From picket line to polling booth: what does class mean today?
What does class struggle mean in 2019? It is two hundred years since the Peterloo massacre, when working people in Manchester were attacked and murdered by cavalry forces for daring to demand the right to vote, a key moment when the British working class entered the stage of history. But has the whole issue of class difference now had its day or is it making a comeback in a new form?
It is also 35 years since the start of the year-long miners’ strike, a seismic political moment and arguably the last class-focused dispute of its kind in Britain. For many observers, its defeat signalled the end of class struggle in Britain. After the strike was crushed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government – with the eventual loss of 200,000 jobs – a demoralised trade-union movement began to crumble. As discussions about a class struggle began to sound more like a pipe dream than a reality, even the Labour Party began to change. A key moment came in 1995, under the new leadership of Tony Blair, when Clause IV of the party’s constitution was revised, removing traditionally socialist ideas about common ownership of production.
Today, class is less associated with trade union struggle. While Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party now talks about working-class people, it is often as victims who need rescuing by metropolitan do-gooders or welfarism. When class is discussed, it is more likely to be in terms of identity, such as when students unions appoint officers to represent working-class students. While those who are economically still in the bracket of ‘working class’ have been rebranded in sociological categories as C1s or C2s, the term ‘class’ is often used more culturally.
But this doesn’t mean that class distinctions have entirely disappeared. While discussion about inequality has shifted from the realm of class struggle to debates about neoliberalism and identity politics, the reality of class distinctions is still traceable. For many, the reaction to the EU referendum revealed a resurgence of class prejudice, where ‘unintelligent’ Leave voters from lower-income brackets were disparaged by a supposedly better-educated middle class. And when it comes to class distinctions in relation to wealth, one think tank, the IPPR, ranked the UK as the ‘fifth most unequal country in Europe’ in 2018.
In this session, two dissidents in this story will discuss what has changed, addressing questions about the possibility of reigniting debate about class politics once again. Steve Roberts, who worked as a surface worker in the coal industry and was active during the miners’ strike, is now an ardent Brexiteer. He will be joined by Brian Denny, an active RMT member who has never toed the line in his work with union politics.
With union leaders describing Boris Johnson as ‘worse than Thatcher’ and Brexit, the elephant in the room, seen by some as an anti-establishment rebellion and others as a massive con that has exploited working-class ‘left behinds’, is class making a comeback? Is there a way of talking about class, without falling into the trap of donning a donkey jacket and sounding like a cliché? Is there something to be learned from the class solidarity of movements of the past – or is that all ancient history, with society divided along different lines today? If class still means anything, who speaks for the working class today?