The love Labour lost: why is it so hard to win over the working class?
In the aftermath of last's week's UK election result Amy Kean looks at how both political parties and advertisers have a tendency to patronise - and ultimately alienate - the working class.
Let me tell you about a place called Thurrock. Thurrock is in Essex, and has often been referred to as ‘the UKIP capital of the UK'.
In 2012, Thurrock came bottom in the Government’s national wellbeing survey and was described as a “cesspit” by the Guardian newspaper. More than one in five children under 16-years-old in Thurrock is growing up in poverty (21.2%). According to The British Heart Foundation, it’s one of the most polluted places in the country; simply living there is equivalent to smoking 138 cigarettes a year.
Look in the dictionary under ‘working class’ and you’ll see a picture of Junction 30 on the M25.
Look in the dictionary under ‘working class’ and you’ll see a picture of Junction 30 on the M25, the turning that leads to Thurrock Services (I made that last bit up, but… you get it.) And on the December 12 2019 Thurrock voted for a Tory Government, re-electing Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price, who beat Labour by a margin of 11,482 (in 2017 there was a margin of just a 345 votes). Earlier that week, Jackie had released a Twitter video of her singing “let’s get Brexit done” to the tune of We Wish you a Merry Christmas.
Above: Thurrock MP, Jackie Doyle-Price, and former Dollar singer David van Day in Doyle-Price's 'Get Brexit Done' Twitter video.
I remember growing up in Thurrock, because for much of it I was sober (until the age of 16. After that, weekends are a blur). It’d been a Labour stronghold for a lot of my life, until immigration affected the area in a big way. I’m pro-immigration. I’m especially pro-people-not-being-surrounded-only-by-other-people-who-look-sound-and-think-exactly-like-them: it’s an extremely odd and unfulfilling way to live.
But I understand that a lack of attention from local government and poor efforts to integrate the “foreigners” (when I was young this was people from Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia), combined with closing hospitals and suffering schools led to a dissatisfaction with politicians, who were considered to be apathetic, heartless and untrustworthy. That’s all politicians, regardless of political party.
Getting a loft conversion? Vote Tory. Offered a fancy new job in Liverpool Street? Vote Tory. Win big on the slot machines? Vote Tory, you lunatic.
But norms are norms. When I was young, voting Tory was seen as a rite of passage for the socially mobile. When you were rich enough, you voted Tory. Getting a loft conversion? Vote Tory. Offered a fancy new job in Liverpool Street? Vote Tory. Win big on the slot machines? Vote Tory, you lunatic, because only the Conservatives will protect those delicious well-earned riches.
Whoever we were, and whatever we earned, we refused to be poor.
In short, Conservatives were an aspirational vote; a vote of betterment and progress; a statement to peers of prestige and power. Because whoever we were, and whatever we earned, we refused to be poor. When (New) Labour thrived, it was because they offered more promise, positivity, and a reason to be proud of our past and future. New Labour had a theme tune, for crying out loud. (DO NOT GET ME STARTED ON JINGLES. YOU KNOW MY VIEWS ON JINGLES. JINGLES WILL NEVER DIE).
Above: New Labour adopted the D:Ream track, Things Can Only Get Better, for its 1997 campaign.
This, I fear, is where Corbyn’s Labour in the 2019 General Election missed the mark: strong product, poor positioning. For those of you who read Labour’s manifesto, you’ll know it was a robust, well-thought out set of plans backed by some of the world’s greatest minds, from Noam Chomsky to Naomi Klein. The product was not the problem. But the promotion, the focus on ‘the poor’ and the perceived othering of the working class as people we need to save was not enough to make the majority feel excited about a Labour future.
It seemed unambiguous, even though any deep analysis of the statement reveals it to be an utter shitshow of a promise.
The strapline “for the many, not the few” is socialism summarised, but arguably not enough to instil a much-needed sense of pride. Why so many voted for Brexit back then, and now, is because the prospect of having more ownership of their country (albeit fictional) and being a ‘great’ nation once again was the surge of positive emotion needed in the polling station. As much as I detest the sentiment (and messenger), “Get Brexit Done” is simple, aggressive, ambitious and future-facing. It seemed unambiguous, even though any deep analysis of the statement reveals it to be an utter shitshow of a promise. And it worked.
According to Oxford University’s 2016 survey of British attitudes, six out of ten people in Britain today consider themselves working class.
Marketing to the working class needn’t be complex. In fact, the working class mentality is one people want to be associated with even after they’ve moved to the middle. According to Oxford University’s 2016 survey of British attitudes, six out of ten people in Britain today consider themselves working class because they believe their family background determines class rather than occupation, or whether they went to university. From an economic perspective the true number sits closer to a quarter.
When we promote to the poor we downgrade our message. Everyone wants a virtual reality pop-up in Shoreditch, but we’re less excited about bus T sides in Southend.
The working class have a set of appealing, universal values: hard work, a sense of community, love of humour and a realness (lack of pretension) that differentiates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Communications should follow suit: make it entertaining and make it true. But, too often, the working class are… well, they’re treated like ‘the working class’. This alternate life form, alien species, C2DE demographic we don’t understand, keep at arm’s length and to whom we sell lottery scratch cards and life insurance. When we promote to the poor we downgrade our message. Everyone wants a virtual reality pop-up in Shoreditch, but we’re less excited about bus T sides in Southend.
Above: Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his party's 2019 campaign slogan.
The concept of the ‘London bubble’ is painfully superior. That we describe ourselves as sitting in this London bubble – we, the liberals, the advantaged, the learned and progressive – is a terrible way to talk about our level of social awareness when the reality is that marketers just don’t know people very well anymore. Don’t blame London, blame your lack of decent interrogative quantitative tools and human insight (insert shrug emoji here).
Over-intellectualisation in our industry has led to a movement of creating ads based on what trends companies predict, versus what people want.
The ads most successful with mass Britain have exactly that: mass appeal. John Smith’s ‘Ave it!’ ad with Peter Kay completely ruining a game of keepy-uppies was perfect because it used a universal and hilarious human truth. It’s why we love John Lewis ads every year… they’re nice, and make people cry. Over-intellectualisation in our industry has led to a movement of creating ads based on what trends companies predict, versus what people want. It’s the huge chasm between what customers really think and what we think they want to hear. Or what we think our peers want to hear.
Above: Peter Kay stars in John Smith's 'mass appeal' ad.
I heard recently about an initiative a creative agency started called ‘Get out There’, which saw planners venture outside of London to understand more about how real Brits live. My favourite post is about learning slang in Bury – Britain’s youngest town, but it’s a shame this content is notable in its uniqueness, because we should be doing this all day every day.
The whiteness and poshness of our industry – and of marketing in general – pains me, because our industry is supposed to be about people.
I don’t live in Thurrock anymore, although my parents do. I don’t pretend to be working class anymore, but it is how I was raised. The whiteness and poshness of our industry – and of marketing in general – pains me, because our industry is supposed to be about people; real people, and people everywhere. Labour got it wrong, and it’s clear already with their acknowledgment that the working class “don’t like to be patronised” that their team have learned a hard lesson about how to talk to those they want to help. A lesson that will no doubt have demonstrable consequences over the next five years.
But, unless we all get out there, listen and learn the true realities of the UK’s psyche, we’ll only get more out of touch, and the UK’s UKIP capitals more toxic.