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

Opilio Recruitment: Field Marketing Manage

£25k - 40k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineers

£28000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Gas Breakdown Engineer...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
The report will embarrass the Home Secretary, Theresa May  

Surprise, surprise: tens of thousands of illegal immigrants have 'dropped off' the Home Office’s radar

Nigel Farage
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas