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.