Tribune Blog - Whither Labour's working class heritage?

Blog appeared for Tribune - 7th August 2010

A new crime emerged in 1997 – ‘working-class’; not just being working-class, but talking about it. Since the dawn of New Labour, there has only been the recognition of the middle-class and the under-class or, as some would have it, the chavs and the chav Nots. Andy Burnham is the latest to have been charged with this most heinous of crimes – against his fellow leadership candidates, the Miliband brothers.

In an interview (Telegraph) Burnham audaciously suggested that the Milibands wouldn’t have got where they were had it not been for their late father, Marxist historian Ralph Miliband. This led to some sections of the media calling Burnham ‘shabby’ by ‘playing the class card’, claiming that he has ‘attacked’ the Miliband brothers. This response represents the increasingly pervasive and pernicious working-class discrimination that exists at the core of society. The reaction to Burnham’s suggestion as an attack is an attempt to silence and negate his experience; the implication being that, once you’ve made ‘middle-class’ circles you had better be like ‘us’ and ‘fit in’, none of this ‘I’m working-class’ nonsense.

Yet Ralph Miliband’s own struggle cannot be overlooked. He fled with his parents from Warsaw and the Nazis in 1940. Yet, whilst Ralph went onto become a brilliant academic by way of Acton Technical College, by the time Dave and Ed came into being their family was comfortable, well-connected and intellectually encouraging. For Ed and Dave, particularly joining a party under Blair, the left had less to do with experience, and more to do with theory.

Burnham, like most of us, grew up without connected parents. His father was an agency worker. His perspective is formed by this experience. Yet, whilst one can say, ‘oh there’s chippy Burnham again, going on about his working-class credentials’ this is the only route through which Labour can restore confidence and loyalty. Far from working-class being a scar, it is the only way the party will heal itself. Harman, at least, recognised this and passed through a paper on social mobility.

In a party whose very conception inherited much from Chartism – the original working person’s voice – the question of one’s route to power should be essential – in asking it of its members, Labour shows a greater engagement to the how and why of mobility and equality of power for much of the electorate.

Yet, despite being a life-long Labour supporter, I was one of those who didn’t vote for them in May.

The month before the election I had to move to Richmond. My choice really boiled down to two people – Susan Kramer or Zac Goldsmith. I would rather have spoilt the ballot paper than have voted Goldsmith, and Kramer had done a good enough job, so I voted Kramer, despite feeling disloyal. But I also voted LibDem to help send a clear message to Labour that I felt a huge sense of betrayal.

I still consider myself working-class. I have no capital. I have no property. One of my brothers works as a cleaner at the NHS hospital where our parents died long before their time. The other brother works part-time as an internal postman in an agency position, with few rights and no security, for the University where we all knew we would never get to as children. Neither brother has been able to get onto any apprenticeship or training scheme because there haven’t been any.

Social mobility has declined since 1997 – whatever benefit could be had from the minimum wage was made null and void in the face of a drunken property market that priced many of us – even those of us with half-decent jobs – out of the system, no matter how ‘hard’ we worked. This was compounded by doing too little to make affordable homes available. ‘Normal’ people on low and average wages had to rely on things like tax credit. Yet, for many, all this didn’t seem too bad when where was the long-term prospect (trap) of incapacity benefit and the active encouragement by financial institutions for anyone and everyone to take credit, building the illusion that they were ‘doing well’, when in fact they were living on the never-never.

When Blair added the ‘we’re all middle-class now’ to the stew the result was soporific – cue the big sleep of the working-class, which Andrew O’Hagan talked about in last year’s Orwell speech.

If the Labour party are to regain power that serves not to pacify but to awaken and empower most working people and those who want to work, then all leadership candidates need to revive class politics. Burnham knows this when he proclaims “The reason why I’m standing is because Labour is becoming dangerously disconnected from ordinary working people.” It is also true that as a result the working class has already become dangerously disconnected from itself.

Ralph Miliband would, I’m sure, have been the first to say that class is still the main factor that determines what doors are open and when.

There is now an opportunity to be had in the face of Con-Dem cuts that will, as always, hit those on the lowest incomes the hardest, and particularly women – to reclaim what was once a proud and powerful voice and to reawaken slumbering lions

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