Category Archives: Tim Strangleman

Working-Class Voices Silenced

The last couple of weeks have seen the silencing of two important voices on working-class issues in the UK. Within the space of seven days, the deaths were announced of union leader Bob Crow and veteran Labour Party parliamentarian Tony Benn. Neither may be familiar to readers outside of Britain, but in their very different ways they always maintained a working-class perspective in everything they did.

While Tony Benn was born into a liberal dynasty and solidly middle-class family, he gradually moved to the left over the course of his long and eventful career. Benn entered Parliament in 1950.  By 2001, when he famously stood down to “devote more time to politics,” he was the longest serving Labour MP.  Benn had been a cabinet minister during the 1960s and 1970s. becoming increasingly frustrated with his party’s rightward list. He became a totemic figure on the left of British politics, the champion of ordinary people and of democracy. Benn’s legacy will be secured in part by his diaries, which he kept from a very young age and daily from 1964.  These writings chart Benn’s changing political stance as well as his reflections on the rising tide of neo-liberalism outside and inside his own party. He remained actively engaged politically almost until the last.

Benn’s death at the age of 88 was sad but not unexpected, but Crow was only 52 when he died from a massive and sudden heart attack. Bob Crow was the leader of the Rail, Maritime, and Transport Union (RMT), the main union representing general transport workers, especially those working on the railway and London Underground. Unlike Benn, Crow came from a solidly working-class background. Born into humble conditions in the early 1960s in the east end of London, he joined the Underground at the age of 16 as a junior track worker. His rise through the union was rapid, but Bob never lost touch with his roots and working-class culture.  Nor did he lose his accent, which was delightfully working-class London, or cockney as it is sometimes described. Crow was incredibly successful, recruiting 20,000 new members in the context of near universal decline in other unions.  He was also brilliant at securing improvements in pay and condition that most other organised workers could only dream of. As a result of this success, Bob Crow was hated with a visceral passion by the middle-class establishment in the UK, particularly in London. Former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, himself the victim of sustained character assignation over his political career, noted that he could not think of another group of working-class employees who had seen their conditions improve over the last twenty years apart from Crow’s railway workers.

The explanation for the vilification of Crow – at one stage he was labelled the most hated man in Britain -  lies in the fact that he understood the logic of market forces. He knew instinctively that in a fully or partially privatised work environment his members possessed and could exercise tremendous power if they acted, or event threatened to act, collectively. Bob Crow’s RMT were able to call industrial action on the London Underground that could bring a city of 10 million to a halt with relative ease. Politicians and media commentators condemned Crow and the RMT and often highlighted what they perceived as the ‘scandalously high wages’ that he secured for his members. Op-ed columnists scrambled to remind their readers that train drivers earned $65,000 or more a year. During the last London-wide strikeright of centre columnist Simon Jenkins decried these workers and their status.  I have always wondered if the people of London would be happier if those performing safety critical jobs were on minimum wages with few fringe benefits.  I for one am comforted to know that the driver at the front of my train and the signal worker controlling its passage under the streets of the Capital don’t have to work two jobs just to make a living wage.  Just when did it become acceptable to decry working-class living standards as being too high?

But Bob Crow’s story tells us something else about class, namely the way journalists wrote and spoke about him. His broad working-class London accent was an object of derision, but this always said far more about the elite class background of those making the comments than it did about Crow. With Crow, journalists and politicians were in most cases talking to someone unlike anyone they had ever met before. In one interview several years ago, the journalist Jim Pickard in the weekend ‘Lunch with the FT’ (Financial Times) column, wrote about an interview he did with Crow: “Does he ever hit people, I ask?” This was in the context of a series of descriptions of Crow’s appearance – “pugnacious face, shaved head, thickset build.” Now while I regularly read the FT and that column, I cannot recall a captain of industry being posed such a question. My favourite anecdote about Bob Crow, however, dates from just prior to the second Gulf war when he appeared on the BBC Radio flagship Today Programme. Crow was asked by the thoroughly middle-class presenter James Naughtie to agree to the proposition that the union had called a strike to coincide with the start of hostilities and was by implication being unpatriotic. Innocently Crow asked, “What war?” at which point Naughtie rose to the full height of condescending best and said “Come, come, Mr Crow — the Gulf war obviously.” Crow’s reply over a decade on still makes me smile, without missing a beat he retorted “Oh, I thought you were talking about the class war.” What was beautiful about the exchange was that the attempt to patronise Crow had backfired so badly. Crow’s intelligence, wit and quick thinking left Naughtie floundering, and the journalist knew that he had been had by someone he could not conceive of as his equal.

Bob Crow’s passing was widely mourned in Britain, and for a brief period he was paid some richly deserved complements even by those diametrically opposed to him, though often through gritted teeth. To the last, Bob Crow provided a genuinely working-class perspective in British public life.  While Tony Benn’s passing is obviously sad, it is perhaps Bob Crow who will be missed more for what he achieved, what he stood for, and the lost potential his death robs us of.

Tim Strangleman

Benefits Street, or the Road to Poverty

I got wet last Thursday, very wet.  I was standing on a picket line at my university outside the central administration protesting yet another below inflation wage offer. A one per cent pay raise will mean that my colleagues and I have lost between 10 and 15 per cent of the value of our salary through inflation since the financial crisis hit in 2008. Meanwhile the top pay in the university sector has been rising steadily.  My own Vice Chancellor has been awarded a 1.8% raise this year, but that borders on the hair-shirt compared to her peers where double digit increments are not uncommon.

While comparative pay rates in higher education are obviously important to those of us who work in the sector, the question of pay both at the top and bottom of society more generally has come to the fore in the UK over the last few months. What matters about this debate is how it is rolled up in a whole series of other factors central to the contemporary working-class experience – the link between work, welfare, wealth, and poverty.

In their recent report, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) highlighted the fact that for the first time on record the majority of those in poverty were in working families, not registered as unemployed or retirees. This trend began to increase in 2003, and the increase in poverty within these working families halted the more general progressive trends to reduce poverty over all. As a result there are more people in poverty in working families than in workless and retired families combined, and that undermines government ministers’ claims that work itself is some kind of silver bullet cure-all for the poor. The problem isn’t simply a lack of work; it’s also about low pay. In 2012, there were around 4.6 million low-paid jobs in the UK, and 39 per cent of these workers were under 30. This means roughly one in six workers in the UK economy lives in poverty.

Low wages contribute to poverty, but so does the structure of contemporary employment, and the JRF report highlights the growth of insecure work and underemployment.  In 2012, an estimated 250,000 people were employed on zero-hours contracts (where workers are not guaranteed a fixed number of hours).  This figure has varied over the years, with a low of 110,000 people on such contracts in 2004.  Drill down into these figures and we find that the average hours worked has declined from 28 hours per week in 2000 to 21 hours in 2012.  Of course, these are averages, with the actual hours worked oscillating one week to another. In addition, 620,000 people who desired permanent contracts are on temporary ones.  They want and need permanent status rather than ‘choosing’ the flexibly of temporary work as a convenient economic lifestyle. These features of the labour market — low pay, in-work poverty, zero-hours, and temporary contracts — are all working-class issues.  All corrode the elements of settled living that gave some semblance of stability to working-class communities in the past.

Some social scientists in the UK have interpreted these features as evidence of what Guy Standing has labelled the ‘precariat’ (see John’s Russo’s blog about the book here). More recently, UK sociologists Mike Savage and Fiona Devine have developed a widened class schema with a group at the bottom that they also call the ‘precariat.’ In both instances, what unites this new group of disparate people is their common experience of various forms of labor market instability. Their existence has a powerful disciplinary role on others in more secure work. Knowledge that firms might outsource roles to contractors, or off-shore it altogether, leads individual workers and their collective representatives to temper demands for higher wages and better conditions of service.

These findings start to puncture some big holes in the popular political and press accounts of the causes and consequences of the recession. Worklessness (people without work regardless of whether or not they are officially unemployed and drawing benefits) is not the great cause of poverty politicians would have us believe, and intergenerational worklessness – where two or more generations of family members are out of work – is a more marginal issue still. When asked about welfare, most survey respondents think that benefit fraud is a massive problem accounting for large chunks of the welfare bill.  In fact, it represents less than 1% of the total. Surveys also show that most people believe that unemployment benefit makes up the largest share of the benefits budget, when in fact pensions are the greatest cost. The real problem is with the real level of wages and how employment is structured.

Unfortunately, the political and press rhetoric around welfare in the UK is if anything ramping up, with a pernicious demonization of those on benefits. The UK based Channel 4, for example, has come in for a great deal of criticism for its TV documentary Benefits Street, which is based on what the producers describe as one of the most welfare dependant addresses in the UK. They have been attacked by residents of the street, including one couple who had been extensively filmed and who alleged that their in-work status meant they didn’t fit the dependence narrative of the series and were subsequently left out of the program. Listening to a recent BBC radio piece reflecting on Benefits Street, I was struck by the different ways of talking about the people there. While politicians and journalists used the phrases ‘welfare cheats’ and ‘benefit dependent,’ the residents themselves used the term ‘poverty’ to describe conditions in their area.

This rhetorical distinction perhaps holds the key for a more informed and progressive debate about the lives of working people, one where we shift the vernacular from ‘welfare queens’ and ‘benefits cheats’ on to the terrain of poverty. Reading Jack Metzgar’spiece a couple of weeks ago about SNAP recipients in the US, I am struck by the similarity in debates about the ‘deserving’ and especially the ‘undeserving’ poor. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians’ reluctance to talk about poverty, its causes and amelioration, creates a vacuum that more reactionary commentators are happy to fill. As the lead character in the HBO show The Newsroom laments, in the past, “We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.” Fifty years after Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty, we need to shift the vernacular more than ever.  There’s an idea worth getting wet for!

Tim Strangleman

A Working-Class Perspective on a Seasonal Tale

As your finger is poised over your mouse ready to make that last minute gift selection for a loved one this holiday, bear in mind the complex web of economic, social, and political networks that solve your problems. Over the last year, a number of critical articles and documentaries in the UK have coupled Amazon’s corporate practices with its employment regimes, and in both areas class issues have figured strongly in the critique.

The wider story about Amazon, in the UK at least, centers on tax avoidance. While the company employs around 20,000 people in the UK, it pays very small amounts of tax – £3.2 million in 2012 on UK sales of £4.2 billion. It has been able to do this – perfectly legally – by designating its UK operation as simply an “order fulfilment business,” while its office based in Luxembourg employs only 380 people. Given the tax advantage to companies such as Amazon who are prepared to offshore, it is no surprise that there is now a crisis on the UK high street with many long established chains filing for bankruptcy due to the corporate penetration of Amazon’s business model. As recent articles and critical politicians have pointed out, Amazon is sucking out the tax base within local, regional, and national economies in terms of business rates as well as wages. In a high profile battle, cosmetics company Lush is even taking Amazon to court over its tactics. Lush refuses to sell through Amazon and yet the company uses ‘Lush’ as a search term in order to capture customers who then get directed to other products.  Indeed such is the power of this corporate behemoth that before it decides to locate one of its Customer Fulfilment Centres, it extracts as much as it can from local authorities and regional economic development bodies.  For example, the Welsh government gave £8.8 million in grants to Amazon to entice the company to locate its distribution centre in Swansea, South Wales rather than some place else. Much like WalMart, an Amazon Customer Fulfilment Centre creates some poorly-paid, high-stress jobs even as it also puts other companies out of business, cutting jobs elsewhere.  And as with WalMart, Amazon’s low wages are subsidized by government welfare programs funded by the taxes that Amazon has avoided paying.

Even more interesting have been critiques of working conditions at Amazon, which suggest a connection between the quality of jobs and the wider sense of sustainability of community. The two biggest issues with Amazon UK have to do with employment status and the intensity of the work. In recent Financial Times and Observer newspaper pieces as well as a recent BBC TV Panorama documentary, reporters have gone undercover, obtaining employment as temporary Amazon workers.  Their reports explain how Amazon’s direct workforce of around 5000 workers in the UK swells to over 20,000 during the holidays, but most of the additional workers are hired  through temporary employment agencies.  Amazon offers these workers a carrot: the possibility of permanent employment, slightly higher wages, and better conditions if they behave themselves. In reality, most temporary employees will never enjoy these carrots.

Most temporary hires work as pickers, walking 8 to 15 miles in a shift as they navigate around the selves to fulfill customer orders.  Amazon’s distribution sites are huge as you would expect – they range from 800,000 to 1 million square feet, as large as 14 soccer fields. Workers report suffering fatigue, stress, and blisters, but more worrying is the pace of the work, which would put car factory assembly workers to shame. Each step, each minute, sometimes even each second of the picker’s shift is closely monitored with a central logistic computer telling the worker what and where to pick next and specifying the number of seconds in which they should ideally perform the task. Workers complain about this monitoring and about the company’s sick leave policy, which allows only three periods of sickness before a worker is ‘released.’

So why do people take these jobs? Amazon deliberately targets locations with high levels of unemployment, usually areas where traditional industries were once based. The South Wales base, for example, is in an area decimated by steel and coal closures. The FT magazine article emphasizes that Amazon’s centre in Rugeley, in the English Midlands, is near the site of Lea Hall Colliery, a once modern ‘super pit’ opened in 1960, which closed just before Christmas 1990. Reporter Sarah O’Connor writes that when the 800 workers were made redundant at the mine, they were being paid the equivalent of between £380 and £900 in today’s money.  Today, temp agency workers at Amazon are paid only about £220 per week. Amazon’s low wage tactics reflect a far wider problem with in-work poverty.  This link between low pay and poverty is gaining more attention in the UK, and a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report highlighted that of the 13 million people in poverty in the UK in 2011/12, more than half were, for the first time, living in working families.

Like the often cited truism about multinational corporations, there’s only one thing worse than being exploited by a multinational and that is not being exploited by a multinational.  This is true for the communities where Amazon is located.  In communities with high unemployment, these are jobs that pay some kind of wage. But I think we have to ask bigger questions about what companies like Amazon are doing to our communities and to working-class work. Workers must have the right to be represented by trade unions, and they should earn a living wage. O’Connor ends her piece by quoting a local estate agent in Rugeley who criticized locals’ negative attitudes toward Amazon: “People expect a job for life, but the world isn’t like that any more, is it?” Well, the miners of Lea Hall enjoyed better terms and conditions and far safer working environments than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations because ordinary working-class people had expected and fought for more — if not a job for life then at least job that would give them more of a life than they currently enjoyed.

So as you scan those seductive Amazon pages, spare a thought for the employment and corporate practices that lie behind your choices. You could take a working-class perspective one click at a time. Now there is a seasonal wish!

Tim Strangleman

Growing-Up Working-Class On Film Forty Years On

The_Selfish_Giant_posterThe Selfish Giant, the new film from UK director Clio Barnard, has been hailed as “A Kind of Loach 2.0” and has attracted massive and glowing attention from the press.  The film centers around the moving relationship between two young teenage boys, Arbor and Swifty, who live on a housing project in Bradford in the North of England.  To put it charitably, both boys come from ‘hard living’ working-class families, and the plot revolves around their efforts to help support their disintegrating families. Both become excluded from school after getting into a fight as they react to the abuse they suffer because of their family background; both boys are picked on because of their lack of respectability. In order earn some money while not in school they set themselves up as putative scrap men, travelling the streets with a knackered old stroller, collecting pots and pans or indeed anything made of metal that they can convert in to ready cash. Predictably they graduate from hunting out abandoned household implements to stealing cabling and wire from the utilities and railway – ‘recycling’ their ill-gotten gain through a corrupt and corrupting scrap metal trader.  The Selfish Giant is a beautiful and profoundly moving film about friendship, young masculinity, and above all working-class culture.

I was invited to react to the film on a panel ‘sociology meets film’ at my University cinema last week. Because many of the reviews had connected The Selfish Giant with Ken Loach’s film making style,  especially his 1969 production Kes, based on author Barry Hines’s novel A Kestrel for a Knave,  I decided to watch Kes before the event. Kes_1969_film_posterLike The Selfish Giant, Kes is the story of a boy, Billy Casper, estranged from education and on the point of leaving school for the adult world of work.  He finds friendship and meaning in his life through his capture and training of a kestrel. Like Arbor, Billy comes from a broken home and is shunned by his community as a result of this lack of respectability.

These films were made over forty years apart and tell us so much about what has happened to the English working class in that period. Both illustrate real poverty, restricted culture, and poor living conditions.  In both, the fabric of the built environment is shabby and unkempt. In different ways, each details the casual disregard of the education system for ‘difficult’ working-class boys. However, the central theme that unites and divides the two films is the issue of work. Arbor has virtually no prospects of getting any form of mainstream employment when he eventually turns sixteen. He makes his living in and around a deindustrial landscape of loss. Like many left behind in the wake of economic change he is living off the scrap of residual plant and machinery from former industry.  Much of the film looks as if it was shot is located on a former colliery site. Four decades earlier, Billy Casper had the looming prospect of employment in a working coalmine that is at the center of his community and already employs his abusive older brother. Both characters seem trapped by industrial landscapes in very different ways.  For Arbor there are no jobs to choose, while for Billy the life of a miner is seemingly his only choice. We see how the hidden injuries of class play out both when people have access to work and when they don’t.

After the screening and comments from the panel reflecting on the film, audience members were invited to make their own observations.  One person effectively reframed the discussion when she asked “Where is the hope?”  The panel at the front of the auditorium shifted uneasily on their stools, hoping not to get the microphone – myself included – for there is little hope in The Selfish Giant’s unrelenting bleakness. In the late 1960s when Kes was released, living standards for the English working class were rising as they had been for over three decades. While many still lived in poverty, nearly everyone had a job, and above all there was still a strong and vibrant labour movement rooted in working-class community, culture, and workplaces – perhaps especially in pit villages. Today, the Arbors do not enjoy the range social structures to fall back on, nor can they look forward to anything other than precarious employment at best. If there is hope here it lies, I think, in the humanity that Clio Barnard captures in her respectful film, which is a feature of the best drama about working class issues. We see Arbor, or forty years before him Billy Casper, as rounded characters shaped by their surroundings, for sure, but also as embedded in relationships with others. Both Arbor and Billy are capable of demonstrating care and commitment to those who are important to them, to things they value.  Because of this, the audience sees something of themselves in the characters, and so the film seems to ask, what would you do in that world? What choices would you make?

The problem, of course, is that films like The Selfish Giant won’t necessarily be seen by as wider audience as they deserve.  All the press attention will bring more viewers to see this film, and perhaps this will create another important parallel with the earlier Ken Loach film. For while Kes was not an immediate blockbuster, it eventually became a word of mouth hit seen by a very wide audience and had a presence in national life, which it still enjoys to this day. Indeed generations of school children got to read the novel A Kestrel for a Knave as part of their secondary school English classes in large part because of the success of the film. That mainstreaming of working-class subjects and issues was the positive feature of the earlier film and book.  Let’s hope The Selfish Giant has a similar impact forty years on.

Tim Strangleman

From Syria to Salford: How We See the Working Class

On the BBC a couple for weekends ago, I heard an expert on the Middle East describing how the civil war in Syria was worsening by the day. He said something like “Some of the opposition are not nice middle class liberals you know.” The clear implication was that working-class rebels were the really bad ones, the ‘other,’ that ‘we’ had to fear.

I thought about that quite depressing vision of the working class the next day, when I visited a fantastic and soon to close exhibition at London’s Tate Britain art gallery of the work of twentieth century artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976).  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been an unexpected blockbuster with rave reviews. Importantly, most of those reviews have made specific reference to the working-class focus of both this curation and Lowry’s work more generally. Walking through the six large rooms of this powerful retrospective, an observer can’t ignore class, nor the places where the English working class lived and toiled. Lowry was a painter of industry and labor, and the notes to the exhibition quote his explanation of his work:  “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I got it.”

Lowry painted ordinary life on the streets of his native Lancashire, including Salford in the North West of England where a fantastic gallery bears his name and highlights his work. Ordinary life for Lowry had industry as its backdrop – factories and mills that his trademark matchstick men and women tumble into or out of as their shifts changed. Even his paintings of working-class leisure, depicting football matches and street entertainment, are dominated by the prospect of work and the smoke-belching chimneys that defined northern England at that time. Lowry does not shy away from the grimness of working-class life.  His painting reflects street brawls, house repossessions and those crippled by industrial accident and disease, as this video shows.

Where the exhibition is especially powerful in its juxtaposition of Lowry’s art with a series of quotes from commentators, some directly addressing the artist’s craft and others offering more general insights into the working-class world he painted. These included poignant extracts from books like Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as well as quotes from a John Berger essay. I was reminded just how good the prose in many books about working-class life in the middle years of the twentieth century was. The writing was thoughtful and reflective but pointed. But above all, it was attentive to the working-class experience, a lived experience rooted often in poverty or the fear of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Hoggart’s book, embossed on the wall of the gallery, reflecting simple points about the use of working-class language:  “Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship.’ When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.”

These excerpts give the exhibit visitor pause, as they were designed to do, of course. Lowry’s art and the contemporary writing from and about the working class contextualize each other.  Each art form mirrors the other’s subject matter, the one leveraging understanding of the other. As a working sociologist, I was brought up short by both the paintings and the writing. In just these four writers – and there were others – we see a focus on working-class subjects from Orwell in the 1930s, Hoggart in the 1950s, Berger in the 1960s, and finally Robert’s writing from the 1970s. A four decades span in which working-class life and prospects improved immeasurably even as more popular attention was paid to the lived experience of class and the vision of further improvement. These were writers whose books sold widely in paperback or whose essays were read and helped to form a shared understanding of class matters and a common sense of citizenship. It was perhaps no accident that British sociology and cultural studies expanded in these decades following the Second World War and, early on at least, class was central to its calling.

The exhibition begged many questions about our own age. Lowry’s canvasses recorded a bleak world that few if any would long to return to. If Lowry represented the poverty of working-class life and the heavy price industry demanded of the people and places where it was based in its heyday, then these same paintings in turn raise questions about these inner cities in Northern England now. But above all the exhibition for me prompted consideration of the presence of the working class in popular art and writing now. Lowry’s art has always been popular.  What must have been a cheap reproduction hung in a corridor of my primary school, for instance. But his art also often graced the covers of books about the working class in the decades after the Second World War when serious attention was being paid to them by the likes of Berger and Hoggart. For sure, the working class was often presented as an object of fascination; as ‘different’ from the middle class who researched or wrote about them.  There was, though, a care in that attention and an expression of humanity and recognition in the encounter between classes.

So while there has always been a distance between classes, at times in our history this gap has been narrowed. The geographic distance between Syria and Salford is a long one, but perhaps the void in class understanding may be greater still.

Tim Strangleman

What about the Workers?

During the mid-1980s I was a member of the UK Labour Party. One of the most memorable branch meetings I went to – OK there isn’t a lot of competition – was after I had finished an early shift on the London Underground where I worked as a signalman at the time. I made my way back from London to my home town outside the capital and went straight to the meeting still in my work uniform. I still remember the look when other members of the branch saw me and another friend who also worked on the railways enter the room.  I should explain, like many Labour Party branches mine was filled with teachers and other middle class occupations, including fairly senior executives of state-owned companies. Their collective reaction wasn’t contempt, and I wouldn’t want to claim that.  Rather, it betrayed a sense that people in uniform didn’t quite fit. What gave me the confidence to stay in that room was a working-class pride instilled in me in large part by the politics and culture of my workplace, which taught me not to be ashamed of my blue collar.

I have been reminded of this incident over the last couple of weeks as class in the Labour Party and more widely in British politics has come to the surface. The most recent manifestation is over the increasingly troubled relationship between the trade union movement and the Labour Party under its leader Ed Miliband. After the electoral defeat of 2010, it was widely understood Miliband’s success was largely due to the support of the trade union vote rather than the other blocks within the Party’s Electoral College – MPs and ordinary members. The conservative media instantly labelled Miliband ‘Red Ed’ and suggested that he was now a creature of the union movement. While this mood music has played out over the last three years, the volume has recently increased due to the selection process for a safe Labour seat of Falkirk in Scotland. Local party members have alleged that the Unite union, one of the biggest unions in the UK and one of the largest donors to the Labour Party, has been attempting to fix the election by packing out the membership of the local party with union members. I will spare readers the gruesome details of the battle, but essentially Miliband called foul and asked the local police to investigate the process.

The rights and wrongs of Falkirk are complex, but the case has shone a spotlight on the class demographics of the Labour Party. Len McCluskey, leader of Unite, has sought to portray his organization’s actions as a strategy for ensuring that a working-class candidate is selected rather than a middle class political wonk, what he would see as the equivalent of a Washington insider. However, as the sitting MP for the constituency, Eric Joyce,  recently wrote in the Guardian newspaper, while  McCluskey has suggested that ‘middle class’ people like “shouldn’t be parachuted in,” his union’s candidate worked in an MP’s office.   Joyce also pointed out that McCluskey earns a middle-class salary of £122,000.

No doubt, shifts in the economy and especially the deindustrialization of many of the traditional areas of Labour support have wrought inevitable changes in the make-up of the Parliamentary Labour Party.  While Labour now has more female MPs and ethnic minority representation, however, the base of candidates from the working class has eroded. In the last Labour Government (1997-2010), three of the most high profile cabinet members claimed working-class origins – Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary), John Prescott (Deputy Prime Minster) and Alan Johnson (Home Secretary). And while Straw cut his teeth in student politics, Prescott and Johnson emerged through workplace unionism. Prescott was a seaman and worked as a waiter on board ships. In Parliament, he was often ridiculed for his working-class accent, with Tory MPs from more elite backgrounds shouting requests for cocktails during his speeches in the House of Commons. Alan Johnson has just written a well-received memoir of his early life growing up poor in London in a single parent family.  But these high profile Labour Cabinet members from working class backgrounds are part of an aging and disappearing cohort – Prescott is 75, Straw 67, and Johnson 63 – nearing or at the end of their active political life. The ladder that enabled them to enter national politics is either no longer there or much diminished. The typical Labour MP now is far more likely to come to frontline politics through higher education, often with a spell as a political intern. Over time, working-class communities have fewer politically active role models as class politics in the workplace and neighborhoods have been hollowed out. Politics has become something done to working-class people rather than something they or their peers actively engage in.

What difference does it make who represents voters in Parliament? A working-class perspective on life roots one in daily concerns, and it makes elected representatives think twice before they make assumptions about what ordinary people think and do. I wrote in a previous blog about the new group Blue Collar Conservatism, and recently another group called Renewal launched.  Its leader recently suggested that if the Tories are to win in 2015 they need to be nothing less than “the new workers’ party,” with policies appealing to black and ethnic minority voters as well as trade unions and public sector workers. Many of the people around these Conservative groups are unafraid to self-identify as working class.

It was thirty years ago this summer that I left school, began work on the railway, and joined both the union and the Labour Party. It would be interesting to see what the reaction would be if a sixteen year old turned up at a local Labour branch today — perhaps not in an ill-fitting grey railway worker’s uniform but in one from a shop or a fast-food outlet. I hope they would be welcomed. But given the lack of the working-class pride and working-class political role models that drew me into the Labour Party, I wonder whether a young person today would even bother to show up.

Tim Strangleman

Thatcher and the Working Class: Why History Matters

A kind of class war has broken out on the streets of the UK over the last week or so since the death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Since her death was announced, the media has been full of people either paying tribute to her for ‘saving the country’ or condemning her for reigning over unprecedented deindustrialisation. Among these sound bites, the one that has become a constant refrain from those on the right has been that she ‘saved us from the unions.’ One particularly depressing manifestation of this was on a TV political panel show when young male audience member – he looked about 16 – said ‘well, imagine where we would be if we still had the unions.’ I can’t be certain, but given his accent – still one of the best ways in the UK to tell someone’s social origins – he was almost certainly working-class himself.  I started to think, yes, just imagine if we did have a stronger union moment . . . but maybe that’s for another blog.

Essentially what has been occurring here over the last week or so is a rewriting of history by the right – one where class is never far from the surface. Britain of the 1970s was portrayed as industrially backward with a terminal industrial relations problem. The right argue that the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 turned back this economic and social decline and created a brave new world.

Britain in the 1970s was, however, a complex place, not one dimensional as it’s being portrayed by the right. Although far from perfect, Britain was in this period a far more egalitarian society, in part due to near full employment, of course, but also because of a collective sense of fairness shared by both political left and right.  This is encapsulated for me in British media writer Andrew Collins’s memoir of the period Where did it all go right? Growing up normal in the 70s’.  Collins spent his youth in the English midlands, and while he was undoubtedly middle class, he wasn’t that different socially, culturally, or economically from his working-class peers. They would have attended the same schools, lived on the same streets or at least nearby, and so on. In part because of the kind of egalitarianism that Collins describes, 1976 was recently identified as the year when the British people were statistically about as equal as they had ever been – and possibly ever will be. They were also the happiest. After this period, the post-war consensus began to be eroded most notably by Thatcherism, as director Ken Loach has recently shown in a moving and thoughtful film on the social and economic reforms of the post-war Labour Government and the later breakdown of the consensus.

While the Tories were elected in part because they tapped into worries about unemployment, by using an image of a long dole queue with the tag line ‘Labour isn’t working,’ instead of ending unemployment, they drove it up.  Almost one million people were unemployed in 1979, but that rose rapidly in the early 1980s to 3 million and has never since fallen below one million.  And who has experienced the most job loss since from the 1980s onward? Yes, you guessed it: the working class, who lost jobs in coal mines, factories, shipyards, and steel mills.  These industries were closed as a result of either disastrous neo-liberal industrial policies, or, as was the case with the coal industry, simple political spite.  But the right wants us to remember Thatcher for ‘saving us from the unions.’

As I watched the state funeral for Mrs. Thatcher on TV, the BBC’s helpful live internet feed of the tickertape scrolling at the bottom of the screen highlighted the latest labor market statistics:  a 70,000 increase in joblessness this month and over 900,000 unemployed for over a year out of a total of 2.5 million. It was a fitting reminder of Thatcher’s gift to the working class.

But the right wing commentators have not been the only ones talking about Thatcher over the last week.  Many on the left have celebrated her death, though much of the opposition has been dismissed in some quarters as either left wing political extremism or simply distasteful. The tee-shirt maker Philosophy Football produced a souvenir shirt with ‘Rejoice – 08.04.2013’ emblazoned on the front and urged would be purchasers to order quickly to ensure deliver in time for the day of the funeral. Others celebrated musically, organizing an attempt to place the song ‘Ding Dong The Witch is Dead’ at number one in the download charts.  It narrowly missed climbing to number two! Impromptu street parties broke out in the centres of a number of British cities. In the Celtic fringes of the UK, Scotland and Wales especially, there has been a great deal of celebration at the news.  But nowhere has the bitter, visceral hatred of Thatcher and her governments of the 1980s been more pronounced than in the former coal mining villages of the North of England. While 3000 of the great and good of the British establishment were attending the lavish £10 million funeral service in St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London, the places decimated by Thatcherism celebrated in a different style. In former colliery villages such as Easington in County Durham and Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire, effigies of the former Prime Minister were burnt with gusto.

The industrial and social changes that Britain suffered during the 1980s have left a lasting legacy that continues to impact the nation 23 years after she left office. Above all it is working-class communities that have paid the price of Thatcherism.  The true story of Thatcher’s influence, in the 70s and beyond, must be heard.  As one banner in the City of London proclaimed on the day of Thatcher’s funeral, ‘Rest in Shame.’

Tim Strangleman

The Last Good Blue-Collar Job?

A journalist from a Scottish newspaper contacted me last month wanting my reaction to the announcement that 2,300 people had applied for eighteen trainee driver posts to service a soon to be reopened rail line in the Scottish Boarders running to the south of Edinburgh. With nearly 128 applicants for each of these jobs, the reporter was keen to discover what was behind this headlong rush. Well, to be precise, what I think she was after were some conditioned clichés about working on the railway, the romance of the iron road, and how it is (still) every little boy’s wish to be a train driver.

She seemed a little crestfallen when I suggested some alternative reasons why these new posts might be so valued.  First, the trainee’s starting salary was $33,230, about average in the UK before you take in to account the rise to $58,400 when fully qualified. I also suggested that recruits could expect a good pension, reduced travel prices, and, above all, the kind of security that many workers can only dream of. This is all in the context of a double dip recession and high unemployment levels. By this time, I could sense that young journalist’s imagined simple story of boyhood romance was morphing into something far more complex and probably less exciting.

She tried one last tack with me. ‘But why’ she asked, ‘were these jobs so good’? My answer was straightforward; railway work in the UK remains one of the strongest bastions of working-class unionisation. When the industry was privatised, or denationalised, two decades ago, conservative politicians made little attempt to hide that their goals included smashing the unions, reducing levels of pay, and eroding conditions of service. Contrary to the conservatives’ hopes, some railway workers have seen their real pay rates increase considerably, and this is especially true of the drivers.

Hot on the heels of the story about the new railway jobs came a similar story from the English Midlands about 1,701 people applying for three full-time and five part-time barista posts with coffee chain Costa Coffee. In other words, these more mundane, less obviously ‘romantic’ vacancies attracted more applicants per position – roughly 212 applicants for each job — than did the train driver openings. Among the biggest differences between the two jobs is the pay rate.  An article in the Guardian pointed out that no barista in London, let alone in the more economically deprived Midlands, gets within ten grand of the national average wage of £26,500.  Another key difference is that driving a train requires a year or more of theoretical and practical training while – and no offence to baristas anywhere – serving coffee does not involve a lengthy apprenticeship, much as some of us may want to fetishize its production. The relatively greater interest in the barista jobs may reflect many things, but it is fundamentally a function of the poorly performing economy and the dire labor market in the UK.

Underlying both stories is a common question that must confuse the presumably middle-class newspaper readership: why would so many people want to do blue-collar work? One answer to this question might lie in reflections being made about working- and middle-class aspiration on both sides of the Atlantic, reflections that reassess the value of blue-collar work.  The most prominent example comes from US writer Matthew B. Crawford’s bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft, subtitled An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Crawford’s basic thesis is that the middle-class obsession with getting the ‘good job’ often ends in a cubicle.  It may be a very nice cubicle, in which one may be able to exercise all sorts of autonomy over the type of posters and humorous postcards placed on its walls, but it’s still a cubicle. Crawford contrasts life slumped in front of a screen between cardboard dividers with the freedom and autonomy still enjoyed by many working-class jobs.  He makes much of his own chosen career in motorcycle maintenance, in which he enjoys endless problem solving mixed with extensive banter with other motorcycle aficionados. While Crawford enters this world from a background of relative educational and financial privilege, he does tap into something about the too often hidden rewards of working-class working life, namely the culture of workplaces shaped by ordinary men and women.

Similar revelations can be found in other accounts of middle-class forays into working-class culture, such as Don J. Snyder’s The Cliff Walk: A Job Lost and a Life Found. Snyder recounts how he lost a tenure-track college post and descended down the class ladder. In a fascinating story, he relates how he found redemption through labor with a set of working-class builders who overlooked his technical incompetence because they could see he needed the job. Snyder contrasts the basic humanitarian gesture involved in helping out someone in need with his experience of the middle-class world he had fallen from where many former friends and colleagues had simply turned their backs on him.

In my current job, I am occasionally contacted by the media about the current state of work, and not just about railways. Much like my students, journalists seem to assume that manual labor or blue-collar work is to be avoided at all costs. I always make a point of asking the often young journalist or assistant researchers about their own work and the conditions they enjoy. Usually, they describe a long-hours culture, working on temporary contracts, switching between employers who contract to bigger media players. To these younger media workers, the working-class world of blue-collar work must seem a strangely alien one, where workers more often co-operate than compete and place emphasis on the importance of dignity and respect for a job well done. No wonder they want to produce stories about this type of old-fashioned work.

Tim Strangleman

Working-Class Blues

British politics is in a funny place right now when it comes to the question of class, indeed sometimes one can feel like Alice in a looking glass world where nothing is quite what it seems. For thirteen years, from the election in 1997 through to their defeat in 2010, the British Labour Party spent a good deal of its time denying the salience of social class, or at least the continued existence of the working class. Reflecting their adopted prefix of ‘New Labour,’ the Party associated the language of class with an ‘old Britain’ of manual labour, dirt, and grime – manufacturing out, financial alchemists in. Rather like politicians in the US, the Labour Party was obsessed with the middle class or what was often described as “Middle England” — pollster shorthand for middle-, middle-class, centre-ground voters with little sustained commitment to any political cause or class identity. Even a Labour politician like former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, a man with a serious working-class pedigree, conceded that even he was “middle-class now.”

As the left has sought to airbrush out its working-class heritage, recently something very strange has happened in the Conservative Party: some of its members have begun to talk in the language of class. A couple of weeks ago a new interest group was launched from within the Tory Party calling itself Blue Collar Conservatism, its website replete with images of row housing and looming smokestack. Its aim is to try and marshal the working-class vote for the Conservatives while at the same time denying that rhetorical space to the more progressive parties, most notably the Labour Party.

Blue Collar Conservatism treads an interesting socio-political line. It is obviously anti-Labour, but its existence owes a large debt to the contemporary image of the mainstream Tory party itself. We are now over two and a half years into the Coalition Government’s five year term.  The Government is made up the Conservatives, who form the largest single party in Parliament but lack an overall majority, and their junior partners the Liberal Democrats, who came third in terms of seats after Labour. The make-up of the Coalition cabinet makes for interesting reading, with roughly two thirds of its members being millionaires. Further analysis reveals that this group comes from a very narrow band of educational background; more than half its members were educated at fee paying schools and only five of the twenty-nine members coming from state schooling system. More interesting still is the incredibly narrow range of University education amongst this political elite, with two thirds having gone to either Oxford or Cambridge.

So what does Blue Collar Conservatism stand for? Well, while it doesn’t exactly attack the Cabinet for its elite background, it does sound an alarm that the Party is successfully being portrayed as elitist and out of touch. I highlighted this last year in a blog about a series of policy misjudgements which saw taxes being raised on working-class consumables. More recently, the Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell (multi-millionaire, Independent school educated and alumnae of Jesus College Cambridge) had to resign after being accused of calling police officers “F***ing Plebs” after they asked him to dismount from his bicycle while exiting Downing Street, an accusation he vehemently denies.

Blue Collar Conservatism by contrast seeks to highlight the ordinariness of many party members, including their MPs. Their website includes back stories of struggle and hardship that seek to redress the image of bacchanalian excess of their more privileged high-profile colleagues. Beyond this vaguely amusing image that harks back to Kathy Newman’s piece on the world conjured up by the TV series Downton Abbey last week, the Conservatives have more prosaically been branded as being out of touch with what concerns core ordinary/ working-class voters. As David Skelton from the think tank Policy Exchange says:

One of the absolute major issues for blue collar voters at the moment is the cost of living. Last year was the biggest fall in real incomes for about 30 years. And one of the Tories’ Achilles heels is that they are associated with unemployment and associated with de-industrialisation. This is why the Conservatives in particular have to address job creation and tackle unemployment in a lot of northern and Midlands towns.

Blue Collar Conservatism’s answer is to speak to and for that section of the working class that sees itself as striving aspirational manual workers.

On the face of it, this could be a clever tactic, as suggested by a much-discussed recent poll from the think tank British Future, which reported that almost 60% of Britons described themselves as working-class. Blue Collar Conservatism has already managed to enlist a third of the Parliamentary Conservative party, so its approach clearly has traction and potentially challenges the Labour Party’s ability to assume that it has the working-class vote in the electoral bag.

By using the language of ‘striving’ and ‘aspiration,’ Blue Collar Conservatism is potentially shifting the class vernacular in the UK.  This is an on-going process whereby the ‘respectable,’ ‘hard working’ members of lower socio-economic groups are split from those on welfare, whom the Chancellor recently described as ‘shirkers’ rather than as ‘strivers.’  Of course, labelling the poor as either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’ is a rhetorical practice with a two-century pedigree.

The flaw in the Blue Collar Conservatism strategy might be its inability to go beyond thinking of the striving and aspiring working-class as anything other than being made up of isolated individuals. The Labour Party needs to rediscover a collective language of class that celebrates working-class achievement around mutual improvement and self-help, community activism and local citizenry. Much of what was and is good about working-class culture in Britain can be described as ‘striving’ and ‘aspiration,’ but the difference was that people realised that this was linked to a collective sense of endeavour and responsibility. Successfully shifting the vernacular back to highlight these qualities would help frame a different debate and create a new range of progressive possibilities for the idea of class.

Tim Strangleman

Class and the Olympics

By the time you read this the Olympics and Paralympics will be over in London. Both sets of games have been very popular in Britain and have stimulated thousands of column inches of media interest.  In amongst the coverage of sport the issue of class has emerged in a number of different contexts.

Even before the games had begun Londoners’ ire was raised by the dedicated ‘Games Lanes’ dedicated to traffic of the Olympic ‘family.’ In amongst the grumbles was a noticeable critique that these transport arteries seemed to be more about ferrying elite members of the ‘family’ from their five-star hotels in West London and less about getting competing athletes to their venues –the West end of London has always been the poshest part of the city due to the prevailing winds.  Industry, and the majority of working-class communities who worked in them, tended to be planted in the East end where the Games were located. When challenged on this exclusivity, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather bizarrely claimed that his Committee were workers and that “We are working-class people.” Defending the IOC encampment in the Park Lane Hilton, Rogge made an argument about workers like himself and his colleagues  needing adequate conditions and was quoted as saying “I am sorry but in three-star hotels you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel: conference rooms, simultaneous translations- this is something only more upscale hotels have.” To be fair, I find the same myself.

Arguably the most interesting and deeper reflection on class came in the debate stimulated over the social and educational background of British medal winners, especially the over-representation of privately educated medal winners among the successes. This sparked a debate about the lack of opportunity of access less well-off children and young people get to certain sports, such as rowing and especially the equestrian events. While the privately educated make up 7% of Britain’s population, privately educated athletes at one point had won over 60% of the medals.  This proportion later improved, but not before Conservative politicians and media attempted to explain the disparity by claiming that this was proof that state schools discouraged competitive sport rather than structural and cultural issues around access to training facilities and equipment.

Class, or rather working-class history, was reasonably well represented in the Olympic opening ceremony. While it may have left most of the world’s viewing audience mildly bemused, the show included many nods to working-class politics and class struggle. Most obvious was the part of the performance where the utopia of pre-industrial rural England was swept aside by the industrial revolution. Stovetop-hatted capitalists gathered in small huddles surveying the creation of dark satanic mills, or at least their chimneys, tended to by a grimy faced proletariat. Again, some right-wingers saw this and other aspects of the show as evidence of left-wing bias, and the director being ‘anti-business.’ Even more interesting was the way this narrative of work and class was conveniently constrained to the representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an amusing postscript to that aspect of the performance, the next day three of the volunteer actors who played the ‘factory hands’ in the ceremony were interviewed on national television. The curious interviewer asked the group what their day jobs were in real life. Their individual answers gave a fascinating insight in to the changing nature of Britain’s economy: the first was a civil servant, the second an accountant, and the third worked in ‘new media.’ So Britain’s industrial workers of the past were played by middle-class workers of the new economy.

There were, of course, many real workers on site during the opening ceremony, most notably at its climax where construction workers involved in building parts of the Olympic Park at Stratford formed a guard of honour for the Olympic flame as it entered the stadium. Of course, the comprehensive commentary didn’t mention that at least one of the construction firms working on the site is under investigation for blacklisting workers and compiling a database of those who raised concerns about workplace health and safety. These included trade unionists as well as non- activist workers who had particular concerns.  More embarrassing for the Conservative Party was that at least one of the firms involved in this illegal activity – Sir Robert McAlpine – was a substantial corporate donor to the Party.

One final aspect of class around the Olympics, and especially the Olympic Park itself, can be seen in the erasure of evidence of working-class culture and industry on the site.  Much of the commentary on the games focused on the role of regeneration of what was usually referred to as a “post-industrial wasteland.” This ignored the fact that many working-class jobs and working-class communities had been moved after the games were awarded to London back in 2005 in order to make room for the Olympic Park. While this erasure was not of the scale seen in Beijing, it was nonetheless notable. The immediate site itself and the wider Lea Valley area that surrounds it were home to a range of industries, including the manufacture of armaments, and this was  where gasoline was first refined. St. Etienne made a fascinating film about the area in 2005 called What have you done today, Mervyn Day? More historically but also ignored by commentators,  the games sat directly on the site of what was once the largest locomotive construction and repair shops in the world, where for a century and a half thousands of workers had built and maintained rolling stock for the Great Eastern and other railway companies. The local authority has an oral history section featuring some of those who worked at the site.

So class was strangely both absent and present at the London games in the summer of 2012. At times it was portrayed in graphic historical terms but not as something live in the present. Working-class culture, protest, and struggle were boxed off in a past represented by bygone industry, the parts of industrial workers played by members of the new economy. But for those of us who take the time to look, working-class culture surrounded both the sport played in the venues and the sites themselves.  In four years time it with be Rio’s turn to host the games, I wonder what stories of class will be told or left untold then. But as Jacques Rogge claims, the IOC are “working-class people,” so surely we can count on them?

Tim Strangleman