We need to shift from a class identity debate to a consensus around our core values


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With the dust still settling from the December 2019 General Election, it is necessarily a time for the Liberal Democrats to regroup, refocus and plan for the coming years.

One question which I hear being asked is how the Party can appeal to working-class voters, as part of a strategy to make it more inclusive, representative and, of course, electable. However I believe we need to first take a step back and ask whether the underlying assumption here is valid in 21st Century Britain and, moreover, is it liberal?

With our political rivals in opposition currently locked in heated internal argument as to which of their potential leaders is authentically working-class, it is worth exploring just what that means. Is one born working-class, or indeed middle-class, or does one somehow acquire the designation and accompanying self-identity during one’s lifetime?

Take my own example: I assume that I am considered middle-class, as I am a Higher Education administrator with a PhD, earning a decent salary and working in an office. I have held other professional roles in my working life, though this was interspersed with periods working for pocket money as a charity worker, a lifeguard and as a part-time postman whilst a mature student. Did I cease to be middle-class and somehow become working-class at these times by virtue of my income or employment? Probably not. Perhaps, therefore, I was born middle-class, as my parents were both teachers. Extrapolating backwards, neither of them would have been considered middle-class at birth. My father was the son of a journeyman painter, growing up in a deprived South Wales community. Similarly, my mother grew up in depression-hit Liverpool in the 1930s, the daughter of a tailor, with barely enough to get through the week. So did they perhaps each join the ranks of the middle-class the day they first walked through the school gates as newly qualified teachers, thus subsequently imparting that ‘middle-classness’ to me, their only offspring? What if I had rebelled against this accident of birth and become a labourer? Surely class has less to do with whether our work is manual or cerebral, how much it pays or what our parents did, than a state of mind.

Therein lies the challenge for us as liberals. If we are committed to an inclusive and egalitarian society, why are we tacitly endorsing an outmoded and divisive class system by playing into a mind-set which pits one group in society against another? Arguably this mind-set is fundamental to the feedback loop which perpetuates a confrontational two-party state, so it also works against our interests, preventing a decisive political breakthrough. Instead of abetting the narrative of a downtrodden working class and an elite middle class, can we not recognise that a commitment to liberal values is independent of income, social groupings or indeed geography? A country which is less inclusive, less caring, less socially cohesive is surely not what fair-minded, reasonable people of all backgrounds aspire to being part of, even though this appears to be the present trajectory.

Let us therefore as Liberal Democrats, committed to both liberalism and democracy, shift the narrative away from a politics of class identity and towards building a majority consensus around our core values.

* Warwick Danks is Data Officer for Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats

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16 Comments

  • Paul Barker 17th Jan '20 - 6:11pm

    The difference between us & “Labour” in the widest sense is they are talking about an objective state while we mean a subjective Identity. If someone says they are Working Class then for Liberals, they are. For some people Class, like Sexuality is an important component of their Identity & we should respect that.
    Part of the obsession with Class in Labour circles comes from a belief that The Working Class are inherently superior to everyone else. Put baldly like that, its silly & unpleasant but no more so than Nationalism or Sexism. We all have such prejudices lurking inside us.

    Liberalism focuses on the individual & their struggle to Be themselves. The Authauritarian Left which includes Labour can never “Get” that; they honestly dont know what we are talking about.

  • Yousuf Farah 17th Jan '20 - 6:20pm

    The problem is that class culture is fueled by both Labour and the Conservatives, so long as those two are in power there is going to be class-driven agendas, policies, philosophy etc etc. Only a Lib Dem government could end class culture, sadly the idea of enough people voting Lib Dem to form a large majority is honestly a bit of a fantasy.

  • I agree with Mark

    “If you have to work to live you are working class. If you can get by on inherited wealth you ain’t”. Not many of us are not working class or are reliant on the work we did and the work those still working do.

  • James Belchamber 17th Jan '20 - 7:46pm

    While I appreciate the sentiment this comes from (and believe it to be genuine), it’s the same trap we Liberals always fall in to when talking about groups of people we can’t seem to reach. The same argument comes up when talking about BAME people, for example.

    As a party we need to have a conversation about why we fail to reach far outside of the white middle class, without constantly having to debate whether or not it’s right to recognise someone as middle class (or not middle class).

    As Liberals we believe that people are equal – however, they are not fungible. Working class people exist, and they define themselves as such. We can’t start a conversation by denying their identity.

  • Along with two colleagues I represent a working class ward which Labour think ought to be theirs by right. I accept that our strength is in the 30 per cent who actually vote. But if with consistent hard work you reach the point when people say “We know you are for the people but Labour are just somewhere else” we know we must have got something right.

  • John Marriott 18th Jan '20 - 8:12am

    By all means have some ‘core values’ and debate them if you must. However,mid you are going to win under FPTP you might have to bite your lip now and again. Let’s be honest, the party needs to be a broader church than it is at the moment. So, can we PLEASE have less Brexit for starters?

  • People have different approaches to life. I believe that the meanings of words are socially negotiated. The concept of an absolute meaning which we can in someway find is alien to me. I see little point in trying to impose our categories on other people – or other parties either. My approach is to tell others how we see the world. I find that they then want to know what I am going to do about it. I believe that there is a lot of evidence to support this in the political sphere. It is where people are prepared to campaign and listen to people that they tend to win as Liberal Democrats. But they also tend to win when standing for other parties.
    We all like to be listened to – we want to know that our opinions are respected. A good place for us to start would be with our own party – by actually asking members what they think should be debated at York, and how the debates should be structured.

  • Richard Malim 18th Jan '20 - 4:08pm

    The real problem is marginalisation. The great trumpeting is that the LD came second in 90 seats up from 38 in 2017. Marvellous BUT only in 13 was the Con majority less than 5000 – 2 were Con gains and there was the 1 SNP gain and the Labour hold in Sheffield. Hammond’s successor in Wimbledon will be free of his legacy in 2024. In the next tranche only 9 Cons have majorities of less than 10,000 and more than 5,000 with Cambridge (Labour) and Ross (SNP) making 11 not very likely as 2024 gains. So that makes 64 where the LD are facing ‘safe’ current holders.
    That’s not the end of the story of 2019. LD have 7 English seats, 5 with nice majorities and Twickenham and Westmoreland both under 2000 majorities. In Scotland 2 marginal seats and 2 safe (Fife & NE and Orkney which has such a small electorate that a 2507 maj makes it safe)
    Actually the party may be looking down the barrel of a gun with in 2024 a miniscule swing to Con without even a decrease in LD vote leaving LD with just the 5 ‘safe’ English seats: St Albans (excellent gain last month) ; Richmond Pk; Oxford W&A with between 5 and 10,000 majorities, and Kingston and Bath with larger still.
    What is best for the party? With Labour preparing to endure 5 or 10 more years of post- Corbynism. Ditch EU rejoining and fight Labour over the red wall. If the Tories can wreck it why can’t the LD from much more acceptable political positions and be the real opposition/substantial coalition partner come 2028/9?

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Jan '20 - 8:10pm

    Warwick Danks

    Therein lies the challenge for us as liberals. If we are committed to an inclusive and egalitarian society, why are we tacitly endorsing an outmoded and divisive class system by playing into a mind-set which pits one group in society against another?

    So, why don’t you say the same thing about race?

    I.e. argue that the best way to deal with race inequality and discrimination is not to mention it.

  • I don’t quite get this. I would have thought that we have spent very little time, as a party, talking about class identity, but a lot of time discussing other aspects of identity.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Jan '20 - 7:03am

    Ian Bailey

    If there is a definable “working class” any more most of the people who would be in it either don’t categorise themselves thus or hold views fundamentally incompatible with it.

    Absolute and total rubbish.

    Class inequality is now a bigger issue than it was when it was a bigger issue in politics.

    The chance of young people from a working class background achieving success in their future life and becoming wealthy is less now than it was decades ago. Inequality in income and life chances has grown, not shrunk in the past few decades. Class inequality is a bigger issue than race inequality. There is a bigger difference between the proportion of white working class children that get to university and the proportion of white middle class children that get to university than there is in any racial backgrounds.

    So when people like you say the sort of thing you are saying, that suggests you don;t care about that. You don’t care about people being enslaved by poverty.

    Sadly, the belief that that’s how Liberal Democrats are has led to working class people feeling that no-one cares for them, and so very easily being tricked into being told that the problem is due to membership of the EU, and so therefore voting Leave.

    I.e. thanks to the way our party has gone, working class people voted Conservative because they think that’s how to oppose what the Conservative Party stands for.

  • Peter Martin 20th Jan '20 - 4:24pm

    @ Matthew,

    I agreed with you up until the last couple of paragraphs. At the risk of over generalisation, I would say the working classes are much more patriotic than other more affluent social groupings. Orwell talked about how the intelligentsia was ashamed to be British. Not so the working classes. They’ll fly the national flag with no problems at all.

    On the one hand they like the economic program of the left. But they don’t like people such as JC siding with our enemies. They also don’t like the left’s recent conversion to loving all things EU-opean. Therefore even though they know that the Tories are the class enemy they can still find the common ground of patriotism with the Tories which they don’t get from other political parties.

    They also don’t like being patronised by well meaning liberals. So you can say you disagree with them on Europe and there won’t be a problem. But try to avoid saying they were duped or didn’t know what they were voting for. You need to consider that it’s you who didn’t understand what they were voting for.

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