Mark Steel: Class still rules. It's just the jobs that have changed

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The Independent Online

One thing that almost all commentators, journalists and politicians can agree on is that there's no point in going on about class.

Being working class was fashionable in the Seventies, like Curly Wurlys and The Sweeney, but now it's so retro, and postmen are probably assaulted by those women from What Not to Wear, who shriek "Aaaagh, manual labour is out out out. Now let's try this adorable velvet waistcoat and it's into the river with that sack of rubbish you're carrying."

The demise of class as an issue is the justification for most modern thinking, including the entire rationale for New Labour. So, this week, the results of a poll were published in which 89 per cent said that their class was one of the main ways by which they were judged in life. Most people may have responded like that because of basic common experiences.

Because, if you're from a working-class background, often when you meet a posh executive they smile nervously and stand half a pace back, as if they're patting a friendly wolf. They seem to be thinking: "He's behaving at the moment – but I'm sure any moment he'll revert to type, kick me in the nuts, growl 'Oy, you slag', and set fire to my shed."

And it's still true that 77 per cent of judges and half of senior company directors went to Oxford or Cambridge. The proportion of students at these universities who went to public school has gone up, from 39 per cent in 1969 to 45 per cent now. Which is in contrast to the image of the modern businessman as having grown up in the East End of London and boasting of how "I made my first 50 quid going round Hackney Hospital, clearing away the crutches of the ones who'd pegged it and flogging 'em down Ridley Road market for 15 bob a pair."

But the endurance of class is much deeper than that. The pundits who regularly declare its disappearance usually refer to the decline of industries such as mining and the docks. But there are now three times as many people working in call centres as there were mining in 1980. And, in theory, they could cause havoc if they all went on strike, because even the army couldn't take over in an emergency – "Hello, this is Sergeant Brigworth speaking, how may I help you? So that's three tickets for Beyoncé on the 19th, may I have your credit card number? Wait for it!"

Tesco employs 250,000 people, and its potential power is greater than any shipbuilder, seeing as how we panic at any opportunity in this country. The company would only have to announce a five-minute strike and there'd be thousands running to every store screaming: "Give me 200 boxes of Sugar Puffs and a pound of tomato sauce now because I can't run out!"

And industries that might once have been considered middle class, such as banking or insurance or sales, have become automated and monotonous. Forty years ago, if you worked for the BBC, you were part of the establishment, just below the ambassador for Canada. Now you face the same sudden cuts and redundancies as were once handed out to toolroom workers at British Leyland. And so a campaign has been launched by the staff, including the presenters. This could be brilliant if the newsreaders end up on picket lines, calling out in pronounced English: "And here's some late rubble just coming in."

The difficulty with assessing class is that so many attempts are made to confuse its meaning. So it's easy to get caught up with wondering whether Steven Gerrard is working class, or was Vanessa Feltz middle class during the time she lost weight. Or someone will ask: "What about Osama Bin Laden? He must be working class: living in a cave and he can't even get on the council housing list." Then someone will answer: "How can he be working class when his job is making films?"

And some people who defend the idea of the working class make matters even more tangled, making statements such as: "Of course there's still a working class. Come down my local. You're not allowed in without a slobbering dog. Everyone plays darts, including the dogs. And, if anyone buys taramasalata, they get their house burned down."

To have any meaning, class must be about whether we have any control over how matters are organised in society. If you're Rupert Murdoch or on the board of a major bank you probably have. But if you work in Ikea or a call centre, or for Legal & General or you're a salesman or an air hostess, it doesn't matter that you're not covered in soot, you're probably working class.

You could try ringing the Prime Minister and seeing if he'll redraw half his policies according to your wishes, or fancies a holiday in one of your villas, and if he accepts then the 89 per cent are obviously wrong.