Selina Todd’s motivation for writing a history of working-class life was to tell a story that, she believes, hasn’t really been told. It was a chance to place ‘other voices’, those of ordinary people, centre stage, to articulate their daily struggles, hopes, ambitions, disappointments and defeats.
There’s no doubting Todd’s ambition. For the past decade, she has undertaken meticulous research, including interviews with hundreds of people, in an attempt to chart the experiences of ordinary people over the course of a hundred years. Todd is a solid librarian, but compiling footnotes and transcribing interviews does not, on its own, make a great history book. So while The People is long on descriptive detail, it is strikingly short on political insights and analysis. And what political points remain are as well-worn as an interview with left-wing film director Ken Loach. If the 1945 Labour government is as good as it gets, you wonder why Todd didn’t wrap the book up at 1950.
The disappointing end result is informed by the author’s short-sighted premise and narrow approach to history. For a start, it is not true that British working-class life in the twentieth century has been inadequately covered elsewhere. She rightly references and quotes EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In recent years, bookshelves have been groaning under the weight of highly readable social-history texts on the subject. There are Martin Pugh’s and Roy Hattersley’s books on British life between the wars; David Kynaston and Dominic Sandbrook have each produced a series of books on postwar Britain; Andy Beckett has written about the strike-bound Seventies. And Michael Collins drew a rich portrait of British working-class life in The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class.
Nevertheless, Todd still had a golden opportunity to examine, analyse and explain changes within the British working class during the New Labour years. After all, a book that claims to explain the political fall of the British working class would have to examine closely the years after the 1984-85 miners’ strike. While those decades are covered here, a descriptive survey of the extent of part-time work and low pay doesn’t really grapple with the political changes affecting the working classes under New Labour. Todd mentions how Labour under Tony Blair abandoned traditional working-class concerns, but fails to examine the destructive impact that the politics of behaviour and therapeutic norms have had on ordinary people. As with Owen Jones’s book, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, there’s an unwillingness to admit that Labour, the so-called People’s Party, has been the biggest enemy of working people’s autonomy and freedoms in recent years. An over-reliance on familiar touchstones of labourism and welfare statism means that otherwise good points are buried beneath a slavish commitment to welfarism and social democracy.
On the plus side, Todd does have a sound knowledge of what ‘class politics’ means; she also provides some good corrective points on British working-class life and attitudes. Anyone who has studied EP Thompson will understand that class identity is not merely bound up with someone’s occupation, but develops as part of a subjective outlook. Todd recognises that class becomes truly important when the working class stops being an occupational category and becomes a class ‘for itself’. Thus her early chapters outline the development of ‘a shared identity that bound together unskilled workers and artisans, maids and miners’ into a force for social change. Her research captures well the high point of working-class independence during the 1920s, as bitterness over the First World War spilled out into violent revolt, strikes and demands. And she is also spot on in explaining how, right from the beginning, trade unions and the Labour Party front bench offered workers little support at the time when it really mattered: the 1926 General Strike.