‘Do I really wanna waffle on with people who are waffling on?’ Politics and the British working class

‘Do I really wanna waffle on with people who are waffling on?’ Politics and the British working class

Tim Jones

Across Western democracies there is a clear and well-known correlation between social class and patterns of electoral participation: poorer, manual, less formally educated citizens are less likely to vote than their more affluent, more educated peers. When working-class people do vote, they are still more likely to vote in-line with their traditional class interests, for a party to the left of the political spectrum (40% of DE voters backed Labour in 2015, compared with 26% who voted Tory). However, this pattern has weakened in recent times, and has perhaps been in decline for nearly fifty years.

Meanwhile, right-wing ‘insurgent’ parties like UKIP have built their recent successes on their appeal to working-class voters, who feel economically and culturally squeezed by immigration and democratically under-represented (Ford and Goodwin, 2014). Moreover, most of the emerging left-wing activism in the UK that has been measured (eg ethical consumerism, online petitions, the so-called ‘Green Surge’), has overwhelmingly been driven by middle-class, university-educated citizens. It has been claimed that there is a widening chasm between working-class voters and the ‘progressive left’.

Despite all of this, any claims that white British working-class, non-university educated people are either increasingly apathetic or coherently right-wing, are wide of the mark. The 85% turnout in the Scottish Independence Referendum provides evidence that when working-class people actually feel empowered to shape their own political destinies, they will engage in high numbers, and they’re far from immune to a more left-wing lean. The rise of the SNP, alongside the emergence of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain (and not forgetting the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party) demonstrates that when the left embraces democratic formulations that give working-class people a genuine sense of inclusion, it can seriously threaten the status-quo. If the IndyRef results are generalizable then working-class people are more likely to vote to make democratic power more locally-accountable. This creates an interesting parallel between the (left-leaning) movement for Scottish independence from the UK and the (right-leaning) movement for UK independence from the EU.

It is clear that there remains a politics of emancipation amongst the non-university educated British working-class. In order to give this political will the academic voice that it merits, the quantitative, state-centric, electorally-focussed research of much political science, must be backed up with a more grounded, qualitative political sociology. In order to reimagine and reinvigorate British democracy, we might seek to bring politics down from the lofty perch on which it currently sits, from which professional technocrats attempt to manage the complex variations of social life. Perhaps we could start by embracing and propagating that politics of the everyday which second-wave feminists alerted us to nearly half a century ago. Defining all relationships, all work and all consumer interactions as political acts affirms the agency of individuals and exposes the power differentials between social groups. It also supports John Holloway’s (2010) work Crack Capitalism, by highlighting the many areas of everyday life that are not governed by capitalism or shaped by self-advancement, illuminating the acts of solidarity and resistance that remain a central part of the collective working-class experience.

The empirical evidence that I collected as part of my recent study of working-class political disaffection and routes into emancipatory engagement, suggests that working-class, non-university educated people are undoubtedly excluded from the formal political process, but that a drive to make collective social progress remains strong. One implication of this is that there remains potential for the mobilisation of a new social/political movement of the British working-class, and that it is far from inevitable that such a movement will be driven by the fear-mongering of the far right. The participants in my study were a disparate group of working-class, non-university educated people, selected from diverse networks across the north of England because of some involvement in emancipatory civic/political action. This action, which included various forms of community development as well as some traditional political party membership, was not always understood as political. It was however driven by some clearly-articulated political sentiments which I’ll unpack below.

Waffling On

The title of this piece is a quote from one of the participants in this study. For Steve, and the majority of the other interviewees, involvement in the formal political arena appears to be predicated on an ability to speak eloquently and forcefully on any number of topics. Scott Lash (2002) claims that university graduates are increasingly equipped for the economic demands of the information society with a rationalised, discursive, deductive form of knowledge, which stands in contrast to the empiricist, inductive ‘craft knowledge’ which we might associate with manual professions (p.141). The more we base political power on completely rationalised, discursive knowledge, the more it will therefore favour the university-educated. The subsequent lack of an inductive approach to public policy is an issue that leaves us all poorer, both economically and democratically.

Many people who are excluded from the economic mainstream voluntarily exclude themselves from the democratic mainstream because of the culture of talking down to people from positions of power. The participants of this study, some of whom had been “made to feel stupid” by people in positions of authority, therefore prioritised practical action ahead of the ‘waffling’ that is often understood as the essence of politics. Although it is difficult to conceive of a peaceful politics that isn’t based around our capacity to gain mutual understanding through the processes of conversation and debate, two key points remain: There are many people in the UK who are willing to sacrifice their own personal ambition for the sake of a collective good, who are not currently represented in what we usually understand as politics; and there are many people amongst this group who have the capacity and potential to speak into public/democratic life, who don’t fulfil that potential because of a glass ceiling for people with lower levels of formal education. Amongst the participants in this study, an important factor in breaking this cycle of under-representation appears to be informal education. The majority of my interviewees had benefited from periods of practical, self-directed, inductive learning, which had equipped them to engage in the forms of emancipatory politics that they are pursuing, and this is something that can be further resourced and encouraged.

New forms of power

Another of the key findings of this research was the potential importance of new forms of power in engaging people in social/political movements. This theme emerged in two distinct forms: Firstly, localized forms of political organisation would benefit from embracing looser, less hierarchical structures; Secondly, my participants wanted a more direct involvement in state-based democratic formulations (ie referenda). This desire for a more direct form of democracy can also be backed up statistically. Using data from the latest available British Social Attitudes survey, I found that people who haven’t been to university are more than twice as likely to believe in holding referenda on important public policy issues.

None of this desire for involvement negates the role of leadership, even across the lines of class and education that were the focus of this study. A number of my participants spoke highly of examples of leadership that they found inspirational, or that had been instrumental in their social engagement. However the depth and longevity of my participants’ involvement in their civic/political activities was clearly linked to forms of leadership that released them to engage on their own terms, and that allowed space for free thought. Despite some potentially left-wing leanings, on the whole they didn’t believe that politicians of any party are on their side. They also didn’t have much desire to join the side of anybody that purports to speak on their behalf – they’d prefer to continue to make practical, tangible differences in their communities, with or without the support of politicians.

All of my participants spoke of negative experiences of top-down forms of power, but had found routes into emancipatory engagement that fit with their values. Some of the most prominent values that were articulated were the unique dignity and pride of people, regardless of the circumstances of their life, and solidarity between different social groups along the lines of justice and equality. In that, there is little room to doubt the links between the socialist movements of the past and any movement of the left amongst the British working-class in the near future.

Ford, R. & Goodwin, M (2014). Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain. London: Routledge.
Holloway, J. (2010). Crack Capitalism. London: PlutoPress.
Lash, S. (2002). Critique of Information. London: SAGE Publications.


Tim Jones is an independent scholar who has worked in the voluntary sector since graduating from the University of Leeds in 2002. He has just completed an MA in Social Research at the University of York, with a dissertation entitled ‘Democratic Deficit Reduction: working-class political disaffection and routes into emancipatory engagement’. @T1MJ0N35