Book Review: The People, The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010

by Patrick Ainley

bookWhen Eric Hobsbawm asked in 1978 whether the forward march of labour had halted, he was calling attention to a possible political reversal, not bidding Farewell to the Working Class as Andre Gorz did two years later. More recently, drawing heavily on Gorz, Guy Standing in 2011 proposed the birth of The Precariat, a ‘dangerous new class’ growing alongside the dwindling proletariat, while in the same year Owen Jones suggested that the entire English working class had been turned into Chavs (2011). Both books reviewed here on SI.

The subtitle of Selina Todd’s history poses the same existential question which she pursues as a personal quest: ‘It began as my attempt to find out about the history of one family – my own’ (p.2) and she revisits the classmates of ‘her large, socially-mixed comprehensive school’ in Newcastle-upon-Tyne ‘as they prepared to turn forty’ (p.356) to include their experiences among the many oral histories and other testimonies and sources expertly crafted into her collective narrative. All these witnesses are bound together by episodes in the life of ‘rags to riches and back again’ pools winner, Viv Nicholson, as ‘a fable for her generation’ (p.316): ‘Back in the 1960s, it had seemed like working-class life was on an upward trajectory… But by 1977 that certainty had been replaced with insecurity, fear and bewilderment about the future…’ (p.317)

Where Selina Todd takes this argument makes her very full history a real page turner. Her thesis is ‘The years between 1910 and 2010 were the working-class century [when]… most Britons came to understand themselves to be working class… specifically during and after the Second World War the working class became “the people”’ (p.1). Consequently, ‘as factory work eclipsed domestic service as the country’s largest employer… working people came to see themselves as a collective force – a class’ (p.121) and were recognised by politicians and the press as being ‘the backbone of the nation, on whose labour Britain depended.’ (p.121) In addition, ‘A growing number of people called themselves working class, or saw their interests as being synonymous with those of working-class people. They included many first-generation white-collar workers, and many public sector employees like teachers, who benefitted from the post-war welfare state.’ (p.361) The 1939-45 People’s War ‘marked one of two major turning points in the twentieth century, heralding a period of full employment and comprehensive welfare provision that was only brought to an end by the second turning point: the election of Margaret Thatcher to government in 1979.’ (p.120)

The chapter titles ‘New Jerusalems’ and ‘Communities’ emphasise the varieties rather than the equality of this experience for ‘Most politicians had little interest in making Britain a more equal society.’ (p.120) Instead, Attlee’s government pursued meritocracy through ‘equal opportunities’, a slogan that Thatcher was to translate into ‘opportunities to be unequal’. Politicians of all parties ‘accepted that profit-making and the people’s welfare were ultimately irreconcilable… Faced with the choice, they chose loyalty to industrialists, businessmen and financiers… united in viewing working-class power as a threat to democracy rather than being a prerequisite of it.’ (p.314) So the working class were ‘the beneficiaries but not the architects, of social welfare.’ (p.120-1)

Labour’s ‘social contract’ offered welfare for labour (p.158). When this contract began to deteriorate, ‘Rising unemployment and economic insecurity had exacerbated people’s desire to exert more control over their lives, but the collective approach to achieving this – through trade unionism, women’s groups and tenants’ campaigns – had apparently failed.’ (p.314) Thatcher ‘promised to give voters the control over their own lives that Labour had failed to deliver… predicated on the myth that everyone could exercise equal choice in a free market.’ (ibid) Economic and political rights became attached to individuals rather than to groups but ‘This did not address the economic and political subordination that working-class people shared as a result of their relationship to production: their need to labour for a living.’ (p.295) ‘Like Labour in 1945, Margaret Thatcher presented a vision of a society where class background did not matter. Unlike Attlee’s Labour Party, she proposed that this would be created by the free market and competition, rather than through cooperation.’ (p.319)

It is now clear where Selina Todd’s quest is leading; the working class has never gone away. ‘Superficially my classmates epitomized Britain’s transformation into a middle-class, if not classless, society.’ (p.346) But ‘their non-manual occupations could not disguise a shared sense of powerlessness’ (p.349). This because, again, ‘Class is not determined by a person’s level of income’ or whether or not they work with their hands or their brain, ‘but by their power – primarily their economic power.’ (p.358)

The middle class also lack economic power but ‘The top-down nature of Labour’s reforms… emphasized a distinct role for the educated middle class.… reinforcing the notion that the middle class was a distinct social group entitled to special treatment’ (p.168) and fraying the alliance of ‘workers by hand and by brain’. There is a nod here to Bourdieu’s Distinction, especially when Todd adds ‘class implicates and confines everyone, and the middle class was, then as now, largely preoccupied with the hard work, effort and self-interest that maintaining and reproducing… privilege in a class society requires.’ (p.364) But for Bourdieu the middle class rely on cultural capital because they lack economic capital. This makes education crucial, especially for the limited upward social mobility from the manually working class to the expanding non-manual middle class during ‘The Golden Age of the Grammar Schools’ as Todd ironically heads her chapter ten.

Now that limited upward social mobility has been reversed into general downward social mobility, widening participation – to higher education this time – again ‘symbolizes a better life tantalizingly out of reach.’ (p.361) Only now there is no floor for the class of professionals and administrators to stand on as new technology is applied further up the employment hierarchy proletarianising the professions while promising to professionalise the proletariat. This leaves those in the middle desperately running up a down-escalator of inflating qualifications to avoid falling into the structural insecurity beneath because, especially since 2008, numbers in low-paid, insecure and often part-time jobs have ratcheted up to include perhaps half of new entrants to employment.

No wonder that ‘by 2010, people were less likely to see class and inequality as a means of making sense of their circumstances.’ (p.355) So much so that ‘race and immigration have become the only acceptable frames within which white working-class people can talk about inequality.’ (p.354) ‘Some people blame “scroungers” or immigrants for their difficult circumstances, some blame their middle-class neighbours – but more blame themselves.’ (p.356) ‘Others viewed “working class” as a socially stigmatized term that was increasingly interchangeable with “underclass”.’ (p.358)

Nevertheless, in epilogue Selina Todd recognizes: ‘being working class has come to matter once more because of the return of massive insecurity, for professionals as well as waged workers, and for home owners as well as tenants.’ (p.365) ‘The existence of class always testified to pervasive inequality. But it also suggests that some things have been lost: primarily, a vision of life based on co-operation and camaraderie, rather than on fighting your way to the top. In learning from their history, we can begin to imagine a different future.’ (p.366)

Patrick Ainley’s latest publication with Martin Allen is Another Great Training Robbery or a Real Alternative for Young People? Apprenticeships at the start of the 21st century available as a free download from the radicaledbks website!

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