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The working-class and the left

It’s easy to write a post like this and invite a barrage of accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve always been open about my background. I’m middle-class, full-stop; when I was growing up, my mother lectured at Salford University, and my father worked in economic regeneration at Sheffield Council.

My family did go through “financial hardship” (for want of a better phrase) for a number of years when we were based in Sheffield; but I was too young to remember this, unlike my brothers who spent years having clothes bought from jumble sales. In any case, it was for very different reasons than the thousands of workers in that city thrown on the scrapheap by Thatcherism’s vandalism of British industry: my dad spent years as a full-time official of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, and fomenting revolution doesn’t pay the bills.

Like most middle-class people, I can only remember financial security, even when my dad lost his job with eight hundred others at the fag-end of Tory rule. Long before I was self-consciously political, I was aware of the contrast in my circumstances to those of most of the people I grew up with.

So let me phrase my argument like this. There are too many people like me on the left. Socialists, like myself, often talk about a crisis of working-class representation; but that’s a phrase, I would argue, that could equally be applied to the left.

It’s worth fleshing out what I think the left is for. In my view, its sole purpose is the emancipation of working-class people, and all else flows from that. That might seem a bit cocky, because the left predates the modern working-class by quite a few decades: it emerged as a force in the French Revolution, and referred to the radical delegates seated on the left of the Estates-General. But the left emerged as a mass force in the Industrial Revolution as the political wing of the working-class movement.

There are issues that the left must be at the forefront of championing: like equality for women and gays, or opposing war, for example. But these issues by themselves do not define us as ‘left-wing’, even if we have a left-wing take on them. A good liberal will support gay rights, and a maverick Tory like Simon Jenkins can oppose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the fight for working-class representation and emancipation that makes us ‘the left’.

It’s an obvious point that the working-class has changed dramatically, and the left has to adapt to that. The fall of Western industrial capitalism took with it secure, unionised, skilled jobs, passed from generation to generation; and this ravaged communities in which the dock, the factory or the mine represented the beating heart. We’ve now got a new, growing ‘service-sector working class’ marked by job insecurity, relatively poor wages, high levels of part-time and temporary work, and very low levels of union membership. You cannot really have communities that are based around the supermarket or the call centre. We need a class politics relevant to today’s working-class.

But it is this ‘new’ working-class that is, all too often, missing in the ranks of the working-class. Public sector workers are often represented (and I can take as an example the Labour Representation Committee, on whose National Committee I serve) as indeed they should be as an important part of the working-class. But the 80% of workers who work in the private sector are, all too often, missing. This is in part because trade unionism has been driven out of most of the private sector: union density is now just 15%, compared to over half of the public sector.

It is crucial that the left is properly representative of the working-class it exists to, well, represent. If it fails to do so, it will be in no position to articulate the issues that are most important to its base. If I think of how much focus there is on issues such as Iraq (which I marched against repeatedly), in my view there is nowhere near as much attention to class issues such as housing, low pay, and working conditions. Our priorities are often wrong, and that has a lot to do with the social make-up of many of our activists.

The decline of class as the central focus of the left is, in part, a legacy of historical events. After the defeat of the Miners’ Strike – a tipping point for the British labour movement – history no longer seemed to be on the same side as the class struggle. But history was still blowing in the direction of radical causes such as gay rights and women’s liberation. Many of these causes became the preoccupation of left-wing activists, often with class stripped out.

Most newly radicalised activists today have no experience of a powerful labour movement, or of experiencing large numbers of workers involved in struggles. Little wonder that the idea of ‘class struggle’ seems, at best, abstract to many of them: a relic of an earlier age. That’s why ideas like generational conflict have filled the vacuum.

Ensuring that working-class people are properly represented in the left’s ranks won’t completely address these problems: but it will certainly help.

One of the most disturbing elements of the left’s retreat from class has been how the far-right has exploited it. The BNP – before its increasingly apparent (and welcome) implosion – was so successful because it offered reactionary solutions to working-class problems, often using perversions of old-fashioned community politics. As one BNP activist, Jonathan Bowden, taunted: “Labour’s treacherous lies and cardinal betrayal of the working classes is obvious to all. But the really good news is that the radical left have all but vanished from defending the working-classes.”

There has, recently, been a reawakening on the left about class. I don’t support the Blue Labour initiative – which I’ll go into soon – but I do welcome the fact it has opened up discussion about class.

There desperately needs to be a refocus on the left’s historic mission as the political wing of the working-class. And that comes back to working-class representation. It doesn’t mean purging people like me – I think we’ve still got a role to play – but we will never prosper as a genuine voice of working-class communities unless we reflect those we exist to represent.

And if we don’t do it – well, the new populist right are circling like vultures.


  1. John FOSTER says:

    Jon- This is a difficult topic to write on. I suppose that I am Middle Class. My Dadf was an Engineering Draughtsman ( he worked at A.V, Roe’s, New Moston, during and just after the War (We hardly saw him, because he was often working on Sundays and Bank Holidays) and my mother didn’t work, but had been an Insurance Secretary for the Co-op, but I went to Manchester Grammar School and to University, where I did a BSc and a PhD. I, like many local Labour candidates, grew away from my origins. I was much influenced by my Grandad Hall, who probably voted Communist or Conservative. How can we really appreciate true Working Class aspirations, except to grow away? One thing to remember is that the women’s movement gained a lot from the Miners’ Strike! I still have my Miners’ Strike key-ring!

  2. Alex Snowdon says:

    A few quick thoughts:

    A difficulty here is that you don’t really define class, or specifically working class. But if we’re talking about what most socialists would normally mean by working class – a broad category encompassing white collar and blue collar, public and private sectors – then surely the left always has been (and remains) dominated by working class people.

    Another difficulty is that you don’t define ‘the left’. On my bit of the left – the revolutionary left – we’ve never stopped talking about class. To a large extent the same applies to the more radical parts of the reformist left. It’s the moderate Labour elements that have for a long time – since the 80s – been running as far away from any talk of class as possible. This is of course political.

    On your historical point – yes the left can be traced back to the French Revolution and its aftermath, but even then it was closely linked to the embryonic proletariat. And one of Marx’s key characteristics was the way he tightly linked notions of socialism to the idea that class is fundamental and that capitalism was creating its own gravedigger in the form of the new industrial class.

    It’s true – and important – that the shape of the working class changes. The forms of working class resistance that predominate also change, e.g. since 1985 there’s been a low level of strikes (and not one major strike victory for our side), but there’s been big demonstrations and campaigns around a series of issues from poll tax through pit closures, Iraq war and other issues, to 26 March 2011.

    It’s very one-sided to focus on the BNP as some sort of expression of working class grievances in recent years, as if there haven’t also been progressive movements. It’s also problematic because the BNP has consistently had its strongest base in parts of the middle class, and has in fact now gone into sharp decline.

    By the way, I don’t think there’s anything to be welcomed about ‘Blue Labour’ – it’s the same old cynical deployment of ‘working class’ by the extreme right of Labour to hammer the left (see also Andy Burnham’s whole ‘we need to talk about immigration, cos that’s what real people care about’ shtick during the leadership campaign).

  3. Tom Griffin says:

    One of the strengths of Marx’s analysis of class was that it was based on forward looking analysis of the economic trends of his time, and the kind of class structures they implied well-before those trends were fully developed.

    I think the best examples of similarly forward-looking analyses around today are the work by people like Yochai Benkler and Michel Bauwens.

    They suggest that peer production is emerging as a new mode of production challenging the dominance of the mode of commodity production Marx described.

    For Labour organisation, that would imply a long-term shift from forms like trade unions that assume commodity production, towards co-operatives, mutuals etc.

    I think part of the Blue Labour agenda speak to themes that will become important in that scenario, like decommodification and mutualism.

    The Red Tory agenda, with its nostalgia for pre-capitalist social relations, demonstrates that some of these themes can be given a very reactionary interpretation, but that is a reason to contest those interpretations rather than to vacate the ground altogether and carry on operating under the old Fordist assumptions.

  4. Mick Williams says:

    A quote:

    ‘The working class contains within itself all the material necessary for its own emancipation and the position of all other sections in the movement is a subsidiary one – not only in theory but in fact.

    To place anyone not of our class in a position of leadership is an admission of the inferiority of our class and a perpetual source of danger.’

    James Connolly, 1908.

    ‘Nuff said.

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