Class since the financial crisis

An extract from "Class Matters" analysing how "class" has been deployed and manipulated and the struggles behind these uses.

This is an extract from Class Matters: Inequality and Exploitation in 21st Century Britain published by Pluto Press.

Britain, like many other countries, had a brief glimpse of what we might call ‘class consciousness’ following the financial crisis of 2008. The financial sector was identified as the main cause of the downturn, and for a while the phrase ‘the bankers’ became closely associated with various adjectives: greed, trickery, short-sightedness. There was a consensus that large financial institutions had taken on too much risk in order to make more money for themselves, and that everyone else was facing the consequences.

On the surface this seems like a fertile context for class conflict. There was, certainly, a lot of protest, and groups on the radical left momentarily seemed marginally more relevant than they had done for years. Most notable here was the Occupy movement, which began in the US and spread to various other countries. Occupy groups gained publicity by staging highly visible protests in centres of financial activity, including outside St Paul’s Cathedral. They set up tents and stayed there for several months, holding debates, making banners and so on.

These movements were highly successful in some respects. Mainly, they got people talking about the things they thought were important. The use of words and phrases such as ‘inequality’ or ‘corporate greed’ in the media spiked following their protests, and declined again as Occupy’s profile diminished.1

But to what extent was Occupy about class? It aimed itself at bankers and the politicians with whom they were presumed to be in cahoots. They argued that these people had stitched the system up and had become extremely rich at everyone else’s expense. They had a slogan to this effect: ‘the 1 per cent versus the 99 per cent’. The problem with this slogan is that it is vague. For one thing, it relies on the conspiratorial idea that society is governed by a tiny elite out for themselves, as opposed to a chaotic society in which elites are as confused as everyone else. With the benefit of hindsight, which of these seems to work better as a description of the Cameron–Clegg years? Or the minority Conservative Brexit government? Capitalist economies are more confusing and unpredictable than this.

The slogan also buys into the ‘economy that works for everyone’ platitude. There is this tiny group who need to be brought down a peg or several, but beyond that everyone else exists on the side of righteousness. Lumped into the 99 per cent are everyone from students, the homeless, professional and blue-collar employees, the unemployed, the retired, small businesses and, implicitly, large businesses that work in ‘good’ areas like manufacturing rather than duplicitous financiers with their hocus pocus.

This ‘intuitive populism’ 2 was its main selling point, directed at a ‘1 per cent’ which is highly opaque but found colourful personification in the actions of particular individuals, such as the former Royal Bank of Scotland boss Fred Goodwin. Very obvious, unambiguous bad guys, who made it easy to parcel off a small niche of society as the villains who were ruining it for everyone else. If this is class politics, it is a very narrow and personalised version.

Occupy deserves credit for pressuring British politicians, even Conservative ones, to talk a lot more than they used to about inequality and corporate greed. But these terms are fuzzy. Fighting against inequality, for instance, has long been a rallying cry of the left, but the word ‘inequality’ is surprisingly easily subsumed into dry and technocratic language. What is inequality, really? Often, it is encapsulated in an esoterically calculated figure (i.e. the Gini coefficient) that sometimes gets higher (which is bad) or lower (which is good), and which can be manhandled in support of any argument. For example, Britain’s Gini coefficient may well decline if economic instability takes a chunk out of elite incomes, as occurred in 2010–11,3 but this does not mean that anything particularly profound or emancipatory has happened.

The danger of this technocratic fuzziness is that the left’s rhetoric fizzles out, and this is indeed what happened in the years immediately after the crisis. David Cameron, the prime minister at the time of Occupy’s activity, was able to reel off his own statistics that said inequality was falling, enabling every potentially damaging exchange on the topic to disperse into a fog of numbers. Politicians on the centre-left were repeatedly naive about how widely the anti-inequality message would resonate. Concern with inequality is not a new thing in Britain: the number of British people who think that the gap between rich and poor is too wide has been very high for years and looks like remaining so. But what declined throughout the 1990s and 2000s was people’s inclination to actually do anything about it. By 2010, the number of people supporting policies that redistribute wealth had sunk to about one in three, compared to over half in 1991.4 The effect of several years of austerity and high-profile attacks on welfare recipients (such as the harshly punitive ‘bedroom tax’) did not have a substantial effect on this general lack of interest.5 Corbyn’s strategy relied on the idea that people were starting to care again, but this cannot be assumed.

So while the old (pre-2015) centre-left put too much faith in people’s outrage at inequality, the right were highly adept at finding a narrative which was in many respects less accurate (the idea that the financial crisis was a result of Gordon Brown ‘spending all the money’ on benefits claimants) but, paradoxically, felt more real. They realised that very few people identified as ‘the 99 per cent’. Instead, they pursued a strategy of flattery. David Cameron and George Osborne developed a category that people actually wanted to feel like they were part of. This was the idea of ‘hardworking people’, and it was given its appeal by the sense, reinforced by government, that there were a lot of lazy people about. Everyone knows a lazy person with whom they like to contrast themselves.

The hardworking person became the model citizen of the austerity era: they accepted that we were ‘all in it together’, and that you had to pull your weight by making sacrifices without complaining. This idea was fleshed out in sometimes poetic ways. The hardworking person was enraged by the sight of their neighbours’ curtains being drawn (George Osborne talking on the radio: ‘It is unfair that people listening to this programme going out to work see the neighbour next door with the blinds down because they are on benefits’). They were cruelly bullied by trade unions, who admittedly are also made up of hard workers, but of the kind that complain (Sajid Javid: ‘these [anti-union] reforms will stop the “endless” threat of strike action hanging over hardworking people’). And their main interests were gambling and alcohol.6

In policy terms, Cameron and Osborne’s legacy now looks very humble indeed. They fell a long way short of their self-imposed deficit reduction targets. Indeed, their whole rhetoric and agenda was built around eliminating the UK budget deficit by 2020, but this objective was ditched as counterproductive and unachievable by their successors, Theresa May and Phillip Hammond. They advertised themselves as the only choice for ‘stable’ leadership, but then Cameron had to resign after accidentally leaving the European Union. Nonetheless, they cemented a highly successful political demonology for the early twenty-first century. The economy that works for everyone is possible, if by ‘everyone’ we mean ‘hardworking people’. They flattered enough people into identifying with this category to win elections, and were very pointed in showing who did not fit. Consider how the role of the unemployed moved from victim to perpetrator in Conservative election posters, from Thatcher’s first election (an image of people queuing outside an unemployment office with the headline ‘Labour’s not working’) to Cameron’s 2015 re-election (a picture of David Cameron with sleeves rolled up so as to look energetic, with the headline ‘let’s cut benefits for those that refuse work’).7

This was a far more (electorally) effective variant on the ‘economy that works for everyone’ line than the Occupy vision (and even more so than the weak dilution thereof upon which Ed Miliband ran the 2015 election). In the latter case, the barrier to a good economy was a highly opaque and hard-to-define group that many people ultimately suspected were untouchable anyway. The hardworking people phrase, by contrast, enabled the Conservatives to present themselves as the improbable conquerors of Labour’s territory. Until very recently, Labour itself accepted their narrative (and many people in the party clearly still do). As the then shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves underlined, Labour had become desperate to show that ‘we are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work … Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.’8 Here, the glib division between the ‘working class’ and those who are out of work is taken as read. As I will argue later, according to the Marxist view this is one of the most stupid things anyone can possibly say about class.

During Theresa May’s first few months in office, the Conservative version of class warfare assumed a fuller expression. A Conservative MP hoped, in a French newspaper, that May might be the first politician of the new ‘post-liberal’ settlement,9 being unafraid to recognise that many people’s lives have been much damaged by social and economic liberalism. On assuming her position, May gave a speech in which she repeatedly used the phrase ‘working class’ and put strong emphasis on themes of social and economic justice. For example, she talked about

fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average nine years earlier than others …

If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school …

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best,and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle.The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.

Why did this approach fail for her? Probably not because it is a weak line: it isn’t (as evidenced by the pressure which mounted on Corbyn throughout 2017 to say more right-wing sounding things about immigration, and the number of people in the Corbyn movement who share a similar critique of liberalism). More likely, she just expressed it in an implausible way – you can’t say these things and then lecture nurses on live TV about how naive they are to ask for a pay rise.

The most interesting thing for our purposes is what right-wing people mean when they talk about the ‘working class’. At her first party conference, May was using this language, sometimes in a self-contradictory way. She wanted to create ‘a programme for government to act to create an economy that works for everyone – an economy that’s on the side of ordinary working class people’. The first half of the quote is the platitude we have encountered many times already. The second half, though, seems to define a specific group within society and explicitly put government in its corner – so, by definition, not an economy that works for everyone – what about the liberal elites? It is, in its fuzzy and self-serving way, a message of class conflict.

This kind of language built on the way Cameron and Osborne were implicitly using the idea of class. By ‘working class’ in the above quote, May essentially means the same thing as Cameron’s ‘hardworking people’: a kind of fuzzy-but-warm haze that almost everyone thinks they are a part of. But she was drawing out a particular element of this far more strongly than before. In passages like the following, the meaning becomes much sharper:

[I want] to put the power of government squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people. Because too often that isn’t how it works today. Just listen to the way a lot of politicians and commentators talk about the public. They find your patriotism distasteful, your concerns about immigration parochial, your views about crime illiberal, your attachment to your job security inconvenient. They find the fact that more than seventeen million voters decided to leave the European Union simply bewildering.

Here, various things are meshed together. There is a concern about job security lifted from the trade union movement and the political left. It is true that this has been threatened by ‘liberal elites’; May was aware of just how much this is the case, having been an integral part of these efforts in the Cameron government. Then there is the old-school Tory stuff: the EU, patriotism, law and order, and so on. These themes are presented as if they are all part of the same big basket of Working-Class Issues. So the working class is defined as people who worry about job security, who love the Queen, who want the death penalty and who want to leave the EU. And, of course, who dislike immigration. May was the most anti-immigrant British prime minister for a very long time, with a tendency to make sure that anti-immigration sentiment remained high up on the list of working-class issues as she defined them. So her key line was probably this one: ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’

This is a very important quote. Here, the elite opponents of the working class are cosmopolitans. In other words, people that revel in a world of open borders and diversity; put succinctly by the musician Wynton Marsalis as meaning that ‘you fit in wherever you go’.10 It is obvious that many people have lost some very important things because of globalisation: international competition and economic restructuring (most importantly the decline of heavy industry in Britain) have rendered working lives in many regions insecure, and caused the fragmentation of communities that once had more cohesive identities and senses of purpose. Employers and investors are highly mobile, and their decisions to move elsewhere has serious consequences for those that depend on them for work. So, unsurprisingly, many people do not want to fit in wherever they go, and may distrust things that do. It is easy to see why, in this context, it has been an open goal for the Conservatives to conflate support for migration and free movement in the EU with anti- working-class elitism. It is also worth noting that the most cosmopolitan thing in the world is capital, but we will return to this later.

This caused serious problems for Labour, and will keep resurfacing irrespective of periods of electoral optimism. It is supposed to be ‘the party of the working class’, but the associations that go with this term have, as we have just seen, been changing in a way that is much more conducive to Conservative talking points. In some quarters, it seems that the phrase ‘working class’ has become largely synonymous with criticism of immigration. It has become unusual to find a politician or journalist who uses this term without then segueing into this topic. For instance, The Sun, which always used to complain about class politics, now features leader columns with titles like ‘Rage of the Working Class’. But what is the working class raging about? Only one thing, apparently:

Our population has just rocketed by 513,273 in one year, 335,600 from migration. It is not racist to protest at the calamitous effect this is having on working people who bear the brunt of it. Prosperous middle class home owners in London love all the Polish plumbers and cleaners. For working people the influx has meant low pay, stagnant for a decade as housing costs have soared. It means schools and surgeries are full up.

It means being branded ‘thick’ by supposedly educated Remain supporters too dim themselves to see that the rational desire for our Government to control immigration has nothing – zero – to do with prejudice or narrow-mindedness.11

Obviously, we are not just talking about a British phenomenon here. The tying together of this kind of ‘identity politics’ and the working class has fatally undermined centre-left parties in many countries. This is perhaps most obvious in the United States, where Donald Trump worked hard to befriend the leaders of predominantly white trade unions (notably in the building trades, whom he will needed for his border wall) while preparing for conflict with those more likely to represent immigrant workers and ethnic minorities (e.g. in the public sector).12

But despite all this, the UK Labour Party actually performed surprisingly well in the 2017 elections compared to sister parties in other European countries such as France, Greece, Spain, Iceland or the Netherlands. This resilience coincided with a strong shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, a fact which caused much surprise and worry among commentators wedded to liberal political orthodoxy.

How did this happen? At first, it seemed like Corbyn would not manage to reverse Labour’s downward spiral. In the initial stages of his leadership, he appeared more afraid of talking about class than the Conservatives. In his 2016 conference leader’s speech, a week before May’s, Corbyn did not use the phrase ‘working class’ at all. He used the woollier term ‘working families’. The success of what we might call the ‘Conservative class warrior’ as described above was one reason why Labour preferred to keep things vague, relying on broader condemnations of inequality and reiterations of the ‘economy that works for everyone’ platitude. It was unnerved by the rawer kind of class conflict expounded by the Tories which centred on nationalism. Labour appeared snookered, prompting various doom-laden prophecies from even the most sympathetic observers.13 Brexit brought these anxieties to almost intolerable levels for Labour and was the central cause of a failed leadership coup in 2016.

The situation became much brighter with the general election of 2017, which left Labour in an unexpectedly strong position having attracted more votes than most commentators, and most of their own MPs, had thought possible. Suddenly, doom-mongers became optimism- mongers.14 But it is wrong to imagine that Labour’s agonising around class has been resolved: almost certainly, it will come back. Their most high- profile constituency triumphs in 2017 came in places like Kensington where they attracted new support from anti-Brexit rich people, or in places with a heavy student vote like Canterbury. Meanwhile, there were swings away from the party in places like Sunderland which had voted very strongly for Brexit. The fact that the biggest sources of new Labour support were among the young and the highly educated 15 suggests, at least on the face of things, that Labour remains highly vulnerable to the ‘right-wing class warrior’ argument.

On the other hand, the face of things can be deceiving. The argument of this book will be that a lot of the discussion and analysis mentioned so far is based on very shallow readings of class, which sees it as a means of sorting people into categories, rather than something which in many respects defines the way in which society works. Let us take a stereotypical Corbyn-supporting educated young person working in a graduate job. (By ‘young person’, we shouldn’t imagine a teenager: Labour support was higher in each age band up to those in their forties). Their voting choice may tell us that Labour had simply realigned to hoover up a more privileged demographic, thus moving away from their ‘working-class base’. But it may also tell us something else: perhaps the problems that used to be associated with this ‘working-class base’ are now starting to spread across society more widely. Insecurity, the boredom and frustration of working life, the sense that government is powerless to act to address urgent and distressing social problems because it needs to avoid offending ‘the markets’: these are all ‘class issues’ and they affect a very wide spectrum of people indeed.

The point is that we need, urgently, to consider how we understand the idea of class. Class is clearly important in Britain today. As we have seen, it has become a fashionable topic for some surprising people, and the source of terrible worry for others. But the way in which the term is used and understood has been manipulated in a political and self-serving manner. In some ways it appears to be almost worthlessly vague, such as when it is associated with ‘hardworking people’. At other times, it becomes darkly and misleadingly specific, as in the conflation of ‘working class’ with anti-immigrant sentiment. In trying to get beyond this, I will start by looking at some other, more academic, discussions around class in twenty-first century Britain.

  1. John Knefel, ‘Bored with Occupy – and inequality: class issues fade along with protest coverage’, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 1 May 2012.  

  2. David Harvey (2013) A companion to Marx’s Capital volume II, Verso, p. 196. 

  3. Johnathan Cribb, Robert Joyce and David Phillips (2012) Living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK: 2012, Institute for Fiscal Studies. 

  4. Nicholas Timmins, ‘Public hardens attitudes to the poor’, Financial Times, 13 December 2010. 

  5. Rachel Ormston and John Curtice (eds) (2015) British social attitudes: the 32nd report, NatCen social research. 

  6. In 2014 Grant Shapps (then Tory chairman) tweeted a celebratory image in response to the latest Osborne budget reading thus: ‘BINGO! Cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy.’ 

  7. The value of comparing these two posters was inspired by Imogen Tyler’s keynote speech at the Work, Employment and Society conference at the University of Leeds, September 2016. 

  8. John Pring, ‘Anger after Reeves tells benefits claimants “Labour is not for you”’, Disability News Service, 20 March 2015. 

  9. Alexandre Devecchio, ‘Philippe Blond: “Trop longtemps le conservatisme a été l’otage du libéralisme-’, Le Figaro, 21 October 2016. 

  10. Quoted in Alex Ross (2011) Listen to this, Fourth Estate, p. 231. 

  11. ‘Rage of the working class’, The Sun, 24 June 2016. 

  12. An insight offered by Ruth Milkman in her speech to the International Labour Process Conference, Sheffield, April 2017. 

  13. E.g. James Bloodworth, ‘Labour is at risk of completely losing the working class vote’, International Business Times, 31 August 2016; John Harris ‘Britain is in the midst of a working class revolt’, The Guardian, 17 June 2016. 

  14. John Harris, ‘Britain is more divided than ever: now Labour has a chance to unify it’, The Guardian, 10 June 2017. 

  15. Chris Curtis, ‘How Britain voted at the 2017 General Election ’, YouGov blog, 13 June 2017.