RCN solidarity march in central London, January 2023. Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason RCN solidarity march in central London, January 2023. Photo: Flickr/Steve Eason

Lindsey German considers some political facts of life that Starmer chooses to ignore

Both the Tories and Labour stress constantly that there is no alternative to their policies: nationalisation can’t work, ‘the country can’t afford’ to alleviate child poverty, and the pensions and benefits system is too costly and must be constantly trimmed and cut. This is coupled with the assumption that working-class people are inherently conservative over cultural and social issues. So it’s quite a revelation to discover that the attitudes of many people in Britain – often the majority – are actually to the left of the received political wisdom.

To acknowledge this would be to challenge the dreary political consensus which dominates British politics and to expose Keir Starmer’s craven following of Tory policies. The extreme fiscal caution shown by Starmer and Rachel Reeves is already leading them to axe serious commitments over a range of issues. But according to the latest annual British Social Attitudes survey, there is strong support for more generous benefits, higher public spending, eradicating poverty and much more. In terms of so called ‘culture wars’ there is little support for the right-wing discriminatory policies so beloved of many Tory MPs.

The survey is in its 40th year and able therefore to make comparisons over time. Begun at the height of Thatcherism, the latest report marks a rejection of her attitudes – although the BSA studies have always shown a marked gap between the supposedly hegemonic ideology of Thatcherism and the reality. So now those who think government should be ‘definitely’ responsible for keeping prices under control is at a record high at 68% compared with 31% in 2006 – in other words, before the banking crash and over a decade of austerity. Another record high is that 53% ‘believe the government should be responsible for reducing income differences between the rich and poor’.

While Rishi Sunak ponders cutting taxes and Labour refuses to commit to extending them (not least to the rich), the survey shows different priorities. Support for increased tax and spending is at 69% among ‘Labour identifiers’ and at 44% even among ‘Tory identifiers’. Yet these options are ignored or dismissed by the main parties.  

And while we are urged to believe that class is no longer an important factor, and that the working class is diminishing in size, that’s not how it feels to many people. So 52% describe themselves as working class (it was 58% in 1983, when Thatcher won her second election). Many people who say they are working class have what the survey describes as ‘middle class jobs’ – so 46% are not in manual or traditional working-class occupations. However only 28% of those who went to university see themselves as working class whereas 60% of those with GCSE school-leaving qualifications do. Unsurprising those in lowest income brackets are more likely to identify as working class but so too are ethnic minorities and young people. Women are as likely as men to identify as working class. The perception that it is harder to move between classes has also grown.

Attitudes are of course a different matter. Here there are contradictory positions. The survey shows, for example, that those identifying as working class are more left wing than those identifying as middle class (65% to 56%). But there is also much higher anti-immigration sentiment among working class than middle class identifiers. However, there are also signs that those who are more consciously left wing see inequality as a much bigger issue. According to the deputy chief executive of the body that produces the research:

‘People who regard themselves as working-class have become less distinctively left-wing but more distinctively authoritarian and anti-immigrant in their outlook. At the same time, however, the perception that it is difficult to move between classes is associated with left-wing attitudes and not with an authoritarian or pro-immigrant outlook. 

‘Authoritarian and anti-immigrant sentiments might have more appeal for some working-class identifiers but, for those who are aware of class differences, issues of inequality matter more. This suggests the challenge facing politicians who would like to pursue a more left-wing agenda is to raise awareness of the inequalities that social class can bring.’

Authors of the report on class within the survey also consider that ‘people who are concerned about class inequalities in Britain may be more receptive to economic policy proposals that seek to limit the influence of big business and of the rich and powerful than they will be to policies that seek to blame immigrants for squeezing the labour market and making economic conditions more difficult for British workers.’

This suggests that the ideas of Corbynism fitted much more with working-class attitudes than the policies now being put forward by Starmer. It also indicates that political intervention can begin to shift ideas and consciousness – an idea which is at the heart of Marxism. However, if parties like Labour pander to the more backward ideas inside the working class, especially over race and immigration, then they can reinforce these views rather than combat them.

One area surveyed which has shown a remarkable change over the past 40 years is that of the attitudes to sexuality, sex and the family. In 1983, only 17% regarded ‘sexual relations between adults of the same sex’ as ‘not wrong at all’, whereas 67% agreed with that today. Only 9% think that same-sex relations are ‘always wrong’ compared with 50% in 1983. Then, 42% said that pre-marital sex was ‘not wrong at all’, now 78% believe that. There have been similar advances over issues to do with cohabitation, single parents, and abortion.

This liberalisation reflects very big changes within the family and wider society. It also reflects campaigning and organising among women’s and LGBT organisations for greater equality. However there are caveats to this. One is that the changed attitude to gender roles over housework do not reflect the reality, where women are still much more likely to do the bulk of housework and childcare than men (a division of labour greatly exacerbated during the Covid lockdown).

Another major issue is on trans rights, where attitudes have become less supportive over recent years. Those saying they are ‘not at all prejudiced’ against transgender people has fallen from 82% to 64% since 2019 and there are increasing divisions over whether trans people have the right to change their sex on their birth certificate.

There are strong divisions about a person who is transgender having the right to have the sex recorded on their birth certificate changed if they want. While 30% thought they should have this right, 39% disagreed and 29% registered ‘neither agree nor disagree’. Notable here is the high number who don’t record an opinion. What this surely reflects is the increasing debate and controversy about gender recognition certificates and issues such as transwomen in women’s prisons or participation in female sports. In this context the ‘no debate’ mantra from some trans activists is if anything counterproductive. We know from campaigning over issues from the 1970s onwards that there must be a principled level of support for all oppressed groups while at the same time a recognition that debate is not only necessary but can help to shift attitudes in an egalitarian direction.

The areas where the left is swimming against the tide include immigration, defence spending and nuclear weapons, and some aspects of abortion rights, as well as those listed above. The conclusions to draw should be these: the Tories are increasingly appealing to a lowest common denominator hard core vote. Starmer’s Labour is almost totally failing to reflect the desire of many workers for redistributive policies to help eradicate poverty and maintain decent public services. It also refuses to fight reactionary attitudes over issues such as immigration. The socialist left has to mobilise round the immediate economic issues, as we will be doing at the Tory conference this week. But alongside that we need to fight as a minority over war, racism, transphobia, and women’s oppression. That requires organisation, debate, and commitment.   

This week: I will be in Manchester with the People’s Assembly this weekend, joining the demo on Sunday and speaking at meetings in the marquee on Saturday. Hope to see some of you there. I will also be seeing Ken Loach’s new film, The Old Oak, which is about refugees and attitudes to them in a working-class community.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.