Union chief's warning to Brown

In the latest in newstatesman.com's 'Posh in 2007' series union boss Tony Woodley warns Gordon Brown

Many of the docks my union grew up around are now 'waterside developments' and many of the car factories my mates worked in are now retail parks. Some might say "that’s that, then, goodbye to the working class".

But I’ve noticed something. There is still an elite in our society making millions of pounds a year, often for work of no very obvious benefit to the wider community. And there are still millions providing the goods and services we all need yet being paid a pittance, living in poor housing and under the permanent shadow of insecurity.

That is why class still exists. The fact that the Westminster media circus turns a blind eye to it does not mean class no longer matters, but it might explain why for so many people politics matters less and less.

Of course, my life would have been very different if I had been born Anthony Fortescue-Carruthers rather than Tony Woodley nearly sixty years ago. Everyone understands that. But the shocking thing is that a baby born today could have their life options just as much foreclosed by class as did most of the people I grew up with. The outward forms of class distinction may have blurred somewhat, but inequality and social immobility are greater problems now than they have been for at least forty years.

There are those who say this doesn’t matter if everyone is getting better off. But none of those saying it are living on council estates starved of investment, I can’t help noticing.

That social mobility could get worse after ten years of a Labour government, and worsen at a rate higher than in a US led by a Neanderthal right-wing administration, was unimaginable to those of us that celebrated a Labour victory in 1997. Why has that happened?

It is not about Tony Blair being posh. That is the least of his shortcomings, and one that he genuinely can’t help anyway. It is the shift to the right initiated by Mrs Thatcher and only very inadequately reversed by Labour that is the root of widening inequality. It is not likely to be a coincidence that during these years the Labour Party’s membership haemorrhaged, voter turnout in working class communities has fallen, and collective representation of working class people, politically and at work, has declined.

'We’re not interested in the working-class', has been the message, to which working class people have said – we’re not much interested in you then, come to that.

Now I wouldn’t vote for David Cameron if had just come up from the pit. It is his policies, more than his accent, which betrays his class. But Labour shouldn’t rely on its name alone to secure working class votes. Gordon Brown will be judged on what he does not who he is, and if we’re going to aim for a society that judges everyone in those terms – women, men, worker, employer, black, white, disabled or able – then he needs to start closing the massive gaps in wealth and power that still divide us.

Read more from our series looking at the issue of class and 'poshness'

Tony Woodley is general secretary of the T&G section of Unite

At 19 Tony Woodley began working Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port factory where his father George was the full time works convenor. Tony joined the National Union of Vehicle Builders (NUVB), soon to become part of the T&G. Rising through the ranks of the T&G he became the organisation’s general secretary in 2003.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times