one takes into account productivity figures. The causes of this are various, but to my mind the prevailing 'responsible' political climate and the Action 2010 labour market reforms are the main culprits.


  • 9 August 2017 at 7:47pm
    robert higgo says:
    So here it is again " “The idea that immigration is the main or even a moderately important driver of low pay is simply not supported by the available evidence. Politicians who claim the contrary are either so obsessed with immigration that they are blind to more important issues – or they are merely trying to divert attention from their failure to propose policy measures that would actually make a meaningful difference to the low paid.”

    I will surrender now. We'll simply have to disagree. The labour force in Germany has increased significantly at the same time as wages have gone up significantly but somehow for you this can't be true. Maybe we get the wrong kind of foreigners and they get the right kind.

    I'm pleased to see you propose various measures, but maybe Labour should think about strengthening workers rights, and repealing Tory and New Labour legislation as appropriate.

    • 10 August 2017 at 8:20am
      gracelyn7 says: @ robert higgo
      Britain is a low pay economy and was even before large-scale immigration, but free movement of labour doesn't help but merely fills the demand for low paid jobs and sustains the underground 'unofficial' economy. Britain now has falling employment and low wage growth with prices increasing faster. If the supply of labour fell (ie stricter immigration) some wages might rise and firms would invest more instead of relying on cheap labour.

    • 10 August 2017 at 10:45am
      XopherO says: @ gracelyn7
      Unfortunately a lack of investment has been a perennial problem in the UK long before EU immigration. It keeps wages low rather than vice-versa. Investment was difficult before the economic crisis because UK bank interest rates were prohibitive - largely because the Bank of England set higher base rates than other countries in Western Europe to prop up the pound, and reduce the rate of devaluation. This produced the absurdity of a 13% bank rate under Thatcher. Indeed a host of healthy industries went to the wall or gave up the ghost because of high rates during her 'reign'. She pretended it was 'getting rid of inefficient businesses', but it more than decimated the good of British manufacturing as well. Now interest rates are low, the banks won't lend and are risk averse! So weak investment.

      If the EU labour dries up many businesses will reduce in size, or pack up completely. To do otherwise they would think too risky. Expensive (or not available) capital plus low wages is a third world syndrome which leads to foreign turn-key contracts, with profits leaving the country, so maintaining poverty. As I said, it's the Production Function, stupid!

    • 10 August 2017 at 10:58am
      Stu Bry says: @ robert higgo

      This Guardian article shows that the labour force in Germany has been static around 45m for 25 years. I do not understand why you continue to argue that is has expanded?

      I agree workers and trade union rights need to strengthened but unless the government begins setting wages by sector (as it used to for agricultural workers) saturation of the labour market will continue to drive down wages and terms.

    • 10 August 2017 at 11:14am
      sparafucile says: @ XopherO
      Fortunately, foreign investors don't share your negative attitudes--Britain attracts more inward investment than any other nation in the EU.

    • 10 August 2017 at 12:20pm
      XopherO says: @ sparafucile
      Not necessarily a cause for celebration - why is internal investment so poor?
      A lot of incoming investment is turn-key and often tempted by cash handouts from the government - like Toyota in Derbyshire and other Japanese companies, treating us like an underdeveloped nation. Is it good that British 'assets' are owned abroad, where the profits go and tax often avoided.

    • 10 August 2017 at 2:37pm
      robert higgo says: @ Stu Bry
      Here's what your article says:
      "The population growth has been particularly concentrated among those of working age. The number of people employed in Germany hit 43 million in 2015, according to data released by Destatis, the German statistics office, on Tuesday. The figure represents the highest number of people in work since German reunification. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed people has dropped below 2 million for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

      Over the past 12 months the active labour force (the total number of people in employment and unemployed) has increased to 44.9 million, driven by higher labour force participation of the domestic population and the immigration of foreign workers, which has offset negative demographic effects.

      Net migration has exceeded 300,000 every year since 2011, hitting 676,730 in 2014, according to data published by Germany’s federal office for migration and refugees."

      So what I actually said, if you'd like to read back, is that net migration in recent years in Germany is not associated with a reduction in wages, and I have talked about the last ten years. I have pointed out that the rate in Germany is higher than in the UK. Forgive me for suspecting your motives in looking at 25 years.

      More to the point, I wonder why you have never addressed my other quote from the NIESR? What is it that you know, and they don't?

    • 10 August 2017 at 2:41pm
      robert higgo says: @ Stu Bry
      Take another look at your own quote. The first graph isn't very precise but I reckon it shows a 3 million rise in employment in the past 10 years. What would you think?

    • 10 August 2017 at 5:31pm
      sparafucile says: @ XopherO
      The UK has to follow the same rules as everyone else in the EU in terms of offering sweeteners to potential employers. However, our labour market is far more flexible--no one benefits in the long run when firms incur massive obligations when they take on new employees. Hence, we have lower unemployment (especially for young people) than our competitors.

      Profits may go abroad, but this is a small price to pay for the vast amounts of tax revenue generated by employing people here and VAT. If you don't think that incoming investment is good for Britain, you are in a very, very small minority.

    • 10 August 2017 at 6:08pm
      Stu Bry says: @ robert higgo
      Yes it shows a 3m increase over 10 years. So an increase of 7%.

      In the UK's case the increase is from from 28m to 33m. So the increase is 18% which is very different without even taking into consideration the performance of both economies during the period.

      NIESR did'nt consider whether immigration has suppressed wages. They only compared regional wages by sector accounting for immigration.

  • 10 August 2017 at 7:50am
    sparafucile says:
    If anyone is interested in going back in time, it's our Jeremy. Virtually all of his policies were tested to destruction in the 1970s, but of course our younger voters have no idea what it was like when half the country was on strike at any given time, and when British Leyland was making cars with square steering wheels. Still less do they know that profligate spending resulted in the largest IMF bailout in history, which led to an enforced austerity and a Thatcher victory in the polls.

    Sadly, there's no way Corbyn can bring back one of the more attractive features of the 1970s--the great British pub. Nor can he bring back a world where our personal freedoms weren't constantly being trimmed back by zealous quangocrats making up ever more arcane rules about what we can and can't do.

    • 10 August 2017 at 6:42pm
      robert higgo says: @ sparafucile
      So migration only effects wages if it's more than 7%? Right. And the NIESR statement directly and explicitly contradicts your opinion. Only they don't because you say they don't. I surrender.

  • 11 August 2017 at 6:03am
    robert higgo says:
    Centre for Economic Performance, LSE:
    The share of immigrants among working age adults in the UK more than doubled between 1995 and 2014 – from 8% to 17% – and now stands at over 6.5 million. Immigration is now the top concern in opinion polling.
     Net migration was 250,000 in 2014, significantly above the government’s target of a maximum of 100,000 by the end of the current parliament.
     European Union (EU) countries account for one third of the total immigrant stock. New inflows of EU immigrants are almost as large as inflows from outside the EU. Most EU arrivals are for work-related reasons whereas most non-EU arrivals are for study-related reasons.
     Immigrants are better educated and younger than their UK-born counterparts, especially those from the EU15 (the members before the 2004 EU enlargement). Around 10% of all migrants are students. Immigrants are over-represented in the very high-skilled and very low-skilled occupations.
     Almost 40% of all immigrants live in London and 37% of Londoners were born abroad. Around 60% of the working age populations of Brent and Westminster are immigrants compared with under 3% in Knowsley and Redcar & Cleveland.
     Immigrants do not account for a majority of new jobs. The immigrant share in new jobs is – and always has been – broadly the same as the share of immigrants in the working age population.
     There is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services. Any negative impacts on wages of less skilled groups are small. One of the largest impacts of immigration seems to be on public perceptions.

    • 15 August 2017 at 8:48am
      davidovich says: @ robert higgo
      I remember the seventies when most of my friends hitch-hiked clean across Central Asia including Afghanistan to arrive to jobs in Britain and a vibrant, brilliant, cultural scene. Even Oz was bearable. Now I feel I'm in some kind of Orwellian permanent war wondering what the UK used to be called and where Oceania really is.

    • 15 August 2017 at 9:03am
      davidovich says: @ robert higgo
      Well, of course. It's provides the perfect hue and cry for the politics of hue and cry. How long has it been since we despaired of the politics of conscious, constructive solutions. One hundred or so years?

  • 15 August 2017 at 6:51am
    davidovich says:
    The question is not which perspective is "true"
    but how much objective consciousness a society can tolerate and how much, for "pragmatic" reasons it must suppress. The mere idea of the other fellow's perspective is always threatening if one feels obscurely that one is not entitled to one of one's own. Authoritarism will haunt us wherever lives are cramped by material want, cramped, ugly and restricted conditions and lack of opportunity.

  • 11 September 2017 at 5:23am
    Mick Fealty says:
    I'd agree with much of this, but truth is there was a drift in C2, D and E voters from Labour to Conservative which is why the party struggled to get past them.

    Unlocking the reasons for that (and then genuinely addressing them) is a key task for the next 2-5 years.

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