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.