Joel Fitzgibbon (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

A new collection of essays released last week sees leading figures from Labor’s Right faction soul-searching about their party’s electoral demise, with many arguing they must regain the trust of their “working class base” to remain competitive at the federal level.

The book’s co-editor Nick Dyrenfurth noted that “if there’s a recurring theme in the book it’s refocusing our efforts on winning back working class Australians in their full diversity”.

These chapters were published amid the backdrop of an identity crisis within the federal Labor caucus and serious leadership rumblings. MPs and commentators are frequently invoking the working class in this ongoing skirmish, but who are they actually referring to? And do they represent the true “working class” in modern Australia?

The working class and blue-collar workers are not synonymous

Dyrenfurth’s previous writing has been criticised for assuming the working class is predominantly composed of white men. He has strenuously denied these claims and now stresses the diversity of working people.

But his recent advocacy for making the ALP’s membership less “inner city, progressive” and more “working class” has seen him use tertiary education as a proxy for defining class categories. He has suggested introducing quotas for Young Labor to recruit more non-university students and “actual working people” such as “tradies, assembly-line workers, train drivers…”

Outspoken former ALP frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon has similarly conflated the working class with blue-collar employees in his criticisms of Labor’s “progressive” constituencies and their preferred policies.

Whilst many blue-collar workers remain working class, they are increasingly better off than white-collar workers. In 2012, the Suncorp Bank Wages Report found, for the first time in Australian history, blue-collar workers earned more on average than white-collar workers. It found six of the top 10 highest paid industries are blue-collar professions.

Various indicators suggest little has changed in the eight years since. Last year, News Corp and the Grattan Institute analyses both found tradies’ lifelong earnings surpassed many university graduates’. Graduates still earn more on average than non-graduates (including low-skilled workers and the unemployed), but their advantage is now far slimmer, especially when compared to tradespeople.

Dyrenfurth’s co-editor Misha Zelinsky, assistant national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, addressed this conceptual shift, stating working-class voters are “often on high salaries”. Yet as centre-left parties traditionally championed the industrial proletariat because they were disadvantaged, how should they relate to wealthier labourers?

Highly paid tradespeople also increasingly operate as small businesses or contractors, fostering less class solidarity with fellow employees. The divergence of incomes and asset prices also means that prosperity is increasingly unrelated to one’s profession.

This complicates once traditional categories of capital and labour, blue and white collar, and has left many Labor figures pining for its more easily discernible “base” of yesteryear.

Towards a collar-blind vision

The key challenge for modern centre-left parties has been to appeal to multiple constituencies, from minimum-wage migrant cleaners to PhD-qualified baristas, cashed-up sparkies and asset-rich, cash-poor retirees, all of whom have competing economic preferences. But the label “working class” still holds moral sway among social-democrats, and claims of inattentiveness invoke a sense of betrayal, of their supporters and their core values, which requires atonement.

In this context, conflation of the working class with increasingly affluent and aspirant blue-collar workers must either be confused or cynical. Either way, it could lead Labor to redefine economic justice as its opposite. When a shopfitter on $180,000 a year is not wealthy, “left-wing populism” may seem anti-worker.

If the complexity of economic hardship is drowned out by a romantic restoration of the chippie as working class hero, Labor’s policies are likely to be misdirected or regressive.

Such unmooring of class from material conditions is sustained by an excessive focus on the appearance of traditional working class-ness over its structural roots — see Zelinsky on Bali holidays and the footy.

Writing on previous ALP literary provocations, historian Geoff Robinson described this tendency toward rustbelt cosplay as, “a cultural workerism in which ‘class’ was defined by a performance of imagined working-class norms”.

Blue-collar nostalgia is not limited to Labor’s Right, with Left figures also reminiscing on rosier days when their aligned manufacturing unions had more members. But both should remind themselves the average union member is now a tertiary-educated woman in a service industry.

There is independent merit in diversifying student politics, a major pipeline for future politicians and their advisers. But you don’t need a degree nor an apprenticeship to see a true battler cannot be defined by post-war cultural signifiers in the 21st century.