Ben Little asks can we rework class politics post-New Labour?
Is it strange that as Labour slumps in the polls there has been a flurry of activity on the left around class? The Fabian society held an event last week on the subject, Harriet Harman addressed the issue at the Compass conference and on the 28th of June the journal Soundings ran a day of seminars to interrogate the relationship between class and culture.
I did not attend the first two of these events, but through editing the online debate in the build up to the Soundings seminars and attending on the day, I would argue that there is no coincidence in the timeliness of these discussions.
(Where a name appears in this blog it refers to an article on the Soundings debate website.)
Was it Tony Blair in 1998 or John Prescott the year before who declared "we're all middle class now"? Or both? I am not sure it matters much who it was, but in retrospect the statement seems pretty central to the New Labour identity. If this really was the case in the late 1990s, that Britain could be described as fundamentally classless and governed without a sense of class politics, then credit for this apparent achievement would almost certainly have to go to the preceding years of Conservative government. Edward Fullbrook suggests there might be some truth to that- through the Gini scale used by economists to measure levels of equality - the most equitable government we have had since Thatcher came to power was between 1991 and 1997 under John Major.
But of course that is not what Blair/Prescott meant, the intent of that statement was that New Labour in government was not going to be bound by the discourse of class; in fact, they were going to ignore it and all the consequences for policy that it could entail. By sweeping away the grounding of over a century of leftist intellectual tradition New Labour would be more palatable to a right-wing media, more effective in government and ultimately more electable going forward. It would be naive to suggest that this was not an important tactical move at the time, but 11 years on this fundamental shift in Labour's rhetoric is showing its long-term consequences.
Without the cover of Blair's charisma, the hollowness of this claim to a one class society becomes apparent. The rejection of class reveals an absence at the heart of our government's thinking. Increasingly, New Labour under Brown seems to situate itself intellectually as free market fundamentalism backed up by a bit of technocratic paternalism and cemented with a dollop of meritocratic rhetoric. Without a proper discourse of class in Britain we lack the means to describe our communities, our societies, our four nations. We find it harder to describe relations of (un)employment (Jane Wills), discuss ethnicity and religion(Amir Saeed), understand the new international economy(Liv Sovik), think about gender (Valerie Bryson), or realistically come to terms with inequality (Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett). Lacking an ability to think these issues through in a linked up way we have ended up with impoverished Muslim communities retreating into the dogmatic securities of radical Islam, a white working class turning from Labour to the BNP, young people embracing knife and gun culture as a response to lack of positive opportunities and a total inability to address the disproportionate wealth of the top 1% in society.
Of course, the wrong discourse of class can mask these issues as much as ignore it does. The old Marxist dialectical model is no longer fit for purpose. In the course of the debate the argument was made that the vast majority of us are now in strictly Marxian terms proletariat, we sell our labour and do not own the means of production. This would be an easy position to take and for some of us canonically reassuring, but the reality is more complex. Anyone with an insurance policy, savings or a private pension is complicit in the system of global capital by default.
An alternative Marxism would be to argue that class can best be understood internationally. At the top are the transnational capitalists (Leslie Sklair) providing goods and services for a broadly consumerist North off the back of the labours of a proletariat South. In this scenario the vast majority are technically middle class, through consumption, personal savings and investments we support the banks that provide the capital for those at the top to expand their exploitation of the global south. This is not something new however; such an argument would apply from the very first days of colonialism and taking new and different forms throughout history. It also subsumes the cultural experience of class and localised class systems in a globalised discourse.
Moreover, a sense of class, despite its fall from grace under Blair and Brown, has remained deeply embedded in our culture. In the absence of a strong working class politics cultural oppression has re-emerged with an almost Victorian horror at the indignity of the poor (Heather Nunn and Anita Biressi), and just as "Chav" culture has become a location for ridicule of the working class, so too have the middle classes lost their sense of social responsibility (Andrew Pearmain) as they transmogrify into the conservative middle Britain (Zoe Gannon) of hard-working families struggling for recognition and status in the knowledge economy (Nick Stevenson).
Hierarchies will always take cultural forms, have social consequences and economic outcomes (Jonathan Rutherford). Class is the discourse that gives us the tools to understand these processes. Now more than ever, it is a discourse in flux: it needs rethinking and reworking. We must find new ways to come to terms with issues of status and privilege. We must do this with an awareness of the local, the national and the international, and how they interconnect. We must acknowledge that the experience of class is cultural even if its causes are financial. We must recognise that there are now many different working and middle classes in thrall to an economic elite that seems bound to no nation, accountable to no-one.
These are issues that are yet to be fully addressed, but during the Soundings seminars first steps were taken. We can think through possibilities of a progressive politics of place, whether this is a progressive nationalism to challenge the BNP(Mark Perryman) or along the lines of London Citizens who campaign for a living wage in London; we can start to think about new international solidarities like Women Working Worldwide where the old ones no longer seem to function. The start is there, but the challenge of reworking class after New Labour is massive and only just beginning.
Ben Little, Soundings.
Soundings: Class and Cultures debate
Want to write an article like this? If you’re a Compass member you can submit your own articles and start your own debates on the Compass debates member’s section, an autonomous space for our members to initiate debate and discuss ideas.
To keep updated on the latest Compass news, please join our mailing list.