Leading article: What about the workers?

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

Ashdown Group: C# Developer - Kent - £43,000

£35000 - £43000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: C# and .Net Developer - n...

Guru Careers: Digital Marketing Exec / Online Marketing Executive

£35 - 40k: Guru Careers: Our client has a new role for a Digital Marketing Exe...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Facebook lights up the London Eye with the nation's general election conversations.The London Eye showed the top five most discussed political topics on Facebook. (Colours: Economy - white; Health - purple; Tax - yellow; Europe and Immigration - blue; Crime - red) in London  

Election 2015: Why each party's share of the vote could really matter

Matt Dathan

How the French stay so slim while we British balloon can’t ever be reconciled

Rosie Millard
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'