A new class politics

February 17, 2012 9:20 am

The recession has brought class inequality back into view by exposing the unjust distribution of wealth and power in Britain. Labour must tackle this with a new class politics of stronger trade unions and a more representative parliament.

During the long boom of the nineties and noughties, it was possible to at least pretend class was no more. ’We’re all middle-class now’ boomed politicians of all stripes; it was a line peddled by most of the mainstream media too. Britain’s growing class divisions – as entrenched as ever – were apparently papered over by the promise of ever-growing living standards.

We now know that this was a myth, even before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Real wages stagnated for the bottom half and declined for the bottom third in 2004, four years before the financial collapse began. After 2003, average disposable household income fell in every English region outside London. Cheap credit helped disguise the fact that the income of the working majority was being squeezed even as the economy grew.

But it was the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s that shattered the delusion that class was no more. The current recession has helped refocus attention on the unjust distribution of wealth and power, because it is self-evident that the impact of crisis is completely different depending on where you stand in the pecking order. The average Briton is currently experiencing the biggest squeeze on real income since the 1920s. Living standards are projected to be no higher in 2016 than they were in 2001. The Child Poverty Action Group has warned that poor families face a ’triple whammy’ of benefit, support and service cuts, adding that the government’s “legacy threatens to be the worst poverty record of any government for a generation.”

Yet while it is recession for the majority, it remains boom time for those at the top – including those principally responsible for the current economic disaster. Last year, average boardroom pay went up by 49%; in 2010, it soared by a staggering 55%. The Sunday Times Rich List – made up of the richest top 1,000 people in Britain – recorded an increase in wealth of nearly a fifth. Back in 2010, the leap was approaching a third – the biggest jump recorded in the history of the Rich List. While the government has hiked VAT – a tax that disproportionately hits those on low- or medium-income – corporation tax is being slashed, meaning the banks that had such a central role in the financial crisis will be enriched to the tune of billions. With such a glaring disparity, pressing the case that ’class no longer matters’ appears as nothing more than a naked attempt to shut down scrutiny of the ever-widening divisions in our society.

Now that class is back with a vengeance in the public consciousness, Labour needs to ride the wave. Above all, the case has to be made about representation. Less than one in twenty MPs hail from an unskilled background; more than two-thirds come from a professional background. The issues facing working people as they are made to pay for a crisis not of their own making will be not be addressed unless the middle-class closed shop of Westminster is cracked open. For example, there are currently 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. When I asked Hazel Blears shortly before the 2010 general election why Labour had done so little to tackle this growing social crisis, she responded that there was simply no-one in government with enough interest in housing. But – inevitably – if there were MPs who have had the experience of years stuck on a social housing waiting list, the chances of the housing crisis being forced up the agenda would be dramatically increased.

There used to be avenues for working-class people to climb the ranks of politics. Other than Clement Attlee, the three pillars of the post-war Labour government were Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison. All three were working-class, who had experience of doing the sorts of jobs that most people had to do. Bevan’s experience of Welsh mining communities helped fuel the passion that culminated in the National Health Service. All three figures entered national politics through the trade union movement or local government, or a combination of the two. But it is precisely these routes which were massively eroded by Thatcherism. That is why the desires of some Blairite ultras to weaken the union link are so wrong-headed. Instead, it should be strengthened to get more supermarket workers, nurses, bin collectors and call centre workers into parliament.

That means the trade union movement has to change, too. While over half of public sector workers are unionised, only 14% of those working in the private sector are members. We need a new model of trade unionism that adapts to the fact that job insecurity has dramatically increased, and work has become increasingly casualised. For example, there are now 1.3 million part-time workers who cannot find full-time work; and there are another 1.5 million temporary workers lacking the same rights as others. Already, Unite – the largest trade union in the country – has introduced a ‘community membership’, particularly aimed at those without work. It is a step in the right direction. Back in the 1880s, trade unions were concentrated among highly-skilled craft workers; so-called ‘New Unionism’ aimed to expand it among unskilled workers. Today we need a new ‘New Unionism’ that particularly aims at service sector workers, giving them a voice both in the workplace and in society as a whole.

When addressing the crisis of representation, it is important to acknowledge that the working-class has changed shape. Back in 1979, over 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it is around 2.5 million and declining fast. Instead we’ve seen a shift from a service sector working-class to an industrial working-class. There are now one million call centre workers; as many as there were working down pits at the peak of mining. The number of people working in retail has trebled since 1980; it is now the second biggest employer in the country. It is these workers that desperately need a collective voice: that is what the Labour Party and the trade unions were founded to do.

Labour has to develop a new class politics, relevant for the needs of crisis-hit 21st century Britain. The Tories, after all, have developed an ingenious form of class politics on behalf of their own base. And has always been the case, if you stand up for the bottom 70%, you are labelled a class warrior; speak for the top 1%, and you are presented as a moderate.

This is an essay from the latest Fabian Society pamphlet “The Economic Alternative”, posted here as part of our “Economic Alternative Day”. You can download the pamphlet in full here.

  • Hugh
  • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

    On the represenation issue, I think the reason why we have such few unskilled workers as MPs is quite simple. 

    MPs actually have real power these days, and there is much more public scrutiny of their work.  As a result, I think the public has developed a view that it wants the MPs who make big decisions that effect their lives to have a good education and a good career under their belt.  That career usually shows elements of success, drive, leadership, determination, and in whatever form it takes, a high level of skill. 

    Call centre workers and retail assistants do a vital job for our services sectors.  But I’m just not convinced that the public will be falling over themselves to ensure they end up running our country.

    • http://twitter.com/AEWilliams66 Andrew Williams

      The public currently get to vote for which Party Representative they want at elections but until there are more open primaries they do not get much of a say on selecting the candidates that represent the parties. 

      Hence the reason we have so few unskilled workers as MPs is because the parties are chosing candiates from their own small pool of Party Workers and Advisors.

      • GuyM

        I’d gently suggest that if you have more open primaries (which I’m very much in favour of) then you’ll find even less “unskilled workers” as parliamentary candidates.

        But as it is anyway I doubt we’ll get open primaries in the UK, they cost too much and will have a nasty habit of getting independent minded MPs elected who can rightly claim a strong local mandate. 

      • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

        Hi Andrew,

        I take the point – but contrary to popular opinion the majority of shortlisted candidates put before CLP selection meetings, in my experience, do not come from a professional political background.  As far as I can see it is all fair – everyone has the opportunity to put
        their name forward and from then on the democratic process takes hold. 

        The point therefore is twofold – very few unskilled workers are actually putting themselves forward for selection, and even fewer are being selected by their CLPs. 

        I don’t think it’s for middle class people like me or Owen to tell working class people they should be MPs, and tell CLPs who they should choose.   The decision has to be made by themselves.  In my view, people should be [s]elected on their merits as an individual, not on the basis of their class.

        • Dave Postles

          We have to encourage people who are still somewhat over-modest and deferential – especially in the face of the current composition of the ‘political class’ – to surmount the obvious hurdles and put themselves forward. 

        • Winston_from_the_Ministry

          If the majority of candidates put before the CLPs aren’t political careerists  then how come we end up with so many being selected?

          • http://twitter.com/robertsjonathan Jonathan Roberts

            because CLPs choose them, not others.  I honestly have no idea why, but they do.

            But remember there’s a difference between political careerists who were SPADs etc, and those who have a  career elsewhere but are also very politically active in their spare time.  Ultimately in the real world, CLPs seem to select those who have the best party credentials when I think they should choose those with the most to offer as an individual based on their personal and professional experience.   I think that’s what the public wants when it finally gets to choose at the ballot box. 

            A notable exception to this is Dan Jarvis, who I think is a fantastic MP because of his experience outside of politics, not because of his experience inside of it.  More like him please!

          • girlguide

            I’d like to second that on Dan Jarvis, who only entered politics in middle age.  He’s fantastically popular, is visible around Barnsley, attends many local events and has become very high profile in the town.

            Contrast him with Michael Dugher, also a Barnsley MP.  He’s been parachuted into a safe seat, is a career politician, and has no local profile, as he has apparently decided to concentrate on climbing, for him, the non greasy pole to the shadow cabinet.

            More Dan Jarvis’ please, and less Michael Dugher’s.

          • http://twitter.com/gonzozzz dave stone

            Experience outside politics counts for a lot, in my view.

            Though, unlike Jonathan, I have no objection if it is in a call centre or retail outlet.

        • Daniel Speight

           Jonathan am I wrong in thinking that between the CLPs and the selection is the shortlisting controlled by the NEC centrally. Isn’t that where we see the pushing forward of the bag carriers, SPADs and NGO staffers? Of course we know that the special ones parachuted into safe constituencies are not likely to be working class non-university educated members.

          If recent events show us anything it’s that we should be very wary of the professional politicians as they have behaved so badly both personally with their expenses and politically with helping to bring about this terrible economic crisis.

    • http://www.futureeconomics.org Diarmid Weir

       There are two responses to make to this.

      Firstly, if it were true that there were large groups of citizens who are somehow unfit to play a full part in the democratic process this would be a serious threat to democracy itself.

      Secondly, this misunderstands the nature of representative democracy. Representatives should not be chosen for their technical mastery of the mechanics of governance but for their ability to represent their constituents’ points of view and to reflect back the testimony of others.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZPXYLRVP4XOIGGDJWAL6HUO7U4 David

        True points, but yet a certain mastery of the technicals is perhaps to be expected if they are to be trusted in the senior roles of making decisions which will affect millions of people…

        • http://www.futureeconomics.org Diarmid Weir

           Such knowledge as is required can be gained once selected. In any case they are not making decisions as individuals (or shouldn’t be), but collectively.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZPXYLRVP4XOIGGDJWAL6HUO7U4 David

            DW: Your polymath is both well known and worthy of respect, but your suggestion that knowledge of the intricacies of both legal drafting and, in the case of a minister, detailed knowledge of the complexities of their brief can be gained from a standing start within a parliamentary term verges on the showing off… ;)

          • http://www.futureeconomics.org Diarmid Weir

             Ho hum.

            Well, that rather is how it seems to happen, is it not? We don’t expect our elected representatives to be trained in government and we don’t expect Parliament to consist of experts. That’s why we have the tradition of a politically neutral civil service.

            It is therefore arbitrary prejudice to assume that people educated or employed in certain ways are more or less suitable to be MPs.

          • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZPXYLRVP4XOIGGDJWAL6HUO7U4 David

            Apologies if the humour was misplaced, but more seriously, would you not agree that someone with a higher education level and experience in “higher class” (even though I dislike such a term) jobs could be exposed to more relevant knowledge (even if not necessarily experience, viz. the Blears comment) which would help in both their ability and more importantly their perceived ability to do a ministerial job?

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nico-Che/637175949 Nico Che

             That was what was said about Lula in Brazil before he was president, and which he proved wrong in so many ways.

            It had been just one more barrier to popular participation in politics.

  • AlanGiles


     When I asked Hazel Blears shortly before the 2010 general election why Labour had done so little to tackle this growing social crisis, she responded that there was simply no-one in government with enough interest in housing”

    Except their own second homes of course.

    That quotation says it all about the rottenness and snobbery of the New Labour years. We must never allow the Labour party to fall so far into the gutter again.

    The snobbery continues with the remarks of Mr Roberts below : “MPs who make big decisions that effect their lives to have a good education and a good career under their belt”

    The trouble is, some of the muppets have never done a real days work in their lives, going from University to a soft job in a think tank

    • http://twitter.com/gonzozzz dave stone

      That quote from Blears is simply astonishing. Millions on housing waiting lists and no one in a Labour government can be bothered to take an interest.

      What the hell were they playing at?

      • Peter Bolton

         And Blears was MP for Salford where there has been a real crisis in housing for decades AND at one oint she was the Minister responsible for Local Communities. I weep!

  • GuyM

    This article looks a little bit dysfunctional.

    Owen starts by slating the “1%” (an easy target) but that 1% doesn’t really represent a “class” per se. Some of the biggest earners as traders I the city are often referred to as working class barrow boys by people I know. So hardly easy targets for a class based offensive on behalf of the working class.

    There also really arent enough FTSE executives to go around and screwing a few hundred of them isn’t going to make much difference economically to the rest of the UK, apart from making a few feel a bit better fleetingly.

    THe argument about corporation tax is a bit idiotic, or is Owen arguing for corporation tax rates to vsary from industry to industry, in which case an administrative nightmare awaits. Or perhaps that in order to screw the banks a little every other business has to pay higher taxes as well?

    Class based politics needs a “them and us” split to work in terms of someone to notionally defend and someone to notionally attack. The working class has shrunk yet Owen talks of “70%” of the population, he also doesn’t attack the middle classes overtly.

    That’s why at the end of the piece I reached a point of finding the argument to be all over the place and not intellectually water tight at all. What exactly is the new class politics you propose Owen?

    Working class v who exactly? Or is this a different way of writing an attack on the “1%” which has so far failed to really kick off anywhere?

  • Hugh

    ” if you stand up for the bottom 70%, you are labelled a class warrior;
    speak for the top 1%, and you are presented as a moderate.”

    No, people call you a class warrior if you obsess over people’s background and idolize the working class, rather than simply looking at how to support those with low family incomes. I suspect if you actually look at those MPs who have come from the working class, you’ll find not much evidence that they’re very different than the rest. After all, wasn’t solidly working class and croquet player John Prescott  responsible for housing for much of the time about which Blears was talking?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nico-Che/637175949 Nico Che

       You’re right that being working-class isn’t enough or even always necessary: The point is to have a conscience.

  • AnotherOldBoy

    Fantastic to see that Citizen Smith is still going strong!  Keep it up, Woolfie. 

    Obviously Labour’s new economic policies should be to have more supermarket workers in Parliament and to bash the better off.  This is the stuff!  Power to the people!

  • http://twitter.com/TheBoyPhelan TheBoyPhelan

    Owen; 1978 called, it wants its article back. 

  • KonradBaxter

    If you continually bang on about class, class politics and the importance of class that’s what gets you labelled a class warrior.

    • http://twitter.com/gonzozzz dave stone

      And if you don’t face up to reality you’ll get labelled a fantasist.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nico-Che/637175949 Nico Che

      By the same superficial criterion, if you continually attack the poorer sectors of society from the safety of your richer background, you may not be labelled a class warrior, but you are certainly effective at being one. Hardly fair, is it?

  • robertcp

    I would like to see more working class people in Parliament and the trade union link helps Labour MPs to be more representative of the population.  However, the increasing number of MPs who are graduates is partly due to the increased social mobility after 1945.  Bevan, Bevin and Morrison would almost certainly have gone to university if they had been born after 1945.

  • robertcp

    Jon is right that Labour should be the party of the bottom 70%.

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