When Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street earlier this summer, after succeeding David Cameron as Prime Minister, she did something extraordinary: she used the phrase ‘working class’. Not for May the mealy-mouthed ‘working people’, ‘hardworking families’, or some such combination. This was full on, max strength ‘working class’. Last week May went even further and used the phrase ‘working class’ not once but nine times in her Conservative conference speech, the nearest thing we have in the UK to a State of the Union address from our political head of state. To be fair these eighteen words were part of a near 6,000 word speech to the party faithful, but they were not tucked away in esoteric parts of the text. They were peppered through it from the first to last paragraphs, and always prefaced with the word ‘ordinary’. No one could miss these words; they were front and centre of the new PM’s platform.
This is significant in a number of ways, and it creates some interesting problems for politicians of left and right in the future. Most significant is simply that May used a phrase that had almost disappeared from the mainstream political lexicon. Since the Thatcher decade of the 1980s onward, politicians of all stripes have shied away from using the overt language of class. For the right, the term reminded people of economic and social difference and therefore growing levels of inequality, while the left sought to occupy the fabled middle ground of British politics, which was imagined to be classless. Tony Blair’s former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, himself from very humble origins, famously claimed that ‘we’re all middle-class now’. During this time the idea of the working class got edged out, not only of political discourse, but increasingly from popular culture, replaced by the rhetoric of the ‘chav’, a kind of semi-feral version of the dangerous and idle working class which political journalist Owen Jones explored so well in his 2010 book, subtitled ‘the demonization of the working class’.
So what is behind this turn back to class? A number of things may be at play here, most of them political. First, May has been very keen to distance herself and her new administration from the elite image that dogged Cameron’s leadership. While he surrounded himself with members of the so-called Notting Hill Set, named after the exclusive part of West London favoured by the rich and powerful, May’s front bench originate from slightly more diverse backgrounds. Openly acknowledging the working class and taking an interest in their issues therefore helps May claim a more egalitarian stance.
Second, this return to class may be a response to the rise and success of UKIP, whose leader and prominent members have been unafraid to use the term working class in order to prise disenchanted traditional Labour voters away from their spiritual home. By using the term herself, May is seeking to attract these same disaffected Labour voters while appealing to UKIP members and supporters, many of whom voted Conservative in the past.
In addition, May’s Conservative Party wants to camp on the centre ground of British politics by effectively side-lining the Labour Party. Since the election of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives and most of the UK mainstream media have sought to portray the Labour Party as on a leftward march to electoral oblivion. Even before the recent problems of Labour, some on the right have long tried to appeal to voters by reinventing the Conservative Party as ‘Red Tories’, or ‘working-class blues’, most recently echoed in ‘A New Workers’ Party’, a piece in the right of centre political magazine The Spectator.
Another aspect to all this might offer a crumb of comfort to those of us interested in working-class issues. For all the political posturing involved, this class rhetoric does make working-class people, their culture, and the issues that they care about visible again. However cynical May’s use of the phrase — and it’s interesting few of her cabinet colleagues use the term– she uses it while also raising important issues for working-class people, such as education, housing, low pay, insecurity, and work. It will be interesting to see the extent to which her administration’s policies actually tackle these same issues.
At the same time, whether May or her speech writers know it or not, many people still identify with the label working class. In surveys on class identity in 1964 and 2005, those who identified as working-class fell only from 64% to 57%, despite of massive changes in the occupational structure of the UK. Perhaps May recognizes that being working-class still has currency. Many people are proud to identify themselves as working-class.
Perhaps it is only a Conservative leader that could talk so overtly about the working class without risk of being labelled as a class warrior or accused of indulging in the politics of envy. The sincerity of May’s rhetorical move will be tested by the actions of her government but, nonetheless, the use of the term working class is anything but ordinary, and the Labour Party should take note. It might do well to redevelop its own language of class before it loses more of its base.