There has been much debate within the Labour Party and the wider labour movement as to why the Remain campaign failed to persuade those with the most to lose economically from Brexit. While those from higher socio-economic groups, Conservative voters and older people were the mainstay of the Leave vote, the support of working-class voters tipped the balance. Although a majority of trade union members (60%) and Labour voters (67%) supported Remain, a significant section of Leave support came from working class communities.
These communities have been called ‘left behind’, but ‘done over’ would be a more appropriate description. Working class Leave voters were typically from areas of the country where regional development organisations were abolished by the Coalition Government in 2010 in the name of ‘austerity’. They also happen to be areas where EU money represents one of the few sources of regional funding for local jobs and infrastructure.
Catholic Social Teaching
Some, including ‘Blue Labour’ thinkers such as Adrian Pabst, Jonathan Rutherford and Maurice Glasman, have explained this Brexit contradiction as a result of the Labour Party’s failure to speak out on matters of cultural identity and belonging. They have suggested that the values of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) provide a basis to for the Party to do this. But this appeal is to a particular interpretation of CST that is a nostalgic and backward looking; a social conservatism of ‘family, flag and faith’.
This is a dangerous and ultimately ineffective strategy. It risks flirting with reactionary and socially divisive nationalist forces, and it misses the main point. It does not address how the social alienation that drove the working-class Leave vote arose from experiences of injustice in the workplace and in working class communities.
This being said, there are aspects of CST able to deal directly with the major challenges of social justice that confront the modern world of work and provide a coherent critique of how neoliberalism wrought havoc on working class communities.
Recent Papal Encyclicals have recognised the importance of dignity at work to human flourishing. This was highlighted in the statement agreed at the most recent Vatican-hosted meeting for international trade unionists in 2018 which called for the right for all to decent work with universal labour standards. It is this element of the CST tradition which is best placed to address current working class social alienation.
It’s the economy, stupid
A fairer economic settlement, recognition by employers of their wider social responsibilities, and social policies that prioritise workers’ rights are the classic preoccupations of the Labour Party. But what is at stake is far beyond conventional adversarial party politics.
The effects of ongoing austerity economics are shredding our social fabric with the explosion of zero-hour contracts, increasing in-work and child poverty and a housing and homelessness crisis. If these issues are unaddressed at this unsettled time, we may experience a decisive shift of support of sections of the working class to the far right.
The predominance of market fundamentalist economic dogmas in the UK for over four decades has massively increased the economic inequality between the few at the top and the majority of working people. Put simply, most people are working harder and longer, for less. Many are remaining poor, and some are getting poorer.
The dominance of neoliberal principles in the private sector, in public services and even in the voluntary and charity sector, has pushed down wages and salaries for those in the middle and bottom sections of the workforce and eroded respect and dignity in workplaces across the UK. Work has been intensified and autonomy denied through the use of models of performance management underpinned by instrumentalist assumptions that employees are no more than mere units of production.
The result is a lack of control over working hours and day-to-day pressure and stress. This is the case whether you are a professional or a ‘blue collar’ worker, whether you work on a manufacturing production line, in sales and marketing, in public service or for a global corporation.
Rather than participating in meaningful activity that can contribute to human flourishing, many of us are exploited as cheap labour to meet accelerating targets. Instead of taking pride in a job well done and the satisfaction of delivering a good service, for many work has becomes soulless and soul destroying.
Responding to the fourth industrial revolution
Flights of fancy that the new digital platform economy will democratise work have, unsurprisingly, failed to materialise. The rise of what Paul Mason calls ‘networked individuals’ has not led to greater empowerment for the majority of ordinary workers.
Similarly, the warnings that we are heading for a workless future seem way off beam, as noted by Sam Kinsley in this issue of Futures of Work[KB1] . It has been a perennial claim, made whenever there is a change of technological paradigms, that work will disappear. But the lessons of previous eras are that new technologies change the nature and structure of employment rather than its quantity.
The real contemporary challenge is how the increased profitability from the use of new technologies in myriad sectors will be shared between owners and employees, not just in pay but also in working time, work-life balance and flexibility. The call for a four-day week made by Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the TUC, at the 2018 Congress –restated by the TUC’s Kate Bell in Issue 2 of Futures of Work – is an important demand.
Towards a new collectivism
CST suggests that we need to create a more moral economy which meets the challenges of inequality, sustainability, diversity and globalisation. To do this we need positive labour market regulation, an abolition of the anti-trade union laws that stop working people taking effective industrial action, expansion of collective bargaining and rights for all workers from day one, whatever their employment ‘status’.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the continuing rise in inequalities at work, popular support for collective organisation in the workplace is at its highest for decades, including among young workers. There is an opportunity to challenge low pay and wider social injustices with origins in workplace inequalities.
We do not need to go back to old ways or ‘tribal’ politics to rebuild a collective sense of workers’ dignity in the 21st century. We are all social animals who need to be connected with others, and to that which is outside of our selves. CST tells us that productive activity is essential not just for our economic prosperity but to our sense of being and future flourishing.
We need a new consensus to apply the human values encoded in CST to the areas of our lives where these values are supressed – at work.
Dr Maria Exall is a Research Fellow in Catholic Social Thought and Practice with the Centre for Catholic Social Thought and Practice and the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University. She has a PhD in Philosophical Theology from King’s College London. Maria is a national trade union representative and political activist. Find out more at www.mariaexall.co.uk.