A New Leader for Labour in the UK

Last Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected the new leader of the UK Labour Party after a summer long campaign. Corbyn’s name may not be familiar to many readers. To be honest, few outside the supporters of left wing causes in the UK would have known of him until he just scraped on to the ballot after finding enough MPs to put his name forward. What happened afterwards has been truly amazing. From the status of ‘doomed to fail’ outsider, Corbyn and his team took the election by storm, speaking to packed rallies up and down the country. These drew many long-time labour members as well as others who have returned to the party after a long absence and, perhaps most significantly, thousands of young people who were supposedly irredeemably lost to politics. In a few short months, Corbyn managed to attract into the party tens of thousands of supporters who paid a nominal £3 to take part in the election. I went to one of his final rallies in Margate, a struggling seaside resort on the Kent coast. As with all of such events, the hall was packed to capacity with 300 people eager to listen to Corbyn speak. He is not the most electric orator, but in his calm, rational way he dissects with great clarity and moral authority many of the issues confronting the UK and the world beyond. He speaks in a direct, unspun style and is unapologetic about his views, which built up over his three decades as a backbench MP and before that a trade union officer.

Ordinary Labour Party members love Corbyn, but many MPs and the party’s grandees hate him. While Labour activists are excited to hear someone speaking in their language about issues they care passionately about, the senior figures see him as a dangerous radical who would drag the party back to the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s. They have a very particular narrative of how labour made itself unelectable during the 1980s and the Thatcher era, a situation that Tony Blair reversed, leading the Party to three successive general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Labour lost the 2010 election under Gordon Brown, partly as a result of the post-crash global economic crisis. In many ways Corbyn’s rise mirrors that of Bernie Sanders in the US – the traction both are enjoying suggest a growing discontent among the rank and file of their parties, a disconnect with an established political class.

This era of ‘New Labour’ was marked by a striking reluctance to talk about class, which was seen as part of the vocabulary of ‘old labour’ and a manifestation of the politics of envy. This trend continued even after the economic crash of 2008 and the beginning of the Party’s period of opposition. Corbyn himself rarely uses the word ‘class’, but through his actions and speeches he clearly articulates a class-based understanding of the economy, education, and the workplace. While his leadership election rivals were busy arguing over the extent to which they would match Conservative plans to extend austerity, Corbyn confronted head on the claim that Labour had mismanaged the economy. As Paul Krugman has recently pointed out, the Labour Party has a relatively strong story to tell in economic matters before during and after the crash, but it has allowed the Conservatives and other rivals to paint them as reckless and clueless.

All too predictably, the right-wing media and, to its shame, many BBC journalists have engaged in a vicious attacks based not on Corbyn’s substantive policy pronouncements but on his dress style, his failure to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, and other obscure features. Corbyn and his supporters may have a rough time ahead in the face of this tsunami of abuse, but in many ways this targeting speaks to his success in mobilising a popular movement of grass roots supporters to his cause. As I write this, some 50,000 new members have joined, or possibly re-joined the party, including 16,000 who signed-up on the day of his victory. The danger Corbyn represents for the political class lies in his class-based analysis, an approach that has not been attempted by a mainstream leader for two decades or more. Importantly, he draws attention to the interlinked issues facing the poor and the dispossessed in the UK and beyond, including the corrosive effects of the dearth of public housing, low paid casual contracts, the expansion of low skilled jobs, and lack of educational opportunity for working-class kids. In one of his first public speeches, to the Trades Union Congress, he rejected the accusation that Labour was a party of deficit deniers and instead described the Tories as ‘poverty deniers’. Corbyn has also described Government welfare policy as effectively ‘social cleansing’ of big cities, most notably London.

These are interesting and exciting times for those interested in working-class issues in the UK. For the first time in a generation we have a Labour leader unafraid to talk about how class and inequality work, and more crucially, how governments might intervene to ameliorate some of society’s more intractable problems. At the same time, many are uneasy at the power of the press to distract attention from these vital issues and instead vilify Corbyn the man. Even if Corbyn fails to change public policy, he is already helping to revive attention to class in the UK. Watch this space.

Tim Strangleman

Just Not Posh Enough? Social Mobility and the “Class Ceiling”

This autumn marks twenty-five years since I went to college at Durham University in the North-East of England. Durham is the third oldest university in England, and one of its colleges is housed in the Norman castle on top of a hill. It’s a beautiful place in which to learn, and, because of its history and atmosphere, it is a popular destination for elite schooled teenagers who have failed to get in to either Oxford or Cambridge. When I was there, the ratio of kids from fee-paying as opposed to state schools was something like two to one, though it felt even higher. Through the three years I studied there as an undergraduate I became increasingly aware of how class worked, not only through my studies but by observing class at work day in day out. From my first day, I saw privileged kids ferried by their parents along the narrow medieval streets in large new cars and then mix effortlessly at welcome events through a mixture of charm and pre-forged social networks between their former schools. This engrained privilege and sense of entitlement developed through their college days – the officer training events they attended, debating societies, and the exciting holidays they enjoyed during vacation times (I spent mine working ten hours a day in a tin big box store on the retail park outside my hometown selling washing machines). The finishing touch, however, came when blue-chip legal, accountancy and financial services companies arrived for the annual ‘milk round’ employment fair and hoovered up the elite students to go and work in the City of London.

I was reminded of my time in Durham the other day by a report published by the UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on the way social class prevents working-class, and increasingly even many lower middle-class kids from joining such blue-chip firms. The report sparked the usual round of quick and dirty stories in the UK media, such as one in the Guardian under the strapline ‘How to pass the posh test: ‘Do you know Marmaduke Von Snittlebert?’. Laughing at the upper classes has its place – I had many opportunities to do this at college – but the hundred or so pages of the report offer some important insights into class privilege and how it has been firming-up rather than being broken-down over the last quarter-century. The report uses the term the ‘class ceiling’, borrowed from two young sociologists at the London School of Economics, to describe how class elites are tightening their grip on the best jobs and how, in spite of the best efforts of some recruiters, class continues to trump modest attempts to curb discrimination, intended or otherwise.

The report suggests that despite efforts to increase social mobility over the last ten to fifteen years or so – mainly through the expansion of higher education, largely by funnelling working-class kids to second and third tier colleges – elite firms have become less representative of the general population, with increasing proportions of recruits drawn from privileged socio-economic backgrounds and from a narrower range of the top universities where the majority of students come from fee-paying schools rather than from state education. Cabinet Office research shows that recent cohorts of lawyers and accountants, for example, are more likely to come from families with significantly above-average incomes. The report makes clear that in spotting ‘talent’ such firms define what they are after in terms of ‘drive’, ‘resilience’, ‘strong communication skills’ and above all ‘confidence’ and ‘polish’. All of these attributes, the report says, map readily onto middle-class status and socialisation. Recruiters tend to pass over those with working-class accents and dispositions in favour of ‘people like us’. The result is that the top accountancy firms offer up to 70 percent of their jobs to graduates who attended selective state or fee-paying schools, schools that educate only four percent and seven percent of the population as a whole. Buttressing this situation is the fact that the best firms are drawing on a narrower group of universities – the so called Russel Group, which equates to the US Ivy League. Some really elite firms bypass even these institutions and recruit only at Oxford or Cambridge.

The report brilliantly exposes how this situation is being made worse on both demand and supply sides, as students from lower socio-economic backgrounds decide not to apply for places or even internships – even paid ones – with top firms, recognising that the barriers to gaining a place are just too high for people like them. Even earlier in their educational careers, students with good grades from these same less advantaged groups tend to apply to lower level universities than their qualifications would allow.

While the insights from the report are discouraging, it has drawn attention to the class bias in the recruitment practices of elite firms. At long last, this report demonstrates that discrimination on the basis of class is an issue alongside other forms of discrimination. In the midst of further rounds of austerity imposed by the newly elected Conservative administration, it’s heartening to see terms like the ‘class ceiling’ appearing in government language. This overt attention to class suggests a real change from what I learned at Durham. If ever one tried to highlight class privilege, the topic of conversation was quickly changed, excuses made, and appeals to meritocracy sounded. For as loud as the voices of the privileged were that surrounded me at Durham, class was the thing that dare not speak its name.

Tim Strangleman

The Fissured (Working-Class) Workplace

One of my favourite exercises when teaching the sociology of work is to ask my students about the concept of a ‘job for life’. I started doing this a decade and a half ago at the beginning of my lecturing career. I asked the eighty odd twenty-somethings in the class in front of me ‘who’s heard of the phrase “a job for life” ’? When I first did this, maybe half the hands went up. I then asked, ‘Who here expects one’? That first time, and in subsequent trials, no hand went up. One guy did shout out, ‘But who would want one’? Over the years I’ve often tried this experiment with different classes, even asking it during open-day presentations for prospective students where the presence of their parents give an intergenerational frisson and a knowing look from the greyer heads in the audience. The receding knowledge of the term and the expectations that went with it speaks volumes about what has happened to our contemporary ideas about work.

I was thinking about that experience reading David Weil’s book The Fissured Workplace, a thoughtful and thought provoking reflection on the contemporary US workplace. By ‘fissured’ Weil means the wide range of ways in which work has been desiccated. Where traditional work was stable and intelligible, increasingly one is never sure who is responsible for the product supplied or service purchased. Weil outlines a number of types of fissuring, from subcontracting to outsourcing to franchising. Weil persuasively groups together a range of diverse strategies through which ownership and control are exercised through layer upon layer of intermediaries. The book offers a litany of corporate attempts to squeeze more profit from the bottom-line by laying-off risk and responsibility, citing examples from industries as diverse as cell phones, hotels, and coalmining. Fissuring is about saving money and restricting liability, ideally removing it all together.

Many of the instances of fissuring that Weil gives are not new for working-class people. Many working-class and trade union struggles have been over the attempt to secure at least some kind of work stability. The interesting thing about Weil’s metaphor is that it transcends blue-collar work, where poor conditions are more common, and increasingly affects traditionally middle-class white-collar environments such as journalism and publishing. This idea of fissuring adds to the emerging lexicon describing the contemporary and potential future nature of work. Like the idea of precarity that Guy Standing has talked about, fissuring makes sense of the common features and patterns that cross industries, sectors, and whole labour markets. The concept describes the splitting apart and the simultaneous corrosion or erosion of workplace sociability and culture. Fissuring gets to the heart of how contemporary work offers workers, their families, and whole communities even less of the limited stability that they enjoyed in the past.

For working-class people on both sides of the Atlantic, the ability to access good work is important for a number of obvious and perhaps less obvious reasons. Ask anyone why they work, and as like as not they will say ‘money’ and give you a look as if to say ‘are you crazy’? But dig deeper and it becomes apparent that while the cash is vital, so too are a whole range of other features of work that Studs Terkel described as things that ‘make the day go faster’. To some extent, all work socialises us, and that, in turn, allows us to play our part in socialising others. When I interview workers, the older ones especially, they often reflect on the significant people who have marked out times of transitions in their life — the most obvious moment being the initial move from school or college to their first place of employment. It often takes a whole lifetime of work before the subtlety of what they enjoyed becomes apparent to them, the way people and places helped to shape them as humans. It is only in the reminiscence that they see the value of workplace culture, even though their younger self may have ignored or hated the experience at the time. In various ways it moulded them, and they in turn help to cultivate and mature others. I am not saying that all work in the past was great, nor that ‘good work’ was accessed by all. Rather, I think a critical mass of working-class people experienced a level of stability that made a difference to their lives inside and outside the workplace. I’d go further and say that critical mass made a difference to the quality of work elsewhere, too. It afforded some working-class people the space to think and grow through employment.

When I read the David Weil’s book, I thought of the effect this fissuring has on working-class employment. The patterns of workplace culture have been undermined and changed hugely over the last three decades, but the shifts explored in The Fissured Workplace add a new and urgent dimension. What Weil describes is nothing less than the breaking down of any sort of medium or long term stability for workers. In the fissured workplace, relationships are contractual rather than social. The ability of people to join together, to socialise and be socialised, becomes increasingly limited.

For the young people I teach, The Fissured Workplace probably reads like a description of their experience of the world of work rather than as a critical analysis. We should not to romanticise the work of the past, indulge in ‘smokestack nostalgia’, but equally we need to acknowledge a world we may be losing. While the ‘job for life’ may have been a fleeting experience for a few, the social patterns that that stability engendered were profound for generations of workers and can still be seen working their way through the contemporary workplace. As for my student’s question about who would want a job for life, I would probably answer now that many working-class people would at least like the option of one.

Tim Strangleman

Getting Angry about Class

Still the enemy within posterA great new film is out in the UK just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The dispute was incredibly divisive three decades ago and continues to be so. When Margret Thatcher died last year, no group celebrated harder than the former mining communities that were devastated in the wake of the strike and the mass closure of the then publicly owned industry. The right wing press and members of the political elite expressed disgust and outrage at the joy with which her demise was greeted. They seemed to believe that the naked class hatred shown to the miners, their families, and communities in the 1980s should now be all forgotten. Well, they weren’t forgotten, and if anything the anger felt in the former coalfields burns just as brightly by those who remember it. Independent filmmaker Owen Gower has said that one of his motivations in making Still the Enemy Within was to show a younger generation why Thatcher was so hated and why the dispute still matters. The title of the film is a reference to Thatcher’s branding of the miners as the ‘enemy within.’

Still the Enemy Within charts the year long dispute over plans to close many economically viable pits, a strategy deliberately designed to provoke the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into going on strike. It has long been known that this dispute was deliberately engineered by the Thatcher government to break the strongest element of the working class and trade union movement in the UK. The Conservatives had nursed a deep seated grudge against the miners for their contribution to the downfall of Edward Heath’s Conservative Government in 1974. The strike lasted for a day or so shy of a full year, a year that witnessed unprecedented working-class solidarity across the country but failed to realize greater industrial and labor party support. The miners were effectively starved into submission by a combination of poverty, hunger, police brutality, and a wider range of state power – both legal and illegal. UK government papers released recently under the 30 Year Rule revealed the extent of illegal action deployed at the time.

Much of what the film shows was not new to me. I cut my political and trade union teeth as a young railway worker in London during the strike. I remember the ever present miners collecting donations with their buckets and bright yellow ‘Coal Not Dole’ sticker badges. Ironically, Thatcher’s power in the 1980s and the level of anti-union macho management that was unleashed in the wake of the miners’ defeat persuaded me to give up my job and go to college. I met miners who like me were on a pre-university access course in Oxford alongside other workers being pushed out of their industries at the time. I went to Durham University, at the centre of what had been a huge coalfield, and there I met a former Durham miner – let’s call him Pete – whose life had been turned upside-down by the strike. Still in debt in 1990 five years after the strike had ended, Pete was one of a wave on miners who left the industry and went into higher education. One evening after several beers, Pete recounted some of the events of that year and in particular instances of police brutality meted out on, or more usually off, the picket line. Once, he was arrested and placed in cuffs with his hands over the front seat of a police van. Pete thought this strange, he told me, but then he realized what was to happen as a police officer hit him repeatedly in the face with his truncheon. Pete was a very funny man with a wry sense of humor. Through half closed eyes he looked at the officer and said “I bet you really enjoyed that, why don’t you have another go”. He did. Pete, laughing while he spoke, said it was the most stupid thing he had ever said or done as he showed me the photographs taken of him by his lawyer at the police station after he was charged.

This combination of dark humor, bitterness and anger is well represented in Still the Enemy Within. Indeed, I felt a mixture of real anger and sadness throughout the showing. In the Q and A session with the director after the screening, most of the audience also reported feeling angry. The film mixes archive film and still photography with more recently recorded interviews with former miners and their families. The most poignant scenes are of a former miner walking around a landscaped abandoned pithead reflecting on both that period of possibility three decades ago and the current policy of austerity and cuts. The film’s greatest strength is that it is narrated by people from mining communities, who lived through the strike. It seems increasingly rare to hear working-class voices, dialects, and accents in British media. Their bitterness and anger was clear, but so was their humanity and the kind of humor that Pete had.

When I looked around at the audience, I noticed that it was mainly, but by no means exclusively, made up of an older generation. To have an adult memory of the strike, you have to be in your late forties, and most were older. There was an interesting debate in the Q and A about intergenerational solidarity and how important it was for a younger generation to learn lessons from the miner’s strike, in particular about class. Though the film is rated for viewers 15 or older, I had thought long and hard about whether or not to take my ten year old son to see the film with me. I decided against it, and I now regret that I didn’t, because Still the Enemy Within tells a story about class we all need to remember — or learn for the first time.

Tim Strangleman

An Education in Class

When my dad died a couple of years back, I inherited a shoebox with some of the important things from his life. My dad didn’t keep much — some medals his brother was posthumously awarded after the plane his was travelling in ditched into the Indian Ocean in June 1945, family letters, photos, and some other stuff. Alongside this were my five end-of-year reports from my secondary school days. I don’t remember ever talking to my dad about my schooling. Though a bright man, he had not done well at school and left as soon as he could at fourteen in the 1930s, much as I left at sixteen in the early 1980s. After reflecting on the reports, I’m filled with conflicted feelings. First, I regret that he didn’t pick me up on the accurate and well meant criticisms my teachers offered. But this feeling is tempered by the sense that maybe things turned out okay for me in the end. I found employment in a stimulating and secure workplace and later was able to attend Ruskin College Oxford, which aimed to prepare unqualified adults for university education – two structural advantages that a similarly unqualified sixteen year old would not have today.

I’ve been thinking about the contents of that shoebox a lot over the last half year or so as my ten year old son Max prepared for and then took the test that determines what type of secondary school he will join next September. Kent, the English county we live in, still has a state funded secondary school system that divides kids based on test scores into a privileged twenty percent who attend grammar schools and a secondary modern system for the remaining eighty percent. After Max took the ‘Kent Test’ in September, while we waited for his scores, we visited the various schools that he might (or might not) get to attend. I have done these visits with something of a three-way split personality. I toured the schools first as a parent who obviously wants the best for his kid. I also walked around as a professional sociologist interested in class, stratification, and cultural capital issues. But finally, I was there as someone with working-class origins comparing what I saw with my own experience of education.

Our first visit was to our local community school, one where those deemed to have ‘failed’ would have little choice but to go. By my lights, the school looked pretty good. We saw lots of evidence of extra-curricular activity and achievement, and the building looked modern and well cared for. In her presentation to the assembled parents, the principal made much of the caring and supportive atmosphere the pupils enjoy. My younger self would have loved to have gone to a school such as this, and our neighbour’s kids did and seem to have thrived there.

The following week Max, my wife, and I went to one of the elite grammar schools on our list. It was obvious from the start that this would be a very different experience from our local school. We were met at the entrance by some of the senior prefects, the older ones dressed in business suits. We made our way around the classrooms on the organized tour before dutifully filing in to the lecture theatre to hear the presentation. First up, after a jazz piano recital by one of the musically gifted students, was the school’s head-boy who acted at the master of ceremonies for the evening and seemed more confident in talking to a bunch of strangers than most academics are with years of practice. He introduced some of his younger school mates – each in their way equally confident – before inviting the principal to do her PowerPoint karaoke presentation, reading word for word the bullet points on the screen behind her, ramming home the message through a blizzard of statistics and tables that, though a state school, this was an elite place that we should be grateful to have offspring attend.

This presentation, and indeed the entire event, struck me as Harry Potteresque – this was Hogwarts without the owls and magic lessons. This is a state school funded out of general taxation, yet it aped private schools, especially the trappings that go with them. It seems to me that parents and the school administration were in an unholy alliance, each bidding up the elitism of the education on offer, deliberately distancing it from what the remaining eighty percent would enjoy. Rather than break down class differences, this attitude reinforces class polarization by making parents and their kids aim for socially divisive schooling.

Conservative politicians in Kent believe the grammar system is a good one, though it was phased out in most places by both Labour and Tory Parties during the 1970s. Many right of center politicians in the rest of England dream nostalgically of returning to this set up nationally, viewing it as a meritocratic system that gives all kids a chance of an elite education. But this ideal of meritocracy is just wrong. Most of the kids who pass the test have been rigorously coached on how to do so – as my wife and I did with Max. I’ve spent one afternoon each week in term time ferrying him to cramming lessons that we are lucky enough to afford. We have bought him endless test papers and exercise books and spent hours coaching him on the various aspects of the Kent Test. Max is lucky — his parents have the resources, education, and time to devote to this process. As a concerned parent, sociologist, and former working-class kid, I know that many other boys and girls Max’s age are not so fortunate.

Recently we learned that Max had passed the test with flying colors. We are all delighted that he will receive the type of school education that my younger self could only dream of. But this elation and relief is held in check by the fact that many of Max’s school mates have not passed. By implication they have been told by the age of ten that they have failed and that they deserve a less-good schooling, one that will affect their life chances probably for the rest of their lives. This was indeed another education in class and the way it insidiously structures all our lives. For both parents and children, winners and losers, class and the resources that go with it are being played out on a daily basis.

Tim Strangleman

Precariat of the World Unite?

The term “Precariat” has been bandied around for some time now as a convenient catchall for a growing sense of employment insecurity in the U.S. and Europe. It has really gained traction in the wake of British social scientist Guy Standing’s 2011 book The Precariat, provocatively subtitled ‘The New Dangerous Class’. Standing argued that all Western countries were seeing a growing band of workers at the margins of the labor market. The precariat includes the young and old, the unskilled and unqualified who, for whatever reason, are locked out of ‘good jobs’ with higher pay, pensions and other benefits, and prospects of advancement. The book made Standing something of a darling of those fighting for better conditions or questioning some of the worst effects of neoliberalism in economic life. His ideas have been debated and scrutinized on both left and right of the political spectrum.

The success of The Precariat has led Standing to write a sequel, A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens. If his first book diagnosed the problem, this one offers a prescription for change in twenty-nine articles aimed at reforming work and the conditions that give rise to precarity. The ideas in Standing’s charter range from a complete redefinition of what counts as work to suggestions for reforming education.

Standing’s books have some profound implications for the way we think about the class system in general and the working class in particular. His initial volume’s subtitle ‘The New Dangerous Class’ echoed Marx and Engels’s ideas of the Lumpenproletariat – a dispossessed group at the very bottom of society who at times could be brought into the labor market as part of the reserve army of labor. In Standing’s twenty-first century version, the precariat has the potential to undermine working-class conditions in employment in similar ways and as a group has little or no connection to mainstream society. In his Precariat Charter, Standing attempts to forge new bonds between the precariat and the rest of society.

What I find most interesting about this latest book is what it says about work and what work can, and more importantly, cannot provide. Like a number of social commentators such as the late French social theorist Andre Gorz or British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Standing seems resigned to the idea that work has little or no value for most people. Standing criticises politicians and unions for holding on to all work at any cost regardless of whether it is rewarding work or drudge labor, carried out simply for money. This attitude, he argues, compounds the problem of the precariat by creating the conditions where workers are seen as drones and are increasing conceptualised as denizens (people who reside in a place to work with few if any rights) rather than full and active citizens of a state. He calls, instead, for a radical recasting of economic life. Undoubtedly these are powerful ideas, and it’s especially important for someone with Standing’s profile to raise these issues and offer solutions to the problems identified.

However, when we dismiss unattractive drudge work as Standing and others do, we enact a kind of violence on those who are engaged in it, and, in the process, deny agency and voice –a working-class voice. For sure, in a perfect world all work would be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling all the time. But a number of writers take a working-class perspective and find value in basic manual labor. For example, in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose shows the skill and thought that goes into what many consider the most menial of jobs – waitressing. Other great writing on so-called low-end labor, such as Studs Terkel’s Working and the lesser known How to Tell When You’re Tired by U.S. author Reg Theriault, explores the cultures of work that emerge among workers in those jobs. Both of these volumes show workers as fully filled-out people who have ideas, opinions, aspirations, hopes, dreams, and fears. Rose, Terkel, and Theriault write about working-class people with whom you could share a beer. They seem like us, because they are people like us.

In contrast, because they lack voice and agency, the workers Standing’s two books seem somehow distant. Reading his books, I don’t feel like I have anything in common with the people he describes, however worthy they are of my attention. This may be the product of the book’s big picture ambition, but I find it problematic.

Precariat_Charter_coverThis stance towards the subjects of Standing’s writing extends to the covers of both books. While in A Precariat Charter, the subjects are obviously protesting actively, on both covers the workers’ faces are digitized out, so we literally cannot see them as fully human. And on the cover of the original book we gaze upon three young guys in Hi Viz jackets slumped against a wall eating a fast food meal, images that speak to resignation, passivity, and defeat reinforcing one of the themes of the first book.

tumblr_lo50e28RP31qe6laxI applaud Standing’s commitment and passion in raising the profile of workers at the margin, but it’s important that we don’t just see working-class people as passive victims of neoliberalism. Often it is precisely workers occupying the lowest rungs of the labor market who exercise both voice and agency. After all, the labor movement on both sides of the Atlantic drew its strength in part from precisely the sectors of the economy and the types of workers that Standing defines as the precariat. So I want to propose one more article for Standing’s charter: the recognition of a shared humanity working-class people hold in common.

Tim Strangleman

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