nothing to lose but their chains?

The Beckett Report makes for dire yet inevitable reading for Labour. None of the diagnoses can be quelled with simple solutions. Assumptions, however, should be easier to mend. And the number one assumption we have to scrap, that we should have scrapped long ago, is that we can win by assuming those in troubled times -as many have felt these past 5 years under a deeply unfair government- will vote en masse for change.

Beckett shows that we lost out among private sector and, significantly, self-employed workers. The very workers we thought we championed because of the inherently insecure nature of their livelihoods. It couldn’t be further from the truth.

Fortunately for this blog, unfortunately for you and all those that despise wonks, my dissertation reading has progressed and has provided some convenient citations for me to use here on this theme at

Ian Shapiro, writing ‘why the poor don’t soak the rich’ (available here), delivers an analytical blow to the old assumption that workers consider their lot to be so little that they have nothing, or relatively little to lose:

People who are surprised that there are not more demands for downward redistribution tend to work of the assumption that those near the bottom of the economic distribution have nothing to lose. [On the contrary] voters may decide that thing could well get worse – particularly if things have been worse in the recent past

This presents a challenge to a reformist Labour Party. Indeed, it represents a challenge to any Labour Party, because Labour by nature has always been against the status quo, compared to the Conservatives’, well, conservatism. This means that we have to prove our programmmes of change to be trustworthy. After all, no one likes change — unless it is proven to be a change for the better.

And we have always anticipated, from the early utopians to the Fabians, that the working classes -and perhaps a much broader group of workers that were not managers- were to anticipate a better horizon and that they would vote en-masse for change –that is, radical redistribution- once given universal suffrage. History, and the strange survival of conservative England, and now the ‘strange survival of neoliberalism’, tells us differently. Yet we still, in some ways, in many elections, work off the assumption that the ‘99%’ as it were, would decide that survival is not enough, that if we offer a hopeful solution -and I am always mindful of the realistic chances of a ‘politics of hope’- to their insecurities, that we would reap the rewards and end the continuously revived Conservative hegemony.

Indeed, that was the entire platform of 2015. Our capture of the self-employed and private sector workers, who are the future marginal vote- has depleted exponentially. What we’d probably considered the core vote, or what we assumed would be a good bet on a ticket that sought to ease insecurity; be it on ZHC, rent, low pay.
Well, in fact, it depends on how you define the core vote. Our core vote would once have been the industrial worker, but as industries have fallen, the industrial worker has become the ‘white van man’, and our core vote didn’t shift to him, but instead to the very poorest who may claim social security, BME voters, and university students. If we are to talk as Labour descendants once did, it may be this core that indeed suggests they have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Whereas, the ‘white van man’, the self-employed 0-9ers, the ‘C2’s, or what Goldthorpe would crassly call the ‘petty bourgeoisie’, have everything to lose.

These people live insecure lives. They are the least unionised work force, the most vulnerable to changing market forces and globalisation, are worried about business taxes, and simply put, fear losing their jobs on a constant basis. There is no contract to determine their future. So when the Conservatives ran a campaign on ‘security’, on the threat of Ed Miliband and the SNP, it worked in bringing home these voters to the Tories. I recall most succinctly a brilliant Conservative PPB with an hourglass being smashed. “We have a plan”, they said, “Don’t let Labour ruin it.” We, on the other hand, had microwaves. Some radical microwaves, but nevertheless no plan and thus no guarantee of safety for the transformation that Ed Miliband wanted or the risks that the Tories told voters Ed Miliband presented. There was no plan for the transition or change that was put to voters. It was uncertain. It was risky. If I could sum up the lessons of 2015 for these voters, it would be that we cannot simply talk about insecure zero contract hours without paying acknowledgment to the caution-inspiring insecurity of the working class without contracts at all.
Caution compels a voter to stick to the status quo even if the status quo is bad. Because change could be worse, so being risk-averse is essential.

As it so happens, our assumptions are entirely wrong; insecurity makes change a terrifying prospect for many, rather than a source of hope. Insecurity is a disincentive to vote for an unknowing and unprepared Labour Party. So it must be prepared to challenge its assumptions on who has what to lose. And then we need to ensure them, somehow, with a plan for the self-employed, private sector workers and small businesses.




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