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25 September 2000

Sorry, but this is the working class

Loony tunes? Fascists? Paul Barker laments the left's snobbery towards the fuel tax protesters

By Paul Barker

It was when I heard Chris Mullin on the radio, dismissing the petrol tax protesters as a lot of “loony tunes”, that I began to wonder if the left had gone off its head. Before he became a junior minister, Mullin was himself a notable loony tune – which translates, I suppose, as “off message” – and often a very effective one. I still have on my shelves his pioneering pamphlet denouncing what the Chinese were up to in Tibet, which he wrote at a time when most of the left was busy sneering at the Dalai Lama as a bizarre medieval relic.

But what was going on now? In the Guardian, Polly Toynbee had already dismissed the protesters as a social and political aberration. They were not, she argued, truly representative of “the real Mondeo man”, who is (she assured us) very keen on higher taxes. On Newsnight, speakers fretted about rampant “Poujadism” (of which, more later). Finally, weighing in with a centre-left summing-up, even the normally sensible Hugo Young told his anxious readers that he detected “a fascist undertone” in the protests.

Oh, that explains it, then. We can breathe easily. What happened was all down to leader worship and a passion for uniforms. Yet the only identifiable uniform, as other commentators mockingly noted, was donkey jackets and luminous trousers, and all the arrangements were done by highly un-Fuhrer-like mobile phones. Were journalists, and especially those on the left, just as annoyed as Tony Blair at not spotting what was about to happen? Those dastardly lorry men didn’t play the game. They never put out a pre-emptive press release, giving an embargoed date and time for a pre-packaged protest launch statement.

The left always seems to try to clamber aboard either a historical bandwagon that has already departed or a utopian one that never arrives. Consider the oddity of the Poujadist accusation. In 1950s France, Pierre Poujade’s followers spoke up for the small shopkeepers who were being driven out of business by larger competitors. At the time, nobody on the left or centre left gave a damn about small shops. Socialism, and even social democracy, was on the side of the big battalions. Now, small shops are good and big stores are bad. But it’s too late for that, and it’s also too late to use “Poujadism” as a jibe. (In France, both those who advocated firmness in the face of the earlier protests, and those who advocated conciliation, whether they spoke from the left or from the right, managed to do so without sneering at the protesters.)

So much for the historical bandwagon. As for utopianism, it was all too neatly ironic that Blair was caught on the hop by the crisis as he set off on a John Wesley-style national tour to promote the wonders of e-society. As we all know, when everyone has access to the internet, we shall have paradise on Earth. The e-pie in the sky.

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“One could compile a large anthology from the writings of contemporary socialists expressing hatred, ridicule and contempt for the stupidity and sluggishness of the proletarian masses. Whatever the implications for the militants, the masses were not living up to their expectations.”

Thus Eric Hobsbawm, in his recent essay collection, Uncommon People, talking about the snobbish anger of the left, faced with the habits and ambitions of workers a hundred years ago. Some things don’t change. One of the first things that many of the younger laid-off miners did was to train for an HGV licence. Drivers and care workers are at the very bottom of the pecking order in the Office for National Statistics’ newest social class rankings. This is the working class.

Many drivers are self-employed and not unionised. But that’s how many of the working class now are. The building trade pioneered it in the 1970s – as a way of dodging high taxes. I cherished John Monks’s diatribe at the TUC conference, which was whiffling impotently along in Glasgow as the protests went ahead. “They are holding the country to ransom,” he announced. I suppose he thought that such a thing was, and should remain, a trade union monopoly.

I am reminded of those who were so swift to denounce a couple of hundred women marching through a Portsmouth estate as “a mob”. (Yet how many New Statesman readers would have wanted a serial paedophile housed, unbeknown to them, in the next street?) Labour historians used to speak of “collective bargaining by riot”. Sometimes it’s the only way; it isn’t just something to read about for A-level history. Not that the Portsmouth women or the Stanlow drivers did anything very high up the Richter scale of riots.

Increasingly, I think that nobody terrifies the chattering classes so much as the white working class. If the Portsmouth women or the Stanlow drivers had been black or brown, we would have had earnest pleas from the centre and left to listen to their just concerns. And rightly so.

But there are majorities, as well as minorities. They, also, should be listened to, not condescended to. After the East Berliners rose against their masters – men who, like too many on the left, felt they knew what was good for the people, more than the people themselves – Bertolt Brecht wrote that the citizens of existing socialism had been a grave disappointment. The only solution was to dissolve the people and elect another.

He was being ironic. Unfortunately, in an unattractive mixture of snobbishness, petulance and panic, the left and centre left in Britain seem currently to be playing his analysis straight.

Will “real Mondeo man” step forward? No, he won’t. What you see is what you get.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Community Studies

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