The British working class is a rainbow of diversity: to claim otherwise is dangerous and wrong
It is a fact that is rarely commented on, but until relatively recently, the working class had been widely erased as a social and political category. In the 1990s and 2000s, the dominant mantra in politics and media alike was “we are all middle class now”. The crushing of organised labour, the apparent hegemony of rugged individualism, the end of the Cold War — portrayed as the absolute historical victory of capitalism red in tooth and claw — and New Labour’s surrender to Thatcherite tenets seemed to render class to historical irrelevance. That was Margaret Thatcher’s avowed aim: as she once wrote, “Class is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles and sets them against one another.”
No-one reads the funeral rites of class anymore, including on the right. After Theresa May become became Prime Minister, her first Conference speech was littered with references to “ordinary working-class people” and “ordinary, working class families.” UKIP and its Brexit Party successor relentlessly trumpet the language of class, with the likes of Nigel Farage claiming that “the Labour Party used to represent the working class. Now they are the party of Remain.”
Apologies for being that guy who quotes back his own work, but this reactionary reformulation of class is something I have longed feared. In 2010, I wrote the following in Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class: “The danger is of a savvy new populist right emerging, one that is comfortable talking about class and offers reactionary solutions to working-class problems. It could denounce the demonisation of the working class and the trashing of its identity. It could claim that the traditional party of working-class people, the Labour party, has turned its back on them.
“Rather than focusing on the deep-seated economic issues that really underpin the grievances of working-class people, it could train its populist guns on immigration and cultural issues. Immigrants could be blamed for economic woes; multiculturalism could be blasted for undermining ‘white’ working-class identity.” This is exactly what happened, of course.
But this formulation of class identity does not only exist on the right. The idea that the emblem of working-class Britain in 2019 is a white, middle-aged straight man in an industrial occupation in a small Midlands town who holds socially conservative views finds its reflection on the left, too. (NB: Do such men exist, and do Labour need to win them over? Yes. Are they emblematic of the working class in 2019 at the exclusion of others? No.) It was most notoriously championed by the ‘Blue Labour’ tendency, whose slogan was “family, faith and flag” — and also finds torchbearers on the self-described radical left, too.
Bear with me for this anecdote. A few weeks ago, both me and Novara Media editor Ash Sarkar were invited to speak at a rally organised by the People’s Assembly. As it turned out, I’d double booked, but I was lobbied particularly by BME activists to withdraw, which Ash quickly did. The reason: the presence of RMT activist Eddie Dempsey, who once argued that “the one thing that unites” those who turn up at Tommy Robinson protests “is their hatred of the liberal left. And they are right to hate them.” Now we socialists have our own critique of the “liberal left” — principally their support for market economics — but that is not what Tommy Robinson supporters (or “fascists”, to use shorthand) hate them for. No, it is for having perceived anti-racist, pro-migrant, anti-Islamophobia politics.
What makes it even more egregious is that Dempsey folds anyone on the left who isn’t pro-Brexit into his “liberal left” category, including both myself and Ash Sarkar. We were expected to stand as an ally with someone who believes fascists are right to hate us. For those of us at risk of violence from Tommy Robinson’s fascist supporters for espousing our socialist politics — indeed the last People’s Assembly protest I spoke at, they surrounded me chanting “Jonesy as a homo” then attempted to punch me in the face — it is a lot to ask us to stand together as comrades and allies with an individual who believes these hateful thugs are right to hate us. (We’ve since been accused of ‘no platforming’ Dempsey, including by the right-wing libertarian Spiked website, and Sarkar was inundated with racist abuse: in actual fact, we simply disinvited ourselves — no-one is forced to share a platform — and turned down an offer by the protest organisers to remove Dempsey as a speaker).
Dempsey’s perverse argument rests on the assumption that Tommy Robinson’s supporters represent a meaningful, if wrongheaded, constituency of working-class Britain. It is a belief which should have been put to bed by this convicted fraudster, thug and grifter getting 2.2% of the vote in the North West during the European elections: most working class people detest this far-right businessman. An even more extreme worldview is expounded by Dempsey’s ally Paul Embery — a pro-Brexit union activist suspended by the Fire Brigades Union’s national executive — who opposes equal marriage, believing it alienates “traditional Labour voters”, opposes trans rights, and claimed that Labour’s demand for revoking Geoffrey Boycott’s knighthood on account of his domestic abuse conviction had “alienated the whole of Yorkshire.”
But this caricature of working-class identity is simply not based on the facts. Take Brexit: a debate often simplistically portrayed as Leave = working class, Remain = middle class. This is partly because of a ‘ABC1C2DE’ social classification system which has a lot to answer for: ABC1 lumps FTSE 100 board members in with public sector workers as ‘middle class’, while C2DE — which is weighted towards pensioners — is used as a working-class social indicator. But even using this profoundly flawed system, most working-class people under 35 and working class BME people voted for Remain. We are told that “the Labour heartlands voted Leave”: why Liverpool, Manchester or indeed London are excluded from “Labour heartlands” is not explained. Where does the Scottish working class fit in all of this?
As for social conservatism: previous research has found that working-class people were more pro-gay rights than their middle-class counterparts. This is a bombshell, I know, but working-class people are also gay, lesbian, bisexual or trans, and indeed many ‘gay villages’ have an overtly working-class ethos. We often hear “white working class” bandied around, when working class communities and workplaces are the most likely to be mixed — see: urban working-class communities in Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow or London — yet never hear about “the white middle class”, a term more suitable for many middle-class professionals or suburban communities in, say, Surrey. It is impossible to talk about the reality of the modern working class by excluding the lived experiences of minorities and migrants, disproportionately concentrated in the lowest paid, most insecure and least prestigious occupations. The modern working class is a rainbow: and a conception which excludes a young black shop assistant in Hackney, or a gay public sector worker in Sunderland, is not one based on truth.
We often hear “identity politics” used pejoratively to suggest the struggles of minorities and women for their right are on a collision course with working class interests. But women and minorities represent a majority of the working class: there is no true liberation until, for example, working-class women are liberated from both class and gender oppression.
The ascendant right-wing populism of our time relishes reconceptualising class, focusing not on the economic exploitation of labour inherent in capitalism, but rather on a socially conservative class slighted by a rootless pro-migrant middle class left. It is a narrative based on myths and distortions, serving to advance an agenda which divides working-class people and communities and ultimately only serves the interests of capital. Its dangerous echoes on the left must be challenged and defeated, too.