Bemoaning the state of modern world seems to be obligatory past a certain age, and while most gripes of this sort are largely baloney, they do sometimes contain a grain of truth. In particular, modernity benefits some people more than others, and this has become strikingly apparent since the 2008 financial crash.
It was the political scientist Samuel Huntington who invented the term "Davos Man" to describe contemporary elites who do exceptionally well out of globalisation.
These elites "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles... and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations". Contrast Davos Man with the typical "left behind" voter described by the academic Hans-Georg Betz way back in 1993. Rather than enjoying the benefits of an interconnected world, the left-behind voter was "isolated, insecure, pessimistic about the future and resentful towards the established political class".
This divide was encapsulated during the New Labour years by the then-deputy prime minister John Prescott's remark in 1997 that "we're all middle class now". We were not of course, but Prescott's quip was a revealing one: as far as winning elections went, it was the middle class you needed to win over as the twentieth century became the twenty-first. Politics was middle class now; meanwhile the working class were to sit back and have things done to them.
The commonly-held wisdom among supporters of the current Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is that New Labour effectively abandoned its working class base and governed in the manner of a slightly more tepid version of Thatcherism. This is far too crude. New Labour did a great deal to lift poorer pensions and children out of poverty during its time in office, as a cursory look at the many reports from respected economic think tanks will demonstrate. However, there was little interest on the part of New Labour in working class self-organisation or – beyond law and order policy – in working class culture.
New Labour's was a very paternalistic model of looking after the poor: you gave those lower down the ladder a bit more cash while baulking at trade unionism and ignoring grumbles about immigration and the widening cultural gulf between London and the rest of the country. Working class gripes were the equivalent of a man shouting increasingly volubly in an empty room.
As a consequence, the working classes increasingly turned away from politics but, more strikingly, from the Labour Party. 59 per cent of D-E voters backed Labour at the 1997 General Election. By 2015, that figure had dropped to 41 per cent.
I do not believe that the many insurgent movements in both Europe and the United States which characterise politics at the present time are quite so unfathomable when considered in this context. Their supporters typically express fears about both economic insecurity and immigration. Part of the reason social democracy is in such an anaemic and sickly state is almost certainly due to the fact that social democratic parties are increasingly dominated by the middle classes who come to politics from the opposite direction: they are relaxed about mass immigration and oblivious to life on the factory floor.
When equality is alluded to, it typically refers to equality between ethnicities, cultural groups, genders and sexualities rather than inequalities based on class. On the one hand this is an extremely positive development. But social democracy today is largely concerned with making the elite "representative" as opposed to abolishing it altogether, as was the aim of leftists in the past.
Social democracy today is largely concerned with making the elite 'representative' as opposed to abolishing it altogether, as was the aim of leftists in the past.
This probably also explains why the Brexit campaign's admonition to "take back control" proved so seductive. Prior to the June referendum, I chatted with a Labour councillor in the Midlands who intended to vote Leave. His comments were fairly illustrative of many working class people I spoke with in the lead up to the vote.
"'In this town 40 years ago there were good jobs," he reminisced. "If you went back 40 years you had a pit which employed a lot of skilled men...there was mechanics, there were electricians. [Today] you've got to commute out of this town to find the real jobs, whatever the real jobs are. If you're Romanian, you can cross the border and come to work. And you know something, they love it these business people, don't they? You go to Stafford and you see the fruit picking farms. All Eastern Europeans there. It's all around you...Is that what you've got to compete against?'
It is, of course, far easier to complain about this sort of thing than to remedy it without resorting to xenophobia and draconian policies of the type proposed by American presidential candidate Donald Trump and the European far-right. The seductive lure of right-wing populists is the reason they will ultimately fall flat on their faces: they posit crude and simplistic solutions to what are extremely complex challenges. The Brexiteers promised to take back control of Britain's borders without disclosing the fact that their strident opposition to European workers' protections will snatch even more power away from the people languishing in left-behind British towns.
The Brexit camp triumphed because the Brexiteers at least struck a pose of listening
But the Brexit camp triumphed because the Brexiteers at least struck a pose of listening. This is also why Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith's proposal of a second EU referendum would potentially be the final nail in the coffin of Labour as a party of the working class. It rests on the assumption that working class voters were essentially hoodwinked by nefarious Brexiteers who lied about the NHS, immigration and jobs.
It assumes their fears are essentially baseless, or a philistine and Pavlovian response triggered by populist rhetoric. It is a slightly more sophisticated version of the old Leninist concept of false consciousness: most people are too stupid to grasp the complexities of politics and therefore require an enlightened elite to correctly interpret events on their behalf. Instead of listening to the answer, it seeks to rephrase the question.
The Leave camp certainly told its fair share of lies, though probably no more than any major political party during a typical General Election campaign. And while the Brexiteers' solutions are (to my mind) the wrong ones, they have at least acknowledged the grievances of people who feel sidelined by the processes of globalisation. For all the talk about Jeremy Corbyn moving debate in the Labour Party to the left, informing people that they need to vote and vote again on the EU until they give the "correct" answer, as Owen Smith is effectively proposing, is a return to the worst of New Labour's cloth-eared paternalism.
James Bloodworth is the author of The Myth of Meritocracy