Nearly All Working Class Now?

Contrary to the working classes becoming more middle class, it is, in fact, as A Shaw argues, the middle classes who are being proletarianized.

A recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey concluded that "Working class people" had been reduced to "those in house-holds where a bread winner does a manual job".

The employment of such narrow classification reminds you of the time when, and more to the point why, Blair used to declare, ‘We’re all middle class now.’

When he did so it was generally assumed, in Guardian-reading land anyway, that this was 'a sop to the working classes - for whom olive oil is a character from Popeye.' What, according to Guardian pundit Barbara Ellen, Blair really meant by the statement was: "if you’re a good boy or girl, you could end up doing a bad impersonation of a middle-class person for the rest of your life." Doing impressions, being all things to all people, is what of course Blair is good at himself. Indeed if the middle classes are marked by any particular characteristic, hypocrisy is fairly certain to be a defining one. But of course being middle class is not predicated on what you think you are. No, what you actually do is still what counts. And so, contrary to the BSA criteria, the working class cannot been defined by the numbers working in manual jobs only.

If that were the case, then someone employed on the check-out in Sainsbury’s say must be considered clerical, and therefore middle class, while by comparison a shelf stacker would be deemed manual and therefore working class. But if a check-out girl is self-evidently not a middle class profession, what then does that say about others in not dissimilar lines of work. Take bank clerks for instance, who in previous times would be considered the epitome of political and social rectitude, (they were required for instance to know a little Latin), are these days skills wise, only narrowly distinguishable from people they would have previously considered their social inferiors. A similar downgrading through mechanisation is visible in many other lines of work. So, far from the working classes disappearing and thus becoming more middle class, it is arguably swathes of the middle classes who are being proletarianized instead.

Certainly the old working class is no more. On July 6 the Office for National Statistics deleted coal-pickers - who collected the pieces of coal that fell from the train track from steam engines - and buttermen, timber throwers, ice trimmers, etc from its official list of occupations. In came desk-top publishers, web designers and software architects who would be all automatically classified as white collar and therefore middle class, but are in the majority of cases simply skilled workers. So while traditional "bluecollar" jobs and trades are disappearing, class is alive and well. Indeed the hype surrounding New Labour and the ‘new economy’ disguises much continuity in the workplace, according to Nick Burkitt of the Institute of Public Policy Research. "New technology is creating new jobs both in professional and routine occupations and destroying some others, but some of the biggest growth areas are in old-fashioned personal service jobs such as waiting, bar work, cleaning and especially care work." (Guardian, 7.7.00) Accordingly in a new twist on a familiar theme, the growing sector of the labour market belongs to those who clean, shop, child mind, or garden for the professional classes who lack the time to do it themselves. It is a new upstairs downstairs though nowadays the servants do not live in.

Meanwhile, the biggest single occupation groups remain administrative or secretarial workers among women, and skilled trade workers among men - in other words, working class male blue-collar jobs and female white collar jobs. 25% of women and 20% of all men are still employed in these groups. Only a minority of the workforce are employed in middle class jobs, managerial or professional occupations. Accordingly the number of people likely to be able to afford to have someone ‘iron their clothes and walk their dogs’ remain tiny. The IPPR’s Peter Robinson argues that despite John Major’s aspiration of a classless society and the Blairite focus on the middle classes, the majority at the very least, remain working class. This apparent discrepancy between official accounting and the social reality is he explains because: "Most writing on the future of work is written by well-educated professionals about well-educated professionals for well-educated professionals. The real focus should be on the policies affecting people in the middle and bottom of the workforce."

In the real world too, the main political parties are geared to representing, and are representative of, the same narrow social strata, and are thus all the more vulnerable to swallowing the political message apparently implicit in the statistics whole. One consequence of the subsequent narrow focus by the well-educated on the well-educated, is to present the middle class minority with a choice of three mainstream parties, which inevitably leaves the working class majority without any. Another unforeseen effect of the Blairite propaganda offensive has been, that significantly large sections of the working class, judged no longer to exist, have ceased voting all together. Such working class alienation allowed the Tories to win on a 23% turnout in the European elections, a result which proved to have no relevance to their actual standing in the country among the majority.

Yet on the working class as a whole the effect of the ‘social cleansing’ message has been profoundly demoralising. Without a party they are openly regarded in the media as the ‘failed’ middle classes; sort of Endsliegh type wannabees. Far from going unnoticed such open contempt seeps into all sections of society. Canvassing in a local by-election last year an IWCA member was confronted one morning by a 30-year-old woman already worse for drink who belligerently demanded to know the policies of the candidate he was representing. On explaining that the candidate was committed to representing ‘working class interests in the area’ the near-wino bristled: ‘Who are you calling working class?’ she shrilled, ‘no one is called working class anymore!’ Meanwhile, unlike the dated stereotypes in the BSA report where the breadwinner is not only manual but singular, many working class families see both parents needing to work to keep the family afloat financially. As Guardian economics reporter Charlotte Denny put it: "Karl Marx would recognise their situation even though the job description might be unfamiliar."

Reproduced from RA bulletin Vol 4, Issue 10, March/April 2001