Leading article: What about the workers?

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The Independent Online

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.