The appointment of right-wing bigot Lee Anderson as the latest Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party is not a surprise. Given 14 years of catastrophic economic, social, and policy mismanagement, another example of poor decision-making is no longer shocking. We have just become inured to callous and self-serving inefficiency.
Rishi Sunak finding Lee Anderson worthy of promotion is one thing, but why voters in the Ashfield constituency of Nottingham turned against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in 2019 to support such an odious candidate is difficult to comprehend.
His views are controversial to say the least. To many critics, including numerous opposition MPs, Anderson is known as “30p Lee” for arguing that food bank users did not understand how to budget and that nutritious meals could be cooked for 30p a time. This is just one of a long list of hateful views that includes bringing back corporal punishment in schools, the return of the death penalty, and mocking footballers who take the knee.
The contradiction lies in the fact that the constituency he represents is among the most deprived in the country, with House of Commons data showing about 16% of the constituency is “highly deprived” and nearly a third of pupils are on free school meals.
The collapse of the Red Wall
Ashfield, of course, was not alone. In 2019, Labour strongholds fell, from Greater Manchester to Lincolnshire, the Black Country to Northumberland. Some of these seats had not had a Tory MP in decades.
The British media went into overdrive and were happy to give the impression that working-class voters considered the Tories to be the party that best represented their interests. The Times proclaimed: “Working class switched to Tories.” The Sun ran with “The Tories are now the party of the working class.” The Independent went with: “Johnson’s victory was secured by the working class.” And on and on.
It is though important to note that even in this disastrous election for Corbyn’s Labour, statistics show that, contrary to media headlines, little over 30% of working-class people voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 general election.
30% is not an insignificant number though, and, even before 2019, the Tories have always attracted a fair share of working-class voters. The question is why? Thousands of column inches have been written trying to understand this phenomenon. In 2019 it was widely accepted that Brexit played a role in the swing to the Tories during this election. 58 seats switched to the Conservatives. Of these constituencies, 55 voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. One of the main criticisms was that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party tried too hard to straddle both sides of the Brexit debate.
The fact that both the Conservatives and Brexit were seen as capable of filling the gap for alienated and forgotten communities is the real issue, and it is one that has challenged thinkers and politicians over the years. As long ago as 1945 Aneurin Bevan famously asked: “ How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political power to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics in the twentieth century.”
Ideological hold of capitalism
For many revolutionary theorists, the answer lies in the ideological hold that capitalism maintains through practices that accept the legitimacy of its rule (not to mention its control of the mass media, education etc.). As Leon Trotsky put it: “He who owns surplus-product is master of the situation – owns wealth, owns the state, has the key to the church, to the courts, to the sciences and to the arts.”
In more recent times, it is clear that the dominance of the right-wing press has played an important role in reinforcing the legitimacy of capitalism and the established order. Right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun have colossal circulation figures that tower over smaller, more centre left-leaning ones like the Guardian.
These newspapers have deliberately exploited issues such as immigration, free speech, and law and order, now labelled as part of the culture wars to increase the divide in society. The whole point has been to encourage people to look down for the sources of their problems rather than up. Professor Bobby Duffy, Director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said: “There has been an extraordinary increase in the media’s focus on culture war issues and terms in recent years, reflected in our analysis of UK newspaper content. ‘Cancel culture’, for example, didn’t exist in our national discussions only a handful of years ago, but now there are thousands of articles that use the term.”
This was exploited in the lead-up to the 2019 General Election to good effect. Following Jeremy Corbyn winning the largest share of the vote since 1945 in 2015, those in power were threatened. They saw the large crowds that turned out whenever he spoke, they saw him reaching out to the younger generation who had previously been ignored by politicians, and they were worried. Worried that their power, privilege, and wealth would be threatened by a growing and politically aware class of voters who were beginning to see through their deception.
The level of the attack was colossal.
The London School of Economics published a report as early as 2016 entitled “From Watchdog to Attackdog.” The analysis showed that Corbyn was thoroughly delegitimised as a political actor from the moment he became a prominent candidate and even more so after he was elected as party leader with a strong mandate. This process of delegitimisation occurred in several ways: 1) through lack of or distortion of voice; 2) through ridicule, scorn, and personal attacks; and 3) through association, mainly with terrorism. Later, of course, the right successfully weaponised antisemitism as evidenced by the Forde Report, and The Labour Files.
Communities challenge the view that they were duped
Working-class voters were understandably annoyed at their portrayal as having been duped or at being described as “turkeys voting for Christmas.” They saw this analysis as being patronised by a metropolitan elite who had little understanding of their situation. Some of the working class have always been socially conservative, supporting law and order, with a minority being anti-immigration. This group argued that the Conservative Party best reflected their views in these areas. But here again it is difficult to separate this from the role of media manipulation in encouraging division among the poorest in society. There is also no doubt that with deindustrialisation came isolation, with factory jobs being replaced by individualised, insecure work, and the right-wing media were able to fill the gap that workplace debate may once have held.
There is no doubt that there was a concerted campaign led by the MSM from 2015 to 2019 to destroy Corbyn. In 2015 there was a feeling of hope. The Labour Party became the party with the largest membership in Europe. People attended rallies in their thousands. Corbyn spoke to a rapturous audience at Glastonbury. There was a sense of excitement in the air. For the first time in generations, the manifesto created a vision that things could be different. Then the attacks both within and outside the Labour Party started.
Labour Party must accept blame
However, this was a specific and isolated period in UK politics. There have always been members of the working class who supposedly voted against their own interests. The fact that so many turned against one of the few left-wing leaders in generations is of particular note and highlights a very different set of issues.
For many, though, the roots of disaffection with the Labour Party lie within its history. Rather than ask why so many from the working class choose to vote Tory, we should perhaps turn this on its head and ask why the Labour Party has failed to connect with so many working-class voters over the years.
The UK Labour Party has never been revolutionary. In fact, at its inception, the word “socialist” was removed from its title to ensure wider trade union support. However, it was set up in 1906 to give a parliamentary voice to the working class who had a strong sense of identity and were becoming increasingly radicalised. Since then though, its history has been one of class betrayal. Just eight years after its formation it supported sending tens of thousands of young working-class men to be slaughtered in the First World War. Ramsay McDonald made his bed with the Tories and Liberals in his National Government of 1931. Neil Kinnock betrayed the striking miners in 1984, while Tony Blair realigned Labour with ‘Middle England’ and the City of London. Labour’s membership has become overwhelmingly metropolitan, university-educated, and middle-class,
With Keir Starmer at the helm, there is little chance of change. Rather than challenge the issues raised under the guise of culture wars, he has chosen to embrace and exploit them for his own popularity.
It is perhaps no surprise then that some of the working class choose to vote Tory. It is sometimes hard to spot the difference between Labour and the Tories.