Tag Archives: British politics

The Working-Class Argument for Scottish Independence

On September 18th, the people of Scotland will vote on whether they wish to leave the United Kingdom and become independent, the first time that there has been such a constitutional referendum. This has arisen due to the victory of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the 2011 elections to the Scottish Parliament, a pseudo-federal institution with some independent powers over matters of health and education separate from the UK Government at Westminster. Whilst nationalist and class politics rarely go together comfortably, the case for a yes vote in September emphasizes progressive politics rather than bourgeoisie nationalism or Mel Gibson-inspired notions of ‘freedom.’ Working-class radicals are sharing a platform with neo-liberal supporting nationalists because they see the opportunities for the Scottish working class if Scotland gains independence from the UK.

Scottish society isn’t fundamentally different than the rest of the UK. As a region, it shares many similarities with other areas historically dependent on heavy industry, such as the North-East of England and the former mining areas of Wales. On the other hand, Scotland pays more taxes per person than the rest of the UK, oil in Scotland’s North Sea accounts for over a quarter of corporation tax paid in the UK, and cotland’s renewable energy sector has massive potential. Despite this wealth in resources, Scotland’s mortality and poverty rates are higher than UK averages, and Glasgow has the lowest life expectancy of any UK city. Due to UK government attacks on the welfare state, the Scottish working-class are increasingly reliant on charity to put food on their table.

Higher rates of poverty might account for the limited appeal of right-wing politics in Scotland. In the 2010 UK election, the right-wing Conservative Party won just one Member of Parliament in Scotland, out of a possible 59. In Scotland, the centre-right Labour Party dominated the later twentieth-century based on an historical working-class appeal and left-wing politics. But the the British Labour Party has moved further to the right in order to appeal to prosperous voters in the south of England, and the British working-class continue to be hammered. Today, 900,000 more people live in poverty across the UK than in 2010. Labour’s shift to the right was exploited by the SNP, who have repeatedly moved to the left of Labour on a number of social issues, presenting themselves as the most progressive of the main parties in Scotland and winning support from a large section of the working class.

Socialists opposed to independence argue that constitutional change will not necessarily lead to an improvement in the condition of the Scottish working-class. That may be true, but it could protect the few benefits already available in Scotland that don’t exist elsewhere in the UK. Currently, prescription medication and higher education are free in Scotland, benefits not afforded to those in England. The UK government imposed a controversial under-occupancy charge on social housing residents deemed to have “spare” bedrooms in 2012, penalizing the working-class people who rely on social housing.  Following a mass grassroots campaign, the Scottish Government developed a plan to cover the extra charge.

With full independence, Scotland could fully reject the current austerity agenda and take steps to becoming a substantially more equal society than is possible in the existing political system. An independent Scotland would be nuclear-free, with the Scottish Government’s pledge to remove the UK nuclear arsenal from their current base at Faslane, near Glasgow, a position not supported by any London-based party. The Scottish Health Service will continue to be free at the point of need, as the service in the rest of the UK is becoming increasingly privatised. University education will be free, while students in England pay £9,000 per year.

Whilst some prominent Scottish socialists, such as George Galloway, have spoken in against separation, the campaign has support on the Left from several lifelong socialists, including s Tommy Sheridan, Tariq Ali, and Billy Bragg. A range of working-class and left-wing grassroots organisations, such as Radical Independence, The Green Party, and the Reid Foundation, are also involved, demonstrating the appeal of the campaign based on class issues and progressive politics. On the other hand, right-wing and reactionary groups such as the Loyal Orange Lodge, the right-wing populist UK Independence Party, and the fascist British National Party are actively campaigning against independence.

Instead of offering a better future for the working class, the campaign against independence has emphasized the political upheaval that this change would cause over issues of currency, membership of the European Union, international treaty agreements, and other ‘high politics’ which have little impact on the day-to-day lives of the Scottish working-class.

A vote for independence for Scotland is an important step in the country’s working-class struggle. A “yes” vote not only opens up the potential for a radically more progressive Scotland. It also represents the best immediate opportunity to improve the condition of Scottish working-class society. To paraphrase James Connolly, hoisting the St Andrews flag over Edinburgh Castle is not the end result for Scottish socialists campaigning for independence. It is merely a start.

Andy Clark

Andy Clark is a PhD student in History at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. His research focuses on the resistance of women workers to factory closure in Scotland during the early 1980s, with an emphasis on the impact of deindustrialization on working-class society and worker militancy.

 

The Value(s) of Working-Class Jobs

When I was a kid growing up I looked up to my cousin. Ronald was twenty years my senior, and in his mid-twenties he decided to become a bus driver on London Transport. Whenever I saw him, I would be enthralled by his tales of the road, the ordinary stories of depot life, his work mates and his passengers. To a young kid, Ronald’s job made sense to me.  He did something tangibly worthwhile. My family didn’t own a car, so all our journeys involved some form of public transport, either by train or more usually by bus. In my universe, bus drivers had status. Their work was more intelligible than the labor of the Ford worker next door or the TV repairman across the street. These images of working-class work were reinforced in popular culture, and one of the most popular TV sitcoms of the decade was On the Buses,a series still being rerun somewhere in the further reaches of the UK TV schedule.  In the 1960s and 70s, we regularly saw representations of blue-collar work on our screens.

I was thinking about Ronald the other week as I read a biographical piece about the newly appointed Conservative government minister for the UK Department of Media, Culture and Sport, Sajid Javid MP. By anyone’s measure, the 44 year old Javid has had a stellar career as an investment banker with Deutsche Bank, eventually becoming a board member with a reputed £3 million annual income and a luxury lifestyle including private schooling for his children.

By contrast, Javid’s father arrived in the UK in 1961 from Pakistan with only a pound in his pocket, and he worked various jobs including driving buses in Bristol. That personal history is now a central part of the political biography of the son. Bus driving and similar jobs seem significant for politicians and journalists these days, and, they presumably assume, for their audiences.

We can read this ‘son of a bus driver’ narrative in various ways. The first would be the ‘look how far he’s come’ school of thought, which highlights the son’s battles against the odds to get to university and then on to a thoroughly middle-class trajectory. The second version uses the story to define the son as ‘a Conservative Party MP with roots in the working-class community’. Both positions at once use and discard working-class identity as the credibility it affords recedes into the background. What is notable is that being able to claim to be the son of a working-class bus driver still has traction, perhaps especially in a party seen as elitist and out of touch, led by a privately educated cadre of bluebloods.

But there’s a third way of reading this narrative of upward mobility: noting the dominant middle-class perspective it reveals. While class background is noteworthy, it is also safely tucked away a generation before. That means we don’t have to address questions of class or structural inequality directly. Rather than asking why don’t we recruit MPs from the ranks of bus drivers – or care workers, cleaners, and shop assistants – this dominant middle-class narrative naturalizes the idea that we should, and perhaps have to, draw our political class from people from who are already part of an elite privileged middle class. If being from a working-class background has not harmed Jarid’s political capital, I suspect an actual bus driver applying to stand as an MP for any of the mainstream parties would find that capital has little currency for contemporary selection panels.

This all leads me to worry about what will happen in the future, since all the mainstream UK political parties are increasingly recruiting potential members from an ever narrower band socially, economically, and educationally. Will a next generation of politicians find some kind of status and kudos from claiming a grandparental working-class background?

This distance between political elites and average people found expression in debates last year about MPs salaries. The task of determining MPs remuneration has been stripped from them – yes, they used to decide their own pay – and given instead to an independent parliamentary body.  It recommended in December 2013 that members should get an 11% rise, taking their pay from £66,000 to £77,000. The average salary in the UK is £26,500. The debate around this proposal shows that many politicians have come to see their elite peers, who earn about three times the average salary, as typical and representative of British society. This is further reinforced by the fact that many of the current cabinet, 23 out of 29, are millionaires. Even the opposition Labour Party’s shadow cabinet can claim seven millionaires. The result is that working-class jobs and the people who do them are outside the circle of experience of most senior politicians.

My cousin Ronald retired after working on the buses in east London for four decades last year. When he joined London Transport in the 1970s his job had some real measure of status.  Indeed, London busmen in the 1950s (and they were all men then) were described as radical aristocrats due to their pay and conditions of service. Gradually through his career my cousin’s job dropped in status, becoming less desirable as the decades went by. He had to move depots several times as a result of corporate reorganisation and was made redundant at least once as the now privatized company he worked for lost the contract for the routes he drove. Nonetheless he retired on a company pension from a still heavily unionised job. Ronald has two children now in their twenties I know they don’t work on the buses, but perhaps they could try out as politicians? After all, their dad was a bus driver.

Tim Strangleman

Learning about Labor in London

I have been living in London for a month, as part of my university’s study abroad program.  (It’s a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.)  As it happens, I am a Brit and lived here decades ago between college and grad school, before moving to the US for most of my adult life.  It’s good to be back, as a sort of native foreigner, and with a group of American undergraduates for whom it is all new.  They’ve figured how to cross the road without getting killed, how to bag their own groceries, how to say “cheers” instead of thank you, and they seem to be enjoying the younger drinking age.  But they were floored by the recent strike on the London Underground, which they have learned to call “the tube.”  Commutes to class that normally took forty minutes now took two hours.  Why wasn’t everybody else outraged?

Of the cities I’ve known, London has the most efficient and rider-friendly transportation system (also the most expensive).  Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, and safe, arriving every few minutes, from early morning until late at night.  Electronic signs at stations and bus stops inform you when the next will arrive.   The “Oyster card” makes for easy movement through the turnstiles, and there is usually someone to help if they jam or you’re lugging a large suitcase. Clearly, smart investments have been made by Transport for London (TfL), the “public private partnership” instituted in 2003 under former Labour mayor Ken Livingston, known as “Red Ken.”

The tube carries 3.4 million riders a day, so even without a strike it can get crowded in rush hour, as I discovered recently at Victoria station.  The platform was packed with people from the wall to the tracks, with more filing in through the access tunnels, and another file trying to make for the exits in the opposite direction.  Trains arrived a minute or two apart and the front layer of people would push on board each time.  I was amazed by the orderliness of the scene, maybe a thousand people waiting, taking turns, no-one apparently complaining or freaking out.  So this is in fact possible: the tacit solidarity of strangers for the common good.  In this case, keeping safe and getting home or to dates with who- or whatever.

Although during the strike most Londoners – who are used to these biennial disruptions – seemed to “keep calm and carry on,” the strike did expose fractures in this apparent solidarity.  What looked initially like a political contest over control of public resources, and of the workforce that sustains them, turned out to have roots in class conflict as well.

The simple version of the cause of the February 2014 strike is unionized tube workers’ objection to proposals by TfL to close station ticket offices at a cost of about 950 jobs, for a saving of £50 million a year.   The unions involved – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – obviously have an interest in protecting their members’ jobs, but there are also issues of safety at stations with only one staff member on duty to help passengers in need or respond to emergencies.  Too, the unions argue that not everyone has access to the smart phones and credit cards — that TfL says will replace ticket and information booths.  RMT claims the cuts will have a “seriously adverse impact on women, older and disabled people and the BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] community.”

The UK tabloid press, which makes no distinction between news and opinion, quickly lost sight of those issues and instead set the story up as a melodramatic power struggle between Good Old Boris Johnson, the mayor, and Bad Old Bob Crow, leader of the RMT.  Elected in 2008 and again in 2012, Johnson is a fully vested member of the old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated set that once again rules this country (Prime Minister David Cameron has the same pedigree).  With his artfully tousled blond mop and clownish wit, Johnson conceals a nimble right-wing opportunism.  Bob Crow is a Cockney Socialist, whose union was “disaffiliated” from Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 in a clash between RMT’s left alliances and New Labour’s pro-business agenda.  According to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, Crow “sees himself as waging class war in his job every day.”

Johnson appears to be much the better PR man.  He has deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he campaigned against former Mayor Livingston on a platform that included “no ticket office closings” – and won.  Now he says, everyone has iPhones so technology makes the offices redundant.  Johnson has instead made much of that fact that Crow, who earns $145,000 as head of his 70,000 member union, lives in a Council (i.e. publicly subsidized) house.  Crow, of course, would claim that this allows him to stay connected to the working-class community he came up in.  Johnson, meanwhile, makes $250,000 a year for his weekly column in the conservative Daily Telegraph, which he uses to lambast Crow and his union for their attempt “to paralyse the greatest city on earth.”

Crow did score a point when he invited Johnson, on a radio show, to sit down and settle things, which Johnson has repeatedly refused to do.  “He’s met 86 bankers since he’s been mayor. But he won’t meet the trade unions,” Crow pointed out.  Labour MP Emily Thornberry had this to say to Johnson: “How mad is it that you haven’t spoken to [Bob Crow] for five years? He has to call you up on LBC to talk to you. It’s not right.  It’s nonsense why the leader of London is not talking to the leader of the Underground union. It’s just the most ridiculous bit of willy-waving I’ve seen.”  Compounding Johnson’s failure of leadership is the fact that as mayor he is also Chairman of the Board of Transport for London and sets its budget.  These are his proposals that he is refusing to discuss, in pursuit of the Tory’s anti-union agenda.

So the first 48-hour strike went ahead, February 4 – 6, with about 30% of trains running, thanks in part to strikebreakers who were skillfully rebranded as “ambassadors” (to evoke the spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games here, when such volunteers helped visitors find their way around).  A second strike planned for the following week was called off after TfL agreed to halt implementation of the proposed cuts pending consultation with the unions and passenger groups over a range of future issues impacting safety, cost-saving, and job security, including ticket-office closures, “lone working,” and 24-hour service.

For my students, coming from a culture in which unions are often demonized as a greedy special interest, this is a great learning opportunity.  They can study the class conflicts that underlie London’s business-as-usual, which get exposed when it is disrupted.  They can also study the reasons for “industrial action” and glimpse the possibilities for beneficial outcomes: the chance, at least, of cooperation between local government and labor organizations in the interest of a safer, more efficient public transportation system staffed by people whose expertise and right to a decent livelihood is respected.  That, anyway, is what I will try to teach them.

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

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

On pasties, poshness and petrol: The new language of class in the UK

On both sides of the Atlantic we have become used to the deployment of proxies for class in political language, but in the UK just recently this has taken a new turn with the political scandal that is ‘Pastygate.’ Now this isn’t a scandal to rival the break-in at the Watergate building, nor is it one to bring down the UK government. Pastygate refers to decision taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne to impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on Cornish Pasties when they are heated above ambient room temperature. I know what you are thinking: Sherry has uploaded the wrong blog this week.  But bear with me.

The uproar around Pastygate centred on the fact that this was widely seen as another attack on the working class, insofar as it is they who tend to buy the humble warmed pasty. With VAT running at 20% this was an inflation-busting rise on a working-class fast food staple.  Politicians of left and right have been falling over themselves to be seen eating pasties in the last month, or struggling to remember when they last consumed one, in order to demonstrate their common touch.

At the same time, the budget also saw a widely criticised cut in the top rate of income tax. The Treasury viewed this measure as simply tidying up tax anomalies, but many have read it as part of a bigger narrative of a government of the elite out of touch with ordinary people. Taken together the two tax moves have been woven in to an emerging story that has at its heart class, which we will pick up later.

But first, petrol! British petrol tanker truck drivers have balloted for industrial action over their conditions of service, health and safety fears, and concern over a race to the bottom in terms of wages.  The big oil companies have outsourced the delivery of fuel to gas stations, and the competitive market has seen a wide deterioration in working conditions. Government ministers, while condemning the looming strikes, urged motorists to fill up their tanks while they had the chance, and one even suggested filling up jerry cans to store in the garage.  Roundly condemned by the fire service and the media, the minister involved was portrayed as elitist and out of touch, in part because of the assumption that everyone in Britain would have a garage. The advice caused a fuel shortage as the pumps ran dry as well as a run on jerry cans.

The cumulative effect of these and other stories – apart from the humorous relief it has given to people struggling through a double dip recession and dire unemployment figures – has been a sense that this is a government run by an out of touch elite. Indeed, one of Prime Minister David Cameron’s own party rounded on him and the Chancellor just last week. Maverick Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) Nadine Dorries described both Cameron and Chancellor Osborne as “Two arrogant posh boys who don’t know the price of a pint of milk” with “no remorse, no contrition and no passion to want to understand the lives of others, and that is their real crime.”

George Gideon Oliver Osborne used to be just Gideon Oliver.  He describes his decision to change his name to George at age 13 as “his one act of rebellion.”  Osborne is the son of a baronet and Felicity Alexandra Loxton-Peacock. A multimillionaire, Osborne, like Cameron, enjoyed an elite education at private school followed by Oxford University, where both enrolled in the Bullingdon Club, an elite university dining club founded over 200 years ago. Membership elections are held twice a year. Successful new members are visited in their rooms and expected to consume the contents of an entire tin of Colman’s powdered English Mustard.  The rooms are then “trashed” as a symbol of their election. Club members dress in sky blue and ivory colored tailcoats, the whole ensemble costing in excess of $5700. A now infamous picture shows Cameron and other members of the club posing on the steps of a grand building at Oxford.  This image reemerges from time to time and has haunted “Dave” as an unwelcome reminder of his far from ordinary background.

At the beginning of his premiership, Cameron notably said that “we were all in this together,” referring to the collective struggle to endure the greatest peacetime recession in living memory. Deliberately invoking the spirit of the Blitz, he attempted to conjure up a society suffering in equal measure – one with a degree of classlessness. In contrast, the furor over pasties, petrol, and poshness has popularized an image of a group of wealthy elites waging a class war on those below them. The effect, I think, has been – like 1 percent versus the 99 percent slogan of the Occupy Movement in the U.S. — to separate off the elite from an admittedly very diverse mass  – the middle and working class and the unemployed who perhaps share little in common apart from not being part of this uber-elite. And despite Cameron’s effort to invoke classlessness, the language of class has re-emerged in popular discourse, whether it refers to the upper class or to the working and middle classes who perhaps see themselves as having more in common than has been assumed for decade or more.

This new class discourse is driven by the cumulative effect of cuts in government spending, which are causing a huge retrenchment in all kinds of state services provided by central and local government.  While the impact has already been profound, conservative estimates suggest that so far we have experienced just 10% of the full cuts, meaning many more jobs in the public sector as well as numerous services are still to be lost over the next few years. Crucially, this impact is being felt by working and middle class families – either directly in terms of  lost jobs or in the form of public services once assumed to be safe.

At the same time, because of the economic situation, being working class is no longer a pariah state. Equally important, serious questions are being raised about growing and profound income inequality in the UK. In the local elections held at the beginning of May the Conservatives did very badly and commentators in part explained this through the government being viewed as out of touch by the electorate. While pasties aren’t on the menu of the Bullingdon club it seems we are (almost) all pasty eaters now!

Tim Strangleman

Tim Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods.

Class and the English Riots

A few weeks ago, England erupted with protests that many saw as tied to the global economic crisis.  What began as a peaceful protest against the police, who had shot dead a suspect in Tottenham North London on August 6, rapidly spread across London and then to other parts of the country. Over the space of the next five days, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Manchester all experienced a wave of rioting and looting.

Politicians and commentators proceeded down a well-worn path of analysis and political point scoring. Most politicians were quick to blame “mindless thugs,” “gangs,” and “feral youth.”  They pointed to the lack of moral values in contemporary society, and the Conservatives, who are the senior partners in our coalition government, saw the riots as yet more evidence of their narrative of “Broken Britain” (conveniently ignoring the fact that other parts of Britain, such as Wales and Scotland, suffered no problems).

What was lacking, initially at least, was any mention of class. It appeared only in references to an underclass. Rhetorically this is a really useful piece of shorthand for the political classes in Britain, as I guess it is in the US. Talk of the underclass allows critics to blame society’s troubles on an ill-defined amorphous band of cultural stereotypes and folk demons.  It also allows for a wider sidestepping of questions of class and inequality that has been rising for the last three decades or more and is sure to increase further in the age of austerity. In this narrative, the riots are defined as the work of the work shy, the amoral, and the feckless; looting represents a mindless opportunism of those lacking a basic ethic of responsibility.

Any other mention of class takes the form of a kind of nostalgic lament for the working class of old. You remember, when the working class knew their place, worked hard, and got on with their lot without complaint. They, the old respectable working class, never complained about deprivation or went out and rioted.

When he was the leader of the opposition, David Cameron — now British Prime Minister — developed his party’s social policy around the concept or sound bite of “Broken Britain.” This was an interesting strategy and not without risk.  It allowed him to reclaim social policy for the Tory party and create a British version of compassionate conservatism. In this way, Cameron could blame the Labour government, which by that time had held power for over a decade, for all of Britain’s social problems. Rather than the solution, state intervention was identified as the cause of the problem. Labour was strangely quiescent in the face of these charges for a number of reasons. It had itself been largely silent on the question of class; it had also been, as one senior New Labour figure put it “relaxed” about the super rich.  But above all, the Party’s acceptance of Thatcherism and the wider neo-liberalism of the 1980s and 1990s meant that they were unable to develop a more critical analysis of deepening inequality.

In the wake of the riots, other voices that do want to talk about class and social and economic inequality have begun to be heard. At first this line of explanation was a difficult one for politicians and commentators as it was portrayed as a causal argument – poverty equals riot – and therefore easy to criticise as not all rioters were poor, and not all poor areas went up in flames. Gradually what has been emerging, I think, is a more nuanced account of the riots which begins to look harder at the nature of social inequality in Britain. This more self-confident attempt to talk about these issues emerges from a range of academics through to journalists.

In their wake, Labour politicians and some liberals one have begun to deploy these arguments themselves. The most high profile academic in the UK addressing inequality is the social geographer Danny Dorling (most recently in Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists), whose detailed reading of a range of materials places in long-term perspective the widening gap between rich and poor. Dorling is joined by journalists such as Polly Toynbee, who writes for the left of centre Guardian newspaper and who has been a longstanding voice for those left behind by neo-liberalism. Finally, the riots have thrust centre stage a young social and political commentator Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – whose book charts how the working class has been marginalized within political rhetoric and had its  problems ignored. While none of these commentators seeks to excuse civil unrest, they all, in fairly similar ways, explain the complexity of British society and its longstanding problems. All three recognize that contemporary social problems and community breakdown have their origins in the deindustrialization and subsequent joblessness in Britain since the 1970s and 1980s.

The hopeful development from the tragic events of early August is that class is once again beginning to be rediscovered in the political lexicon.  It is interesting to note that some commentators draw parallels between the unbridled acquisitiveness of the looters and the compensation paid to bankers and the fraud so recently committed by members of Parliament in their expenses claims. This may suggest the potential to shift the discourse about class, so that inequality is no longer seen as evidence of individual moral failing. It also might herald a shift in the vernacular where class can be really talked about and “working class” ceases to be a pejorative label. It might also allow those critical of the current government to pose two questions.  First, if Britain is broken, who broke it? And, secondly, if you didn’t like the organized working class of the 1980s, how do you like the disorganized working class now?

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods