Category Archives: Working-class politics

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

Climate Change as a Class Issue

On a Monday morning a month ago I was sitting on the marble floor of the Squirrel Hill branch of PNC Bank in Pittsburgh, with a circle of activists protesting PNC’s financing of mountain-top removal (MTR) coal mining across Appalachia.  MTR causes increased cancer rates and birth defects, as well as massive environmental degradation — not to mention the carbon dioxide emissions and global warming generated by burning the mined coal.  This was one of a sixteen bank occupations organized by the Earth Quaker Action Team (EQAT) to coincide with the Power Shift gathering that drew thousands of climate activists to the city for a weekend of trainings and actions. 

Our small group included a young family, Nick and Rustina and their two children, who spoke tearfully of how their home-place in Clintwood, Virginia, had been ruined by MTR.  The mountain where generations of their coal-mining family had hiked and hunted was razed, the stream where the kids had fished and played now ran orange, and drinking water to their home and the municipal supply was contaminated.  They had moved to Berea, Kentucky, to go back to school and try for a fresh start.  Their story was just one small instance of how the business of what Bill McKibbon refers to as “rogue” energy corporations disproportionately affects working-class and poor people in the US.  Other examples would include urban children’s asthma rates, chemical dumping in poor neighborhoods, nuclear waste on native lands – and the list goes on.

***

The extremity of the mess we’re in with climate change has become a focus of urgent concern for me — later than it should have, no doubt.  And my recent activist experience and the reading I’ve been doing lead me to see this as a class issue, requiring a class-conscious response.

Let’s look at the scope of what Stephen Emmott, in his clarifying but terrifying book 10 Billion, calls “the unprecedented planetary emergency we have created.”  (I’ll question this culpable “we” below.)   A recent New York Times article on rising sea levels, concludes that “babies being born now could live to see the early stages of a global calamity.”  We don’t need to wait for the newborns; adults are witnessing this already in many parts of the world.  Over the last decade we have seen a series of climate crises – floods, droughts, fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, lethal heat waves, ice-melts, species extinctions – attributable to global warming.  Typhoon Haiyan is the latest example, as Yeb Sano, Philippine delegate to the current UN climate convention in Poland made clear, imploring the group to “stop this climate madness.” 

These climate events may be exacerbating the social and political crises we also see: famine, migrations, epidemics, civil wars, land-grabs, and the ratcheting up of security apparatus to protect those whose economic activity is doing the damage.  Combine these climate crises with a burgeoning global population – 10 billion by mid-century, according to Emmott – and we seem to be moving towards a full-blown climate collapse, which will, of course, bring with it economic and political catastrophes of unseen magnitude.

If that is the case – that is, if the calamity we face is global, affecting all of humanity and all other species – what does class have to do with it?  We’re all in the same boat, aren’t we, on a rapidly rising ocean?  Well, put simply, it has to do with who’s steering the boat we’re all in and who’s in line to be thrown overboard.  A class perspective highlights how the consequences of global warming, like everything else under capitalism, are unequally distributed, with poorer populations around the world hit first and hardest.

According to Maplecroft’s 2014 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, the countries most likely to suffer the devastating effects of a overheating earth and rising seas by 2025 include Bangladesh, Guinea-Bassau, Sierra Leone, and Haiti — countries which have little or no responsibility for creating the crisis.  Meanwhile, in the Amazon basin, rain forests are being razed and indigenous people removed to create the arable land to grow the soybeans to feed the cattle to produce the beef to satisfy the now-globalized appetite for hamburgers and thereby enrich the holding companies that own Burger King and other chains.

As reported on page one of yesterday’s New York Times, Typhoon Haiyan has made “climate injustice” a major focus of the UN Climate Framework Convention in Warsaw.   But of course, the effects of climate crises also spread to the developed world and wealthier populations.  This summer’s fires in California burned national parkland and high-end mountain homes.  Superstorm Sandy shocked the affluent out of the illusion of safety.  The most opulent real estate in Miami Beach will be claimed by seawater by mid-century if trends continue.

A class perspective, however, allows us to question the “we” Emmott blames for our planetary emergency.  If by “we” he means his readers — economically secure people in the developed world — then we are indeed implicated by our inequitable and unsustainable level of consumption and pollution, and we have a collective responsibility to take action.  But even “we” relatively affluent Westerners are not the designers of this crisis, and we’re not the ones profiteering on it.  A class perspective recognizes that there are real enemies in this fight, and they are in many ways the old class enemies: the operators of global capitalism.

So this is an issue of the interests of the 99% versus the 1% — our new class vocabulary, which implies an alliance of poor, working, and middle classes against that enemy — if ever there was one.  It’s a struggle for fundamental justice – economic, social, environmental — and as such it needs to be fought with all the weapons of organized resistance we’ve brought to such struggles in the past, and more: legal action, political pressure, marches, occupations, media campaigns, direct action, financial divestment, blockades – the works.  And it is indeed being fought with increasing intensity by activists of all stripes, from pacifist Quakers in the US to those on the front lines of environmental destruction around the world.

***

In the weeks before the EQAT bank actions I had an email conversation with a senior vice-president at PNC who happened to be a former student of mine (so depending on your perspective, I either taught him very well or poorly).  He defended the bank’s financing of MTR coal companies on the grounds that such extractive practices (he avoids the words “mountain-top removal”) are legal, and regulated, and contribute to our necessary energy supply.   You can imagine my reply: “legal” – yes, but so was slavery, once upon a time, and so were most of the actions of the banks that brought about the economic collapse of 2008; “regulated” – yes, by agencies gutted of staff and clout by austerity measures and right-wing hostility; “necessary” – hardly, coal being exactly the wrong source of energy, if we care about global warming.

He also reminded me that PNC is “everyone’s bank” – operating, I suppose, for polluters and the polluted alike, in egalitarian fashion.  Suffice it to say that PNC is not my bank, and I’m pleased to report that so far $3.3 million has been withdrawn as a part of EQAT’s “Move Your Money” campaign.  A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but I hope a noticeable one.  At any rate, the police who escorted us from the bank after our vigil seemed to understand why we were there.  They took our fliers and shook hands.  Other EQAT activists who had prepared for civil disobedience were arrested and the branch they occupied was closed for business.   They succeeded in disrupting PNC’s business-as-usual and witnessing to the devastation it conceals.  It remains to be seen if PNC will change course or continue financing MTR and other extreme modes of energy extraction.

Whatever the outcome, I came away from the bank convinced that actions for environmental justice can and should be occasions for class solidarity.  That possibility, however, is neither obvious nor easy to act on.  There’s a history of classism within the Green movement, for instance, discussed by our allies at Class Action.  And there has been a conflict between the perceived interests of labor and environmentalists, as Lou Martin explained here in 2011. Such sources of class conflict are now being addressed by groups like the Sierra Club and the BlueGreen Alliance.  And we have many other examples of cross-class organizing and histories of international solidarity to draw upon.  Naomi Klein, whose forthcoming book will address climate change and the growing grassroots resistance, cites Canada’s Idle No More and other indigenous peoples’ movements as sources of hope, inspiring global support.

Emmott concludes his book: “We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe.  But I don’t think we will.  I think we’re fucked.” Let’s do that radical thing and prove him wrong.

Nick Coles

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

How Kasich Can Win Ohio Again

In November 2011, I published a New York Times op-ed entitled “How Obama Can Win Ohio Again.” Now, with my pundit credentials firmly established (sic), I am opining that Ohio Governor John Kasich will win reelection in 2014. This could play havoc with Democrats’ hopes for the 2016 Presidential election.

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are usually thought of as swing states that are gradually but decisively getting bluer.  But the 2010 midterm elections were a watershed for Republican governorships in those states. Four right-wing Republicans came to power and immediately mounted formidable attacks on traditional Democratic supporters, including unions, blacks, and women. Major political struggles ensued in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, but with very different results. Following the 2012 Presidential election, where all four states went for Obama, those attacks continued, especially on issues of immigration, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

In Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio in 2011, rust belt Democrats counterattacked.  Particularly important were mass mobilizations around collective bargaining changes and recall elections for state officials. While receiving most of the media attention, the Wisconsin actions did little but slow the state’s draconian labor law changes, though they did put Republican legislators on notice for the dangers of overreach.  The same was true in Michigan, where changes occurred on a piecemeal legislative basis. The mobilization in Ohio was more successful, resulting in a stunning repeal of anti-union legislation, SB5. Since then, Governor John Kasich and Ohio Republican legislators have scaled back direct attacks on unions and collective bargaining.

This year, Republicans legislatures have once again gone on the offensive in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, while Kasich is playing a somewhat different game in Ohio.  For example, after the 2012 Presidential election, Michigan Governor Richard Snyder extended the attack on organized labor and broke his promise not to enact a right-to-work law. Republican legislatures in all four states want to push their political advantage in hopes of turning at least two of these four rust belt states red in the 2016 elections. They are doing this by securing their base support on social issues such as abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage while continuing their attack on unions and voting rights.

Kasich has taken a more arms length approach than fellow governors on wedge issues and stayed away from anti-union legislation.  Several conservative Ohio legislators have attempted to push right-to-work legislation, but taking a cue from Kasich, Republican legislators did not provide legislative support for the initiative, and it died in Committee.  No doubt, the last thing that Ohio Republicans want in 2014 is a repeat of the 2011 mobilization that brought together labor and community groups and defeated SB5.

While attacks on labor have decreased, Kasich is touting Ohio’s improving economy. At the 2012 Republican Convention, where Obama’s economic policies were being trashed, Kasich gave a speech touting all the economic improvements, tax cuts, and job creation in Ohio and bragging that Ohio was a great place to do business. Party leaders didn’t much like the speech, but Kasich’s “enterprise” approach made sense. Ohio has seen a substantial but uneven economic recovery, in part due, ironically, to the continuing benefits of the stimulus package and auto bailout and the growth of the oil and natural gas industry. The result has been that Ohio’s economy grew faster than the national average, and since 2011 the unemployment rate has fallen below the national average.

Even though that economic growth has primarily benefited whites, and minorities continue to lag in the current economic recovery, Kasich might have race on his side in 2014. In Ohio and elsewhere, Republican have pinned their 2014 election hopes on attracting white working-class voters who didn’t participate in the 2012 Presidential elections. Washington Post exit polls showed that about half of Ohio voters fall into this category, and 42% voted for the President. Nationally, only 36% of white working-class voters supported Obama. If Obama brought black and Latino voters to the polls in 2012, Republicans like Kasich hope that they can prevail in 2014 because minority voters won’t show up. Obama won’t be on the ticket, Ohio urban centers are being depopulated, and the Supreme Court has largely gutted the Voting Rights Act.  All of that could depress minority turnout, making the white working-class vote statistically more important to Ohio Republicans.

Overall, Kasich’s strategy of avoiding major mobilizing issues and following traditional Republican fiscal conservatism has resulted dramatic increase in his approval ratings. So solid does Kasich appear that some potentially strong Democratic candidates, such as Richard Cordray, former governor Ted Strickland, and Representative Tim Ryan, have decided not to run against him. The Ohio Democratic Party has been left with a weak gubernatorial candidate, Ed Fitzgerald, a one-term Cuyahoga County Commissioner who some see as a position jumper. To make matters worse, the ODP is being led by the same apparatchiks whom many blame for the 2010 Republican sweep.  That, in turn, led to redistricting that will make it impossible for Ohio Democrats to gain control the legislature in this decade.

So what could go wrong for Kasich? He must keep the most conservative elements of his party under control.  Already this year, conservatives nationally and in Ohio have pushed laws that attack poor whites, seniors, and women. Cuts to food stamps and Medicaid primarily hurt whites, for example.  In Ohio, 65% of households receiving food stamps and 61% of those on Medicaid are white. Also, despite widespread public support for same-sex marriage and less restrictive abortion policy, new Ohio Republican legislation dramatically restricts abortions.  Republicans are also fending off challenges to Ohio’s Constitutional ban on same-sex marriages. Changes in voter registration, which would primarily affect minorities and seniors, could work against Kasich by sparking another round of organizing and resistance.  Finally, a political scandal like the one that dogged Ohio Republican candidates in 2006 could help Democrats campaign on a clean up government message. One may be brewing over the lack of transparency in Kasich’s privatization of Ohio’s job development agency.

Taken together, these conservative attacks, potential scandals, and union fears of right-to-work legislation following a successful reelection could make Kasich vulnerable to a broad mobilizing effort. But only if Ohio Democrats can develop a strong economic and legislative message and tap into Ohio’s organizing culture. Absent this, it seems likely that Kasich will win Ohio again. And if other rust belt governors follow suit and take a more moderate approach in the short term, this could mean problems for Democrats in 2014 and make the 2016 Presidential election much more competitive in these crucial states.

John Russo

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

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

The White Vote in 2012 & the Obama Coalition

I’ve had it with “the white working class.”  Not the actually existing part of the working class that is white, which is composed of complex and interesting people most of whom don’t vote like I think they should, but rather the fictional character who got so much attention during this year’s election campaign.

The fictional character is a white guy who works in a decrepit factory or drives a truck.  He drinks boilermakers (not wine and never a latte) and is good at bowling rather than golf.  Depending on political point of view, he is a “culturally confused but good-hearted racist” or a “salt-of-the-earth real American who loves God and guns and hates both gays and Wall-Street bankers.”

As a demographic category that divides white voters without bachelor’s degrees from those who have that “middle-class” credential, the “white working class” concept makes sense to me, but only if its use fulfills two conditions that the political media apparently cannot manage:

  • First, that we always keep in mind that “white working class” is a demographic category that clumps together more than 45 million voters who share two characteristics and only two – race, as conventionally defined, and the absence of a bachelor’s degree.  The category includes women and men of all religions (and varying levels of religious commitment) and regions. They come from big cities, suburbs, small towns, and isolated shacks in all parts of the country.  It includes Bill Gates and other fabulously rich people who never completed bachelor’s degrees, and it leaves out the many factory workers, truck drivers, waitresses, and retail clerks who did. That is, like all concepts, “white working class” is a convenience for getting a hold on the big picture, but it grossly simplifies a much more complex and varied social reality.  We need to constantly remind ourselves that there is not now, never has been, and never could be a “typical” white working-class person.
  • Second, that as a demographic category for the purposes of electoral analysis, “white working class” is valuable only as part of a comprehensive discussion of the white vote in U.S. elections.

I’ve made the first point before, more than once.  Here let me concentrate on the second by detailing my conclusions about how the concept has played out in the 2012 presidential election.

After much pre-election discussion of how the “white working-class” would vote, the major news media who commissioned the massive election-day exit poll have not reported on their websites how this group actually voted.  In fact, the websites listing that information — voter-category by voter-category, state by state — in 2012 have less than 1/10th the information that CNN had (and still has) on its web site for 2008.   But here’s what I can report based on what is available on Fox News, CNN, and the New York Times, plus some numbers from reporters who have access to the poll’s internals – most importantly, “The Obama Coalition in the 2012 Election and Beyond” by Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin.

  • Class in itself had almost no impact on how people voted for president in 2012.  The middle class (folks of all shades and colors with at least a bachelor’s degree) voted 50/48 for President Obama, and the somewhat larger group of voters with no bachelor’s degree, the working class, voted 51/47 for the President.  Thus, because the middle and working classes voted basically the same, class by itself did not matter.
  • Race, on the other hand, makes a huge difference in how people vote.  Nonwhites (Black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian and Other) voted a little more than 80% for Obama while only 39% of whites did that – a difference of more than 40 percentage points.  Both the middle class and the working class gave Obama slight majorities based primarily on nonwhite voters who offset his 20-point loss among whites.
  • Among whites, the white working class is far from unique in giving Mitt Romney substantial majorities.  Nationally, working-class whites gave Obama only 36% of their vote, but middle-class whites, though slightly more favorable at 42%, also gave Romney a large majority.  Other demographics within the white vote show similar patterns.  Though there are important differences among white voters, most white demographics vote strongly Republican.  For example:
    • Women gave Obama a 55% majority, but not white women, who voted 56/42 for Romney.  White men, on the other hand, were even more strongly for Romney (62/35).  The gender gap is actually bigger among Blacks and Latinos than it is among whites.  Black women voted 9 points more for Obama than their male counterparts; Latino women, 11 points more, and white women, 7 points more.
    • Obama won a bare majority among Catholics (50/48), but lost white Catholics by 19 points – which, however, is a lot better than he did among white Protestants who he lost by 39 points.  On the other hand, Obama won substantial majorities among whites who self-identified as non-Christian or as having no religion.
    • Obama also famously won big (60/37) among young people aged 18-29, but the majority of whites in this age group voted for Romney (51/44).  On the other hand, no other white age group gave Obama more than 39% of their vote.
    • Where whites live matters a lot.  There were no exit polls in some states this year, and so far there is no breakdown of voters by both race and education (as there was in previous years).  From what we have, however, it is clear that the national white vote of 39% for the President hides a lot of variation – whites in Vermont and Alabama vote very differently (66% vs. 15% for Obama in 2012), as do whites in Iowa and Missouri (51% vs. 32% for Obama).  Likewise, whites in large and medium-sized metropolitan areas (250,000 and above) vote more Democratic than whites in the small-town and rural areas of the same states.

Though shrinking as a proportion of the population and thus of the electorate, whites are still a very large majority (72% of the 2012 electorate), and the 39% of us who voted for President Obama provided the bulk of his votes in 2012 (36 million vs. 29 million from nonwhites). But our voices would not have been heard without strong turnouts (against formidable efforts at voter suppression) and lopsided votes for Obama among nonwhites.  On the other hand, their voices would have been drowned out – and worse – without us.  That’s what a multiracial coalition looks like.  Though its weakest link, the white working class is a significant portion of the coalition, and not just in the Midwest battlegrounds.  Of Obama’s 65 million votes in 2012, 30% came from whites with bachelor’s degrees and 25% (more than 16 million) came from those without them.

Part of the reason progressive Democrats have focused on the white working class over the past decade is that among whites, they are much more likely to benefit from progressive economic programs than middle-class whites – programs like universal health care, enhancements of earned income and child tax credits, infrastructure spending, green manufacturing, and unemployment benefits and food stamps.  This has not worked yet to produce more white working-class voters for Dems, at least not at a national level, but the logic is good because all these programs disproportionately benefit working-class Blacks, Latinos, and Asians as well.  And that basic approach, as qualified and compromised as it has played out in practice, is working so far politically, if not economically.  As Teixeira and Halpin conclude:

President Obama and his progressive allies have successfully stitched together a new coalition in American politics, not by gravitating toward the right or downplaying the party’s diversity in favor of white voters.  Rather, they did it by uniting disparate constituencies – including an important segment of the white working class – behind a populist, progressive vision of middle-class economics and social advancement for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.

I find the Democrats’ obsessive use of “middle class” irritating, and I’m not sure they’ve articulated anything I want to call “a populist, progressive vision” (as opposed to some of their actual programs), but it is worth appreciating the enormous accomplishment, however fragile and flawed, of what Teixeira and Halpin call “a multiracial, multiethnic, cross-class coalition” that put Barack Obama in the White House for a second term.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies