Underground ‘fat cats’?

The problem with London's Tube strikes is not that the drivers are paid too much.

Neil Davenport

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‘Don’t the Tube drivers realise what they are doing to members of the public? Surely if they can afford to lose two days’ pay they don’t need a pay rise.’

So said disgruntled London commuter Debbie Clarke on the BBC’s London News website, as the RMT Union brought London Underground to a standstill with 24-hour strikes on 25 September and 2 October 2002. Another put-out commuter suggested that instead of giving Tube drivers a pay rise, we should ‘sack the lot of them’.

Over two years of sporadic and token strike action, the recent one-day strikes on London Underground seem to have provoked more howls of condemnation than many previous strikes. Have London commuters simply had enough? Or have they, in the words of RMT leader Bob Crow, been won over by London Underground management’s propaganda?

And at a time when more people identify themselves as working class than ever before, why the dearth of ‘class solidarity’?

What seems to have angered many people is not the strike action itself, but the strike cause: the demand for an inflation-busting five percent pay rise for Tube workers. Many are asking why Tube strikers should get such a hike in wages, when nurses and others have to make do with poor salaries.

But left-wing trade unionists have no one to blame but themselves for this penny-pinching attitude to pay rises. After all, they continually denounce company directors as ‘fat cats’ for having ‘excessive’ bonuses and wage increases. Their attacks on company bosses often suggest that wanting more and more is morally reprehensible – not just for corporate directors, but for everyone else too.

Now, others are saying similar things about Tube workers. ‘I am absolutely disgusted by the greed of tube staff,’ says Man Pang on the London News website. ‘How can tube drivers not be satisfied with a salary of over £30k when somebody like myself earns less than that?’

The sentiment that ‘greedy workers’ are letting the side down is one that old left-wingers like Bob Crow should be familiar with. During the 1980s, many on the left blamed ‘well off’ and ‘selfish’ working-class voters for the Labour Party’s electoral failures – often arguing that ‘Sun reading types’ had become ‘class traitors’ by choosing video players and flash cars over supporting the Labour Party.

The old left weren’t discussing class politics so much as class identity. They tended to present the working-class, not as a social group with the potential to change and shape the world, but as just another bunch of people struggling for ‘cultural recognition’. What culture?
Coal-in-the-bathtub hardship (so pure, so noble), tasteless food, dour clothes and, above all, an unquestioning misty-eyed attachment to the strike-busting Old Labour Party became totems of an ‘authentic’ working-class cultural tradition. For many middle-class socialists, it seemed inexplicable and inexcusable that the working class should aspire to anything more.

In a recent article on Mike Leigh’s seminal play Abigail’s Party, Simon Fanshawe argued that Leigh’s nouveau riche characters were ‘a warning’ about the dangers and excesses of ‘greedy workers’. ‘Leigh’s creations bought to life the gargoyles that decorated the edifice of the declining traditional working class. These were the people who turned their backs on Labour and thought that by buying their own houses in a new neighbourhood… they could take over the country for themselves.’ (1)

As that vindictive spleen readily testifies, those who refused the craven begging bowl of ‘working-class institutions’ (especially anyone on the left), and suggested that working-class life was nothing special, were as welcome as maggots on a salad. But where this levelling-down outlook was once only held by left-wing activists in cheap jeans and donkey jackets, now it encompasses mainstream society.

So at a time when working-class people are better off than ever before, there is a lionisation of scallies and scroungers, doleys and drug dealers. Ten years ago, the right’s ‘underclass debate’ was a sneering way of suggesting ‘this is what the working class are really like’. Ten years later, it is the old left implying that ‘this is what the working class should be like’.

Take Ken Loach’s new film Sweet Sixteen. Set in a run-down Glasgow council tower block (naturally), Liam (Martin Compston) attempts to create a better life for himself and his jailed criminal mum, on the eve of his sixteenth birthday. Drug dealing provides the slush funds (such irony), but it’s all to no avail. As his mum’s thuggish boyfriend says of the plush flat, the widescreen TV and a kitchen that would impress Delia Smith, ‘can’t you see this isn’t what ya ma’s about, this isn’t what she wants from life?’

This seems to be Loach’s vision of the working classes more broadly. It is striking that the more everyday working-class experience – working in a demanding job, paying off mortgages, and the desire to do something interesting or extraordinary with one’s life – barely registers in Loach’s imagination, or, for that matter, in public life.

Identifying yourself as ‘working class’ today has no positive connotations. Instead it means accepting and buying into a particularist culture of levelling down, low aspirations and low horizons. When a paltry £32,000 a year is seen as greedy and ungrateful, it seems aspiration is being driven well and truly underground.

Neil Davenport is a music and film journalist for Uncut magazine.

Sweet Sixteen opens in UK cinemas on 4 October 2002.

(1) You are what you own, Simon Fanshawe, Guardian, 19 June 2002

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