Wanna be a worker?

Describing yourself as 'working class' has become a way of snobbishly dismissing materialism.

Neil Davenport

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Topics Politics

This week spiked is running a series of articles on the changing nature of Britain, as captured in the new British Social Attitudes report published last week. Here, Neil Davenport asks why people are identifying themselves as working class.

According to the latest British Social Attitudes survey: ‘A working-class identity is still much more common than a middle-class identity, with 37 per cent of people now identifying themselves as middle class, compared with 57 per cent identifying as working-class.’ This might seem logical, given that the majority of people living in Britain are ‘working class’. But then, there has always been more to identifying as working class than what kind of job you do.

For example, by other important measures, working class allegiance has declined. As the author of one of the later chapters in the same report notes: ‘Trade union membership and union density (defined as the percentage of workers in membership) peaked in 1980 just after Margaret Thatcher became prime minister. The intervening years were a period of unremitting decline in the union movement’s membership and political influence.’ (1) As the writers of the chapter on class point out: ‘Class identity is as important to people today as it was in the 1960s – yet is no longer related to a distinctive set of values.’ (2) In short, identifying yourself as either working- or middle-class seems fairly meaningless today. So why do people do it, and what does this tell us about Britain in 2007?

Until relatively recently, working people’s identification as a class represented a belief that they had common interests. To be ‘class conscious’ was to recognise that both the workplace and society were not organised in your best interests. Collective organisations such as trade unions developed in order to represent and defend their members’ economic interests. In the course of pursuing higher wages or defending jobs, workers and their institutions sometimes had running battles with the police, and ideological clashes with the supporters of the police in the media and parliament. As the 1984 miners’ strike graphically revealed, class politics and class identity meant, above all, taking sides. In the early 1960s, for example, 60 per cent of the working class said they did not trust the police, while some 95 per cent believed them to be corrupt (3). By contrast, today’s supposed ‘working classes’ fully support the police’s demand for powers to curtail civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism, as also revealed in the Social Attitudes Survey (4).

Working-class identity was once bound up with an outlook that was fairly independent of and different to other class interests. In Britain, the independence of the working-class outlook was actually quite limited, especially after the Second World War when the left encouraged the working class to join in with the elite’s celebration of defeating Nazi Germany. Even so, a residual ‘us and them’ outlook prevailed regarding workplace matters during the period of the ‘postwar consensus’. Though this outlook rarely developed enough seriously to challenge the existing order, it was still a constant source of anxiety for the ruling elites; so much so that the whole of politics and society was organised around containing working-class demands on society. Key to this was undermining ideas of working-class independence, as exemplified by the Conservative Party’s promotion of ‘One Nation’ ‘classless’ Britain.

As the party that reflected the interests of the British ruling elite, the Conservative Party had an acute appreciation of ideology, more so than the left. It understood the need to present its sectional interests as the ‘common sense’ voice of everyone. During particularly intense periods of industrial unrest, such as in the 1970s and 1980s, overt racial hostility to ethnic minorities and the promotion of family values were used to weaken working-class independence and solidarity. It’s no coincidence that the end of class hostilities in the early Nineties meant that official racism and women’s inequality could finally be shelved.

From this definition, then, identifying yourself as ‘working class’ was much more than a matter of occupational or objective factors alone – it was also based on a subjective identification with attempting to change society for your own sectional interests. However, an important consequence of this change was the potential for broader human emancipation, where the limitations of the market might be replaced by a more rational way of organising society. Thus, the notion of being ‘working class’ had a strong degree of radicalism attached to it.

It was precisely this connotation that meant the more conservative sections of society shied away from openly identifying themselves as working class. Indeed, the Conservative Party was often quite successful in making individuals conform to its notion of ‘respectability’. Sociologists in the 1950s and 1960s found that measuring social stratification patterns was difficult because some working-class people would claim membership of the middle classes.

For some on the left, this was a betrayal of class solidarity. In truth, it revealed the limited appeal of workplace politics, and it also showed how working people were keen on self-improvement. Recognition of the narrow horizons available in working-class life, and the desire for a better material and cultural existence, showed that there was still an audience for the politics of change. Today, when even middle-class individuals appear to reject affluence and the benefits of education, calls for social transformation have come to be rejected, too.

The celebration of working-class identity in cultural rather than political terms emerged when the left appeared unable and unwilling to connect even with working people’s modest aspirations. Having a mortgage, going abroad on holiday and driving a car were symbolic of an ‘individualistic’ sensibility, some left commentators claimed. These ‘workerist’ criticisms, while sounding terribly left-wing, were actually conservative in content, expressing a hostility to change. By the late Nineties, the symbols of Old Labour represented, for middle-class socialists and commentators at least, a rebuff against the nouveaux riche working classes and their ‘crass materialism’.

In today’s parlance, then, identifying with romantic ideas of being ‘working class’ is about rejecting ambition and success. This is not to say that people only aspire to working part-time in Kwik Save; rather ‘working class’ is becoming a phoney badge to display a sense of being ‘for real’ and hard done by. Identity politics often rests on proving your separation from established centres of power and privilege. Most people in Britain can’t use their ethnicity or sexuality to do this, but they can always play act at being proletarian.

This isn’t entirely a new development, either. Back in the late 1950s, for instance, the kitchen-sink dramas of Stan Barstow, John Braine and Alan Sillitoe tapped into nostalgia for a simple working-class existence before TVs, fridges and cars became available on credit. Some of these writers tended to romanticise a heavy-industry-era working class, while berating the ‘TV watching masses’ who were enjoying prosperity after decades of penury (5). The difference today is that such preoccupations have taken centre stage in discussions of class and society. Middle-class people affect ‘working-class’ authenticity and backgrounds while they still take umbrage at the despised ‘chavs’ for somehow being symptomatic of a gaudy modern society that’s lost its way (6).

Indeed, any discussion today on class is effectively related to the middle class and the dominance of their prejudices – on healthy eating, racial etiquette, the evironment and so on. The middle classes occupy a peculiar position in society. Essentially, they do not have the true social power of the upper and capitalist classes, nor do they have the potential for collective power that the working classes possessed. Instead, their petty displays of etiquette and moral worthiness are deployed to mark themselves out from hoi polloi.

The middle classes’ social position has often meant they’re politically unstable and inconsistent, too. While many middle-class professionals are ‘concerned’ about ‘the poor’ and how capitalism is a bit ‘unfair’, they also have some material stake in the existing order. It means that while they might support welfare reforms for the masses, they are generally hostile to the working classes becoming too politically powerful lest it undermine their own position and status. That is why the liberal middle classes can currently afford to posture against ‘global capitalism’ and strike radical poses – it has no consequences to their own position in society. It’s worth remembering that in the 1980s, the Guardian couldn’t even bring itself to support the Labour Party – it advised its readers to vote for the Social Democrats and later the Liberal Democrats. It was only by the 1992 election, when the old ideological divisions were all but over, that it could stomach giving support to a nominally workers’ party.

Today, free from such external class pressures, the middle classes (and increasingly the upper echelons) don’t feel compelled to act as leaders in order to preserve the existing order. That is why so much of contemporary middle-class ‘radicalism’ – from the ‘deep greens’ to lazy not-in-my-name critics of Tony Blair – has such an annoyingly slippery character. Ideas, and bad ideas at that, can be floated with scant regard to accountability.

Today’s middle-class youth shy away from their traditional backgrounds that emphasise providing leadership and responsibility in public life. Thus, pretending to be working class – as so many middle-class indie bands do today – reflects a nervousness regarding the demands that ambitious leadership brings. Unfortunately, in this social milieu there is real scorn directed to those celebrities – musical, sporting or otherwise – who’ve made the leap from council estate to country estate. Exaggerating your working-class credentials while lionising the druggy margins of society serves as a code that everyone needs to know their place (see Doffing the Burberry cap to nihilism, by Neil Davenport).

Class as a dynamo of whether you support or resist social change no longer has any bearing. When identities have become so malleable, to declare that you are working class today is often more about promoting middle-class prejudices against materialism than a real reflection of your position in the world.

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

(1) ‘New Labour, New unions?’, by Alex Bryson, British Social Attitudes, 2007

(2) ‘Who do we think we are? The decline of traditional social identities’, by Anthony Heath, Jean Martin and Gabriella Elgenius, British Social Attitudes, 2007

(3) Never Had It So Good, Dominic Sandbrook (2005)

(4) British Social Attitudes, 2007

(5) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, by Alan Sillitoe

(6) The Blair court has presided over this new rottenness, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 22 January 2007

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Topics Politics

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