Leading article: What about the workers?

Share
Related Topics

The backward march of the labouring class began in Margaret Thatcher's time, if not before. In the 1960s, to be working class was the very height of fashion. After the Angry Young Men rebelled against bourgeois respectability, grammar-school boys whose parents were teachers, such as Michael Jagger, adopted the accents and poses of the workers. Then, most people were proud to describe themselves as working class, even if, increasingly, they did white-collar jobs.

How different things look now, as illuminated by the second part of the BritainThinks survey of attitudes to class, which we report exclusively today. The study, looking at the 24 per cent of the population who still describe themselves as working class, finds that they feel dispossessed, belittled and unrepresented. As Owen Jones writes today, the working class has been demonised by the language of the "chav".

Some of the decline of the working class is inevitable, and some of it is a good thing. The closure of heavy industries and the mines meant the disappearance of many dangerous and unpleasant jobs. But some of the social changes of the past four decades have been less beneficial, and successive governments have failed that part of the working class which has been left behind.

Baroness Thatcher is still admired by many of the working class in the south, the survey found, because she recognised their desire to own their homes. But it was in her time that benefit dependency began to be a serious problem and lone parenthood increased. Trade unions had also become too powerful, and misused that power, but their breaking left much of the working class exposed to global economic forces.

When the modernised Labour Party finally returned to power 14 years ago it had, rightly, broadened its base. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown achieved a great deal for social justice, although some of their attempts to reduce child poverty had a side effect of further entrenching benefit dependency.

However, another change accompanied the decline of the working class, and that was the professionalisation of politics. Indeed, the present prime minister represents the triumph of what Professor Peter Hennessy, the constitutional historian, calls the "special adviserdom". MPs are more than ever not just middle class but drawn from a narrow catchment of advisers, think-tankers and campaigners.

What is more, our voting system means that the traditional working class is not the group that decides elections.

These social changes have practical consequences. For example, when 10 countries joined the EU in 2004, the Government was oblivious to the possible impact on the British market for manual labour. A Home Office estimate was that 5,000 to 13,000 central Europeans a year might take advantage of the law on freedom of movement to seek work here. Within a few years, more than a million Poles, Czechs and Hungarians had arrived.

In retrospect, the Labour Party, and perhaps even newspapers such as The Independent on Sunday, had lost touch with what life was like in poor areas. Some people who pointed out the negative impact of immigration or the EU on some people in Britain were unfairly brushed aside as racists or extremists. Occasional brave voices could not be so dismissed, such as Margaret Hodge, who said some difficult things about fairness in social housing, and Jon Cruddas, who is interviewed today.

One thing that comes through the BritainThinks survey most clearly is that the uncertain and defensive rump of the working class feels that it has been abandoned by conventional politics.

Yet it is not quite true that the working class is now so small that politicians can ignore it. As Owen Jones argues, the issues that matter to it also matter to much of the "squeezed" middle class. The more the political debate over the next few years is about such issues, the better. The coalition is weak on the theme of fairness, mocked by its slogan "all in this together". But Iain Duncan Smith's welfare reforms are a bold attempt to get to grips with the benefits system's failings.

Ed Miliband, a former special adviser, like the Prime Minister, took a small step yesterday towards turning the Labour Party outwards so that it speaks for people outside his north London intellectual establishment.

No one can halt the long, withdrawing roar of the receding working class. But if Mr Miliband, Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg compete to make this adjustment as fair as possible, the country will be better for it.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Nursery Nurse

£40 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Nursery Nurse needed in salfordI a...

Nursery Nurse

£25 per day: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse needed in th...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: architecture, suitcases and ‘pathetic figures’

John Rentoul
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US  

Air strikes? Talk of God? Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script after James Foley beheading

Robert Fisk
Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape