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We’re not all middle-class now: Owen Jones on class in Cameron’s Britain

The author of Chavs discusses Selina Todd’s “impassioned, much-needed” new book The People, noting how most Brits still stubbornly self-identify as working class. 

Not so satanic: a Bradford mill, now a Unesco heritage site. However it is a myth that most working-class Britons worked in industry. Photo: Getty
Not so satanic: a Bradford mill, now a Unesco heritage site. However it is a myth that most working-class Britons worked in industry. Photo: Getty

The People: the Rise and Fall of the Working Class (1910-2010)
Selina Todd
John Murray, 464pp, £25

Everyone is talking about class these days: even Tory modernisers excitedly debate how their party can woo working-class Britain. It is easy to forget that until all too recently it was consigned to the fringes of the national conversation. “Class is a communist concept,” Margaret Thatcher declared in 1992, with typical stridency; John Major hailed “the classless society”; Prescott and Blair announced that “we’re all middle class now”. Pretending class was no longer an issue was convenient, helping to shut down scrutiny of how wealth and power are distributed in modern Britain. That is why Selina Todd’s impassioned, comprehensive history is a much-needed contribution to the revival of thinking about class in Cameron’s Britain.

At first, the title worried me: it seemed to suggest that the working class has left the stage of history. But Todd’s argument hinges on two watershed years: 1945, when a transformative Labour government marked the political and social arrival of the working class after decades of struggle, and 1979, when the rise of Thatcherism led to “the fall of the working class as an economic and political force”, a judgement that is difficult to quibble with. This is an avowedly partisan book. Inspired by her parents’ background, Todd is on a mission to paint the working class back on to the historical canvas.

Her rejection of class as identity politics, or as something that is to be romanticised, is particularly welcome. It is, she says, “produced by exploitation in a country where a tiny elite has possessed the majority of the wealth”. She is clearly influenced by E P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, which holds that class is not a static label but a dynamic process, marked by shared experiences and collective interests that collide with each other.

Todd slays long-established myths. Received wisdom has often treated the industrial working class as synonymous with the working class as a whole, and thus the closing of coal mines, steelworks and factories fuelled the myth that Britain had become a classless society. But Todd points out that, even as late as 1923, servants represented the largest single group of working people: the era of the industrial working class was relatively fleeting. The chapter on servants is a highlight, as she explores how employers were perturbed by their increasingly unruly staff. Maids are often portrayed as deferential underlings; far from it, they became symbols of a stridently independent, “potentially insurrectionary working class”.

There is an unsettling sense of plus ça change. In the 1926 General Strike, workers who downed tools were depicted as supporting “sectional interests” and as a “stubborn minority” holding the country to ransom: the late Bob Crow would have smirked in recognition of such a portrait. Amid the sprawling dole queues of the “Hungry Thirties”, the Conservative-led government implied that the unemployed were partly responsible for their own hardship, and that state benefits dissuaded the jobless from seeking work. How depressing that we have returned to this endemic poor-blaming.

What brings the story to life is the testimony of working-class people – such as Viv Nicholson, who won the Pools in 1961, and schoolmates of Todd – as they reflect on experiencing wrenching change. “We didn’t intend going back to how it was,” reminisces one East Ender about the postwar election, summing up the almost desperate appetite for change that gave Clement Attlee’s Labour Party its 1945 landslide victory. This was a hopeful time, when lives were transformed by universal social security, education and health care and collective bargaining rights. In the 1950s, the Conservative and Labour Parties were competing over who could build more council houses: though the Tories scrimped on quality, Churchill’s postwar government was building 300,000 homes a year, or roughly twice the rate today.

For some, sadly, optimism gave way to triumphalism. In 1951, the social researcher and philanthropist Seebohm Rowntree said that the postwar settlement had “all but . . . eradicated” poverty. Anthony Crosland, the standard-bearer of Labour’s social-democratic right, announced in 1956 that “the worst economic abuses and inefficiencies of modern society have been corrected”. I wonder how they would react to the news that, six decades later, a million Britons are dependent on food banks. But it was a time of surging incomes: between 1960 and 1970, most workers enjoyed a doubling of their pay packet, in contrast to now, when we are experiencing the longest fall in living standards since the Victorian era.

The left is often accused of looking at the postwar settlement through rose-tinted goggles. Todd rightly points out that the wealthy elite always retained the whip hand, and that although education reforms abolished secondary school fees, school selection wrote off 80 per cent of children – mostly from working-class backgrounds – who were packed off to second-rate secondary moderns. In a rebuke to those hankering after the return of selection, Todd points out that less than a fifth of manual workers’ children made it to grammar school.

Todd shows clearly that the working class has never been homogeneous, but what the book could have explored further is the phenomenon of working-class Toryism. It has a long tradition: in the 19th century, Disraeli hailed the workers courted by his party as “angels in marble”. Some of this complexity emerges; Todd recalls the proud, “patriotic” strike-breakers of 1926 and gives a platform to working-class voters who initially welcomed Thatcher’s triumph. But writers on the left, including myself, need to examine the appeal of conservatism as much as we celebrate what makes people radical.

Although the conclusion of The People captures the bleakness of the Thatcherite era, it is nonetheless illuminated by what Tony Benn described as the precondition of social change: the burning flame of anger at injustice, and the burning flame of hope for a better world. Yes, dog-eat-dog individualism has gnawed away at the sense that working-class people organising together can transform society; anger at people’s plight is often redirected at the unemployed and immigrants, rather than the real villains at the top. But most people still stubbornly self-identify as working class, Todd notes, and most reject inequality.

“In learning from their history, we can begin to imagine a different future,” she writes. This compelling book underlines how the fight for emancipation is not easy, obvious or linear: it is simply driven by necessity. In our country of food banks, legal loan sharks and zero-hours contracts, it is a necessity that burns.

Owen Jones is the author of “Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class” (Verso, £9.99)