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12 September 2007

Union chief’s warning to Brown

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

By Tony Woodley

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.

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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

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