Who's 'normal'? Class, culture and labour politics in a fragmented Britain.

Author:Gibbs, Ewan

In political discourse in recent decades, class has been repositioned as an essentially cultural historical phenomenon rather than a dynamic, lived reality connected to the changing temporalities of British capitalism. This is visible in SNP rhetoric as well as in Labour's current 'culture wars'. But Labour must reconnect with an economic analysis of class, for it is this that could in fact reunite the culturally polarised elements of a Labour electoral coalition.

Owen Smith's declaration that he was 'normal' provoked one of the major controversies of the 2016 Labour leadership contest. In the initial fallout most of the controversy focused on the alleged heteronormative content of buttressing his assertion with 'I've got a wife and three children'. Less was stated about the revealing elements of the cultural politics of class in Smith's statement. Smith claimed that 'I can bring that normality, that sense of what our communities want'. (1) This was clearly situated within a cultural reading of class, community and 'normality' which extends far beyond sexual orientation. Smith implied this further in a later statement which got to the heart of fissures between Labour's urban and traditional industrial working class support bases:

Well, I think Jeremy doesn't really understand sometimes, the way in which people have a very strong, perhaps socially conservative--conservative with a small c--sense of place. Sense of where they're from. I'm not sure I've heard him talking much about Scotland and identity, or Wales and identity or indeed about England and identity.

I suspect that Jeremy's got a rather more metropolitan sense of that, and that's not one I think that is central to the Labour tradition. (2)

Smith's juxtaposition of Labour's 'metropolitan' leadership with the socially conservative working class from small-town England, the South Wales valleys, and central Scotland, played into an argument which had been bolstered by the regionally and nationally polarised results of the EU referendum. However, these debates have a longer history in recent years including concern over the growth of the BNP and UKIP, and the rise of Scottish nationalism. Alarm in Labour circles has been spurred by these political forces' claims to represent popular sentiment against a distant 'metropolitan elite'. The clearest and most consistent response to this has been Blue Labour which premises party renewal on 'reconnecting with people as they are--as human beings who belong to families, localities and communities and who are embedded in shared traditions, interests and faiths.' (3) In a less coherent form this theme has been a consistent presence within internal Labour discussion. Class has re-emerged as a key category in Labour discussion and it is quite clear that the traditional, as opposed to Blairite, right of the party sees it as a crucial factor in discussing future strategy. However, rather than conventional labour movement explanations of class predicated on a structural analysis of social conflict it is increasingly elements of cultural identities relating to consumption patterns and regional and national affiliations that are emphasised.

To some extent this has the appearance of Raymond Williams' 'structure of feeling'; the different life-worlds and experiences of parts of the UK necessitate...

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