Will the British Working Class Stand Up and Fight Back?

I spent my teenage years in 1980s Thatcher’s Britain. Working-class people struggled in a grim environment. Three million people were unemployed, local services and the NHS were underfunded, and attacks were launched against unions (as a result of the miners’ strike). A culture of greed and excess characterised the City of London (the financial centre of the country). Life was hard, people suffered, many lost their homes and lived in cardboard cities in Central London. Towns faced pit closures and working-class people lost their main source of income and identity. Race riots broke out due to racism and police intimidation of Black Britons. The mainstream media’s coverage of the Falklands war whipped up xenophobia and nationalism. Angry people felt unheard by their elected representatives.

When I think back to the 1980s in my working-class neighbourhood, I remember unmaintained public housing, under-resourced schools, long waiting lists for medical treatment, heroin addiction, rough sleepers, and disenfranchised youth. Ideological attacks were launched at any ideas perceived as ‘lefty’ and empathy was withdrawn from people receiving welfare. This was a far cry from the clichéd pop culture imagery of the 1980s as big hair, shoulder pads, leg warmers, and Duran Duran (although pop culture offered some powerful responses to the times). Young working-class people felt alienated from parliamentary politics – who was listening to the unemployed youth and kids still in school facing such uncertain futures? No one, it seemed. Many of my peers lost faith in the main parties (including Labour). I don’t remember any of my friends talking about voting in the general election of 1987, when the Tories, still led by Thatcher, were returned in their third consecutive win.  Arguably, this election saw Labour move away from the left and towards the centre. But for the Tories to be returned so convincingly, many working-class people must have voted for them. Why did so many vote for a party that put their interests last?

I left the UK in 1992 and started a new life as an immigrant in Australia. But I still identify as British and have maintained my links to my homeland. I’ve been watching events there since I left and have felt particularly angry at how working-class people have been harmed by the policies the Tories implemented since they regained power in 2010. It feels like the 1980s again, but much worse. The unemployment rate may be lower (at 4.8%, from a high of over 11% in the mid-1980s), but it seems that the government has found ways to exclude people from the official figures, so the picture isn’t complete. And the prevalence of short term and casual contracts means high levels of precarity among those who do have jobs, who often earn minimum wages.

Savage cuts have hit public services hard, and an increasingly under-funded NHS is struggling to keep up with the demand for health services. Schools are in disrepair, local services are almost non-existent, with youth centres, libraries, and local programs designed to improve quality of life diminished or disappearing. Public housing is being sold off to private developers and tenants evicted. A cap on housing benefits has forced people on low incomes and receiving welfare to move out of London and relocate hundreds of miles away from family, friends, and support networks. Changes to rules for welfare have drastically reduced or even suspended people’s incomes. People cannot afford to buy food and must queue up for food bank assistance. Homelessness is on the rise, with the numbers of rough sleepers in cities increasing significantly – a reality that can’t be ignored, because they can easily be seen on the streets. Austerity measures have hit working-class people very hard.

What, then, will working-class class people in Britain do when the country goes to the polls on June 8th? Many commentators have analysed the rise of anti-politics and the increasing shift of support from so-called establishment politicians to their populist contenders. The Brexit vote, the election of Trump, and the increased vote share of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party in Australia have all been blamed on disillusioned white working-class voters who feel ignored by the mainstream political parties. But the working-class is diverse in terms of race and ethnicity, and some analysts have suggested that the rise of populist politics globally is much more complex. For example, many Trump, Brexit, and One Nation supporters are middle-class and affluent (although they are predominantly white).

Will the British working class take stock of Tory policies since the 1970s and decide that enough is enough? Will they insist on being heard? Will they fight back through the ballot box? Can Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party provide working-class people with real representation? Has his party done enough to win back working-class voters? Most importantly, will working-class people actually enrol to vote and exercise their democratic right? I’m worried that if history repeats itself, working-class people who make it to the polling booths could once again vote in a Tory government. The consequences of five more years of austerity are too awful to contemplate. My greatest hope for Britain at the moment is that this time, working-class people stand up and fight back!

Sarah Attfield

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Will the British Working Class Stand Up and Fight Back?

  1. Denis says:

    Unemployment is NOT low, people claiming benefits is low! if your’e not claiming, you must be working, but you can’t claim, because your’e no longer eligible!
    Smoke and mirrors….the Tory way


  2. Mark James says:

    Well it has been a couple of months since this conversation started and we have had a mind boggling general election in between. I will try to keep on familiar ground and talk about the Sheffield region. If there is evidence of a left liberalism at work then it must be Sheffield Hallam. Here in one of the most affluent constituencies in the North of England the Labour candidate, a working class local lad, unseated the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. Jaw dropping. On a shoestring budget with no support from the Labour machine a small group of activists delivered the coup of the election night. Were those activists middle class? Well if I am reading Tim right, yes they were. Therefore were they talking on behalf of the Working Class? In the sense that I understand Tim, yes they were. But they did it.
    Over the border in North East Derbyshire, a constituency that is historically Labour, consisting of former pit villages the vote went the other way and the Tories won. But I have not met one activist who does not believe that Labour will win it back in the next election with a thumping majority. How will it be done? In Sheffield Central we have 3000 members, compositionally middle class I suppose. My ward party has a1000 members. In our constituency we have a 30,000 majority. We will flood NE Derbyshire with activists. Will that shut down traditional working class voices? No, if done reflexively. Rather it will create the space for the old blue collar working class to re- enfranchise itself and regain confidence. I suspect that process has already started and is accelerating.
    What is alarming is that momentum will push Corbyn ( way to the left of Bernie)into power. That is when the newly forming alliance of the urban based non conformist middle class and the de- industrialised working class will be tested. That sense of a profound shift of class composition in the U.K. was played out at the Durham Miners Gala a couple of weekends ago. It was huge (250,00 minimum) colourful, vibrant and luminous. Last year Corbyn was met with indifference( at best), not this year. The Gala had not been hijacked by the middle class left, in objective compositional terms it was the same as it ever was but subjectively the Gala was something very different.
    If I was the Tories I would be very worried. For me the shift in the North is real, it looks like Chartism from the 1830s. With Brexit the northern fringe pushed the metropolis into a huge crisis. Teresa May thought she could capture the mood, bottle it and destroy Labour. It did not work. Now the wave has gone the other way destroying May, possibly the Tories and all our preconceptions about the shape of society. As an activist of 40 years standing I cannot really begin to think what is actually going on . I am not sure we have the conceptual scaffolding to even ask the right questions. But I will stick my neck out and suggest that all the old tropes of analysis, of both left and right, of sociology and psephology maybe be looking thin as huge waves of affect crash in and around our islands.


  3. Rivenrod says:

    If I had more time I would write an hour-long diatribe on just how succinctly you express the frustration and complexity of something that is as simple as, “what does the country you wish to live in look like?”

    Thank you, professor.


  4. David Byrne Emeritus Professor Durham University says:

    A big part of the problem is that New ‘Labour’s’ Third way programme amounted to neo-liberalism with a smiley face. Blair and Brown destroyed internal democracy in the Labour Party, did nothing to reverse Thatcher’s attacks on trade unions capacity to organize and act, privatized lots of public services including large parts of the NHS, and failed to regulate the bankers because Brown was dumb enough to think that their speculation and some taxes on it could fund the welfare state. When Labour lost in 2010 their economic spokesman Balls – well named you might say – just went along with the Tory /LibDem coalition narrative that the crisis and deficit were due to overspending rather than banking speculation. In Scotland there has been a sort of alternative voice in the SNP although the Nats talk Left and act right in imposing austerity and were very banker friendly themselves. However, the Scottish working class has largely turned to them to give social democracy a last chance. The term working class is very loosely used in discussions of post-industrial societies. It seems to have become applied only to the residualized remnant of the old manual working class. This is now a minority group although if we use the term properly in an economic sense to describe those dependent on wage labour then the working class is much more extensive. Labour in the UK has singularly failed to address the fact that it is the people below the very top 5% of household incomes but in the top half of the income distribution who have seen the biggest cuts in income and who see their children as likely to be worse off in material and security terms than they are themselves. Cultural discussions of the working class almost never address the significance of familial class origins. In 1911 one in 13 of all adult males of working age in the UK was a coal miner and that kind of family history does matter. So my answer to this question is that the poor and residualized working class outside Scotland won’t vote and some but not all (particularly not public sector workers) in the non-residualized working class will vote Tory because the remaining Blairite trash in the parliamentary Labour party will not let MacDonald (the brains of the left turn after Corbyn’s election) develop a coherent socialist alternative programme which makes sense in a post-industrial world. That will take some doing and Labour may die in its present form in the meantime – Scottish Labour is already a Zombie – but it has to be done.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mark James, Unite Community South Yorkshire, Working with Social Haunting Project. says:

      I am going to end up contradicting what I wrote earlier but I do think that we might be looking in the wrong place to understand the composition of the Working Class in England, at least. Sheffield, the city where I live is one of the most Working Class in the country. If there is a cause we will be out on the streets in substantive numbers. John Macdonald, the Shadow chancellor attracted a big crowd, Jeremy Corbyn leader of the opposition in the U.K. , even larger. WE had a large anti- Trump demonstration. But who was on these demos? Well with two huge universities in the city you would not have to be a genius to work it out. What you would not have heard are any of the flat vowel Yorkshire accents of most of the city, you would have heard the voices of sons and daughters of the baby boomers. So where on earth are the workers?
      To answer that question walk for 10 minutes or so from the Universities you find a very different world: the home of the Mighty Blades, Sheffield United.If anyone thinks the class has gone , go to a club like the Blades. Blue collar, fans who sing the Red Flag and the ” Greasy Chip Butty Song”. Who scream scab at any team from Nottingham. Who still have ” Blades against the Nazis” banners. Fans who sing rude( very rude) songs, light flares in pubs, get blindly drunk, hate the pigs( the utterly despised Sheffield Wednesday) and generally will not do what they are told.
      It is not pretty but it is there. Vibrant colourful working class culture. When will those two worlds coalesce in one of the great cities of resistance?


      • Tim says:

        The middle class infiltrated the Labour party. Some of them are genuine and want an end to the Tories, and some of them are phoney Blairites and want either the Tories in power or a neutered right wing Labour party that does nothing for the working class either.

        I think we all have to understand something here as well. This idea that loads of (white) working class people vote for right wing essentially conservative parties, which is in many cases obviously against their best interests, is not exactly true. Also, the idea that the middle class are all left wing isn’t true, either. They are ‘left liberal’ which is a different fish altogether. In short, the working class has been disenfranchised socially, politically and economically all over the Anglophone world for around forty years, and ‘left liberals’ have taken the side of the establishment and the wealthy to help this along.


  5. Mark James says:

    We are in a middle of an election campaign, so for us the fight back is through the ballot box. At least for now. The local council elections were largely held in the shire counties. Unsurprisingly they were staunchly Conservative. The Tories swept up a lot of UKIP voters. Sadly those counties like Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire where coal once ruled, the Labour Party lost control. labour won mayoral elections in Liverpool and Manchester but lost in Birmingham and Bristol. My hunch is that the picture is not as bleak as some have painted. In my city, Sheffield, Labour will win. It is in the smaller de- industrialised towns on the outskirts that the Tories threaten. The closer you are to a University, the fewer Tories you see.

    Which, if true, begs a question. What do we mean by working class? Is it the nurse who votes Labour, or the ex- miner who votes UKIP?

    In addition, can we talk of a British Working Class? If May is re- elected in June, the U.K. Is finished. Scotland will go. The firewall of Labour Party Unionism, that saved the Uk in the last Scottish independence referendum has been destroyed. SIgnificantly Labour lost control of Glasgow Council last week. A fortress for a generation. Why Labour clung to empire is beyond me, but they did. Now they are finished in Scotland. A revived Tory Party , North of the border will not save the Union.

    Others are much better placed than me to talk about Wales and Northern Ireland. The class to me looks fragmented and divided. No chance of a fightback then? Well, perhaps the fightback started with Brexit: a huge spanner in the works. Expectations are high for what Brexit will deliver. When that goes horribly wrong , who knows? So the situation is bleak but volatile. The problem is that the struggle breaks in ways that the British left is unable to deal with, still doing the same old, same old. To break those habits, remake new strategies for the shape of society to come will take a lot of work.


    • Tim says:

      Too many people talking on behalf of the working class, not enough genuine working class people in politics or anywhere else.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s